James Conway on ‘three really good nights out’

As the stage is set for English Touring Opera’s trio of productions next week – Rossini’s Elizabeth I, Verdi’s Macbeth and Mozart’s Idomeneo – we catch up with James Conway, director general of ETO, to find out how a regal theme runs through all three productions. James Conway is directing both Idomeneo and Elizabeth, while Macbeth is directed by James Dacre.

Firstly James, why did you decide to focus on royalty for this year’s season?

I just decided on three really strong operas that we could do well in our repertory (i.e. making and touring several shows at the same time) system. I know that many operas focus on kings and queens, because they are interested in leadership, like very many classical Greek plays. Opera actually comes out of an attempt to recreate the Classical Greek drama – to deal with the important issues of the day in the form of stories told in music about leaders in crisis, often with erotic complications.

English Touring Opera’s Elizabeth 1st, on stage on Thursday 25 April at 7.30pm.

You have directed two of the three productions coming to Norwich this year. Elizabeth I has some interesting parallels about public and private life of Royalty, and indeed celebrities now, doesn’t it?

Elizabetta tells part of the story of Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors. It is based on a romantic novel of the 18th century, written by a very resourceful daughter of an impecunious, unreliable (and famous) actor. There are some interesting parallels in our own time, in which the public and private lives are in conflict. But it is sad for Elizabeth (who is obviously a paranoid and violent woman, and this much is historical) that just when her own love interest is approved by the people, who actually prefer the Earl of Leicester to her, she finds that he has got himself married to the child of her arch rival/ nemesis, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland. Very Game of Thrones! Also interesting is the role of the Duke of Norfolk, a member of the illustrious Howard family and a Roman Catholic; he is presented as a real villain, though in real life he was a kind of victim. Norfolk’s part should be of interest to Norfolk people – it is so well written that there are hints of the historical character, and he emerges as the most complex person in the opera. It is a feat of an opera, with clashes of titans!

English Touring Opera’s Idomeneo, on stage on Saturday 27 April at 7.30pm.

Meanwhile Idomeneo looks at a really tough dilemma for the King. Tell us a bit more about this opera.

Idomeneo presents really tough moral dilemmas, in the most beautiful music of the season (in my view). Mozart finally got the chance to write the opera he wanted to write, for the very best orchestra and singers in Europe. For me, Idomeneo is the personification of the post war general, coming home after a war of dubious morality and little gain, trying to find his place in a new world. It is a big chorus opera – the chorus comment on everything, and they have an exciting dynamic of their own, inasmuch as they are composed of unwelcome refugees from Troy and Cretans who are suffering major shortages after the war. And there is another brilliant character who is the very personification of war – Elettra. She is rooted in a traumatic past, longing to find love and move forward, but unable to do so. It is the most astonishing, inspiring opera… I really think it makes you a better human being to experience it!

Macbeth speaks for itself but James Dacre is taking on directing duties for this. Tell us a bit more about this.

James Dacre has directed a swashbuckling Macbeth. There are no swords or kilts, but there is plenty of conflict and mystery. It’s such an unusual opera – after Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who are distilling evil, the biggest character is the group of witches. Who is manipulating who? I was longing to direct the opera myself – it is such a fast moving, blood curdling adventure – but I have enjoyed James Dacre’s work in the theatre, and I knew that he had a real appreciation of the Shakespeare play, so I was happy to hand over to him, and enjoy the results.

English Touring Opera’s Macbeth, on stage on Friday 26 April at 7.30pm.

Finally if people are new to opera and are not sure whether this season would be for them, what is your message?

You don’t need credentials to come to the opera. Last night I met a 14-year-old girl and her grandmother at a performance of ours in Sheffield, and was thrilled to hear how much it meant to each of them. Opera is about feeling – thinking, too, but feeling in the first place. For me, Idomeneo is the most sincere, important and clear of operas, about what we must do with our lives and how to love. I have not met one person who was not been moved by it in our staging, which is simple (the hardest thing!) and colourful and deeply felt. Other people have been very excited by the familiar, strong drama and big singing in Macbeth, and others have been fascinated by the ‘bel canto’ style of Elizabeth. You will be amazed that the human voice can do what Rossini writes, especially in the big duets and trios. I’d say there is something there for everyone – and that we can guarantee three really good nights out.