This week’s blog is from Greg Eldridge, an Australian director, now based in London, who works primarily in opera and is a member of the SDUK Opera Committee. Greg’s experience below is one of the many reasons why Stage Directors UK has taken up the mantle to provide director training in Opera beginning with our groundbreaking 3 day intensive. Thank you Greg for taking the time out from rehearsals to tell us your story…
Before I moved to the UK, I wrote to every major opera company in the English-speaking world (well, all the ones listed on Wikipedia…) begging them to introduce a Young Artist Programme for directors.
‘There exist many opportunities for passionate singers, pianists and conductors,’ I wrote, ‘please can you consider helping those who, like myself, are keen to expand our knowledge and experience but cannot because there exists no program to cater for us’. I had a response rate in the low single digits. Almost all the replies were variants of the same thing – ‘Thank you for your email but we don’t have any plans to work with young directors at the moment.’
It made me want to shout from the rooftops ‘We’re here! Let us in!’
It is one thing to be rejected from a training programme that you really want to get into; it’s another to find that no-one values your profession enough to offer a programme to begin with.
Despondent, I called an informal gathering of colleagues and friends to discuss it – all proper commiserating should be done either in public or a public house – and found that the others were in the same position. One fellow director told me he’d approached a company he’d assisted at and offered to raise the money himself if they’d let him spend the season as an observer/assistant to continue his on-the-job training. The response? ‘Thank you for your proposal but we don’t have any plans to work with young directors at the moment.’
We couldn’t work it out – after all, we were keen, we had a few shows under our belts and we had a real interest in working in an artform that people were always saying needed to appeal to younger audiences. Every show needs a director as much as it needs singers – why weren’t companies interested in shaping the next generation of opera makers as well as opera performers? We scratched around for a while until someone suggested that perhaps being a young director wasn’t as glamorous as being a young singer. After all, a thought-provoking discussion of aesthetics or contemporary approaches to storytelling at your annual fundraiser won’t hit the sponsors with quite the same impact as wheeling out a young soprano in a ballgown to sing yet another rendition of ‘O mio babbino caro’.
Then, worst of all, we thought that the undervaluation of directors in opera might be because of an existential paradox – no-one seems to know what an opera director actually does, while simultaneously believing that anyone can do it.
I’m fortunate that through my work I get the opportunity to talk to groups of actors, directors and the general public through masterclasses and workshops. Whenever I’m engaged to work on a show, I try to look up the local Societies and Foundations so that I can give a talk or work with some of the locals who share my enthusiasm for opera and music-based theatre. As part of these sessions, I have a Q&A segment based on the idea that no question is too silly to be asked (a reaction to the reticence I felt at university to ask questions of guest speakers because I thought I’d embarrass myself by displaying my ignorance of almost everything). By far the most common question I’m asked is: ‘So, what does a director actually do?’
People seem quite happy to accept the concept of a director for a play or a film (the director is the one in charge). But with opera, isn’t the person waving the stick in charge? After all, everyone knows the image of the conductor in bow-tie and tails holding a baton, but who can describe the archetypal opera director? Conversely, there seems a common belief that anyone can throw together the staging of an opera – I mean, after Steve became a bit too old to keep singing in the chorus of the local amateur company, or retired from stage management, or had had enough of doing the mail-outs, he was able to put people on the stage and almost everyone was facing the right way for most of the time. So what’s the big deal?
My response to the question always starts the same way too – by quoting a mentor of mine from my earliest days in Australia. ‘In opera,’ he said, ‘everything you hear is the conductor’s fault and everything you see is the director’s fault.’ While not completely accurate, it’s a good starting point for the discussion of the similarities and differences between opera directors and directors of other types of theatre.
Which led my group of colleagues and I to consider another point – why are there so many training and development opportunities for directors of spoken-word theatre and almost nothing for those wanting to specialise in music-theatre? Another colleague shared an experience she’d had when interviewing for a job on an opera being co-produced with a spoken-word theatre. ‘Thank you for your application’ the Artistic Director of the theatre had said, ‘but for this project we’re looking for a real director, not just someone who only works in opera.’ Stunned, my friend said that she thought opera shared many common elements with other theatrical forms while maintaining a distinctive style, in the same way that Moliere and Caryl Churchill could be said to have elements in common while possessing distinctive differences. ‘Well,’ sniffed the Artistic Director, ‘I’ve never worked on an opera but a friend of mine has and he says they’re very different.’
We considered this story for a little time and decided that the saddest thing was that this particular Artistic Director had never experienced the joys, the emotions of the enmeshing of text and music. Little wonder, then, that those of us who love working in opera find it so difficult to find work with plays, while the “real” directors seem to have little trouble dipping their toes into the sordid otherworld of treble clefs and fermatas.
So, we finally said, what is to be done? How are we to get the training we need and the experiences we want to keep growing as artists and directors? Some of us started companies of our own, frustrated at the lack of opportunities within the established opera structures. Some of us pursued our favourite opera directors, buying gallons of coffees and hoping to gain a job assisting a Hero. Through a combination of luck and circumstance, I found myself accepted into one of the very few young artist programmes in the world for directors, a place where I could observe the best at their work and also put my learnings into practice in shows of my own.
I’ve also made it my mission to be involved, actively and vocally, with any organisation that takes up the challenge of helping the next generation to gain the skills, knowledge and experience they want, need, and deserve. The SDUK Workshop in Opera Direction is one such endeavour that I wholeheartedly support, in the hope that it will help lead our industry into opening up theatres, companies and rehearsal rooms to those who want to turn their passion for music-based theatre into a career.
And I still write every year to opera companies, begging them to let stage directors join the ranks of singers, pianists and conductors in their young artist programs. I received a reply to one of these communications just as I was finishing this article. ‘Thank you for your email,’ it said, ‘but we don’t have any plans to work with young directors at the moment.’
Bugger you, I thought – we’re here and we’re starting to flood in.
Greg was a Jette Parker Young Artist at The Royal Opera, Covent Garden before being named Jette Parker Associate Director in 2015. He has directed, revived and assisted on over 40 productions and is currently in Sydney working on a Ring Cycle for Opera Australia.