You could say that Julien Chavaz became an opera director by epiphany. He was born into a musical family in Switzerland, and had an unusual relationship with opera as a child. His parents bought pairs of opera tickets, and when one of them couldn’t go he got to use the spare ticket. It gave him an extended exposure to adult opera, the language of which, he says, he absorbed as if it were his mother tongue. Nobody explained anything to him. He just made his own way in understanding it.
But he had no expectation that the arts held any future for him, so the career he chose was engineering, which he studied in Zurich. But he did get involved in small theatre productions on the side. “Then,” he says, “at the age of 25, a pianist who has since become a conductor, proposed that we would do an opera, a small work by Offenbach. I accepted the challenge without really thinking about what I was putting my foot into. On the night of the premiere of that quite small-scale show, I realised that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
He gave up engineering, became “a stage director’s assistant”, and put all his eggs in one basket, to focus on “this magical appeal”. He studied dramaturgy, but he believes his real education in opera was travelling the world being an assistant director, “a life-changing experience”, he says.
‘Nobody will ever call you and say, Oh, you’ve been assistant of Robert Carsen, Laurent Pelly, and Barrie Kosky. Do you want to stage La bohème in Wexford? Nobody will do that.
It’s not an automatic move from being an assistant to being a director. He explains. “Nobody will ever call you and say, ‘Oh, you’ve been assistant of Robert Carsen, Laurent Pelly, and Barrie Kosky. Do you want to stage La bohème in Wexford?’ Nobody will do that. You have to produce small-scale works, and this is the only gateway.” On the other hand, there are people “who love the industry, who love being a revival director, so they get to have the responsibility of guiding a whole production when they are doing a revival in Madrid or in Berlin, but do not feel like they have a story to tell, who do not feel like they want to sign the aesthetic responsibility for a show.”
And, he points out, there are usually no auditions for directors. “It’s like being a film director. You have to produce things to then be able to produce more things.” It’s a difficult profession to enter. “Once you’ve entered it you almost feel guilty. You never feel, ‘Yes! Now I’m on the other side of the door!’”
Switzerland, he feels, is a good place to start a career. “The country has strong institutions, strong opera houses, strong theatres. And also a strong freelance segment, with good support. You can create your own small-scale companies in Switzerland. There are mechanisms of support to make sure that people of a young age can produce artistic content without having to work at an institutional level.”
Chavaz is here in Ireland because of a Swiss connection. He’s directing the first Irish production since 1877 of Rossini’s William Tell, an opera by an Italian about a Swiss myth as turned into a play by a German (Friedrich Schiller). The opera was conceived for the lavish theatrical resources of the Paris Opéra in 1829. Curiously, the first Irish performance, in French, was in 1875 (strictly speaking that’s Guillaume Tell), the second, in Italian (Guglielmo Tell), just two years later. Since then it’s been a desert.
Do Swiss people feel any special connection with the work because of the subject matter? “I don’t think so, no,” he says. “They would be much more educated about what is behind the legend of William Tell. But I don’t think Swiss people have a higher bond to the opera because it’s about a Swiss legend.”
Daunting and entrancing
His personal gateway to William Tell is, firstly, Rossini. “Rossini and me, we get along very well. I always feel very connected with Mr Rossini, because of his ability to tell a story while still having the possibility of commenting on what’s going on and being ironic about himself. There’s a strength that you don’t find in the works of Puccini but you find very strongly in Rossini. You say something and then, in the next second, you comment on the thing you’ve just said.”
Secondly, he finds the music both daunting and entrancing. “I love also how he transforms the singers into instruments of the orchestra. Suddenly you can have a percussion band onstage, or singers become a brass band or become strings. It’s brilliant! There’s a mastery that Rossini brought to a level you don’t find elsewhere.”
He also points to “the universality of the story,” which works through idealisation. “The Swiss people,” he says, “are all perfect. They live in happy families. They have a beautiful relationship with nature. The are unspoilt, innocent. They love each other. It’s too good to be true.” He says he relates to the ideological idealisation. “That is something I like to tell. When a story goes into the domain of dreams and mythology, that’s something I always feel very attracted to.”
‘As an opera director, one of the things that keeps me alive, and which makes my heart beat strongly, is to direct the chorus. Many directors do not like it, or are fearful of it’
The third attraction is the chorus. “As an opera director, one of the things that keeps me alive, and which makes my heart beat strongly, is to direct the chorus. Many directors do not like it, or are fearful of it. But I have a very strong bond with the chorus. And in William Tell the chorus is almost the principal character. They are always on stage. They are great. They create great music. For me, this is a dream opera also because of that very strong element.”
Historically, William Tell has not been that widely produced. And Chavaz himself has only seen it once, in Damiano Michieletto’s “very good” production in London. “It’s strange, because it has been produced in the domain of the grand opera — he pronounces the description in French — where the goal was to demonstrate everything that a theatre could produce. If it were today it would involve the revolving stage, videos on all sides, crazy things happening on stage and falling from the ceiling with a hundred people in the chorus on the stage.”
He sees that urge as “something beautiful that humanity needs to demonstrate about the power of art. But also you have to transform that, and to make it work even though you’re not going to present it in this highly demonstrative way.”
His view is that ‘it’s so beautifully parcelled up that even though it is long, it’s not lengthy’
It’s a challenge which he found “a bit scary,” but he feels it’s important that the work not only be seen on big stages. “Actually I think a version for Irish National Opera that is done in a more reasonable way is a version that totally reads. Because then you put more focus on the story, on the characters, on the relationships, and you try to be less demonstrative about a scenic object.”
Chavaz doesn’t worry about the work’s great length, even though, because he likes to work in such detail with the singers, “there are a lot of notes to stage”. His view is that “it’s so beautifully parcelled up that even though it is long, it’s not lengthy. While of course we’ve edited it a bit — you have to edit William Tell, you just can’t do it in the way it was conceived for the very different circumstances of nearly 200 years ago. We’ve made it shorter, more compact. It’s not lengthy, because Rossini is such a master of rhythm. He’s so good at putting you in a more dreamy, spacey, ‘sombre forêt’, beautiful aria feel for nearly 12 minutes, to leave you are almost crying. And then after that there are crazy choristers coming on stage ready to fight.”
He seems genuinely bemused that in an operatically under-resourced country with a population of around five million, an Irish production of William Tell is likely to be, literally, a once in a lifetime experience.
Irish National Opera’s production of William Tell is at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, on Tuesday, November 8th, Wednesday 9th, Friday 11th, Saturday 12th (all with 7pm starts) and Sunday 13th (4pm start). The opera is double cast, with the title role shared between Brett Polegato and Gyula Nagy. For more information and to book tickets, see the Irish National Opera website.