“The closest natural human sound to opera singing,” says internationally acclaimed stage director Thomas Guthrie, down the phone from Barcelona’s Barrio Gotico, “is actually a baby crying.”
Thomas is in the Catalan capital in order to direct Verdi’s Aida, at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, which is about as big as it gets, opera-wise.
Photo by Theresa Pewal
But he’s talking to Viva about his subsequent project, of a rather smaller nature: a performance in February, by young musicians, at Hove’s Old Market, of Marco da Gagliano’s little known 1608 opera La Dafne.
“It’s great to work in a space like the Liceu,” he says. “But my work is the same wherever I do it. It’s important to make the work interesting and fun – to bring it to life – however big the stage, however much or little money you have to spend.”
He likens his job to that of a film director: “the conductor deals with the music you hear, I deal with everything you see,” he says.
La Dafne is a Brighton Early Music Festival performance, and Thomas is a big fan of that institution. You might remember his staging of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, reset in the 60s Brighton of the Mods and Rockers, also at the Old Market, which received five-star reviews.
He’s not worried that the obscure nature of the latest work will limit the audience to baroque opera aficionados, few, let’s face it, in number. “Deborah [Roberts, BREMF founder and director] has done enough brilliant work to build up an audience who are going to trust her – and trust us – to give them a good ride,” he says, hoping that the familiar faces will be bolstered by audience members looking for something a little different.
And La Dafne, one of the very first pieces of work identifiable as ‘opera’, is certainly unusual. The libretto is an adaptation of a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, itself a retelling of an old Greek myth. The ‘Dafne’ of the title, a young nymph, attempts to escape the lecherous clutches of the all-powerful god Apollo, eventually maintaining her chastity by turning into a tree. “Being a myth it’s the sort of story we can all relate to,” he says. “You could say that it’s a #metoo tale of its era.”
It’s not the sort of opera you’d search out on Spotify for a bit of background music, he admits. “But in my opinion opera is both a visual and an oral medium – it’s not either, it’s both, and when they come together to tell a story, the whole thing comes to life, which is a unique thing.”
And as for the baby-wailing analogy: “It’s something we all have hard-wired into us. Babies don’t cry all the time, it’s usually life or death. If they don’t get attention, they don’t survive. And opera is usually very much about human need. Combine that sort of sound with a great story, and that’s why the medium is enduringly popular.”
The Old Market, Feb 8th–9th, theoldmarket.com