And for my next trick …
By Michael Billington © guardian.co.uk – Wednesday 16 March 2011
At 85, Peter Brook shows no sign of compromising his radical theatrical vision. Here, he tells Michael Billington why a Mozart masterpiece deserved a makeover.
In his youth Peter Brook was famed for his pyrotechnic dazzle. «He cooks,» wrote Kenneth Tynan in 1953, «with cream, blood and spices: bread-and-water addicts must look elsewhere.» But, at 85, Brook is a very different director. Since 1974, when he took over the artistic directorship of the Bouffes du Nord in Paris, his work has been characterised by its clarity, lightness and distilled elegance; and, even though he resigned from the Bouffes in 2008, a desire to cut through the dead wood of tradition still gives his work its distinctive signature.
His 90-minute production of Mozart’s A Magic Flute, which comes to the Barbican next week, is quintessential late Brook. Out go the opera’s pantomimic spectacle, big processions and trios of boys and ladies. Instead, we have a stage bare except for bamboo poles and minimal props and a young, nine-strong cast who deliver the work – sung in German with dialogue in French – crucially situated in front of Franck Krawczyk at the piano. As Brook wryly says: «If you come to this production looking for something that will slam you in the eyes, you’ve come to the wrong address.»
Meeting Brook for an early-morning appointment in his Bastille apartment in Paris – where he sits in his red dressing gown calmly sipping green tea – I am intrigued by the journey that has led him to A Magic Flute. In his early 20s, he quickly became disenchanted with the conservative ethos and restricted rehearsal conditions of the postwar Royal Opera House. When directing La Bohème, he complained that four of the singers hadn’t actually met until 20 minutes before curtain-up. More recently, he has returned to opera with La Tragédie de Carmen (a radically stripped-down version of Bizet’s spectacle), Impressions of Pelleas and a famous Don Giovanni at Aix-en-Provence. But why A Magic Flute now?
«Every choice I’ve ever made,» says Brook, «has been dictated by a formless hunch rather than by strict logic. With A Magic Flute I’ve always felt that there was a work of real quality that has been submerged through no fault of the composer. The librettist, Schikaneder, obviously wanted a big, fun popular show with plenty of scenic effects. But he and Mozart were both freemasons and, at a time when the movement was regarded by the Archduke as a potentially subversive political threat, sought to create an opera that is about spiritual trial and initiation. For Mozart, freemasonry represented his intuition that there was something finer and purer in life beyond the material and the everyday.»
A quest for the intangible
For Brook, that obviously coincides with his own quest for the intangible that has underlain recent work such as The Man Who, based on Oliver Sacks’s bestselling book, and 11 and 12, a meditative piece that used a story about tribal divisions in French colonial west Africa to argue for acknowledgement of human difference. In a world of high-concept opera productions, Brook also adopted an approach to Mozart that is almost revolutionary in its simplicity: to listen intently to what the music was telling him.
«Every time a director and designer confront this work,» says Brook, «they ask themselves, ‘How shall we do it?’ Some go down the baroque route. Others say, ‘Let’s do it with video.’ But the question is always, ‘What is it going to look like?’ There is another approach, however, which is starting with the ear rather than the eye. The singers also approach it differently. They’re not worried about how to control their voices to get over the orchestra.
«Take the moment when Tamino sings his very first aria to Pamina’s portrait. We take a shortcut to what is heavy and complicated in the opera by cutting out the Queen of the Night’s three women and by focusing on Tamino’s spiritual awakening. Conventionally, the singer feels ‘this is where I begin to sing a very famous aria’, and attacks it bang on. But here he begins the aria very quietly and there’s a breathless hush as the audience listens to what he is singing and realises the aria arises out of character and situation.»
But, if Brook is deeply attentive to the music, he also champions Schikaneder who, he points out, was no lightweight buffoon, but a shrewd Viennese actor-manager who had once played Hamlet.
«I have an unshakeable conviction,» says Brook, «that never in history has a guy written the tunes, and someone has come along and put the words to them. I once asked Richard Rodgers whether he had any tunes in his bottom draw waiting for a lyric. He told me that it was only when he heard the lyricist’s precise words, such as Oscar Hammerstein’s «O, what a beautiful mornin’», that the melodies emerged. And in Mozart, the music is drawn to the surface by the words.»
Like all first-rate directors, Brook believes in what Blake once called «the holiness of the minute particular». But his quest for what he calls «the essential form of the opera» takes time. He worked for three months with the singers and Krawczyk so that «the piano is never a mere accompaniment or reduction of the orchestra but like one of the instruments in a quartet.» Even the design is a product of trial and error. At one point, Brook leads me over to his work desk and shows me his early sketches for A Magic Flute, full of mounds and mini-pyramids, that were ultimately discarded. «I never, never consciously simplify,» says Brook, «but follow my hunches and allow time to play its part. Time is this merciless, corroding force, but you also know that, if you stay with it, it will take you towards the pure essence.»
For all Brook’s inner conviction, I sense a certain apprehension, possibly based on less than rave reviews for 11 and 12, that A Magic Flute may be considered out of step with the times. «I’ve always admired the British theatre,» he says, «for its incredible energy and vitality, but I also feel there’s a terror of silence and the power of the invisible, and Mozart’s whole life was based on that interplay.» But I don’t think Brook need worry: for those with ears to hear and eyes to see, A Magic Flute offers not a reduction of Mozart’s opera but a beautiful realisation of its inner core.
‘I never think about my legacy’
No living director has done more, both through his work and through his 1968 book The Empty Space, to change our perception of theatre than Peter Brook: to reinforce the centrality of the shared experience, to clear the stage of clutter and to realise the need for ecstasy. But, since Brook will be 86 by the time A Magic Flute reaches London, I wonder if he ever dwells on his artistic legacy.
«I never think about that,» he says, «which is why I’m delighted that two fresh faces have taken over from me at the Bouffes du Nord. The horror of someone trying to reproduce what I once did appals me. I was equally shocked the other day when a West End producer wrote to me out of the blue and asked if I could recreate my Stratford Midsummer Night’s Dream of 40 years ago. But what does touch me is when people come up to me in the street, as they sometimes do since they mistakenly think I’ve retired, and talk about some experience that has remained with them. That for me is the only real legacy: the idea that one has left a lingering trace in people’s memories. In the end, that’s all a director can hope to do.»
A Magic Flute
EC2, Starts 23 March – Until 27 March
Box office: 020–7638 8891