Features

Robert Carsen

|| Director/Designer ||
His productions break the barrier between the stage and the audience.
by F. Paul Driscoll. 

ON Awards Robert Carsen hdl 417
Carsen in rehearsal for The Love for Three Oranges at Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2012
Lieberenz/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images
“MY JOB IS GET PEOPLE TO LOOK AND LISTEN ... NOT TO SING ALONG WITH IT IN THEIR HEADS.”

ROBERT CARSEN defines his directing style better than anyone else could. In a 2011 interview with Pamela Margles for The Whole Note, Carsen was asked what distinguished his productions as his work. “If I had to answer, it would be that not one resembles the next one. To me they are all different, depending on what the works themselves are like.” 

In a directing and designing career that began almost forty years ago, Carsen has avoided specializing in any one genre or period. His appetite for variety has allowed him to embrace an astonishing range of operas; the only major composer he avoids is Rossini, whose work “doesn’t do anything for me,” as Carsen told Brian Kellow in a 2013 interview for OPERA NEWS. Witness the director’s versatility this month, when his new Rosenkavalier staging arrives at the Met just two weeks before Lyric Opera of Chicago offers his production of My Fair Lady. 

I have been an admirer of Carsen’s work for twenty years, ever since his wonderful staging of Eugene Onegin at the Met made me appreciate Tchaikovsky’s opera in a completely new way. Carsen’s exhilaratingly unsentimental production embraced Onegin’s antihero nature and put him at the center of the opera’s action, where he belonged. The final confrontation between Onegin and Tatiana was stunningly simple, with nowhere to hide: a single chair represented the richness of the Gremin palace. Carsen’s staging stood as evidence of his courage and his abiding belief in the importance of collaboration: he trusted his singers to deliver, and they did. The artistic responsibility Carsen gave his singers freed them to create a charged, high-stakes atmosphere that remained gloriously potent in every subsequent Met revival.

Carsen urges his fellow artists to explore what lies within the work at hand in order to engage audiences in a compelling way. In his OPERA NEWS interview with Kellow, Carsen explained, “My job is to get people to look and listen. I’m always wanting people to hear it in a different way, or as if they haven’t heard it before—not to sing along with it in their heads.”

All of Carsen’s stagings are characterized by honesty, clarity and inexhaustible invention: for each opera he directs, he creates a singularly apt mise-en-scène that honors the emotional substance of its music as well as the essence of its words. The Carsen portfolio encompasses a Falstaff buoyed by the brightly colored middle-class optimism of 1950s Windsor; an Alcina charged with the soignée eroticism of Last Year at Marienbadand an Orfeo ed Euridice that burned with the unforgiving heat of the Greek sun. In a 2004 OPERA NEWS interview with Eric Myers, Carsen reflected, “For me, the most crucial element is the relationship between what’s on the stage and what’s in the auditorium, and how you can break that barrier. Igniting that flame is always the most difficult thing. The story of the opera is not really what the opera is about, so you have to go way beyond and say, ‘What is going on here?’”

Born and raised in Toronto, Carsen has long-term associations with several of the world’s great opera houses, but he admits no exclusive allegiance to any one of them. As he told The Whole Note in 2011, “For me there’s only one theater in the world—and that’s the theater I’m working in.” —F. Paul Driscoll



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