theartsdesk Q&A: Director Jonathan Kent | Opera reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Director Jonathan Kent
From the Almeida to musicals via opera: the director with a finger in every pie
Jonathan Kent was an actor before he was a director. Indeed, he had not directed a single play when in his mid-40s he assumed control of the Almeida Theatre in 1990. By the time he and his co-artistic director Ian McDiarmid has left more than a decade later, they had enforced a vital shift in the ecology of London theatre. Kent lured big names to work for small paychecks: Diana Rigg and Ralph Fiennes were soon followed by the likes of Kevin Spacey, Juliette Binoche, Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett. The theatre put down roots in the West End, invaded the old Gainsborough Studios and took up exile in a bus shelter in King’s Cross. For a time it was the most talked about fringe theatre on the planet. There was one Saturday in 1998 when its various productions in London and New York played to nearly 6000 theatregoers.
When Kent left, he took to opera, initially in Santa Fe where from 2002 he staged shows for five consecutive seasons. Back in England his Tosca replaced the old Zeffirelli production at the Royal Opera House, while his Flying Dutchman for ENO reinvented Wagner’s opera as child's bedtime psychodrama. Meanwhile in St Petersburg he had an extraordinary experience collaborating on Elektra with Valeri Gergiev. This is his busiest operatic year in the UK so far: a new Manon Lescaut is coming to Covent Garden, while Glyndebourne is reviving two of his five productions for the opera house: Don Giovanni in Sussex and The Turn of the Screw (pictured below by Alastair Muir) on tour.
The theatre has not suffered in the mean time. His Private Lives with Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens was widely hailed while Good People, the latest of his collaborations with Imelda Staunton, moved from Hampstead to the West End. Next year they return to Chichester where they first staged Sweeney Todd to revive Gypsy. As he moves between opera, musicals and straight theatre, everything’s coming up roses for Kent. He talks to theartsdesk.
JASPER REES: You now have quite a relationship with Glyndebourne. What is it that has kept luring you back?
JONATHAN KENT: I’ve been there for five years. The thing about Glyndebourne quite apart from its reputation and its heritage and all that the people who work there, the stage management, the production are second to none anywhere in the world. And there is something about a festival, people all coming together for a specific length of time. And also you’re allowed to rehearse for a reasonable length of time and people tend to be there for most of the time unlike a lot of other opera houses. But it makes it a really satisfying place to work. I’m very grateful to it and very admiring of it. There’s something about it too. It is a family concern and that could have an awful patriarchal, rather cloying imposition, but it isn’t somehow. You feel part of a structure and a family for want of a better word.
When you direct a show there, how apparent is it to you that this thing is catching a thermal and is going to have a long afterlife? What are the indications?
There aren’t always actually. When I did The Fairy Queen (pictured right by Neil Libbert), which was hardly radical but it was quite tricky in that it was half text, half brilliant Purcell music, there was no indication that it would catch on in the way that it absolutely did. It’s in the nature of theatre in whatever form. The one thing you can be absolutely sure: if you think this is a dead cert it will absolutely fall on its face. That’s the only rule of thumb.
Has that happened to you in theatre or opera?
I don’t think I’ve felt I’ve had a dead cert but I’ve done things which I thought would have much more of an impact that they actually did. I’m old enough not to believe in the dead cert but I’m sometimes surprised by what catches on and what doesn’t catch on. It’s what makes it interesting. It’s a sort of a lottery.
Had you seen Don Giovanni (pictured left by Robbie Jack) enough to know which directions you wanted to go in and/or avoid?
I hadn’t seen it countless times. We wanted to root it in some kind of truth rather than just this demonic figure. What I find interesting about him was his bravery. There is of course the stone guest, the Commendatore, but there is also God in the play, and it is a discourse with God, and everybody within the piece is in some relationship to God. Don Giovanni who is a sceptic who defies God, but it’s an intellectual quest to tempt God out of hiding, and by defying him when he is obliterated, it is in some ways a victory for Don Giovanni because he has proved the existence of God in terms of his own sacrifice. But it is a defiance and an intellectual quest and that struck me as interesting.
When you embark on a quest to reinvent an opera at the heart of the canon, are you aware that there will be those who are determined not to accept your interpretation?
