Opera + Classical Music Features

Interview: David Alden

David Alden

David Alden

The Royal Opera’s upcoming production of La Calisto, opening in late September, will be a double first for the company. Not only is it the first time Francesco Cavalli’s 1651 masterpiece has been performed at Covent Garden and the earliest opera ever put on there but, and this is perhaps more astonishing, the first time they have employed the American director David Alden.

It is the start of the new season and the opera house is a hive of activity: techies are taking orders, PAs are pacing the corridors, and I’m quickly shepherded out of the throng and into a ballet dressing room. My interviewee soon arrives and we seat ourselves on a long line of make-up tables amidst a dizzying collage of glowing light bulbs and infinite self-reflections. At 59 Alden is remarkably youthful, tanned (the summer was spent doing Radamisto in Santa Fe) and slightly elfish, and he speaks quietly but with a speed and razor-sharp precision that convey his dry wit and intense personality.

Although publicity implies otherwise, his production of La Calisto is in its third revival, having premiered in Munich three years ago, and has retained much of the original team, including conductor Ivor Bolton. Alden’s enthusiasm has, if anything, blossomed with each new run and he suggests its success has much to do with the nature of Cavalli’s score: “There’s notation but it’s basic, there’s a vocal line, there’s a base line and maybe one other line, so it means it’s very improvisatory. It’s also the only kind of opera one does where you work with the orchestra from early on. Usually eighty disgruntled people arrive in a hole about two weeks before opening and there’s very little communication.”

Despite its relative obscurity, La Calisto pipped most Handel operas to the post of modern revival with Raymond Leppard’s irreverent ‘arrangement’ at Glyndebourne back in 1970, and it has enjoyed a number of fresh airings subsequently. Like most Baroque operas the story is inspired by Classical mythology, Ovid’s Metamorphoses in this case, and it follows Calisto, one of Diana’s virginal nymphs as she is pursued and raped by Jove in disguise, evicted by Diana, and then punished by Juno who turns her into a bear. All ends sort of happily ever after when Jove appoints her as a constellation of stars. Derek Jarman once described La Calisto as having everything one could want from an opera: “beauty; a Sapphic band; rape; a complete lack of understanding; jealousy; and a little brown bear.”

“everything one could want from an opera”

Alden compares its musical flexibility to jazz, and its dramatic scope with Shakespeare. “It’s definitely a social satire about the rich and powerful and their abuse of the poor and vulnerable, the whole metaphysical structure of the gods and the mortals is obviously a thinly veiled picture of the aristocracy and the lower orders, and it’s fascinating on that level,” he explains. “Yes it’s a sex-comedy, and one needs to have wild sexiness in it, but it’s a very exalted comedy, one on the highest level.” Cavalli was clearly a shrewd businessman; La Calisto was written for a public audience during the Venice carnival season and was one of the first forays into commercial entertainment. Then, as now, success was judged by bums on seats.

Showbiz is a familiar world for Alden. He and his identical twin brother Christopher, also a successful stage director, grew up with Broadway in their blood: their father Jerome Alden was a playwright and their mother Barbara Gaye a dancer. Throughout their childhood the boys listened to Gilbert and Sullivan before progressing to standing tickets at the Met Opera, and at the age of thirteen both decided they wanted to direct opera. Coincidently (or cunningly) they chose different sides of the Atlantic: while Christopher established himself at Long Beach Opera outside Los Angeles, David sought the more liberal environs of German theatre, finding inspiration in the work of avant-garde directors such as Harry Kupfer and Giorgio Strehler.

“It’s changing now, Germany is not such an oasis because there’s less money, but you used to be able to do anything and if there were only thirty people in the audience it didn’t matter because the whole thing was paid for so you just did exciting work.” In America opera has always been far more conservative, he explains, and audiences less tolerant. “It’s about appealing to a certain ‘operaesque’ social occasion for rich people and I knew this very early on in my career.” It is this conservatism, provoked by an increasing emphasis on financial profit, that seems to have pushed Christopher towards Europe in recent years.

“two of us was way over the top”

In the past the press has enjoyed framing the twins’ relationship in doppelganger terms or staging double interviews in the hope that sparks will fly. In fact there has been little in the way of overt rivalry, and today David is keen to mention his brother’s upcoming production of Partenope at the Coliseum, but attempts to collaborate on a Mozart-Da Ponte cycle once proved disastrous. “It was terrible! I was supposed to do Giovanni, he was going to do Figaro and we would then both do Cos, but we did nearly two days of rehearsal and realised it was simply impossible, one of us is already too much in a rehearsal but two of us was way over the top. I very graciously ceded it to him,” he adds with a giggle.

Alden cut his teeth at Scottish Opera in the late ’70s, but it was his work for ENO during its halcyon days under Peter Jonas that established a reputation for political activism and an unflinching approach to sex and violence that has continued to the present day. His now notorious 1984 production of Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa involved a bloody chainsaw massacre, Handel’s Ariodante hinted at sexual abuse, and his eerily prophetic take on Rinaldo in 2000 translated the context of Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata into a modern-day crusade. When Jonas moved to Bavarian State Opera in 1993 Alden’s shifted his focus accordingly but he continued to work for provincial opera houses around Europe.

It would be lazy to refer to Alden as an enfant terrible, every opera director worth his salt has been branded that, but he has been described by critic Tom Sutcliffe as one of the ‘great infuriators’ of the opera stage, and he admits to me that Royal Opera’s disinterest up until now has been largely due to his image as “the radical, wild person down the road.” Over the last thirty years opera’s theatrical aesthetic has become increasingly assertive, and I ask him whether people are justified in claiming that opera directors have now become too dominant.

“there has been a revolution and opera needed it”

“I think it’s been a very exciting period from the ’70s through to now, there has been a revolution and opera needed it,” he says, “of course I have my doubts about the aftermath, what was revolutionary and exciting very quickly becomes the clich of the day.” Such doubts extend to the current trend for film directors. “It’s basically PR led, using famous names the general public will know as a way of getting opera into newspapers, which is all to the goodbut generally if you go to see these shows you can sort of tell that the people who know how to do their jobs, the singers, the chorus, the professionals, did most of the work.”

Alden shows little sign of mellowing and he appears to have found a new concern de jour in the exhumation of early opera. “There’s something about this period which is extremely modern, I find Cavalli much more current and to the point than Verdi at the moment, I have to say. Somehow it’s the lightness of being of this kind of piece and cool irony, which is unhampered by the sexual complexes of the nineteenth century.” It will certainly be his focus in the immediate future, with a revival of L’Incoronazione di Poppea in Barcelona and another Cavalli opera Ercole amante in the Netherlands both on the horizon.

Having tackled these he is keen to delve further into the Baroque period and his mind is already swirling with ideas for new projects, including Handel’s Deidamia and a little known piece by Antonio Cesti called Il Pomo d’Oro that sprawls over two evenings. “I still love doing Jancek and Britten and blah, blah, blah, but there’s something about the seventeenth century which is totally magical and special. It’s a treasure-trove of pieces and this Cavalli opera is one of the top.”

La Calisto opens at the Royal Opera House on 23 September 2008 and runs for six performances. Tickets are available on 020 7304 4000 or roh.org.uk

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