Opera director Max Hoehn, a recipient of the Artists' International Development Fund, explains why he loves opera, and what it has been like to turn an old warehouse in Lisbon into an opera house.
How did you get into opera?
When I was aged five or six, the BBC made a series of 30-minute animated operas. There was a very dark, bloody version of Verdi's Rigoletto with puppets that mesmerised me with rich, gothic colours, lots of fake blood, and amazing father-daughter duets. I was fascinated by how the combination of imagery and music created an intense form of story-telling.
Is opera still seen as high-brow and exclusive?
It still is to a large extent in the UK. But smaller-scale, flexible performances in site-specific venues are fighting that perception.
In many countries, music education is marginalised, so people don’t have early exposure to opera. In other countries, the situation is different.
Seat prices can be much cheaper than tickets to a football match or a pop concert. Next week, I’m seeing Verdi's Otello from the Royal Opera House in a Lisbon cinema for 12 euros. Most importantly, there’s nothing ‘exclusive’ about the music itself. At its best, opera’s power is undeniable, whatever your musical tastes might be.
What is the best way to get young people interested in opera?
You need a ‘eureka’ moment where a great voice grabs your attention, or to be lucky enough to attend a great performance. Listen to recordings of the great opera singer Maria Callas, or hear the American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing Handel’s Theodora on YouTube. Or start with any of Mozart's operas.
How do you work with performers?
I do a lot of listening. I try to feed the imagination of the singer I’m working with, so that everyone on stage lives and breathes the music.
What happens in your upcoming production?
I decided to direct three short operas, centred around the raw, expressive power of the operatic voice. All three are a cappella operas, which means singers tell the story without any orchestral accompaniment. It’s a unique, virtuosic exercise that is fascinating to listen to and watch.
What was difficult about putting on this production?
Very little funding is available in Portugal for the arts. We had to make the most of our contacts and find a raw, minimalist story-telling style. There's no complicated stage machinery or expensive set.
Because there is no orchestra in the background, the singers are very exposed, so they really need to concentrate and be at the top of their game. Our soprano Inês Simões sings in all three pieces, including one where she must inhabit nine different roles. She has to show immense stamina and dramatic skill.
What is the venue like?
We perform in the LX Factory, a complex of studios, restaurants and start-ups in the old industrial neighbourhood of Alcântara in central Lisbon. The venue’s crown jewel is a beautiful blue warehouse interior with high ceilings.
Isn't opera usually performed in a grand opera house?
Actually, in the UK, it's common now to perform opera in abandoned spaces, department stores, pubs or galleries, and companies like the Birmingham Opera Company have made it their speciality.
But in Portugal, there have been fewer attempts to present opera and classical music within non-theatrical, unconventional contexts.
What happens in the operas?
The three operas that I am directing are The Waiter’s Revenge (1976), King Harald’s Saga (1979) and Hummus (2014). Each one lasts just 20 minutes.
Stephen Oliver’s The Waiter’s Revenge is action-packed, set in the comic anarchy of a restaurant. There are no words, just moans, roars, squeaks and growls.
In King Harald’s Saga, the composer Judith Weir uses a single soprano voice to dramatise a disastrous historic invasion of England by a deluded dictator.
Finally, in Hummus, the Lebanese composer Zad Moultaka creates a disorientating sound-world filled with fragments of memory from the Lebanese Civil War.
These pieces are an immense intellectual challenge for the cast of seven British and Portuguese singers, but I wanted the result to feel accessible. The effort and technique needs to be hidden within the content of the piece itself.
Max Hoehn won the UK’s first competition for opera directors, the Independent Opera Director Fellowship, and is a recipient of the Artists' International Development Fund.
Applications for the Artists' International Development Fund reopen in September.