Twin powers

Next week, the ENO plays host to an unusual rivalry: two brothers, both opera directors, will see their productions run against each other in repertory. Stephen Moss meets the amazing Aldens

Friday May 26, 2006
The Guardian

Christopher and David Alden
Sibling revivals ... Christopher (left) and David Alden. Photograph: Graham Turner

The Alden brothers are not usually on the same continent, but today they are in the same room, here to give their first joint interview for more than 10 years - a modest coup. They are that most unusual phenomenon - twins who have pursued the same career, as opera directors, and reached a comparable eminence. Next week, when David's revival of Handel's Ariodante joins Christopher's well-received new production of Janacek's The Makropulos Case in repertory at English National Opera, their work will be running in tandem. The Guinness Book of Records has been alerted.

David is an old hand at ENO. He was one of the key figures in the so-called "Power House" period under general manager Peter Jonas in the 1980s. Indeed, the intrusion of a chainsaw massacre in his production of Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa became a sort of shorthand for the entire Jonas project - brutal, uncompromising, unmissable, the ultimate succès de scandale. When Jonas left to head the Bavarian State Opera in the early 1990s, David followed, though he has occasionally returned to his former stamping ground, notably to direct Tristan and Isolde in 1996.

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Christopher, meanwhile, was pursuing a career in the US, enjoying lengthy associations with the Long Beach Opera and San Francisco Opera. But though still based in the twins' home town of New York, he admits to finding the US less and less congenial as a place to do opera. "It's amazing how the conservative atmosphere trickles down even to something as trivial as theatre and opera," he says. "In America art is only important as entertainment, and the kind of stuff that I do often tries to push beyond that."

The feeling may be mutual. Christopher's production of Rigoletto for the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2000 was dismissed by some influential backers as "trashy" and never revived. That production, which he set in a Victorian gentlemen's club and turned into an examination of sexual morality, seems to have tarnished his reputation among operatic managements anxious not to offend their audiences in these financially and artistically straitened times. "My American career is now pretty well over," he says. "It takes a few years before you find that no one dares to hire you."

Not that he seems unduly bothered: the success of his stylish and stylised Makropulos Case - in effect his ENO debut, though his Welsh National Opera production of Turandot has played at the Coliseum - suggests that British critics and audiences will take up the slack. Whether his twin can cope is another matter. "In the past we've tended to carve the world up between ourselves," says David. "Certain continents and land masses belong to one of us or the other." Now the fraternal competition is hotting up.

As twins will, they occasionally finish each other's sentences and seem deliberately to leave them hanging for that purpose. But they're not quite as identical as is sometimes suggested: Christopher has trendy glasses and wears a hoodie for a start - David says he looks like a "street urchin". Their characters are different, too: David is more voluble, beating the drum for opera, believing it can change the world; Christopher is more cerebral and self-contained. They are perceptive critics of each other's work: David talks about his brother's search for stillness, starkness; Christopher sees his shows as "less a complete giving way to my own inner life and getting my fantasy life out on the stage" than David's.

Much of David's recent work has been in Germany, a country which he says demonstrates a unique commitment to opera. "A new production is taken very seriously in Germany. Not just by critics and in intellectual circles. The basic audience which comes is extremely well educated musically, and they go to see a new show looking for a fresh critical approach. They don't just go to hear some pretty music or to dress up. If audiences see something which they feel is lazy or doesn't cover new ground, they're very unhappy. I find that thrilling, because it does feel like it's still a serious part of the intellectual life of the country."

He puts Germany at one end of the operatic-seriousness spectrum, the US at the other, with Britain hovering somewhere in the middle. He does, though, think we have regressed from the balmy (barmy?) Power House days, and there's a hint of wistfulness as he recalls them. "ENO in the Jonas era gave a start to a lot of young directors and designers. Young people have to have a place to work where they're encouraged to experiment and don't feel they have to toe the line and make people feel happy. Opportunities in England have dried up since then, and that has had a lot to do with the lessening of the edge in opera in recent years."

Jonas is about to retire as head of the Bavarian State Opera, and the departure of his patron may have been concentrating David's mind. He says that now, at 56, he fancies running his own opera house - small, radical, edgy. Is that feasible? "Absolutely," he insists. "Mad directors sometimes run opera companies."

Christopher doesn't appear to harbour the same quasi-corporate aspirations. When David muses that they should have started their own touring opera company, Christopher looks glad they didn't. "I rather like the slight sense of irresponsibility in the kind of thing I do," he explains. "I like the danger, and I don't want to have to placate people. Quite the opposite, in fact. Sometimes I want to put things a bit in jeopardy."

Neither has worked at Covent Garden, though David insists the enfants terribles explanations will no longer wash. "Some of the major theatres in the world have steered clear of both of us," he says. "It's clear why I didn't work at Covent Garden for a while - I was tied in here and I was a byword for experiment and extremity, and they just didn't want that. But in recent years it doesn't really make any sense, because my style has evolved and I'm not tied to the ENO in the way I used to be. We had the same problem at the Met: we were both famous for doing avant-garde work and the Met wasn't interested in that." He hopes the imminent retirement of the Met's autocratic general manager, Joe Volpe, and the accession of Peter Gelb will encourage a less traditionalist approach.

It was at the old Met that the Aldens cultivated their love of opera as teenagers in the mid-1960s. "We both fell in love with opera at the same time," says Christopher. "We used to get standing room and were completely besotted with it." Their family was New York theatrical - writer father, dancer mother - though more Broadway than Bizet. "Our parents were both in the New York showbiz world," says Christopher. "From the theatre and musical world we grew up in, it was just one step to opera, which seemed to both of us like a deeper, richer version of the art form we had been obsessed with from a very early age."

A theatrical career was de rigueur in the Alden household. "Our parents would have been very upset had either of us been a doctor or a lawyer," says Christopher. "We were bred to be in theatre work, and even though our parents didn't have that much relationship to classical music, they were excited..." David picks up the thread: "... and fascinated that we were both so into this thing. There was never any reason to question it, because once we were into it, there was no stopping us."