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S&H Interview

Interview with Calixto Bieito by Martin Hoyle


‘It’s not about them shitting’, the director assures me. ‘Those 14 toilets aren’t about shit.’ A Masked Ball is about a lot of things – private anguish and public dignity, high society and low life, black comedy, clairvoyants, illicit love and assassination – but it hadn’t occurred to me that defecation loomed large in Verdi’s opera. Calixto Bieito explains about his new production. The curtain rises on the toilets in parliament. Needless to say, there’s a row of politicians doing what politicians are best at as they read their papers. Then one produces a gun…The ‘dirty space’ symbolises the assassination plot; it’s part of Verdi’s own dark humour; and, Bieito sums up proudly, the touch ‘belongs to the surrealism of my country’. He speaks lovingly of Buñuel.

Bieito’s stage work is full of film references, as those who clamed down enough to think coherently about Don Giovanni will testify. His production of Mozart’s dramma giocoso, or aptly named comic drama, was very black indeed, reducing most of the press to apoplexy at ENO last summer. There were constant references to Tarantino: bloody, brutal and sexy, with an added dash of Ibiza man and Essex woman as we followed the long night of bonking, boozing and bloodshed, complete with orgasmic Donna Anna whooping out the climax of her Act Two aria as Don Ottavio screwed her on a bar stool.

Bieito remains serenely unconcerned about the critical fury. ‘It was a very happy rehearsal period,’ he recalls. ‘I was a little sad at the opening because some people shouted….’ Baying disapproval was countered by cheers in one of the noisiest first night receptions I can remember. ‘I felt at ease with the piece. I thought it should be a melancholy production, the portrait of a society’. I remember the brilliant touch of the Don singing his serenade down a mobile phone, fading into emotional emptiness that erupts into rage as he sweeps the bottles and glasses off the bar: already in hell? Bieito’s production has been a huge success in Germany, where the critics loved it. Even in London, post first-night audiences ‘reconnected’, as Bieito puts it, being more open minded than those journos who would rather sit at home listening to CDs than be distracted by the stage business.

A Masked Ball comes with its own problems. Based on the historical assassination of a King of Sweden, the libretto was disallowed by the censors of Verdi’s day. The action was transplanted, ludicrously to modern ears, to colonial America, where the hero became Riccardo, Count of Warwick, governor of Boston. In modern times Stockholm’s Royal Opera reclaimed its history by restoring the Swedish setting but giving the tenor the homosexuality of the historical original – not too appropriate for the stridingly hetero love music that Verdi gives his main couple. For some decades, A Masked Ball has been a playground for directors experimenting with time and place, emotions and politics.

‘For Verdi context wasn’t important’ says Bieito impatiently. ‘He’s talking about Italy, his country; he was a musician and a politician.’ The production has reverted to the characters’ Swedish names ‘but the inspiration is in Spain – the ‘transition’ period after Franco’s death. It was a moment like Verdi’s Italy, a moment of chaos, fear and insecurity. I remember I was a child. We had a week’s mourning off school (we celebrated!). But we asked: ’’Now that Franco’s not here, what will happen?"

‘That was the reference for me and my team. Gustavus is obviously not the King of Spain , but the title’s A Masked Ball not ‘’Gustavus and Amelia’’. We want to show what’s behind the mask before that climactic ball…Gustavus is king but a human being, a victim completely lost. He’s vain, he wants to be a king people love, but wonders; Do I love this woman? This man? The original Gustavus was ambiguous.’ Bieito dismisses other directors’ gay interpretations (attractions towards the sprightly page-boy or the best friend whose wife, in fact Gustavus loves) as ‘too easy’.

The production merges the emotional with the political, reflecting Gustavus’s mixture of steadfast friend, playboy and autocratic king, slumming it in disguise, all conveyed by one of Verdi’s most varied and colourful scores. ‘To Offenbach-like music, he goes off to play – to escape!- in the most horrible place, the ‘’orrido campo’’’- the eerie gallows hills. ‘I didn’t want to express this horrible space through the set, more with theatrical energy.’ We reach it after the soothsayer’s hovel, here like ‘ a Fassbinder or Fellini cabaret, a mixture of witchery and brothel. A pimp flirts with the disguised king and lifts his wallet. In the next scene - the orrido campo - three policemen rape and kill him. But his friend can then hand the king back his wallet…I see the place like the stadium in Santiago after Pinochet’s coup in Chile. Or like the killing of Lorca in Spain: the story is they put a gun up his arse. I didn’t want to use the set – bodies hanging up and so on – to make the audience feel the horror of the place. When his friend proudly hands the wallet back to the king, the king feels how horrible it is to be in that position.’

The Anglo-Danish-Spanish co-production has already been seen in Copenhagen and Barcelona, and was generally favourably received. ‘Some thought it provocative. But it’s about power – very important for Verdi’. And for young Spaniards, with dictatorship a real memory just as the Civil war casts a shadow over a previous generation. ‘I know Franco destroyed culture in my country. We had a fantastic tradition of writing and theatre.’ He’s philosophical both about history (‘Every country has its black periods’) and current problems of identity. Unlike many Catalans, he’s not a nationalist. ‘I’m conscious of myself as Spanish but culturally Catalan. I think nationalism’s an old fashioned movement. I believe in different identities, cultures, languages. My culture is Catalan and Jesuit. My God!’ He laughs incredulously.

His culture also takes in both opera and straight theatre, particularly Shakespeare; he’s just emerged from a love affair with Macbeth as obsessional as with Don Giovanni. ‘But now that I’m doing more opera, it’s very hard to go back to the theatre. Opera goes straight to the stomach.’

He’s delighted to discover, as many straight theatre directors have before him, that even the biggest opera stars love to try new things on stage. ‘The new generation of singers want to act well, they’re very, very open. My God, the Giovanni and Ball casts are so open!’ Er – hence the 14 toilets? He laughs. ‘As Buñuel said, you can do anything you like except be boring.’

© Martin Hoyle & Time Out Ltd, February 2002.

Verdi’s The Masked Ball opens at ENO on 21st February 2002. Visit

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