Coda: Listener of Note — Simon Callow
Callow, author and star of Inside Wagner’s Head, Covent Garden, 2013
© Robbie Jack/Corbis 2014
The first production I directed was Così Fan Tutte in Bern. Well, I was amazed. I wrote a book called Being an Actor. Somebody gave it to the music director in Lucerne, and he wrote to me and said, “You will probably think I’m insane. I think you should direct opera.” The book is an anti-director book! I said, “You’re obviously around the bend, but I will” — especially when he said it was Così Fan Tutte. And we had a delicious time, but it’s something wonderful, because there’s very little chorus and no big ensembles — just those six characters, basically. The libretto is outstandingly good. I had them stage it as a play without music at all, and it worked extremely well.
OPERA NEWS: Mozart is still the supreme musical dramatist, isn’t he?
SC: He’s Shakespearean. Imagine if Rossini had written to the same libretto — what an entirely different experience it would have been. Mozart touches every possible emotional stop within it. It’s an almost unbearable tragedy that these characters are bound to confront the truths of their hearts. And, of course, Mozart brilliantly pulls the carpet out from under everyone and does the ironic finale, leaving a trail of irreparable relationships and that monster, Don Alfonso — one of the most evil men in the whole of operatic repertoire.
ON: The first opera you ever attended was Il Trittico at the Royal Opera House?
SC: Yes. What a wonderful start. Tito Gobbi. Gobbi did some of the greatest acting I’ve ever seen as Schicchi, as Michele in Tabarro. I had the good luck to hear him giving a master class. He was working on Figaro’s first entrance in Barber of Seville, and he kept on trying to explain to them that you can’t laugh off the music, you laugh in the music. And eventually the singers got it.
ON: How do you respond to the blanket accusation that opera singers could never act?
SC: People who say that are out of their minds. At Sadler’s Wells, for years, they had a dedicated drama division. The standards of acting of the chorus and principals were great. Norman Bailey was a magnificent actor. Sadler’s Wells’s specialty was diction — to make every word understood.
I mean, there’s no point in pretending Luciano Pavarotti was a great actor, any more than Joan Sutherland was. But both were very true people, and they brought great truth to their roles. The things that I saw Sutherland do — I can imagine where there might have been things where she didn’t commit — but in things like Lucia or Norma or even Traviata, there was a certain truthfulness, as I said, there was a certain honesty about her which was really rather wonderful, and I was very moved by her. She didn’t have the gift of acting, that’s all.
ON: What have been some of the individual performances that have had the greatest impact on you?
SC: Christoff as Boris Godunov I will never forget. He conveyed stupendous inner pressure. And when he threw away the miniature with his dead son’s image on it, he threw it to the back of the set with such force that it embedded itself in the set. Callas in Tosca is indelible and always will be. And with Gobbi as her Scarpia, what more could you possibly ask? A surprising choice to you in this company would be Janet Baker, really one of the greatest operatic actresses — Janet as Maria Stuarda, Janet as Charlotte in Werther, Janet as Didon in Troyens, Janet as Julius Caesar, Janet as Poppea. Beautifully observed. When she announced she was retiring from the opera stage, I immediately offered her a part in Jean Cocteau’s Infernal Machine, and she wrote the sweetest message, saying she was incredibly touched, but she just didn’t have any confidence in herself as an actress without the music.
Montserrat Caballé wasn’t acclaimed for her acting, but she wasn’t half bad as Elisabetta di Valois. Again, it was a matter of the splendor within her.
ON: You have written the libretto for Iain Bell’s new operatic monodrama A Christmas Carol, due at Houston Grand Opera this month.
SC: I performed a one-man version of A Christmas Carol, which in some ways is the quintessence of Dickens, in the West End. Iain Bell heard about it and, having been commissioned by Houston to write a one-man opera for Anthony Dean Griffey, he asked me to write a libretto for it, and then Houston asked me to direct it. I had adapted the book for my own stage show fairly freely, but always trying to maintain the essential voice of the narrator. Dickens is the conjuror in A Christmas Carol even more than in his other books, projecting his characters in an intensely theatrical manner, summoning them up as if by magic.
ON: I hate to raise this topic, but I’m wondering your thoughts on the criticism, in some quarters, of opera as an “elitist” art form.
SC: For a lot of people, you have to do a bit of work to enjoy opera. There are some operas that are instantly attractive to a lot of people, a handful of Italian operas. But Mozart is still quite hard work for some people. We can’t avoid that. Richard Strauss is fine as long as it’s Rosenkavalier, and even then they’ll be put off by how long it is. The word “elitist” is a stupid word — I’m so sick to death of hearing it. I understand why some people feel “This is not for the likes of me.” Why should everything be for everybody?
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