Usually I couldn’t care for the over-priced insight events at the Royal Opera but this time having the chance to see what the fairly interview shy new Director of Opera had to say about his first year at Covent Garden was alluring. I can happily report that it was worth it, read on if you want to know what was said.
From the outset his enthusiasm for opera and directing was evident. He talked about his childhood and how initially he got hooked on it by going to a visit with a tutor at age 9 to see Carmen. He recalled how he was blown away by the experience. A particularly funny episode was his retelling of organising a Ring cycle from the age of 13-16 in a LEGO constructed theatre, making the whole family watch it. He even managed to write a letter to the director of the opera house and the minister of culture to ask why one had to be 18 in order to take advantage of the young people discount scheme. They changed the policy so the precocious 13 year old Kasper could buy cheaper tickets with his pocket money.
The talk was indispersed with three excerpts from his productions in Copenhagen of The Ring, Nielsen’s Maskarade and Die tote Stadt.
Edward Seckerson asked him about the tension between being a creative force and having to do a lot of admin as part of his job at Covent Garden. Holten mused that his life has possibly come full circle as he comes from a family of financiers (his mother having been the Governor of the Bank of Denmark) he was expecting to go into banking but instead chose the life in the theatre. He seemed to be very pragmatic that the two productions a year that he is allowed by his contract to direct have an impact on his deputy and PA but it seems he would not want a job that would not allow him to direct in House and out.
He was asked whether he would compromise rehearsal time in order to accommodate big stars like Kaufmann. His response was a bit roundabout, bordering on the meandering but he seemed unhappy to create a precedent by allowing big names to show up a couple of weeks before a show starts. He did make the distinction between singers that grow in rehearsal and others who do not find it as stimulating. But he mentioned that the camaraderie that develops during a full rehearsal period is an essential part of the mix for an as good a performance as possible. But he concluded that some smart administrative decisions could see them programme big names for productions that don’t need a lengthy period of rehearsals.
On the subject of commissioning new work and allowing the national composers emerge, in the mould of Poul Ruders in Copenhagen where three operas where staged (most notably A Handmaid’s Tale). He went to great lengths to point out that for him Covent Garden is not a national opera house but an international one and even though Thomas Adès is writing a new work for the main stage he wants composers from all over the world to have an equal chance to stage a major project with the Royal Opera. He did mention the great work ENO does with new music and commissions. He went to lengths to point out that the House would not be the right place for a young composer to write their first opera (he quipped that the first one is usually not very good) he wanted composers with a developed voice and some stage experience.
On the subject of modern/traditional productions he thought the distinction was redundant and that he had directed in both idioms, led by the work itself. He was warned that London audiences are too conservative and would not accept modern productions and he responded that in his experience the audience is discerning but expects good storytelling/a clear narrative. As he exclaimed this is after all the country of Shakespeare and BBC drama. He wants opera to be relevant (not in a jeans and trainers way) but to talk about life as it is. Emphasising that the companies have to believe in the greatness of the material and the extraordinary nature of the artistry required to promote the art form. He contemned Regietheater as a creative dead and ridden with clichés (to the chagrin of the rather elderly audience). The conversation wandered to Stefan Herheim and he confirmed that his predecessor had engaged him for the 2013 season for a Verdi opera (the rumours suggest Les Vespres Siciliennes), he expressed his admiration for him and his very physical, dramatic productions. He also made a point about La Donna del Lago that he scrapped the Lluis Pasqual directed co-produced production with La Scala and the Opéra when he realised that it was not a good one. And he said that such a great cast (Didonato/Flórez/Barcellona) deserved a new production and he’d rather spend the small budget on it than spend it on promoting a production that was fundamentally unsuitable for the piece (we all remember the ludicrous chain mail costumes). Boasting that his upcoming Onegin and DDL had the smaller budgets in Royal Opera’s history but hoping they would not seem cheap to the audiences.
On the subject of the cinema broadcasts and live online relays (prompted by two audience members questions) he mentioned how he originally (when the Met HD series started) did not believe that opera in the cinema would work but was happy to be proven wrong. He said that it was imperative for the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet to have a worldwide presence in cinemas and that wherever possible they would like to challenge the exclusivity on venues by the Met. As for online streaming he thought the costs involved are prohibitive due to the low levels of public subsidy (in comparison to Central Europe), but he’s hoping to work more with The Space like they did for Les Troyens.
He mentioned that a major part of his decision to move to Covent Garden was working with maestro Pappano, who he thought had the most incredible curiosity and musicality, making him possibly the best musical director in any of the major opera houses. He also made clear that for him a sense of personality in the programming was important despite the fact that is not always possible due to casting restrictions. Exclaimed how courage was very important and not playing it safe all the time, offering as an example his work on staging Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger in the coming seasons. Also defended the long runs of “classics” like Traviata, Tosca and Bohème as a good way to bring new audiences in. Quoting that 30% of the audience for La Traviata were new to the House.
He kept on repeating how important it was for him to have more affordable tickets and how aware he was that the audience in the House is not as representative of London’s overall diversity and vitality. Also seemed to be keenly aware that the online presence and booking system of the ROH still needs work but he was confident the investment would pay off.
The Baroque question
Unfortunately I did not get the chance to ask my main question of their deplorable use of their young artists or about the significant lack of British talent for the juiciest parts, but instead managed to approach him after the talk to enquire about the lack of baroque opera from the main stage.
His response was that he was aware of that gap and he had conversations with the rest of the management but was worried that maybe the auditorium is too big for a satisfactory experience. Mentioning that ENO and Glyndebourne having a great record at presenting this repertoire in the UK. When I responded with how extraordinary was Niobe Regina di Tebe and if he had the chance to see it. He responded that he hadn’t experienced it for himself but was aware it had troubles selling tickets and that any such projects will need a period instrument specialist orchestra. So in other ways it means that Covent Garden in its current state will not produce any more baroque opera for the Main Stage, which is deeply regrettable in my view. Had I had the time I would have mentioned the obvious flaws of his thinking around baroque, as the ENO has a larger auditorium than the ROH and also they use their in house orchestra with mainly modern instruments as do the other regional companies.
Overall what came through from the talk was his vibrancy and will to succeed in the role but also a keen sense to be realistic about what can be achieved at the Royal Opera. Left me feeling positive about the future of the House and its programming despite its obvious lack of will to stage baroque, the very starting point of the illustrious art it promotes.
Some excerpts from the talk will be circulated by the Royal Opera in the coming weeks will try to link to them here so you get a more direct sense of the talk.