September 15, 2010 / 12:20 AM / 7 years ago

Director McAnuff bridges romantic opera and Jersey pop

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Not everyone can walk from an opera house where he is directing Gounod’s “Faust” half a mile to the theater where his musical “Jersey Boys,” about the Four Seasons pop group, is in the third year of its London run.

In fact, the only person who fits this description is Des McAnuff, a one-man whirligig of energy and inspiration with not a finger but a fist in every pie from musicals to plays to film and, for a second time, the rarefied air of the opera house.

“I think that I do have a very confused career and if you’re kind you’d call it eclectic and if you’re unkind you might call it anarchic,” the 58-year-old McAnuff told Reuters at the Coliseum, home of the English National Opera.

McAnuff -- who also is artistic director of Canada’s not-for-profit Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario -- has been spending a lot of time with ENO pulling together the new production of Gounod’s 19th-century romantic masterpiece.

The production, about Faust’s pact with the devil (aka Mephistopheles) which allows the aging and suicidal doctor to re-live his youth and seduce the innocent (but jewel-bedazzled) Marguerite, opens on Sept 18th.

It is, to put it mildly, a much further stretch directing Faust and Jersey Boys than that short walk in the West End theater district suggests, but McAnuff is taking it in stride.

“It’s relatively new to me (opera), but I‘m comfortable that my skill set applies, as a storyteller and as a stager,” said McAnuff, whose only previous opera outing was directing Berg’s relentlessly bleak “Wozzeck” for the San Diego Opera in 2007.

Here’s what else he had to say about updating Faust to post-World War Two, which lets him make Faust a disenchanted physicist horrified by the atomic bomb, what it’s like being at the top of one’s game in many realms at once, and, given the opportunity, to deny he owns a yellow Lamborghini, races a yellow Lamborghini or owns any Lamborghini (he and his girlfriend drive Fords) -- though he is doing an opera about the late race-car driver Ayrton Senna da Silva.

Q: There’s an endless debate in opera between those who say modern directors take too many liberties and others who say updating old warhorses has saved them from oblivion. Where do you come down on this one?

A: “I have a healthy respect for tradition but I think people often confuse tradition with convention so they’re used to seeing something done a particular way...But we’ll never know how these productions, Gounod or Shakespeare, were really produced...it’s guess work. I’d hazard a guess we’d be horrified if we saw them. They wouldn’t speak to us because they are not of our time.”

Q: So you’ve made this Faust, originally set in 16th century Germany, “of our time” by bringing it into the nuclear age. How did you get there?

A: “Years ago I heard a story about a physicist visiting Nagasaki and deciding never to practice physics again and that had a very profound effect on me...so it seemed to me a very good framework. Having said that, it’s no more than that, it’s a window through which to view this story but the story is the story that comes from Goethe and that Gounod shows.”

Q: So traditionalists, as well as novelty seekers, will both be happy? Anything special in mind for that scene when the otherwise chaste, pure and angelic Marguerite goes gaga over the jewels Mephistopheles has set out to ensnare her?

A: “I‘m not going to give anything else away.”

Q: Fine, but you must be somewhat pleased with yourself, having come from a childhood in suburban Ontario, through 16 years as artistic director at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, to Broadway with “Big River,” “The Who’s Tommy” and “Jersey Boys” and now to direct an opera for the ENO that will go on to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

A: “You know, it feels great, I‘m very happy to be as busy as I am...it’s a privilege to get up in the morning and do what you love and to do what you believe in.”

Q: Including, as it says in several articles about you, racing a yellow Lamborghini sports car?

A: “That’s not true. I am doing an opera about Senna, but this is what happens in journalism these days...one journalist got that from another journalist, who shall remain nameless... I don’t have a yellow Lamborghini, I don’t have a Lamborghini and I don’t race them.”

Q: But the bit about Senna, who died in a crash in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, that’s true, right? And if so, why an opera about a race car driver?

A: “(There‘s) the historical scale that opera needs and we don’t have very many kings and queens so you have to find some sort of contemporary parallel. When you understand that, you can shoot for that kind of titanic emotional scale. And I think it goes in stages, things go in and out of fashion, and a lot of people are finding opera again at this moment....Also, I‘m always attracted to things when people take chances.”

(Des McAnuff’s production of Gounod’s Faust opens on Sept 18 and runs for nine performances www.eno.org)

Editing by Paul Casciato

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