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What goes on in the minds of opera directors

Following a look into the lives of classical musicians and ballet dancers, it's time to look into the complex world of the opera director, as part of a series that explores the minds of artists of varied forms

Ati Metwaly , Thursday 4 Dec 2014
opera cast
Photo taken behind the scenes of Mozart's opera Così fan tutte, with cast and young audience members. The opera was staged in March 2014 at the Cairo Opera House with the Cairo Opera Company and Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Ahmed El Saedi. The opera was directed by Hazem Roshdy with Hisham El-Tally (standing at the back row, on the far right) as assistant director. (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
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Opera is an art form that marries theatre with music, both in large artistic segments. Opera productions bring together hundreds of artists — including singers, orchestra musicians, often choir and ballet, scenographers and costume designers, light designers, tailors, craftsmen and technicians — while the director makes sure that while their independent creativity is compatible with his vision, all harmonise in one artistic output. In short, an opera director — to be precise, a woman or a man who directs a classical opera performance — is someone who juggles with large tools without forgetting a myriad of details.

No doubt, the opera director is the one in charge. Contrary to a theatre director, who works from the inside out, whose departure point lies in his personalised interpretation of a dramatic text, the opera director must face up to many preconditions characteristic to opera as an art form.

"In any opera, many creative decisions are already taken by the composer," Hisham El-Tally, an Egyptian opera director, explained to Ahram Online. The theatre director builds the performance from scratch and shapes actors starting from the first rehearsals before even moving onto stage. In opera, the composer provides a number of prerequisites that the director cannot change.  

"Score and libretto define many colours of the actual performance. The composer decides on the singers, distributing roles to specific voices and setting ranges of the musical lines. He underlines drama by creating many musical emphases, and dictates the many nuances in the nature of each character."

Leaning on the score, the opera director implements his vision within those parameters. His presence is particularly important when working on the stage, when drawing movement, when looking into scenography, costumes and lighting.

El-Tally graduated from the Cairo Conservatory's singing department before continuing his studies in directing musical theatre at the Academy of Arts. In parallel, he was always particularly interested in scenography.

"I begin working on an opera months before the rehearsals. I usually have ideas related to scenography and dozens of drawings with movement and lighting sketched out. I have to draw many elements, simply not to forget them."

Once singers stand on the stage, a vision starts coming to light; the director listens to the music and begins to coordinate all the artistic components.

El-Tally reveals that it is very important for opera directors to have an operatic background. "I studied singing and I can understand the possibilities and challenges before the singers. I know which movement is feasible and which could challenge the vocal delivery."

El-Tally adds, however, that some theatre directors also work on operas. Though their dramatic background infuses the opera with many valuable elements, they often face problems generated by an insufficient understanding of their singers' vocal capabilities.

"Experience is an important factor. However, a director with an operatic background will always know when his singers face limitations, when they loosen up, or when they simply bluff," El-Tally says smiling, pointing to the many nuances that exist in the energy of the human body and how the individual vocal abilities of each singer need to be aligned with movement.

During rehearsals, the opera director builds up the whole creative tableau, making sure that the artistic mechanism and all of its details work together. While he draws movement, he has in mind many relations between the singers, as well as between them and the orchestra.

El-Tally explains that rehearsals give an opportunity to work on ideas and resolve technical or artistic obstacles. The performance, however, brings a new kind of challenge. When the time comes to ring the curtain up, the opera gets underway and its main course can no longer be stopped or redirected.

Directors differ in their approach to the performance itself. Some sit among the audience and watch, others prefer control rooms. There are also those who seem to be in all places at the same time, jumping incessantly — sometimes frantically — from one corner of the theatre to the other. Finally, there are directors like El-Tally, who prefer to stay backstage throughout the whole performance.

"I am always worried, but I know I need to remain calm," El-Tally explains. "In case of any problems or bumps in the performance, there are three elements defining my course of action: know what to do, how to do it, and do it fast."

Usually, artistic bumps do not come as a total surprise. Rehearsals provide directors sufficient knowledge of the singers, theatre and music, in order to anticipate potential problems, their form and timing.

As such, during the performance El-Tally's mind is enwrapped in thought: anticipating glitches and imagining solutions. By the time the final curtain falls, the director discovers that his worries were once again appeased by the professionals on and off stage who delivered yet another memorable evening.

Concluding, El-Tally points to one more thought preoccupying the minds of the many opera directors, in Egypt and internationally: "What's next?"  

Unlike classical musicians in a symphonic orchestra that play one concert a week, opera directors are not commissioned frequently. Even when privileged with a permanent contract, an opera director is usually one of few such directors employed by a cultural institution. Naturally, the artistic season has a very limited number of opera productions, among which some are repetitions from past repertoires. With Egypt having one opera house and the international scene tightening its belt by the day, many opera directors spend a large amount of time in a kind of limbo, awaiting new commissions.


Read also:
What goes on in the minds of classical musicians
What goes on in the minds of ballet dancers

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