Friday 18 October 2019

'It's an opera with a lot of baggage' - Irish opera director Caroline Staunton on tackling Mozart's difficult 'The Magic Flute'

Caroline Staunton tells Hilary A White about reworking the themes of Mozart's famously difficult 'The Magic Flute' and her powerful addiction to the genre

Musical journey: Dublin-born, Berlin-based Caroline Staunton. Photo by Gerry Mooney
Musical journey: Dublin-born, Berlin-based Caroline Staunton. Photo by Gerry Mooney

Hilary A White

"I have two things I tell myself," Caroline Staunton beams. "Honesty is the best policy. And the other is to trust Mozart because it's all there."

The Dublin-born, Berlin-based opera director has been listing off why The Magic Flute is among the most daunting of productions to take on. I'm starting to think she may be the bravest person I've met in a long time.

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"It's famously difficult to get right," she continues happily. "It's grammatically chaotic, the stop-start element in the text is problematic, and even if you're a fluent German speaker, the construction is particular to its time. Casting is also extremely difficult because of the vocal range needed. Mozart arias always sound glorious but almost none of them are easy to sing, mostly because he had such a sophisticated musical ear. The singer has to keep thinking and working through an aria, it's never just 'listen to me sing'."

That's just the technical side, she explains. If she was going to accept Irish National Opera's invitation to travel back to her homeland and put on a nationwide touring production of Mozart's convoluted and best-known work, what would she bring to the table? What could she imbue the work with that would not only be relevant to an Irish audience notoriously sheepish when it comes to opera, but would also inspire her through the tireless graft that goes into to such an undertaking.

"It comes with so much baggage," she adds. "It's often people's first opera. It's the one everyone's heard of and most people have positive experiences of it. And because it pulls in the first-timers, you don't want to isolate them by having too lofty and intellectual a narrative. At the same time, you have to offer something new to those who have seen it 10 times."

It's nice to see that, a week out from the opening night at Wexford's National Opera House, Staunton finds it all so hilarious to consider. Speaking to her on a cool, sun-dappled evening outside her rehearsal space in leafy Dublin 6, you start to see that she has got where she is by throwing caution to the wind.

Growing up in Dundrum, music and performance were in the air. Her father was a respected showband drummer ("I was always aware how good he was"), while her maternal grandfather was constantly holed up in his study listening to recordings of sopranos.

It was while studying English and Philosophy at UCD that she signed up to Dramsoc, a society that has helped germinate many careers in performance arts. What Staunton quickly discovered was that auditioning and performing were not necessarily where her talents or desires lay. "I did eventually end up doing a bit of performing," she laughs, "but only because everyone ends up doing everything in Dramsoc."

When she applied to direct a play and was accepted, she found that a bug had been acquired. She went on to direct several more productions, finding herself increasingly in thrall to "that wonderful alchemy of having a text and reading it in order to hear a voice".

"I'm also a bit of a nerd," she admits, laughing. "I love doing lots of research about accents, backgrounds, performance history, etc."

Following a Masters in Drama Studies, she arrived at the position of wanting to be a full-time director but was "not incredibly good at knocking on doors". After putting on a couple of productions at the Dublin Fringe Festival (The Marowitz Hamlet, Bulgakov's Black Snow), Staunton opted for the safety net of teacher training, and once she'd secured the H-Dip, taught in Gonzaga for eight years.

"The idea being I'd be finished at half three, have my summers off, leaving me so much time for theatre," she laughs. "After two weeks, I realised it meant marking essays until midnight."

While teaching, her pulse remained firmly on what was going on in theatre across Europe. In the process of constantly looking for a way to break into the world of big-league direction, she noticed that most of the directors she was interested in were also doing opera. Inevitably, she began watching more and more of this artform. A powerful addiction set in.

"As much as I love theatre," she says, "and I love it with every fibre of my being, when you get that evening in the opera when the direction is there and all of the performers are on 110pc and the orchestra is off the chart and the piece is that good... I've had evenings in the opera that it's taken me three days to recover from. I've seen works that have had me still in tears flying home the next day. And just knowing that I'll never get that out of my system… I've never had quite that level of explosive, all-encompassing majesty that left me a quivering wreck, as well as a phoenix, from theatre. It's incredible stuff. So I thought, 'I gotta get me more of that! How do I make that my job?'" In 2010, Staunton had what she modestly calls "a stroke of luck" but was in fact an example of good old moxie.

She cold emailed one of her favourite directors, saying she was a massive fan and asking if she could do an internship. She ended up going to Salzburg to work on a production during her summer break from teaching. When it finished, she was asked to return the following summer for a paid position. Both stints, she says, were invaluable in teaching her about the industry, the language, the repertoire. What's more, it culminated in her landing a position as assistant director in Theater Freiburg for two years.

"I'd given my life a deadline," she says of why she feels she stood out from the other much younger interns. "I was more mature with a proper intellectual purpose and a proper goal. I was more focused and competent."

You hear about people like Staunton every so often, those who are so passionate and single-minded about what they love that success seems the only logical avenue in front of them. Listening to her gush about the symbolism of The Magic Flute, the thrill of being able to remould something so canonical and cherished, you can't help but buy in to what she is building. When I ask her about opera taking over people's lives to their possible ruin, she shrugs in agreement, openly admitting that being single is perhaps a symptom of being "so in love with it I don't have room in my life to begin thinking about what it would be like to share it with someone you love".

Mozart's final opera (before his death in 1791 at age 35) is a bit unusual, she tells me. It saw him break away from his usual recitative (sung text accompanied by piano) style and return to "singspiel" (a mix of sung text and spoken text). But while its tale of a lost prince being sent off to rescue the daughter of the Queen of the Night from a mysterious temple has fascinating characterisation, Staunton says some themes had to be reworked.

"I've been true to the material in terms of representing its emotional power and honesty but I can't uphold the values that downgrade women because they are simply women. What I've tried to do as well is take the fairytale aspect and introduce an Irish mythological world, this Irish lost youth who claims he is a prince but isn't a prince, that once he enters this temple he is confronted with values that aren't enough to find himself, that his head gets turned by these values and goes further than he otherwise would. In an Irish historical context I felt there should be this notion of the British country house and someone who isn't native who arrives with their own sense of values and imposes them all around him through masculinity and weapons and cultural appropriation.

"I wanted to say something to the man in the street who thinks it has nothing to say to him, that it's sung in a foreign language, that it's not my story, it's not my culture, it's not my art form etc - and I'm saying it actually is. These stories are universal."

Irish National Opera's production of Mozart's 'The Magic Flute' is at Limerick University Concert Hall (tomorrow) before coming to Dublin's Gaiety Theatre (May 21-25). For tickets, see

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