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The theatre schlepping: Updating and critics


Jonathan Miller Theatre director
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Well, when I did Rigoletto, that was much later, because I hadn’t been asked to do opera when I was working at the National Theatre with Olivier. I had only worked... and very little, by that time... in the theatre, I'd only done about four or five productions as a director.  But I'd done many more plays by that time, and then I began working at the English National.

And I'd done a fairly straightforward, traditional production of The Marriage of Figaro for Lord Harewood, because I had never felt tempted to change the period.  I mean, I’ve always had a general principle about this, that if a composer or an author sets one of his plays in his own time there’s no reason to change it, because he knows more about his own time than I do, and therefore it behoves me to find out what his own time was like, and he'll get it right.  And that... so when I did a Figaro I set it in the year it was written.

Whereas with Rigoletto, as with so many of the 19th Century composers, Verdi endlessly backdated his works.  It was one of the vices of the 19th Century.  It was called historismus, and people got absolutely obsessed with the exotic past. It was the equivalent in time of what the Orient was in space.  It was an exotic else-when.  And I thought it’s nonsense, this Rigoletto, it’s about this Gonzaga world which could never have looked like, nor could the people have behaved as, they seem to in the opera.

And then my wife actually reminded me of something which set me going, she said do you remember that scene in Some Like it Hot where the police chief investigating the St Valentine's Day Massacre comes into that Speakeasy and there was George Raft, who was involved in it, tossing a dime, and the police chief accused him.  And he said ‘I couldn’t have been there, I was at Rigoletto'.  And then he turns around to one of his henchman, ‘Ain't that so?’, and this henchman said ‘That’s right, we was at Rigoletto's’.

And if you remember at the end, the whole massacre at the end takes place at a meeting of these gangsters under the auspices of friends of Italian opera.  So I thought, well, it’s a perfect setting. I'll base it on The Godfather.  And it seemed perfectly natural.  It all worked in exactly the same way.  The Don Capo or the Duca was the precise equivalent of a Duke.  Most of those, you know, aristocrats in the 15th Century were just titled gangsters. So I very carefully based it on parts of New York that I knew very well. I took my designer to New York and said I want it to look like that.  And I found a building with a fire escape going up the side with a basketball court in the front, and I said that’s where the second scene should be.  And I knew the bars for the first scene, and it all worked.

And, again, there was a huge outcry from the traditionalists who said, ‘How can you violate a work, why can’t you honour the intentions of the composer?’ And I’ve always said, well, the intentions of the composer are now visualised in a totally different way because at a distance of 150 years we can see that his vision of the distant past is nonsensical and it’s just kitsch. So after the lot of adverse criticism, comparable to the adverse criticism I got from some baboon on the Daily Express when I did the Merchant of Venice, who said it's Portia in a bustle and it’s all wrong.  And you thought oh, you idiot, you twerp, you inflexible ninny.  Well, I got the same sort of, you know, wiser than thou... the sort of Brown Sewage stuff, you know, ‘Why on earth did you have to mess around with things like that?’

And here it is, 28 years later, still running. So that was fun doing it, getting it right and having that last scene based on Edward Hopper's Nighthawks in the bar when the Duke comes in.  And instead of being a Duke he’s a gangster, but he’s dressed as if he'd just come back from Korea and he’s waiting for Maddalena to come down.  And I had him go up to the jukebox, put the dime in the jukebox and then go, do da da da da da dun, da da, and the audience couldn't believe their eyes and ears when they saw that happening. And, again, a lot of attacks.

I mean, what is so interesting are these people who get fossilised in certain mental postures because they are being conditioned like Konrad Lorenz's greylag geese, to what they saw the first time when they saw the work in question.  And because they have a traditional idea of how it should... how it was always done, they assume that’s how it should always be done, and they don’t realise that the passage of time changes the image of what is done.  And that’s why I then went and wrote this very long book called Subsequent Performances about what happens to works which enter what I describe in the book at their afterlife, what Aby Warburg called the 'nachtleben de antike', the 'afterlife of antiquity'. Works which are continuously redone after many years have to be reconsidered, and there’s no way in which you can just faithfully reproduce the way in which they were done at the first performance.

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: English National Opera, Rigoletto, Some Like It Hot, Godfather, Daily Express, The Merchant of Venice, Subsequent Performances, Nachleben der Antike, Konrad Lorenz, Aby Warburg

Duration: 6 minutes

Date story recorded: July 2008

Date story went live: 16 August 2011