Opera + Classical Music Features

The Opera Group’s John Fulljames: “We have this obsession with going to the gym but we don’t treat our emotions the same way” – Interview

John Fulljames is the Artistic Director of the middle-scale touring company The Opera Group, which is gaining a reputation for exciting and accessible productions of contemporary operas and seldom-performed classics from the 20th Century repertoire.

A Fellow on the Clore Leadership Programme, John has Assistant Directed at many of the major opera companies, including Glyndebourne, the Royal Opera and Opera North. His recent production of the community opera Tobias and the Angel re-opened the Young Vic Theatre and The Enchanted Pig has just finished a hugely successful run there and is now on a national tour. John is currently directing students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. I spoke to him at the beginning of the rehearsal period about his work on the production and a whole range of topics concerning the place of opera in the contemporary world.

I asked John how he was finding it working with singing students as opposed to experienced professional singers. “I love it and I’m so impressed with Guildhall. You get the chance to work with theatre students as well as musicians and there’s enormous enthusiasm and engagement across the board. They are extraordinarily well-prepared, coming to rehearsals knowing their roles and very open to possibilities.” He has worked with students before, at the National Opera Studio and finds that one of the advantages of young singers is that they haven’t picked up some of the tricks that professionals often rely on. “Opera Singers get thrown onto the stage with little rehearsal and for short runs so they develop cheating techniques to get by and students haven’t developed those yet, stock devices that make them look good on stage. People have a lot of associations of what opera is; one of them is bad acting and that can be fuelled by this approach.”

This brought me on to John’s production last year of Shostakovich’s The Nose for The Opera Group. I tell him that one of the striking things about it was the excellent acting performances he drew from the cast and ask him how he achieved it. He says “It’s largely about exploring the story together and finding the most vivid way of doing it”. He has such a way with actors, or acting singers, that I ask him if he has directed plays as well as opera. “No, some musicals but mostly opera. The score is the dramatic starting point and you can work out from there to physicalise the performance”.

John was a student at Cambridge, where he sang and acted a lot and started going to the opera in his last year. That led on to him becoming an Assistant Director at some of the big companies. He speaks fondly of Opera North, seeing it as “a home, a fabulous place for nurturing young artists”. The Opera Group grew out of a need for him and some contemporaries to do new opera and finding that the only way was to set up a company themselves. That was in 1997; the first production began touring in 2000 and it has continued to grow since then. “Funding is always a struggle but now we’re in a really exciting place, making a breakthrough in the quality of our work and also our potential partners we’ve just become an Associate Company of the Young Vic which is great. It’s a fantastic theatre that really nurtures the development of the company”.

Coming back to his current project, I ask John why he chose to do a Mozart after all the new and modern work he’s been concentrating on in recent years. “I’ve done very little Mozart so it’s something of a new departure. I did the first act of Cosi at National Opera Studio a while back and just had a fantastic time. I got really excited about rhythm. The way Mozart’s ensembles are constructed are so rhythmically alert and you have to make that rhythmic energy three-dimensional”. What should we expect from the production? “The story will be clear, that’s the starting point. We’re setting it in the 1980s, a time of rapid change, especially in Eastern Europe. What we want to release in the piece is something which feels quite emotionally wild. There’s a tendency to think of the Enlightenment now as something that’s quite refined and pretty and elegant but actually it’s not. It’s about quite dangerous emotions being released. We want to do something that’s quite wild and raucous, quite ugly and rough”. We talked a bit about the Royal Opera’s new production (by David McVicar) and he said how mesmerised he was by the scene change into Act Four, just before Barbarina looks for the pin. “It was quite beautiful”.

The question of language and surtitles came up, something that is a bit of a debating point since English National Opera introduced them for their English language productions early last year. John says “Something that often hits me when I go to the opera is how hard it is to make comedy work in the original language with supertitles. The lightness and the immediacy of the communication is lost. But hearing the text is a priority and there’s a lot you can do proactively to help. We can balance the orchestra, design the sets to accommodate it, and bring the singers downstage”. The Marriage of Figaro will be sung in Italian with surtitles.

