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Volume 17 Issue 1 - September 2011

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Robert Carsen: The Way I

Robert Carsen: The Way I DirectPAMELA MARGLESAmerican mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in the 2006 Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Iphigenia in Tauris. Below: Robert Carsen.When robert carsen came to Toronto last spring todirect Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice for the Canadianin his home town in almost 20 years. In 1992 he haddirected the world premiere of Harry Somers’ Mario andthe Magician for the COC. At that point, he was alreadybeing recognized as one of the most imaginative and excitingdirectors around. Today he is one of the busiest — lastyear alone he worked on 21 new productions and revivals.I spoke with Carsen backstage at the Four Seasons Centrefor the Performing Arts a few days before the opening ofOrfeo ed Euridice. Though his work is controversial, he does not revealany desire to confound or outrage anyone, least of all his audiences.Instead he seems intensely concerned about being understood.Orfeo ed Euridice was a huge hit in Toronto. At the two performancesI attended, the audience stood up and cheered at the end. Performancessold out, and it went on to win two Dora awards. But Carsen was alreadywell aware of what a powerful production he was bringing to Toronto,had been revived elsewhere a number of times.Carsen was born in Toronto in 1954 and lived here until he was 20,and Paris. But his ties to Toronto remain strong, since he still has closefamily here. Though his mother died a few years ago, his father, artspatron Walter Carsen, is, at 98, remarkably active.When I ask whether Toronto was a good place for him to grow up,he says without hesitation, “Yes, it was. It all started here for me — allthing,were in Toronto. So it was formative. I was lucky because myparents loved different art forms, so my brother and I were exposed toto not have to go to bed early. But I remember almost everything I sawwhen I was little, all the operas at the COC, all the theatre.”It was clear to him from an early age that he wanted to be an actor.“I became obsessed with the theatre.” Carsen went to Upper Canada“At UCC I was in all the plays and musicals I could get into.In those days, because it was a boys’ school, the boys playedboth male and female roles. So I played Katisha in TheMikado, and Archibald Grosvenor when we did Patience.”It turned out there was a lot to learn from playing both.Carsen then went to York University to study theatre.“But one day I suddenly had an epiphany — I realized thatI had to not be doing this. It was my one brave action, toget up in the middle of an exam at York University, putmy papers in the bin, go home and tell my mother I wasknew absolutely nobody. But I wanted to immerse myself completelyin the world of theatre, and I wanted conservatory training as an actor.So I left the next day.”Six years ago, both Carsen and his father, who is beloved in theToronto arts community for his wide-ranging philanthropic support,were awarded honorary doctorates by York University. “I had to pointout in my thank-you speech that in fact what York University hadtaught me was that I didn’t want to stay in Canada getting a liberalarts education, which was educating me to be able to do somethingelse when being an actor doesn’t work out.”After two years of training to be an actor at the Bristol Old Vic, oneof his teachers said he thought Carsen had the makings of a fact he was saying, ‘I think you’re actually a director — how yourmind works, and the way you contribute to what everyone else is doing.’That got me thinking.”So he started looking for work as an assistant director. “Maybebecause it was a little disappointing not to be acting, I thought I wouldstart in a parallel domain. I worked as an unpaid assistant at the SpoletoFestival and then at Covent Garden.”at the COC as assistant director on Tristan und Isolde. “But the persontwo shows for him at the Guelph Spring Festival, The Lighthouse byPeter Maxwell Davies, with the young and very brilliant Ben Heppner,and Benjamin Britten’s The Prodigal Son.”8 thewholenote.comSeptember 1–October 7, 2011

When Brian Dickie took over the COC, Carsen directed twoproductions, Katya Kabanová and Mario and the Magician.“Brian had known me when I was an assistant director atGlyndebourne.” But after Richard Bradshaw replaced Dickieas head of the COC, Carsen was never invited back. Why, hedoesn’t know, especially since Bradshaw had been the conductorfor Carsen’s two COC productions.“I had at times made suggestions to Richard, particularly abouthad designed the Ringin the cycle, Das Reingold.) “Since Michael and I are both fromToronto, and we’ve done well over 20 productions together, weboth thought how nice it would be to bring various productionsof ours here. But it never happened.”Alexander Neef invited Carsen here soon after he took overthe COC following Bradshaw’s untimely death. Neef had seenCarsen’s work frequently at the Paris Opera, where Neef hadbeen casting director. “When Alexander started talking to meabout projects, he told me he wanted to bring my two Gluckproductions here. I thought that was great, so I didn’t inquire whyhe chose those. Then later I discovered that the COC had neverdone anything by Gluck. I was amazed — and delighted, becauseOrfeo ed Euridice is one of the most important works in all of theIphigeniain Tauris is Gluck’s masterpiece. It’s a fabulous, fantastic opera,one of my favourites.” So the pairing of the two operas makes akind of mini-cycle, he points out. “I call it a bi-cycle.”Just as these two works are radically different, so are hisproductions of them, though he uses the same design team forthink that the same people had done them.”When I ask Carsen what distinguishes his stagings as his work,he says, “If I had to answer, it would be that not one resembles thenext one. To me they are all different, depending on what the worksthemselves are like.”Carson’s work is often categorized as regietheater (director’s theatre)because, like most other European-based directors working today, hetends to stage operas in time periods and locales that are differentfrom what the score indicates or from how they are traditionally done.The production of Orfeo ed Euridice that was staged at the FourSeasons Centre was set on a barren hill with a pit in front. Orfeo worea business suit, Euridice a simple unadorned dress. But any descriptionof the setting hardly does justice to the beauty and emotional impact ofthe production. Carsen used meaningful details of staging to illuminatehis overall concept, and created a show that was both intellectuallycoherent and incredibly moving.Carsen’s staging of Il Trovatore, one of his most controversial, is setKatya Kabanová,one of his most exquisite, takes place on a series of movable docks setManonLescaut is set in a shopping mall, providing a fair comment on the titlecharacter, while Tosca and Capriccio take place in theatres. His mostCandidea chorus of dancing politicos, wearing masks to represent then-currentworld leaders like Bush, Putin and Berlusconi and dressed in boxerCandidehe rewrote the libretto — though not, he emphasizes, the lyrics. Sincethe libretto had always been problematic, and had already been rewritten,he was able to obtain the approval of the estate of the composer,It’s evident that Carsen pays careful attention to the music, somethingone can’t always assume with directors. “I’m passionate about music,and I care deeply about the score in doing an opera — otherwise there’sno point for me in directing opera. The music completely shapes howthe piece is told. The way you feel the work emotionally is conveyedby the music.” Having studied piano for many years, he reads thescores, and never lets his stagings obstruct the music … well, almostdramatic effect, it inevitably turns out that he is actually illuminatingROBERT KUSELGREAT CHAMBER MUSIC DOWNTOWNOpening Night of our 40th seasonTHE TOKYO QUARTETwith MARKUS GROH, pianistand a new work fromComposer Adviser Jeffrey RyanThursday, September 15 at 8 pmMARKUS GROH in recitalSchumann, Chopin, BrahmsTuesday, September 20 at 8 1-800-708-6754order online at www.stlc.comSeptember 1–October 7, 2011 9

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