The Times May 12, 2006

Iconoclast or evil twin?

Christopher Alden enjoys ruffling opera lovers’ feathers, he explains to Neil Fisher

Christopher Alden and I have been left in what looks like a very sumptuous broom cupboard somewhere in the bowels of the Coliseum. A private lavatory, presumably more often at the disposal of a rich ENO patron, glints attractively from a mahogany cubbyhole in the corner. Alden sits tensely in front of me, gazing intently at our plate of uneaten sandwiches. It could almost be curtain-up on one of his own productions, because this is the director who strips away the superficial in opera and reveals something more banal — yet also far more powerful — at its heart.

Take his Tosca for Opera North, where every single act took place in a dingy church basement and Scarpia was a Berlusconi stooge in a dirty mac. Or the colourful Spanish dances of de Falla’s La vida breve, hauntingly reimagined by Alden for the same company as a ritual suicide in a sweatshop. Or his now classic adaptation of Turandot for WNO and ENO, which put the murderous Chinese princess in killer heels and a Maggie Thatcher power suit.

“Opera is a lot like the Catholic Church in terms of the way people are devoted to it and how to a lot of people it’s as holy, as sacrosanct and as untouchable as religion,” he says. “In that way I think it’s still necessary to keep smashing those idols and keep trying to get beyond that idolatry — so that you can get at things that are maybe closer to the bone, and more human.”

It’s the crucial difference that separates Alden from his revisionist colleagues — and to a certain extent from his twin brother David, also an opera director. You’ll never catch Christopher Alden drowning an opera with the cocktail of sex, drugs and violence applied over and over again by Calixto Bieito.

Instead Alden uses contemporary imagery to bring us up close and personal with characters and storylines that we take for granted. “Often people are dulled to what the true intent of a piece is by decades of seeing it done in a comfortable way,” he says. “I try to get at something which does get back at the original kick that the piece had when it was first performed.”

The results don’t always please the punters. Asked for a “revivable” Rigoletto at Chicago Opera, Alden thought he had complied with a production set entirely in a debauched gentlemen’s gaming club. “It was a rather Zeffirellian production,” he protests, without a discernible trace of irony. “The idea was to lure the audience into a sumptuous, glamorous world, so that they wouldn’t just immediately say, ‘Oh, this is a modern production’, and as the show went on that world began to fall apart in different ways. Maybe that’s why it did upset people so much: it sort of pulled you in and by the end it was a dark and disturbing event.”

Too disturbing for Chicago, it turned out: after a stormy run the production was junked for good. “The company said to me: we just can’t afford to offend any subscribers.” It also pretty much put paid to Alden’s career in America. “The kind of production of Tosca I did for Opera North I would never have been able to do in America — I can’t think of anywhere where they would feel that they could do that and not risk offending the donors and the corporations that pay for so much opera and art in general.”

Does Alden go too far sometimes? Even his champions have occasionally thought so. Having ramped up the sordid violence so obviously implicit in Tosca, Alden then deliberately overturned the opera’s denouement and had a psychologically wrecked heroine executed by Scarpia’s henchmen. “It subverted a basic idea about opera,” Alden agrees, “which is that it’s about heroic people in control of their destinies when it’s actually about people like all of us, doing the best we can.”

And what about the first-time operagoer mystified by a slice of radical Alden revisionism? “If we’re trying to develop a younger audience, then taking a modernist stance about it and presenting it with some connection to the art of the moment that we’re living in has more potential to engage people.” It’s a passionate, if not totally convincing, credo.

What we can both agree on is that Alden should find the perfect match in Janácek’s penultimate and enigmatic opera The Makropulos Case. True to form, he isn’t planning to take the opera’s heroine, the 337-year-old diva Emilia Marty, at face value. “It’s a portrait of any person, who because of a relationship with their parents and the world they live in created a personality for themselves that is all about power and all about control. The great tragedy in her life was that she could never really be alive. It’s an extraordinary piece.”

Any tragedies lurking in Alden’s own back story seem harder to track down — aside from the natural sense of rivalry between two identical twins who both decided that they wanted to be opera directors at the age of 13. “We’ve always felt a lot of competition, but in a way maybe that’s fed both of us because we’re very friendly and amiable competitors.” That said, the one time that they actually worked together on a production — a Mozart-da Ponte cycle for Daniel Barenboim — the result was not a happy experience. “It just felt like a place we didn’t need to go to.”

In any case, one thing that can’t be denied is the depth of Alden’s passion for opera as a whole, and it goes far deeper than his detractors might think. “Music will always be the bottom line of opera — how it’s performed, sung and conducted,” he says. “If one loses touch with those styles and those values then all of the modern visual interpretation and gloss will be in vain because the true soul of opera will vanish.” An iconoclast who puts the music first? The Americans don’t know what they’re missing.