Forensic Eye
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Forensic Eye

Stage director KATIE MITCHELL brings her singular style to Pelléas et Mélisande in Aix.
by Jessica Duchen. 

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Photograph by David Levene

IN A DRAFTY SOUTH LONDON church hall, Katie Mitchell is rehearsing a theatrical rethinking of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, seen from Ophelia’s point of view. The gritty surrounding area and the tough vision within are Mitchell all over; sleeves rolled up both literally and metaphorically, she’s focused, intense and utterly absorbed in the task in hand.

Few women have forged such a striking path as directors of both opera and theater across world stages; one still senses they have to be three times as determined as men in order to blaze this trail. A recent article in The Guardian suggested that Mitchell is regarded in some quarters as “the most important British director of theatre and opera at work today—indeed, among the greatest in the world.” Others allegedly consider her difficult to work with, ferociously obsessive in her attention to detail.

In terms of operatic preferences, Mitchell, fifty-one, describes herself as “a Baroque or modern person”; she adores Handel, Bach (she has staged the Saint Matthew Passion) and just about anything written since 1970. “I love the challenge of the really tough, difficult new repertoire,” she says. Recent productions have included George Benjamin’s award-winning opera Written on Skin, at the Aix-en-Provence Festival and the Royal Opera House, London (it came to New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival in 2015), and Aix’s dazzling account of Handel’s Alcina at the 2015 festival. 

This year, for Aix, she is tackling a fresh challenge—Debussy’s Symbolist masterpiece Pelléas et Mélisande, based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s play—an opera often considered antitheatrical. Not so,  Mitchell insists. “Our production won’t be static, not at all. At best it’ll be, I hope, exquisitely surreal.” Indeed, she feels Debussy’s music is anything but motionless. “I like the fact that it just keeps rolling, it keeps moving forward, so it doesn’t have the normal beginnings and ends of scenes. There’s always something going on in the score. It never stops.”

Neither is its hushed and sensual nature a stumbling block: “Is drama not contained in what is hushed and sensual?” Mitchell asks. “In one famous scene, Golaud looks at Pelléas and Mélisande—and nothing is happening. From life, we know that, sitting with a loved one prior to an erotic experience, everything is going on, although you’re just looking at that person. Sometimes the drama is just the touching of a finger or of someone’s hair. The challenge is to make everything as exciting on the spectrum of the dramatic, from tiny subtleties like the flicker of an eye through to a full-blown murder.”

Mitchell is making Mélisande the central character, with the action unfurling as her dream. “I see it as one of those hyper-naturalistic dreams where all the elements of life are there, but they’re in the wrong order or the wrong place,” she says. “There’s a tradition, which Maeterlinck set running and Debussy continued, that there’s a mystery about this woman. We’re tackling the eye of the storm—the mystery of Mélisande.”

Mitchell observes that the opera is very much of its day—an era in which women were oppressed, yet male fantasies about them were intensely projected into the culture. “How would women today look at that character?” she wonders. “Can we make Mélisande understandable by the standards of contemporary women? In many productions she is an unexplained femme fatale. I’d like to crack that open and ask, ‘Who is that woman? What did happen to her?’ I’d like to look at the darkness of that family and really interrogate it.”

British baritone Christopher Purves, who has worked with Mitchell on a number of productions, homes in on the wealth of precise detail that Mitchell likes to extract from her casts. “Nobody is as forensic as Katie,” he says. “She considers the ramifications of every move on every other person onstage, and she goes into every smallest detail. Some people can find this difficult. Do we really need to know that the character had bacon and eggs for breakfast? But she’s right, because if there is a shred of doubt and someone in the audience sees that, it threatens the whole edifice.”

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Mitchell’s staging of Alcina in Aix, 2015, with Patricia Petibon
© Patrick Berger/ArtComArt

Mitchell can achieve such exactitude without sacrificing spontaneity. “We’d be about to start a rehearsal, and she would whisper in one person’s ear something different they had to do,” says Purves. “The rest of us wouldn’t know, so we’d respond spontaneously. That makes the reaction very genuine.” Besides, he adds, “Katie has a wonderful sense of humor—and I don’t believe she is ever happier than when she’s rolling up her sleeves and delving wholeheartedly into rehearsals.”

That playfulness fed into Mitchell’s production of Alcinaat Aix in 2015—though it had a dark side as well. Handel’s opera tells of two witches, sisters, who lure men to their island, enjoy their sexual prowess, then turn them into wild animals or stones. In Mitchell’s concept, Alcina and Morgana were each played by two people—a singer in her late thirties or early forties and an actress around seventy. A magic door effected witchcraft to turn elderly dowager into irresistible cougar, and back again.

