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Così fan tutte


The Jurassic Park singers
Jonathan Miller Theatre director
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But I’ve never had anyone except what I call the Jurassic Park singers, object to it. Once you have the people like Domingo and so forth, with the... 'No, I don’t think Alfredo would do that'... and you think, listen, dear, Alfredo was a fictional character, he doesn’t exist.  Let’s find a performance of someone who might do that, and I can assure you that in the period in which we’re going to set it, that’s probably what he would wear or what she would wear.

Well, it’s quite difficult with some of these megastars, again, who are just international travellers... rather than... they’re applauded for their voices, their acting is usually terrible.  But most of the people I work with are delightful. I mean, I’m often said to be this spiteful person who attacks and criticises his cast.  There are only about five people about whom I say adverse things, and I say adverse things because they deserve it because they are... they’re stupid and they’re powerful and they are, in the opera world, given undue attention and where it’s very hard to get anything on other than what they want to wear.

And they are... they’re from the Jurassic Park.  They’re accustomed to wearing the traditional clothes, which are themselves vulgar versions of the past in which it is apparently set. Even if you set it in the past of, say, 1450, and dress it accurately in the costumes of the 1450s they wouldn’t wear it. What they want to wear are Victorian versions of 1450.  It’s what I call Madame Tussaud history. But that’s... on the whole, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered real objections from 95% of the cast with whom I work, who find it delightful and challenging and interesting to see it that way.

I did a production, for example, some, oh, a couple of years ago, of a famous opera by Janáček, which I did in Upstate New York in Glimmerglass. Now, it takes place, apparently, in the Czech community, in Czechoslovakia in, you know... round near to Brno where Janáček was writing. Well, I don’t like peasant costumes on the whole on the stage, I think they just look sort of kitsch.

But then I had been reading some years before... and this is the way these things bubble up... I was reading without a view to an opera, I was reading the novels of, oh, what’s her name, the American novelist who writes, amongst things, about the Czech community living in Nebraska... and so I thought, hang on, when I was asked to do this Janáček, I said I know what I'll do, I'll set it in 1930 in the Czech community in Nebraska, written in these novels. I'll remember her name in a minute, novels like My Ántonia and O Pioneers! and things like that.  They were wonderful, wonderful novels... a huge success. Completely ignored by the American critics who never came to see it.  But it was wonderful, very, very good, and many people came and saw it and just said, oh, God, how stupid not to have thought of that.

Jonathan Miller (1934-2019) was a British theatre and opera director. Initially studying medicine at Cambridge, Sir Jonathan Miller came to prominence with the production of the British comedy revue, Beyond the Fringe. Following on from this success he embarked on a career in the theatre, directing a 1970 West End production of The Merchant of Venice starring Laurence Olivier. He also started directing opera, famously producing a modern, Mafia-themed version of Rigoletto.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: 1450, Madame Tussauds, New York, Glimmerglass, Czechoslovakia, Nebraska, My Antonia, O Pioneers!, Plácido Domingo, Willa Cather, Jana Czech

Duration: 3 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2008

Date story went live: 16 August 2011