image © Sebastien Jourdan
July 07, 2019
Interview with director and designer, isabella bywater
Isabella Bywater is an award winning designer and director for Opera and Theatre. Her debut in 2013 as director/designer was Gounod’s Faust at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg. She has since directed and designed Lucia di Lammermoor for Den Jyske Opera, La Boheme for San Diego Opera, Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi for Den Norske Opera and Suor Angelica also for Den Norske Opera. Isabella has designed sets and costumes for over 50 productions both in the UK and internationally. As a designer she has collaborated with many directors, including Jonathan Miller, with whom she worked for over 17 years. She is also a sculptor and studied philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London.
How did you get into directing/designers, and particularly opera?
I became very interested in the theatre when I was 17 while studying A levels in Cambridge (with the intention of later becoming an Architect). I changed my plans and decided I wanted to design for the theatre. I began by apprenticing myself in various roles in the theatre as soon as I left school at 18. I thus worked as a cleaner, dresser, prop maker, scene painter and assistant designer before going on to study at Motley at around 21. There were several opera projects there and I enjoyed them more than the theatre ones though I have designed many plays over the years. Apart form the inspiration of working with music I liked ( and still do ) the symbolism and emotional quality of opera. Since around 1997 I have more or less concentrated on opera, and since 2014 I have been a director/designer.
What are the big differences for you in working across different genres, and do you have a favourite?
I love opera as the challenges are usually more interesting to me, since opera is intrinsically more unreal, and I find the musical interpretation of emotion exciting. But since becoming a director and I am also interested in plays. Particularly the classics.
(How) have you seen attitudes towards women change over the years during your career?
I am generally treated with more respect now I am older. It was sometimes tiring when I was young to deal with ‘good natured’ chauvinism. Crossing over into directing has made a huge difference and I am shocked at how invisible the ‘feminine’ and ‘supportive’ role of designer is in comparison. I am surprised at how little I noticed this before.
So many of the staple operas and repertoire are stories and music written by men. Have you directed/designed many operas created by women? Has this felt any different?
No. I haven't yet worked on any projects created by women. I would love to. I am sure it would be different.
Which female playwrights do you admire, and are there any of their plays that you think would adapt well to an opera?
I am sorry to say I hardly know any female playwrights or composers.
How do attitudes to women and parents compare across the arts (film, theatre, TV)?
I am not sure I know. I have worked so little in theatre recently though it used to be that you felt you had to hide your child if you wanted to be taken seriously!
Have you ever considered your gender to be relevant to the challenges of your job?
What do you think needs to be done in order to balance out the male to female director/designer ratio that we currently see in opera? What is already being done?
Everyone should employ more women in leadership roles. Some companies have a policy to look for more women directors. That seems a good idea. The climate is (very) slowly changing.
Do you think the theory that women are naturally less authoritative than men is a true? If so is this just nature, or is this something that is conditioned in us from early childhood?
I think it is nonsense and just cultural. Some men are not natural leaders, some are. Likewise for women, but for my generation certainly, if you wanted to be thought attractive ( by men) you would have to play down any leadership qualities. I think this is a main reason why there are so few women directors of my generation. This seems at last to be changing.
What do you think are the biggest barriers are for parents entering the profession, particularly for directors/designers?
Planning childcare, because the work is so irregular, and being able to afford child care, as we all make so little money, and never can be sure what the next year will bring in. I found it very stressful as did my daughter. Helpful grandparents can make a huge difference if you are lucky enough to have them. I wasn’t.
Have you had to accommodate the needs of parents in production, and how have you felt about this?
I did find it difficult when a parent brought her baby to production meetings and to the technical desk during tech week. I found it distracting partly because some at the meeting kept looking at and commenting on the baby and I wanted to concentrate on the show. However when my daughter was small she often came to fittings with me if I couldn't find/afford a sitter. So I am not in any position to criticise. However I would not take a child to a production meeting, though I might bring them to rehearsal or to visit the prop shop for example if I felt it would not distract others. That is partly because I love my job and imagine that children might love to see people working creatively, as I do.
In a business where there is always a plentiful supply of artists ready and willing, do you think changes should be made to make the industry more inclusive for artists with families and/or dependants?
Yes. It is for example, much better in Norway. There is a culture there of taking family life seriously and many people have time off to be able to be better parents without any stigma.
Which operatic heroines most interest you?
Mad ones. The way women are presented as mad by men throughout history is fascinating and terrifying.
Which women in the opera industry do you admire?
Which women? Plenty of fabulous singers, but women directors, so few... some wonderful women designers though, eg Bunny Christie, Vicky Mortimer, and sadly no longer with us, the fabulous Maria Bjornson.