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Leaving the Royal Shakespeare Company


Opera vs Cinema
Peter Hall Theatre director
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I've always been terribly interested in opera, partly because of if I'd been trained as anything, I was trained musically and partly because I think opera, if – and this almost never happens – if everything is at top level and people can act as well as they can sing and sing as well as they can act, it's the highest form of theatre in terms of imaginative excitement. And this relates, you know, to my whole belief in theatre, anyway. I… I think if you… this is not to denigrate film which after all is the… is the art form of our… our century, but when you go to the cinema you believe that the camera has actually seen what you're looking at. You don't look at something and have the camera say, now, will you imagine it's something else. You look at a beautiful wall with pictures on it and it… you don't imagine something else. It's literal in that sense. Of course, it often isn't, particularly with computers, but we like to believe that it is. Theatre doesn't do that at all. A… a man comes onto the stage and says, ‘You know I'm an actor, I know you're an audience, will you believe that I'm Duncan standing outside the castle and that behind me – or in front of me, probably, I would do – at the back of the auditorium, where I'm pointing, is this wall with this castle, having a very pleasant seat and all these lovely birds all chirping in the afternoon sun’. You can't film that because if you look at the birds you don't want that man rabbiting on, and if you look at the man, you say: ‘Show me the birds’. Theatre is about presenting something credible, not true, credible to the audience. Will you make believe with me, says the actor, will you imagine? And that's where Shakespeare is so absolutely extraordinary because he has that quality of provoking an audience's imagination almost more, I think, than any other writer ever, ever, ever. But if you add to that, music, and you add to that the comment that the music can make against the action and against the character, which is opera at its best, you get something absolutely incandescent. The first opera I did was way, way back in 1957, '58 at the old Sadler’s Wells, which was a modern opera by a… a British composer called John Gardiner on The Moon and Sixpence, Somerset Maugham's book. I had a slight feeling of duck to water again with that, living in music, working in music and trying to persuade the singers not to act in the operatic sense. In other words, to illustrate the emotions gesturally, but to be still. I mean the… the greatest actor, operatically, of our time was Callas who people always thought rampaged around the stage like a tiger, a lioness. She didn't. She stood quite still and very relaxed and an orchestra of 85 people seemed to be coming out of her body and she was as eloquent as the music was. She used the music. She subsumed the music. Extraordinary. And I… I got on, I mean, that was as much a religion for me as Shakespeare's verse and the importance of text. So I'd started my foot in the water and then in the mid '60s I did Moses and Aaron, the Schoenberg opera at Covent Garden with… with Solti, which was a huge, controversial success because it had an orgy in it and all the tabloids screamed ‘wasting public money on nudity’ and things like that which was, I suppose, to be expected. That's really not what Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron is about; however, it made it sell out two years running. And I then did The Magic Flute, Eugene Onegin again, Tristan and Isolde, all at Covent Garden.

British-born theatre director, Sir Peter Hall (1930-2017), ran the Arts Theatre where, in 1955, he directed the English-language premiere of 'Waiting for Godot' by Samuel Beckett. He also founded the Royal Shakespeare Company when he was only 29, and directed the National Theatre from 1973 to 1988. He was at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon for two season from 1957-1959. He also directed 'Akenfield' for London Weekend Television and ran the Peter Hall Company, which has 40 productions worldwide to its name. In 1963, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and in 1977 was knighted for his contribution to the theatre. In 1999, he was also honoured with a Laurence Olivier Award.

Listeners: John Goodwin

Head of Press at the National Theatre (1974-1988), and earlier at the RSC (1960-1974), John Goodwin is the author of a best-selling paperback, A short Guide to Shakespeare's Plays, and co-author of Trader Faulkner's one-man show, Losing My Marbles. He is also editor of the play, Sappho, based on Alphonse Daudet's novel, and editor of a number of successful books, among them, Peter Hall's Diaries, and, British Theatre Design - the modern age.

Tags: 1957, 1958, Sadler's Wells, The Moon and Sixpence, 1960s, Moses and Aaron, Covent Garden, Royal Opera House, The Magic Flute, Eugene Onegin, Tristan and Isolde, William Shakespeare, John Gardiner, Somerset Maugham, Maria Callas, Arnold Schoenberg, Georg Solti

Duration: 4 minutes, 23 seconds

Date story recorded: February 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008