The director of Scottish Opera’s new production of the perennially popular tale of murderous lust talks to Keith Bruce about his 1970s staging, and the challenges facing opera in the 21st century.
If director John Fulljames expresses himself in the rehearsal room with the clarity he brings to addressing the existential questions currently facing his artform, it is no wonder his stage story-telling results in popular and successful productions.
“Opera is not fundamentally elitist at all. Opera plays to very large audiences; it is a large scale, popular artform.
“The reality of bringing hundreds of artists and technicians together is that it is an expensive artform, not per head for everybody involved, but just in total. For that reason the funding of opera has long been a controversial topic. That’s not a new question.”
Fulljames last worked with Scottish Opera on the revival of John Adams’s Nixon in China, a co-production with Royal Danish Opera, where he was Director for five years, and Teatro Real in Madrid, where the production ended its run at the start of this month.
“The current debate is particularly interesting for me, coming back from working in Europe and seeing the centrality of opera and music to the cultural landscape there, and also the willingness of society to invest in those things.
“The consequence, in somewhere like Denmark, of sustained investment is an extraordinary strength of audience. Copenhagen is not a big city, but we were selling 120,000 opera tickets a year and something like three-quarters of the Danish population will visit at some point in their lifetime. That sort of level of cultural engagement is the result of years of consistent investment.”
If that is not replicated in the United Kingdom, Fulljames believes he and colleagues need to step up.
“We are living in a time of extraordinary pressure on public finance, and some of that is self-manufactured and some of that is to do with political choices. We have failed to make the case why artforms like opera are necessary to everyone for the health of society.
“One of the interesting things about the debates of the last month is that the arguments making the case have become more honed, and there has been a level of passion and commitment that hasn’t always been articulated before.”
Fulljames returns to work in Scotland having moved to a new post in Oxford, heading up the university’s Humanities Cultural Programme, based at a new multi-disciplinary arts centre.
“I’m setting up a new cultural programme in the university which will be based in the Schwarzman Centre with a new concert hall, a couple of theatres, an exhibition space and a cinema. It is a multi-artform building, opening in summer 2025, that is intended as a place where the university and the city and the region can meet.
“That connects to my interest in commissioning and incubating new work and developing new ideas in the arts. I’ve always been interested in how opera finds new energy through collaboration with other art forms. Opera is a meeting-place artform and the more open and inclusive we can be about that, the healthier the artform is.”
Nixon in China belatedly found itself at the centre of a row about exactly that when it was nominated for a Sky Arts award and objections were raised about the low representation of east Asian singers in the cast. Scottish Opera swiftly excused itself from the competition, apologising for any offence caused.
Fulljames is quite happy to address the issue and put his own considered perspective on the row.
“There is an enormous issue of diverse employment and representation onstage and Nixon in China was a tiny part of a much broader conversation. It blew up more than a year after the show opened, so for the company and its audience it was about something that was in the past.
“When we made the production, we went out of our way to think very carefully about representation onstage, but however carefully you think, you are always happy to be challenged about whether you could have approached something with even more care. The intervention came quite late, but it was a contribution to an important conversation.
“We had made a context for the production so that the Scottish Opera Chorus were not Chinese people but archivists, like a branch of the United Nations. But it is important that you have as many perspectives in the conversation from the outset, and clearly that is not something that we achieved sufficiently with Nixon.”
It bears pointing out, perhaps, that the lack of a Sky Arts award has been little hindrance to the revival of a modern opera that – like Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar – was deservingly in need of one.
“The show has been a big success in Madrid,” Fulljames confirms, “and it’s amazing how many shows Scottish Opera has around the world at the moment, including Ainamadar and Pelleas in the States – it is quite an export business.”
Part of those overseas success stories are based on partnerships with other companies. Unlike them, Carmen is entirely Scottish Opera’s own production, and touring more widely on its home turf. That is something of which its director is very appreciative.
“Carmen is an opportunity to work for a bigger audience – Scottish Opera is doing 15 performances, going to more venues than any of the other shows which I’ve made for the company.
“We are setting it in the 1970s, which was a really interesting time in Spanish history, post-Franco and before democracy was established. One of the themes of the piece is the search for freedom, both personally for Carmen and broader than that, between the smugglers and the corrupt civil guard.”
That updating is only part of what will be a new version of the familiar story, for which Fulljames and translator Christopher Cowell have gone back to the Prosper Merimee novella on which the opera’s libretto was based.
“Chris Cowell had previously translated Carmen for English National Opera and he has produced a new set of dialogues that take the content of the original opera libretto and gives them a structure that is much more akin to the novella. In the novel the narrator meets Don Jose when he is on death row for the murder of Carmen, so the story is relayed from his perspective, and he tries to justify himself through the way he structures the story.
“The libretto basically stuck with that perspective without acknowledging it as such, which is one of the reasons the piece is challenging in the way it sees Carmen, and her exoticisation as a corrupting seductress.”
By re-introducing an on-stage narrator, in the form of actor Carmen Pieraccini as a female detective investigating Carmen’s murder, the production aims to make clear exactly how and when the title character is being subjected to the ‘male gaze’.
“The original narrator is a travelling gentleman who encounters Jose, but we talked about the emergence in the 1970s of the female detective, when police forces across Europe began to admit women. It was another reason for setting it in the period.”
Fulljames also thinks that Cowell’s revised book for the show improves the drama.
“In the original score the dialogues were really important. The balance between text and music was very different from how we usually encounter the piece now. Because we are a little bit embarrassed by the dialogues, they have often been cut to the bone so a page becomes a single line and the drama doesn’t quite hang together. It becomes a ‘number’ opera – we think we know the story and just rush to the next big tune.
“One of the challenges of ‘number’ operas, with text in between, is to get the text working really well so it has the quality of spoken theatre. Carmen is a piece in which there are many editorial choices about things like which second verses to do, and we are making decisions that balance with the amount of dialogue we have.
“There’s more dialogue than in some productions but less than others – it’s about having the right dialogue. And having a fantastic actor like Carmen Pieraccini in the midst of that really helps bring it to life as a piece of theatre.”
As far as the director is concerned, that can only help the music.
“What’s striking about the music is how wide-ranging and diverse it is. On the one hand there are some really dark verismo duets and then there’s the song-based music of Carmen, and the opera-comique choruses that have more levity and lightness.
“So one of the challenges of the piece is how you sew together these languages, covering the gamut from broader entertainment to something tragic and dark. The dialogue is key, because it is the glue that holds the tonal range together.”
At the same time, the introduction of a female detective gives the opportunity to expose that ‘male gaze’ to some interrogation – and Fulljames believes Bizet would have appreciated that.
“If we say this is a narrative as told by Jose – his construction on events – it is helpful for that to be challenged from a female perspective.
“How many female collaborators did Bizet have in his artistic life? That’s an interesting question. Did he hear any female voices as stage directors, designers, or conductors? The answer to that is surely ‘no’.
“I like to think that if he came to a production of Carmen today and there was a female conductor, he would rapidly get over his astonishment and enjoy that quality of the music-making.”
Carmen opens at Theatre Royal, Glasgow on Friday and tours to Eden Court, Inverness, His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre. Full details at scottishopera.org.uk
Picture by Sally Jubb of John Fulljames in rehearsals with Assistant Director Roxana Haines and Movement Director Jenny Ogilvie