‘The world of cynicism’

-Posted on 30.05.2017

As Royal Academy Opera rehearses its new production of The Threepenny Opera, which opens 15 June at Shoreditch Town Hall, director Walter Sutcliffe explains the background to the work and why its themes are so relevant today

What are the challenges of performing The Threepenny Opera?

The big challenge is that it’s not really an opera – it’s a play with songs. It’s complicated to do it with a company of singers because you have a lot of text to work on. But it’s great to have fantastically trained singers with a wide array of talents at their disposal.

The language is also a challenge – we’re doing it in German. It’s important that the musicians not only learn to sing in German but also to handle German dialogue. There is an element of cabaret and they have to trust themselves to take chances with vowels and consonants; to discover the real possibilities in how they articulate things, how they communicate all these different colours, varieties and emotions in a way that’s meaningful and entertaining. If they can meet all the challenges that come from this production than it’s going to take them somewhere important in their development.

How relevant is the opera?

Brecht is talking about Weimar and the society he lived in, but the piece isn’t rooted in that. Some pieces speak to you because they’re set where they’re set, and some have a universal transferability – Threepenny speaks to me like that.

It’s a good time to be doing it, when there’s so much terrible stuff happening in Britain. I’m taking all the tropes of being British and putting them on stage – the sense of being surrounded by vain, manipulative, weak, selfish people who have no interest in anything other than advancing themselves. The piece holds up a mirror focusing on the negative aspects of society, asking if that’s what we really want. Do we want it to continue in this way?

The audience needs to be able to recognise the characters and enter the world of cynicism. The text can be a little didactic, but you can identify with these people, even if they’re terrible. They’re all tragic and deeply flawed, and trapped in a kind of hell. Everyone is one-upping everyone else. No one is satisfied or able to trust anybody else. No character has a clear sense of their own value. They’re all living on this knife-edge where everything they’ve built can be taken away. They constantly need reassurance about their value and their status – a bit like all of us.

What influences was Brecht drawing on in writing the opera?

It has a formalised, didactic approach. Brecht isn’t trying to put a fake reality on stage, in the tradition of Ibsen – it’s not psychologically realistic drama. Most German drama isn’t about real characters – it creates something that’s unashamedly constructed, but that has as much validity as a reflection of life. 

It comes out of the commedia dell’arte, which has stock characters, and the basis that there are three driving forces of comedy and life – food, money and sex. The commedia is driven by the desperation to have what you don’t have. Brecht was also incredibly well read in the Bible and interested in the Mystery plays. That is the palette he’s drawing on, rather than trying to create a sense of naturalistic drama. There are stock situations – the piece feels like a Punch and Judy show at times – but not always, otherwise it wouldn’t have the resonance it has. In order to get that resonance, you need to be true to what he’s written and not pretend it’s some sort of naturalist drama.

What were you looking for in auditions?

The thing that always interests me is flexibility – people’s ability to do things in a different way – and I try to establish that in an audition. When people are coached well they learn this flexibility. If you want to have a long distinguished career on stage you don’t begin by saying, ‘This is how I do it,’ because you’ll be bored in ten years’ time. Part of a singer’s job is to find the freshness and to learn continually.

It’s fascinating to see how far people will go, how brave they are. I’m interested in singers who are daring enough to do things that might at first appear ugly, and who can find the irony, cynicism or nihilism that lies behind the piece, and deliver it within the sound of their voice.

How do you help singers develop as actors?

Performing opera is the same as doing a piece of theatre. The text is everything on the page that’s black and white – there’s just more black and white with opera. I see no fundamental difference, although some of my colleagues will tell you there is.

You need to set up the characters’ objectives. An interesting character is trying to solve a problem. You have to be clear about what that problem is and how they’re trying to solve it. Then you break a scene down into a series of targets. Once the singers have established what those targets could be you can begin to shape the scene in terms of how it sounds, and once it sounds right, it will play right. This also allows people to take ownership of their role. The targets may change, but that’s the essence of flexibility. When the target changes, so does the way they express themselves. That’s the positive nature of rehearsing – you’re exploring and finding what works. There’s always a reason that characters sing. Once you’ve established that reason, it affects how singers approach singing that line.

What is it like working with students?

Working with students is very rewarding. They have a great capacity to develop. You can see someone make incredible progress in just a few minutes, which doesn’t always happen even with experienced professionals. There’s something exciting about someone coming into the room and singing something they haven’t yet discovered. If you can find a way to get them enthused and open up, they can make incredible leaps, and you watch them growing in confidence.

Walter Sutcliffe is Artistic Director of Northern Ireland Opera.

Rehearsal photos are by Robert Workman.

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