It’s like directing Hamlet. Everybody has a platonic vision in their head and it’s very hard to dislodge that. Everybody comes knowing exactly what it should be like, and I don’t know if they’ve ever seen – particularly Don Giovanni which is the most elusive of operas. There are so many musical forms within it. It is a great meeting between the Baroque and the Enlightenment and it is a piece which covers a whole gamut of musical forms, and to try and make that coherent, a unified event, is tough. So I knew that it was not going to be to everybody’s taste. But that doesn’t matter in the end. In the end all you do is do what you do and hope people like it.
And if they don’t are you able to allow it to be water off a duck’s back?
No. Of course you always long to be carried shoulder-high down Shaftesbury Avenue. Of course you do. But you sort of know that it’s not always going to happen. But it’s always an assault when people don’t seem to understand what you’ve done and to that extent it is a failure, in that you haven’t communicated your best intentions.
Have you felt over the years more understood by opera or theatre critics?
To be honest I think opera critics are more – perhaps because it is a slightly smaller pool and it is quite rarefied and music elicits passions, I find some of the reviews much more ad hominem than theatre. And sometimes hysterical.
When did you first direct an opera?
The first opera I did was in 2002 as I left the Almeida. I had had offers but because I was running a theatre and the lead time is so different I couldn’t say, "Yes I’ll do an opera in three years’ time", because I didn’t know what we were doing next month. The first opera I did was in Santa Fe. I did five years in Santa Fe when I left. It was a great education. I started on Katya Kabanova which Janáček took the Ostrovsky play and edited it and then set it to music. So it is a play. It was a great opera to start on. I then did an opera seria, early Mozart - Lucio Silla. I did a contemporary opera, I did the American premiere of Thomas Adès’s The Tempest. I did Marriage of Figaro and then I did a completely new opera called The Letter [by Paul Moravec and Terry Teachout, based on Somerset Maugham's stage version of his own story]. So over five years I did a sort of college degree in the various ranges of opera.
How much more did you know at the end?
I was simultaneously doing operas. I did The Turn of the Screw, I did Tosca at the Opera House, I did a staged oratorio at the ENO [Tippett's A Child of Our Time], so I’d done other opera en route. But yes of course one knows much more about it.
Intellectually, emotionally, aesthetically, in what was does the process differ from directing actors, be it in a small theatre like the Almeida or a barn like the Olivier?
The rhythm is completely different quite apart obviously from the division of the disciplines. In theatre you start slowly and you build up and you build up and it all crescendos with the first night. Whereas with opera what happens is you start rehearsal and then two weeks before you perform it the music takes over so in a way it’s been taken away from you. It’s a different rhythm which is not always for me easy.
And unless it’s a new opera the performers always come along knowing their lines. In trying to wrestle their knowledge of the work into a mould that you have in your head, is it a much more complex diplomatic negotiation?
It depends. In somewhere like Glyndebourne they come on the first day and join the ship. But international houses – in the Opera House Jonas Kaufmann - who is the greatest tenor in the world, no question - is joining 10 days later. So you have to duck and weave. Yes to a degree it’s a diplomatic exercise. And that’s sometimes dispiriting. Particularly the kind of theatre that I’m interested in which is moulding to the character of the actor or indeed singer towards the part. Particularly operas which have to be revived. I did Tosca (pictured above right by Catherine Ashmore) seven or eight years ago and it’s been revived every year because it has to be. So it can’t be based in the personality entire of the person that originated it.
You didn’t have a huge amount of success with one person in the original cast [Angela Gheorghiu].
No I didn’t. That was a baptism of fire, I have to say.
Would you work with her again?
Actually in a curious way I would. It was not the greatest, I have to say, but I don’t know - I sort of admire her balls. I admire her unremitting self-regard and selfishness. There’s something really impressive. She also has a very beautiful voice. You sort of see why regietheater came into being. When you stand people in their bucket of custard and paint their faces blue, it doesn’t matter who’s singing it. But that’s not the kind of theatre I’m particularly interested in. Maybe it’s because my foundation and my root is the straight theatre and now musicals.
Overleaf: 'The first night of Elektra was the most exciting evening I’d ever spent in the opera'
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