I asked John which directors he admires. “I’ve been lucky to assist a range of directors who I learned a lot from Phyllida Lloyd, Tim Albery, Martin Duncan, Francesca Zambello, who all do fabulous work. The person whose work I always go to see is Richard Jones so much wit, theatrical inventiveness and storytelling abilities that are constantly surprising. Increasingly I enjoy going to the cinema and a lot of my references now are film directors”. I ask him how that manifests in the work. “The Nose was influenced by The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.” I acknowledge the visual strength of the staging and the expressionistic quality of the movement. “And then Blond Eckbert was Hitchcock inspired. Cinema is such a cultural reference point for the entire population. It’s a way in to the global world, which we undoubtedly live in but without ever actually seeing much of it. It’s all mediated by films”.

The Opera Group’s next project is The Shops, a fascinating sounding new work by the young composer Edward Rushton, who has worked with the company twice before. “Birds. Barks. Bones. was a re-telling of The Odyssey and we wanted to do something very contemporary next. We’ve ended up with a piece with 30 scenes of about 90 mins. It’s very filmic. It’s about shopping, our obsession with objects, with having. It includes the story of a thief who has to steal things he can’t buy”.

One of the things that arts organisations obsess about is how to bring in new audiences, particularly young people, and I asked Fulljames about this. “Really good question. The Enchanted Pig is playing 63 shows to about 25,000 people. A lot are young, lots of school parties, but it’s also people just wanting a night of musical theatre. Contemporary opera has had a problem in the past by defining itself as a classical art form. I’m not sure that’s necessarily helpful. We need to see it as part of a contemporary landscape and not just the inheritor of an operatic tradition. In that context, the opera audience is anyone who’s interested in culture”. We talk a bit about Gaddafi and other recent new work and I ask if the big opera houses are the places to develop these new audiences. “The big institutions absolutely have their place and in today’s world they have a big profile. But there’s something alienating about those buildings, it can be a distancing experience. The first time you go it will probably be in the cheap seats, at under 20, so you’re not having the Rolls Royce experience you get in the middle of the stalls. With the work we’ve been doing at the Young Vic, we have the benefit of that extraordinary architecture. You’re in the same room as the performers and you can hear every word so you really appreciate the liveness of the event. That’s what has to be special about theatre. It’s not about being evangelical. The Enchanted Pig isn’t trying to convert anyone to opera; it’s an evening out and has to have a value in its own right”.

With more projects lined up for The Opera Group new shows and the development of creative partnerships I wonder what there is further ahead. I ask John what his aspirations and ambitions are. Would he like to be running the Royal Opera House? The question is followed by a long laugh and, sensing that he is reluctant do be drawn on the subject, I revert to the old question used in job interviews: where do you see yourself in five years time? “I’d like to still be directing. I love being in the rehearsal room and being able to explore. There’s something very childlike, ungrownup about that. It’s a luxury, shutting yourself away with a cast of singers and being able to think about nothing but the piece. I love that”. I try again to draw him on the subject of a long-term ambition. What about the big decisions and strategic thinking that inevitably comes with running a large organisation? “Yes, that appeals as well, although running an institution would be tough. One day, I’d like to take on the challenge”.

We finish this stimulating discussion by talking about the future of opera, both as an artistic and a social entity. Does he see a future for it? “All opera is is music and storytelling and that certainly has a future. It’s an opportunity to get away from our busy lives, a place to think and respond emotionally. Opera above any other art form offers a space for that to happen”. Why is that? Don’t you get that with musicals as well? “Opera has a richer complexity. There are some musicals that are exceptions. Porgy and Bess for instance, although you might consider that an opera. A better example is Sondheim – Into the Woods is extremely emotional”.

He quotes Kasper Bech Holton, Artistic Director of the Royal Danish Opera who describes Opera Houses (or, John adds, any other cultural organisation) as “emotional fitness centres”. He explains “That’s brilliant. We have this obsession with going to the gym but we don’t treat our emotions the same way. Cultural centres can offer that”. Taking that a step further, I ask if he sees a spiritual aspect to the arts as well and he answers with an unequivocal “yes”. “It’s about having a connection to other human beings. It’s about a live experience, all watching together and sharing, having a sense of community. This is critical in the 21st Century. Tobias and The Angel which we did at the Young Vic was about exactly that: community. It’s a sort of work that will grow and grow. The opportunities to participate in making opera in a professional context is going to become more and more widely available”.

• The Marriage of Figaro runs at the Guildhall School, Barbican from 1 to 7 March and The Enchanted Pig is currently touring.

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The Opera Group’s John Fulljames: “We have this obsession with going to the gym but we don’t treat our emotions the same way” – Interview