Will Orfeo go to the disco?

February 8, 2007

Rupert Christiansen talks to Christopher Alden about his latest production

Directors who do uncalled-for and inexplicable things to innocent opera librettos aren't among the more popular members of society.

But something about the work of American Christopher Alden – in many respects, a paid-up member of the operatic nouvelle vague – gets under my skin and doesn't so much irritate as haunt me.

Alden, 57, is remarkably the almost identical twin of David, also a left-field opera director, best known in Britain for his sensational productions of Mazeppa, A Masked Ball and Simon Boccanegra at ENO in the 1980s.

Christopher has come here later, first working in Britain at WNO in the 1990s, where his productions of Faust and Turandot were relatively conventional.

But under the influence of the Swiss director Christoph Marthaler and film directors like Andrei Tarkovsky, David Lynch and Gus van Sant, his style has recently evolved into something strangely evasive and resonant.

In productions such as Tosca for Opera North and The Makropulos Case for ENO, he shows characters lost in reverie, disconnected from each other and society, victim of forces that they can neither control nor comprehend.

"I'm fascinated by the idea of people who get dragged in and drown," he says. "I suppose I'm trying to reflect a sense that we no longer call the shots in our lives and that we can only do our best, moment by moment."

His uncompromising approach means that he no longer gets offered work in his native America, where the culture of opera production is deadeningly fixated on feel-good spectacle.

But he's in great demand in Europe, and currently finds himself back at Opera North, preparing a new production which will mark the 400th anniversary of Monteverdi's Orfeo, the first opera to hold a place in the repertory.

Rumour has it (Alden keeps his cards close to his chest in the interview) that the setting will be a sort of clapped-out Studio 54 disco, and if that is the case, some opera-goers are surely going to hate it.

But Alden believes that "however fascinating the era in which an opera was composed may be, I have a primary responsibility to the world we live in now."

He aims to create an environment where "things are being stirred up" – an analogy to the Mantuan court of Monteverdi's day and its interest in artistic experiment.

"The fascination of Orfeo is that it looks both forward and back," he adds. "Some of it has its roots in masque and Renaissance entertainment, some of it is incredibly modern in the way it makes music serve the text.

"At some level Monteverdi must have identified with Orfeo, because while he was writing the opera he lost his own wife, who was a singer. Her death must have confronted him with a terrible question that is implicit in the opera: is art useless and meaningless because it can't bring the dead back to life?

"The original libretto ends with a misogynistic rant by Orfeo, which gets him torn to pieces by the Bacchantes. But the opera was composed for wedding celebrations and they obviously decided this would be inappropriate, so Monteverdi wrote music for another ending, in which Apollo appears to take Orfeo up to heaven.

"I quite like this blander conclusion: it suggests that an artist can attain immortality through his art, even if he can't find it in his personal life –something true of Callas, James Dean, Elvis and so many others."

Alden is not one of those directors who develops his ideas through improvisation with his cast. "I always have a pretty clear idea of what I want when I start," he says.

Although he claims to be less "obsessive-compulsive" than his brother David, who is famous for knowing every word and note of every opera by heart, his knowledge of the raw material runs deep.

"I've been internalising these operas for years, ever since David and I sat at home as eight-year-old kids listening to Gilbert and Sullivan."

Yet he's not an altogether confident cheerleader for the future of opera. "Nixon in China I loved, but if you ask me to think of something that points the way forward, nothing new leaps to my mind.

Opera may be a dead art form, inasmuch as it is something conceived in the past, in a style from which the world has moved on.

"But music theatre remains full of possibilities, part of a compelling, timeless and unique effort to tell stories through music. Opera can still get to places that nothing else can reach."
'Orfeo' opens at the Grand Theatre, Leeds (0870 122 4362), on Feb 16