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The catastrophe of growing up

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The theatre schlepping: Updating and critics
Jonathan Miller Theatre director
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I don’t have any favourites about these things. I mean, I’ve done these transpositions really several times, and, of course, critics, like Pavlov's dogs, have learned to, if not salivate, to spit whenever they see me doing those as if it’s oh, it’s typical Jonathan Miller updating, not realising that I have a discriminating choice in whatever I do.  Sometimes I update, sometimes I don’t, and when I update, I update on the whole when the composer or the author has backdated the work.

What is so interesting is the stupidity with which people fail to understand the extent to which backdating prevailed, certainly throughout the 19th Century. I mean, the novels of Walter Scott exerted a dire influence on the making of operas, and therefore you have to reconsider them. Whereas if someone is writing something in his own period as, for example, something I’ve done four times, which is Verdi's La Traviata, which takes place in Paris in the 1850s, I’ve never felt even the slightest temptation to set it in anything other than the 1850s, and to get it right.

[Q] So it's nonsense this idea of, sort of, perverse being clever and all that...

No, well, it’s just typical of the sort of, the reason why I get so, why I've descended in my old age into misanthropic solitude is that I’m tired of being constantly told that I’m just, sort of, too clever by half and trying to draw attention to myself by spectacular forms of updating. I mean, whenever I’ve done The Marriage of Figaro, whenever I’ve done Don Giovanni, I’ve always set it in its own period. In the same way when I did The Magic Flute.  Most people absolutely violate The Magic Flute by turning it into an idiotic Egyptian pantomime, and it’s quite clearly... if you set it in the year it’s written you realise it’s about the Enlightenment.  So I set it in a Masonic Library of the late 18th Century, and, of course, people then started complaining about the fact that I'd eliminated all the fun, which is what brings children to see The Magic Flute.

I’m up against people who are, in fact, like Konrad Lorenz's greylag geese.  Do you know the story I’m referring to... when Lorenz took newborn geese and hatched them in such a way that they never saw their goose parents, and he would drag things in and things like wastepaper baskets across the enclosure.  For the rest of their life they would court wastepaper baskets. Well, that’s exactly what happens with the theatre with the stupider critics and the stupider public, they get exposed and imprinted in the way that Lorenz said, by what they think of an authentic performance, and think that anything else is a smart-arse violation designed to draw attention to the director's own originality.

Well, I hope that they are original, but not perversely so. What has happened in the last 30 years since I first did all this updating, and I was one of the first people to do it properly, is that it’s now done routinely.  It’s what I call theatre schlepping, a wonderful Yiddish term which I learned in New York.  Theatre schleppers are people who transport theatrical scenery in trailers from one location to another in order to do a production on tour.  Well, I think that a lot of my contemporaries... younger contemporaries... are simply theatre schleppers.  What they do is they dump the opera in a truck and drive it 250 years up the freeway and dump it in last Thursday afternoon, preferably in Iraq, or... and, you know, if a young woman dies in La Traviata she has to die of AIDS.  It’s always got to be a fashionable thing which was in the news last Thursday, and that’s theatre schlepping.

But I always do it with some discrimination and some idea of their being what I’ve always called, because of my biological training, as isomorphism.  That you have to find some format in the original, and when you transpose it there has to be...  going to a place where in fact there is some coincidence between the two things.  In the same way as there are between my right hand and my left hand, they’re isomorphic.  So that when I moved Rigoletto from 15th Century Mantua into 1950 Little Italy, I realised that the families, the Mafia families, were really very, very similar to, you know, Italian courts.

But I, as I say, I don’t do it when someone's writing it in his own period.  But people are always backdating, and I then will sometimes take the work and update it to the period in which the author was, or the composer was, writing. I did a very successful production some years ago of Der Rosenkavalier. Now, Rosenkavalier, written by Strauss and working with von Hofmannsthal, set it in the 18th Century.  And I thought, what in God's name is going on here, it’s got nothing to do with the 18th Century.  And it’s written in 1912, and I thought, well, hang on, it’s in that Vienna which is poised on the edge of complete catastrophe. Eighteen months later the shot will ring out from Sarajevo and the whole of Europe will be destroyed, as it was, by the First World War. Octavian will die on the Eastern Front, as he does in that famous novel of Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March.  Why does the Marschallin go around stopping the clocks in that famous aria at night?
People think, oh, it’s because she thinks she's aging, well, that’s one reason, but the other thing is that she knows that time is up, that everything will change.  And I set it in the year it was written, and suddenly the whole opera becomes meaningful instead of being an exotic piece of 18th Century kitsch. I can’t bear theatrical kitsch.

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: La Traviata, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, Rigoletto, 1950s, Little Italy, New York, Der Rosenkavalier, 1912, Vienna, Sarajevo, WWI, Radetzky March, Walter Scott, Giuseppe Verdi, Konrad Lorenz, Richard Strauss, Joseph Roth

Duration: 6 minutes, 50 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2008

Date story went live: 16 August 2011