Performing the dual role of opera singer and director - from Carmen to this year's Le nozze di Figaro at Stowe Opera
The benefit and thrill of taking on the dual role of singer and director in the same production is not easy to articulate. I suspect my transition from singer to both singer and director stemmed from a deep desire as a performer to look beyond my own character and her or his relationships on stage. When I was on stage as Carmen in many different productions, I realised that telling her story became so much more interesting and exciting for me if every single singer was clear about how they were relating to each other, and what the outline of their individual story was. In addition, I have always been interested in trying to put a story together for each and every character using the indicators we are given in the music and libretto of their past - of the events that brought them to the point at which we meet them in the opera.
During a production of Hänsel and Gretel at Stowe Opera where I sang the role of Die Hexe, I had a conversation with the music director, Robert Secret, who asked me to sing the role of Carmen in the next season. Sensing that I had a lot of things to say about the character and the opera, he suggested the possibility of my directing the production as well. And that is how it started.
Life as a performer can be quite isolated through being away from home, travelling and often living in a far-flung place for weeks at a time. You often don’t get the chance or time to delve deep into each detail of your role and what the director is envisaging. The teamwork aspects necessitated by directing were therefore a welcome change. I quickly took to the entire preparation process of a production, working in a team on the different aspects of the staging, the lighting, costumes, etc. I also embraced what goes on much further behind the scenes, such as finances, budget, searching for suitable venues and fundraising.
The practical aspects of directing the same opera in which I was singing were crucial: in order to be able to view the rehearsals, particularly of the production week, I recorded the sessions on a digital camcorder and either watched them back with the cast present, which can be interesting all round, or I watched it later and gave notes the next day. For some scenes or tableaux, I used my assistant as a stand-in, so that I was able to take an overall look from a distance.
Pulling something together out of little more than an idea, constantly finding solutions and to be in the privileged position of enjoying the result not just as a member of the audience, but of the cast became quite a unique and amazing feeling. For example, in Carmen I gave the triangular relationship between Don Jose's mother, his childhood friend and preferred choice by his mother as a wife, Micaela, and the strong presence of faith and the Catholic Church a lot of weight. This in return provided me as Carmen with something rather more impenetrable to be up against. There was an invisible force in those relationships to which Carmen would have liked to aspire, but had never been given the tools to do so. I remember this feeling on stage and how it enabled me to add more facets to Carmen.
When people ask me how I manage to both direct and perform in the same opera, it is sometimes difficult to answer. My extensive study of the role of Carmen, which led to the study of the entire opera, was what I used to inform my directing of my first production. Having worked as a singer extensively, I used my training and experience to inform my directing in an instinctive way. Being part of a production to that extent means being in an amazing position – in terms of both power and responsibility – but I wouldn’t have it any other way!
Yvonne Fontane directs Stowe Opera's Le nozze di Figaro from July 21-29. See www.stoweopera.com for details.