Star Crossed Lovers’ Opera.
Four centuries ago Shakespeare immortalised the lovers Romeo and Juliet. Their tragedy has been retold ever since, across genres from the musical West Side Story, to film versions including Baz Luhrman’s startling re-interpretation. Irish director Orpha Phelan, here to direct Opera Australia’s production of her acclaimed interpretation of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, spoke to Neil Litchfield.
What impact does the operatic genre have on the telling of the Romeo and Juliet story?
“The reason why I work only in opera is because music can say things that words can’t. Although Shakespeare was fantastic, for me the subtleties can be found, and chords can get to the very core of you. A solo clarinet can do something that a word cannot. Words are limited by their very nature.”
To what extent does the music reinforce and develop the drama in this case?
“In some ways I had a puzzle to work out. Because of where and when Bellini and his librettist were born, part of the form of the time was repetition, so the text is relatively short and repeated several times. The music sometimes develops the text, but sometimes it is just a complete repetition. So I needed to find a narrative through what could have potentially been monotony on stage.
“I’ve had to find a way to give the chorus motivation. For example the Act 1 finale, where they sing the same four lines over and over. It’s repetitive rhythmically and word-wise, but the beauty is that it underpins the incredibly beautiful lines of Giulietta and Romeo that are soaring over the top, but the chorus need to be given something that they can work with.
“In the overture I have one of the Montecchi being captured by the Capuleti, then through the whole of the first scene there is no particular motivation in the words, but the music is fearsome, with huge fortissimos then sotto voce. There is a huge amount of conspiracy and thought going through it, but you have to really search for what that is. I introduced a young boy into the scenario - it was my idea to take this boy and make him the future of the Capuleti. People hail him, and he goes through an initiation and becomes a man in the first scene, which may seem gratuitous at first, but then you realise that the word infantry comes from the notion of child soldier.
“The paradox of beautiful music and a terrible violent story is there from first bar in the orchestra.”
The name of the opera – the families rather than the lovers - does it change the emphasis in the story?
“I think it was called Capuletti and Montecchi because during that period in Italian opera there were two other operas called Romeo and Juliet. I have chosen to highlight the plight of the Capuletti rather than underplay that, but the story of Romeo and Juliet is still at the forefront.
“It would be possible to allow the Capulets and the Montagues to just stand at the back and be two armies, and allow the scene to play out in front, but I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted the opera to be about real people – I wanted the Capulets to have been at one time a teacher, a lawyer, a servant – and I wanted people to have a real motivation and an understanding of how the world should be, but how it isn’t at the moment. These people used to have real lives, but they’ve been ruined, and continue to be ruined, by conflict.”
Romeo and Juliet’s inter-family conflict has been re-set in just about every strife-torn community, but Orpha Phelan has chosen a neutral setting.
“I didn’t want it to be in uniforms. I wanted it to be timeless, as I really feel the story is. By putting it in Iraq or Afghanistan or Northern Ireland, you end up gaining one or two things, because characters on stage can automatically model themselves on somebody, but I think that’s a rather superficial way to look at it. It then becomes my political statement about a particular place and time, and my views on the war in Iraq. I’m not interested in putting that on stage.
Did Orpha’s upbringing in Ireland resonate as she prepared the production?
“I remember growing up thinking that the word IRA was just part and parcel of everyday speech. There were bomb attacks all the time. I grew up in the south of Ireland, but I could see on the news every day about how communities were being ripped apart, and even at a young age you have a sense – you don’t really understand – but it fed my imagination while preparing for this opera.
“For me, it’s interesting to look at how war can effect the man on the street rather than troops going into battle.”
I’ve read that with the paradox of the beautiful music and the grim themes of the opera, you decided with your designer Leslie Travers to tell the story through sets and costumes.
“The set begins in quite a minimalist way. We start with a very heavy wall, which is the exterior of the Capuleti headquarters, and as that rises the inside is revealed. That goes through a journey over the course of the opera, so the plight of the characters is shown architecturally.”
Recent dramas at Opera Australia have not affected Orpha. She’s enjoyed working with the company.
“There’s a really sunny atmosphere here – everybody is open, bright, available, open-minded, and there is a general positive air, from the chorus through to the administration and the management. It’s one of the most positive professional experiences I’ve had.”
Photo: Opera North's I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Photo by Bill Cooper
Originally published in the May / June 2009 edition of Stage Whispers.