 “The opera’s production history has often presented the romance of Alcina,” Mitchell says, “but we thought the two sisters would have a different type of sex they would like, and get, and the problem is that one sister falls in love, which upsets the whole balance.” The set was divided into five areas: “Upstairs there’s a machine. You put a naked man in it, press a button, and he comes out as a stuffed animal! People laugh at the idea, but actually, it’s really close to the original libretto.” 

BORN IN Berkshire, to the west of London, Mitchell started her serious ventures into theater while at Oxford University. Early on, she was influenced by the dance world, especially choreographers such as Pina Bausch and Siobhan Davies. Her first opera endeavor, in 1996, was Don Giovanni, for Welsh National Opera. Anthony Freud, then the company’s director, gave her a second chance with repertoire she found more sympathetic—Janácˇek’s Jenu°fa—and since then she has enjoyed the exchange between opera and theater. “Each enriches the other,” she says.

She does most of her work today in mainland Europe, often juggling several productions. (She elects not to fly, for environmental reasons.) “I feel a bit schizophrenic sometimes,” she admits. “I find it quite hard now to make work in Britain. I’m used to French or German expectations. The French tend to be comfortable with philosophical or abstract thought: German audiences can be intellectual and expect a strong directorial concept, whereas British ones tend to be literal-minded and like everything set in its precise historical period. I’ve been changed by the privilege of spending time in France and Germany, working with artists and administrators there—so now I don’t really belong anywhere. If I’m going to start making work in the U.K. again, I’d like to make sure it hits those mainland European targets. For me, that would be the most authentic thing.”

At the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, she is working long-term on four productions, including new operas in years ahead by Mark-Anthony Turnage and George Benjamin. First, though, comes Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor—an unusual foray for her into bel canto. The big question, she says, is exactly why Lucia goes mad. “The audience,” she says, “will be left in no doubt.”

Her fondness for dividing the stage into sections, with action often taking place in all simultaneously, can work beautifully. (She often collaborates with set designer Vicki Mortimer.) In Written on Skin, the three angels had a studio “upstairs,” while the main action of the three mortals took place in the house “downstairs.” Alcina kept the transformation machine in an upstairs room. And in James MacMillan’s beautiful opera Clemency, Mortimer’s tripartite set resembled an altarpiece.

This approach, Mitchell says, is rooted in her experiences in the late 1990s, when she won a research grant from the U.K.’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts to explore different fields that feed into opera, including the visual arts and architecture. “Something shifted in me when I encountered Impressionism,” she says. “I don’t particularly like Impressionism—but those artists made the canvas egalitarian. They removed the idea that the person in the middle was the most important thing. Instead, every single bit of the canvas is equally important.”

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The Mitchell production of Written on Skin at Covent Garden, 2013
© ROH/Stephen Cummiskey

As a result, she says, “I became interested in the edges of things, second levels, the complexity of what you could construct. That’s a principle in a lot of my work. I don’t think you can insist that the eye look at one thing, or that the audience look at, feel or think any one thing. Therefore you have to construct a world where, if the eye wanders, either it will bounce back to what you want it to see, or it will perceive something that ties in to the ideas behind the piece—so the eye can never go outside the world of the opera.”

Mitchell’s view of the U.K.’s current opera scene is mixed. At the Royal Opera House, she suggests, things still look reasonably “buoyant,” despite financial pressures resulting from cuts to government grants. “It’s always hard, when cuts come, to be bold enough to take risks,” she says. The funding question is one of several issues that have intensified in the opera world over the past decade. “Today we do need to address gender politics in opera,” Mitchell says. “We perform pieces from many historical eras—and they come with freight. Some we’re conscious of, and some we’re not. And sometimes it’s dangerous freight that licenses bad behavior now between men and women. It’s sometimes very sexist, and we’re presenting a lot of that on our stages. I think we have to be more accountable to younger audiences, both men and women, but particularly women.”

In this accountability, though, there could lie great creative possibilities. “That interrogation could lead us to different ways of thinking about and presenting that material,” Mitchell says. “Take Alcina. What would happen if we really imagined it from a different angle? New forms, new ideas and new ways of thinking emerge. It’s the constant interrogation of what we do that’s really important.” spacer 

Jessica Duchen , a music journalist based in London, contributes to BBC Music Magazine, Opera Now and other magazines. She is the author of biographies, plays and novels, the latest of which, Ghost Variations, will be published by Unbound in July. 

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