Janet Suzman takes on Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro for opera debut

Dame Janet Suzman

Dame Janet Suzman - Credit: Archant

The Hampstead actress is nervous about directing her first opera when she can’t read a note, she tells Michael White.

“This is one hell of a new thing for me”, said Janet Suzman when we met for breakfast last week, “but it scares me so much I’m enjoying it”. And what she was enjoying – apart from the not obviously scary scrambled eggs in a Hampstead café close to where she lives – was the experience of directing an opera for the first time: a production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro that opens at the Hackney Empire this month.

One of Britain’s (and South Africa’s) most celebrated actors, with a long career on stage, screen and behind the scenes as a director, and impressive honours like a Damehood (if that’s the word), she’s never ventured into music, never done a musical, and doesn’t read notation – “except badly”.

So when Jane Glover, who conducts this Figaro with students from the Royal Academy’s opera department, rang Suzman with the offer, it took (as she recalls) “several gulps before I said yes. And then they told me, oh just one more thing. You’ll be directing two casts at the same time, because they alternate.

“So here I am doing something completely alien to how I’ve worked all my life, rehearsing the first group for ten minutes of a scene before they all high-five each other and the next lot take over. Its hard. And yet I do find it exhilarating”.

Of course, any director coming new to opera from a speech-theatre background finds it hard. To start with, you’re not in total control as you would expect to be: there’s a conductor and the whole apparatus of music to contend with, dictating the pace of what happens on stage.

“Sometimes there are big emotional moments where you want things to stop”, says Suzman, “but the music carries on. Or at least, it seems to. Jane tells me the score is aware of these moments, and I trust her; so I’m trying to be more vigilant with my ears and pick up on all this. I’m learning”.

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At the same time, Figaro’s young cast is learning one or two important things from her: about restraint and focus, motivation and intention.

“There are wonderful singers in this production and I’m speechless with admiration for what they can do, but they tend to be top-heavy in performance. Everything from the throat up is magnificent. Everything from the throat down is not. And it’s a question of focus.

“Opera singers have a lot to do onstage - watching the conductor, holding the vocal line, building a character - it gets frenetic. And when things stop, they don’t always know what to do except – as they say themselves – park and bark. They adopt an operatic pose with the fingers on one hand gently clasped in the palm of the other, settle into their famous aria, and the audience accepts it. Opera audiences are forgiving: they go along with the whoosh, the conventions, the stereotypes in a way that straight-theatre audiences wouldn’t.

“But when you see an artist like Maria Callas you realise how much more is possible. She was focused on the moment. She had economy of movement that made something out of nothing. And she understood that thought is everything. I don’t expect my young singers to be world-class actors, but I do expect them to think, to be present, to be focused. If they do that, I’ll be happy”.

Share in Janet Suzman’s happiness at the Hackney Empire where her new Figaro runs 30 Oct -2 Nov. Details: hackneyempire.co.uk