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My experience with 'The Ring'


'A bit like having two ladies in your life'
Peter Hall Theatre director
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I've always loved Mozart right from boyhood and, I mean, the… the three Da Ponte operas: Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte and Marriage of Figaro are probably the peak of musical drama that you can think of. They are Shakespearean in the sense that you go on peeling them and finding new layers. I've done Figaro now about eight times, I suppose, all round the world and there was a time when… when the Don Giovanni that I did at Glyndebourne was on year after year after year. And one adjusted it slightly to new people and all the rest. I mean, what are the… what are the qualities? Well, extraordinary humanity, extraordinary ability to express wit and pain and atmosphere through music. I always say to singers, ‘You know, worry about the words certainly but remember that the words disguise what you're actually feeling often. What you're actually feeling you can hear in the orchestra. If the horns are braying, look out for being made a cuckold’. I mean that's a crude example. But the orchestration of Mozart is absolutely the nub of the matter and you have to know that and use it, and you have to persuade them not to act in… in any ordinary sense. It's a state of… one of the problems of operatic acting is that to sing operatically you make a centre of so much tension in the throat, I mean, really enormous, that it tenses the whole body round that point. And one of the reasons why tenors tend to be not very good actors is because that's the worst of their problems and they move around that tension point. They walk, and they… the people who can actually be completely relaxed in the body and yet have that tension going are quite rare, and, you know, one can help them and I do, or try to. But the… the essence of the Mozart opera is they… they have all the elegance, humour, poise of the enlightenment and underneath them, there is such moments of pain chromatically that really herald the whole of 19th century romantic music. I mean, they are absolutely astonishing pieces and you can… you know, my… my definition of paradise would be to do Shakespeare one month and Mozart the next, just go on directing it for eternity. That would be fine for me. And… what was wonderful about Glyndebourne was that… I mean, I like the new house very, very much, but the old house, shoebox though it was, peculiar acoustics though it had, was so intimate that it was possible to do there what it isn't easily possible to do in the new house or anywhere else because Mozart's ensembles are his great contribution to opera where five, six, seven people all address the audience directly saying the same words but meaning totally different things, so as a member of the audience, you cut from one singer to the other, yes? And each singer is saying, ‘I am the only one who's telling you the truth. You know me’. And there is a real communication, so you have six different views at once making a musical harmony and dramatic chaos. Now the problem is if you… if you're in the pursuit of musical harmony you just stand there and sing gently and discretely blending together, you lose the drama, so you need to overact the ensembles dramatically and... and yet make them disciplined vocally. Very hard, very exciting though. And no one has quite followed up. Verdi's has the beginnings, or shall we say the end of that tradition in the… in the great, big ensembles; Wagner really packs it in and, I suppose, opera houses are getting bigger so the communication of the one figure to the audience getting more and more difficult. It's… you can't do it in Covent Garden for instance. That's too big. But then you look at, you know, that wonderful opera house in Prague where Don Giovanni was done and it's so intimate, you think – candlelight, you could see the audience, the actors could see the audience, the audience could see the actors. And, you know, one of the great problems now of Figaro, Act IV, is it's set at night when no one can see who anybody is and they're all disguised. So originally Figaro comes on and says to the audience, ‘It's very dark’ and he says that in a candlelit theatre that's very light. So the audience say: ‘Oh yes, it's very dark. We'll imagine that’. They then can see who everybody is, although everybody is saying they can't see who anybody is. So you can do it with candles but because we can create darkness, if you create darkness the thing doesn't work at all because you don't know where anybody is. Very difficult. Wonderful though. I must say, when I'm doing opera, I… I feel privileged, you know, to… to live inside that kind of head, that kind of intelligence, that kind of creativity, but I yearn to go back to theatre and when I'm doing theatre – I yearn to go back to opera. It's a bit like having two ladies in your life. It's… it's very interesting the way it operates.

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: Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, Marriage of Figaro, Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, Royal Opera House, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner, Figaro

Duration: 6 minutes, 2 seconds

Date story recorded: February 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008