Daniel Kramer loves to keep people guessing. Wriggling in his seat, he is itching to spill the beans about his latest production – Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at English National Opera.
“I don’t want to say too much,” he teases. “But you’ll be very surprised when you see it.”
That love of intrigue makes him the ideal director for this particular opera which opens at the Coliseum on 6 November, in a double bill with a staged version of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring (choreographed by Michael Keegan-Dolan). The opera, which recounts the unravelling of the relationship between Duke Bluebeard and his new bride Judith, is suffused with darkness, mystery and barely concealed menace.
The American director recalls the first time he heard the opera: “It was the first moment when I thought, ‘Yeah, this is opera!’ You’ve got so many musicians playing that kind of music!” He is equally excited by the work’s dark and shifting undertones. “It’s one of the most complex psychological dramas I have ever experienced,” he enthuses. “People don’t take the time to figure it out. There’s a kind of crescendo and decrescendo going on in the drama. If you listen to the music, Bluebeard rises and blossoms while Judith deflates. She’s lived a rosy life, and was going to be married, but she’s left her family because she’s attracted to this dark man with a dangerous past. Bluebeard is a murderer; a serial rapist who needs what psychologists call, an unbroken relationship.”
So how will Kramer handle an essentially static psychological drama set within the confines of a single space? “With physical theatricality,” is his response. He sneers at traditional productions of the opera, which use only lighting techniques to suggest what is behind each of the seven doors of the castle which, one by one, Judith persuades Bluebeard to allow her to unlock. In Kramer’s production, audiences will see what’s behind the doors and they won’t always be what they expect. “There is something very different behind each door,” smiles Kramer. “I wanted to get something contemporary – something that’s relevant for 2009. Bluebeard’s a killer; a collector. He gets excited and aroused in doors three, four and five. In a kind of way it’s a bit like Silence of the Lambs.”
This delight in the cruel and grotesque aspects of human nature recalls Kramer’s operatic debut with Harrison Birtwistle’s disturbing opera Punch and Judy in April 2008. Presented by ENO and the Young Vic, it wowed the critics and co-won the South Bank Show Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera.
All this is a very long way form Kramer’s upbringing in rural Ohio, where his parents were teachers and home was a farmstead. It was definitely not an operatic household, Kramer recalls. Indeed, he only got his first brush with opera while studying at Northwestern University in Chicago, where he saw a production of Britten’s Peter Grimes. A three-year scholarship then brought him to Europe, where he settled in London and directed his first full-scale theatre production in 2003 a modern German play by Franz Xaver Kroetz called Through the Leaves at the Southwark Playhouse. From there, he moved to the Gate in west London, where he presented versions of Woyzeck and Hair. He then went on to direct productions of Bent and Angels in America. An adaptation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition for the Young Vic and Sadler’s Wells followed. More recently, he directed Rufus Wainwright’s debut opera, Prima Donna, in Manchester.
Despite his relative inexperience in opera, Kramer feels that this is the art form he is destined to direct. “I’ve been waiting to get into opera for a long time. Music is the most natural of art forms. We hear our mother’s heartbeat in the womb, so it’s there from the beginning.”
He believes there are few differences between directing opera and straight theatre, except for the necessity of working with a conductor. “His job is to direct every beat of the music, so the rhythms of speech are already in place. But I find these differences freeing and releasing. I feel that my theatricality is more rewarded in opera.” Kramer feels fortunate to be working with ENO’s seasoned music director Edward Gardner, and he has found this relationship between conductor and director to be a genuine partnership. He is also fulsome in his praise for British singers who, he says, are ready to embrace new ideas and to act properly on stage rather than just sing. “I can’t bear seeing operas where the singers just come on stage to sing their bit. And when you ask them what their ideas are about the production, they don’t know.”
Kramer is equally skeptical about ‘producers’ opera’ which emerged during the 1980s, where directors’ increasingly bizarre concepts often overwhelmed the music and the realities of the libretto. Opera, he says, need to challenge and provoke, but also to interest a diverse range of existing and potential audiences. “Art needs to engage both old and young audiences. I need the grandmothers and the seasoned opera intelligentsia, but also the fifteen-year-old kids. Art is all about play, and kids today know all about games from new technology like the internet, mobile phones, social networking. It’s what they do.”
As to the future, Kramer is determined to continue exploring the operatic repertoire. He is already at work on a production of Carmen for Opera North, which is due to open in January 2011. He promises something very different from traditional presentations of this popular work. “There’ll be no flamenco dresses,” he quips. He is also itching to direct two of his favourite works: Schoenberg’s deeply spiritual Moses and Aaron, and Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. This might seem a rather conservative choice, but according to Kramer nothing is quite what is seems. He finds the music “thrilling”, and the dark, disturbing undertones right up his street. “It’s a story about obsession and betrayal, and about how one man destroys his life through playing cards. And life is a game.”
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and The Rite of Spring open at the Coliseum in London on 6 November.