May 19, 2018
Interview with director, Orpha Phelan
Orpha Phelan has directed opera nationally and internationally for the last fifteen years. A favourite with Scandinavian audiences, Orpha has recently made her debut in Denmark with the Royal Danish Opera with her new production of Powder Her Face.
Have you ever considered your gender to be relevant to the challenges of your job?
I don’t presume I’m always right, or that singers will always want to do exactly what I want - I usually expect I’ll have to adapt my expectations significantly. I am happy to try out different options with my cast and find solutions together. I’ve been told this is a trait of female directors; in any case that is certainly how I like to work.
I found being the only woman involved in my production of Billy Budd at Opera North to be rather helpful. Having the only feminine voice in the room meant that I was really listened to! Seriously though, I’m not sure that my gender has so much to do with my strengths or weaknesses. I just am who I am - good at some things and not so good at others.
Do you think the theory that women are naturally less authoritative than men is true? If so, is this just nature, or is this something that is conditioned in us from early childhood?
I have two little boys. From the moment they were born they ticked in a different way to baby girls. Now they are 7 and 5, and they climb on or swing from any piece of furniture they can find, while their little girl friends gravitate towards arts and crafts. I can only put this difference down to their nature, as being boisterous is not something I have particularly encouraged. I’m sceptical as to whether this will lead to my boys having greater authority when they are older… I think gentle and calm people, male or female, have the greatest authority. Maybe that’s something that my children will eventually learn. Maybe not.
Have you had to accommodate the needs of parents in production, and how have you felt about this?
It’s really difficult when juggling various people’s NAs (non availabilities) to take into account parenting requests also. I really do try where possible to make sure that singers are free for family appointments or special occasions but it’s often just not feasible. I’ve had children sit in on rehearsals from time to time - not ideal in the rehearsal room but if we’re on stage it’s a really nice way for children to see what their parents are doing, and this in turn makes parents happy and so makes the production better - so it’s win win all round.
How did becoming a parent change or affect your job?
My job used to be the most significant thing in my life, but this is no longer the case. This means I am a little more detached now - I like to think I have a healthy perspective - which in turn makes me a better director. I think I have a little more empathy and a bit more understanding now too. I also need to be very well organised and careful about how I spend my time - so I’m less tolerant of time wasters... As a parent I’m constantly multi tasking and I think this skill helps me in rehearsals. But most importantly - my children push boundaries and my patience to its limit, so working with a boisterous chorus or a difficult singer is often a walk in the park by comparison!
Is directing a parent-friendly career?
I think so! My children get to travel to really wonderful places, see great performances, meet all sorts of talented people and play with props and costumes. I get to organise the schedule to some extent, so I try not to work weekends - which cast members usually appreciate too.
(How) has your attitude to artists with families changed since you have become a parent?
I understand more fully that it’s important to make it possible for parents to be artists. So I try to facilitate the needs of parents if I can. I know what it means to have sleepless nights and constant worries so I’m probably a bit more sympathetic. But I also need to get the show on the road so I have to always remember the big picture.
Which woman in the opera industry do you most admire?
Christine Chibnall has brought up her own children while leading Opera North for years. She has had sage advice for me on both professional and personal matters. I really admire her ability to give people (me included) space to make their own mistakes and create their own successes and I think she is genuinely kind. She also has a great sense of perspective.
What advice would you offer to anyone working in the opera industry who is about to become a parent?
It’s absolutely doable. But you must sort out good childcare! It doesn’t have to be expensive, but you have to feel confident that you are leaving your children in good and loving hands or you won’t be able to do your job properly.