March 22, 2018
Interview with director, poppy burton-morgan
How did you get into directing, and particularly opera?
I started directing shows at University and had a long standing love of musical theatre. Then in my final year someone asked me to direct an opera and I thought why not - it can’t be that different to directing a musical. At this stage I knew absolutely nothing about opera or the repertoire, literally nothing. Then I was lucky enough to meet Phyllida Lloyd who came to give a lecture on the difference between directing opera and theatre and in my enthusiastic 21 year old way I bounded up to her, after the lecture, to ask for advice. She gave me (and continues to give me) brilliant and wise advice and crucially facilitated an introduction with Opera North. Then when I graduated the next year I had my first professional opera experience there assisting on their Madame Butterfly. And the rest is history.
What are the big differences for you in working across different genres, and do you have a favourite?
I work across a huge range of genres - opera, theatre, circus, hip hop theatre, puppetry, musical theatre - and my main artistic endeavour as a creator is about exploring the fusion of art forms so I increasingly don’t distinguish between genres. At the end of the day it’s all storytelling. That said I do adore opera because it is already intrinsically interdisciplinary and you have so many forms with which to tell the story (music, movement, text... and increasingly circus and puppetry too!)
How have you seen attitudes towards women change over the years during your career?
When I began my career in opera 12 years ago it felt like there were only a handful of female directors working at the top level (Phyllida being one of them), which did make it feel like there was a bit of a mountain to climb. I’d like to think that over the last decade that has changed, but actually I’m not so sure... Certainly there are an equal number of female directors at my career stage, but when I look at the Artistic Directors of the opera houses, and the large touring companies, and even the big names in freelance opera directing it seems the sector is still nowhere near gender parity, and I think probably still significantly worse than the theatre sector.
So many of the staple operas in repertoire are stories and music written by men. Have you directed many operas created by women? Has this felt any different?
I am a librettist as well as a director and my most recent opera Roles (which premiered at the V&A in March 2018 as the culmination of a six month opera artist in residency programme) addressed this explicitly. It was written for an all-female ensemble of 5 singers and cellist and it reimagines five canonical operatic roles through a contemporary feminist lens. Certainly in terms of the representation of women that felt very different to anything else I’ve worked on. But equally I remember directing Cosi fan tutte in 2015 for Oxford Philomusica and everyone said - ooh that’s a problematic misogynist piece, what will you do with it? But Mozart was hugely progressive in his views on women, and it was incredibly straightforward to interpret that piece through a more feminist lens. So that’s really on us as directors to make sure that we’re re-telling these stories in a way that resonates with our own times.
Which female playwrights do you admire, and are there any of their plays that you think would adapt well to an opera?
Caryl Churchill is extraordinary - and in fact her iconic Top Girls was part of the inspiration for our piece Roles, which ends with an imaginary dinner party between Salome, Susanna, Ottavia, Bess and Katerina - dismantling the patriarchy over red wine and macaroons. I’d love to turn some of Angela Carter’s novels and short stories into operas, and Jeanette Winterson.
What do you think are the biggest barriers are for parents entering the profession, particularly for directors?
I have two small children and I chose to have them at a point in my career where I was not so busy as to be unable to see them. But busy enough that I was making a living from it. However, that career was predicated on at least five years of working on much smaller scale fringe productions (subsidising my lifestyle with my well paid opera assisting), none of which would have been possible if I’d had children earlier. The culture of unpaid fringe directing, or unpaid assisting is really problematic if you’re a parent already and just starting out. Even now directing some decently paid gigs - my childcare costs are often equal to or more than my fee so I’m coming out on zero at the end of it.
Have you had to accommodate the needs of parents in production, and how have you felt about this?
I have accommodated my own needs! The great thing about running your own company as I do (www.mettatheatre.co.uk) is that you have control over the programming so you can schedule around things like school hours, or make work in a more iterative process, which is also very helpful on new work as well as allowing you pockets of time in which to see your children. In truth when I’m working with a cast member who is a parent I do schedule their calls differently to everyone else, to be as efficient as possible with the time that they are called. Also we welcome babies on tour, and do whatever we can to help facilitate people touring with their families. Just like any kind of additional need it just requires a little more thought, effort and sensitivity. But that’s a choice that any producer or director can choose to make.
Which women in the opera industry do you admire?
Phyllida Lloyd continues to be an inspiration - both personally as a mentor, but also as an artist who works so successfully across a whole range of disciplines and art forms with complete integrity and brilliance. Also my peers Laura Bowler of Size Zero Opera, Robin Norton Hale of Opera Up Close and Daisy Evans of Silent Opera - all brilliant female opera makers whose work and companies are changing the face of contemporary opera. Give us another decade and the four of us will be running all the big houses - then you’ll really start to see some changes...
image © Cathy Pyle