This week, San Diego Opera general director Ian Campbell goes behind the curtain to direct the west coast premiere of twentieth century composer Ildebrando Pizzetti’s powerful drama Murder In The Cathedral, based on the play by English dramaturge T.S. Eliot.
With a solid cast headed by the formidable bass superstar Ferruccio Furlanetto (OperaPulse interview), Campbell is not the only one who is eagerly looking forward to the opening. I was lucky enough to seize an hour out of his packed schedule to discuss some exciting details about the production.
EM: Congratulations on your thirtieth anniversary season with SDO.
IC: Thank you. I’ve been here a long time, this is home. And I’m very happy to be here.
EM: How does it feel to celebrate this milestone with the monumental premiere of Murder In The Cathedral?
IC: Exciting, of course. The coincidence of having Murder at the same time is wonderful, because it allows our Development department to work the two events together for fund raising, which is important.
EM: The ultimate synchronicity.
IC: Yes, they have a challenge. If the public donates “x” amount of dollars it will be matched by a donor. It already looks like we’re going to get there. There will be a promo in the program, which should generate a bit more.
EM: About anniversaries, when I sat down with Ferruccio on March 19, he told me it was the same day in 1974 that he sang his first opera performance in Italy.
IC: It will be forty years for him next year, and for me forty-six years in the business, which is a long time.
EM: Yet there’s still so much to do.
IC: With opera, the diversity of everything you do is so great. Whatever we stage here, there’s always a whole new group of singers, different designs, sets. The great joy is meeting and working with so many brilliant people. For example, Murder. The cast is very strong, and Ferruccio is the only one to have sung the opera before. All the others are dealing with something new. Watching them dig into this with my guidance is so rewarding.
EM: It must be a dream come true for both you and Ferruccio.
IC: Exactly. We know each other a long time, thirty-one years, I think. So we know how to work together so smoothly that some people would find it curious.
EM: How do you approach directing an opera?
IC: I see the whole opera in my head. I’ll walk with my headphones on, listening to Murder In The Cathedral and I’m staging it, visualizing what the set’s going to look like. I’ll have him come on here, he’ll do this, this will be his motivation. I already had everybody else where I wanted them before Ferruccio arrived – we knew would be a few days late because of commitments at the Met – and in one three hour session we had his geography set. Then it was a matter of detail, expressions, gestures, which were done in the next three hours. When Ferruccio says, “Would you mind if I move over here,” I just say, “Fine.” We do simple adjustments, there’s no big debate like, “It’s my production.” Directors are also correctors. To First Chorister Susan Neves, the only one who gets a true aria, I said, “You’re going to be in the middle of the chorus, they leave, and I see you as a lump on the stage.” “A lump?” “Yes, I see you curled up, and I want you to sort of come out of that like a stalk coming out of a seed, to unroll. But do it in a way that shows me how you feel.” And it’s done. You have to trust the singer and correct them in a case like that rather than just saying, just move there. I told her, let me see what you do, and most every gesture and movement was appropriate. That’s the joy of working with intelligent singers, who were carefully chosen for these roles. And Ferruccio just locked into it very quickly.
EM: He must add an element of inspiration, given who he is. And he’s lived the role, it’s inside his soul.
IC: I met him in Chicago two years ago to talk about the concept. I’d seen him do it at La Scala in 2009. It was beautifully directed but totally antithetical to the way I see it, because there the women moved as a phalanx and I see them as more involved, more human. They say at the end of their first scene, “We are condemned merely to watch.” So I told Ferruccio I would have the women on stage the whole time, scattered around the edges watching and reacting, like a Greek chorus but spoken to by the other characters. And I wanted him very active, particularly against the knights. Becket was a former warrior, I wanted to see that in him. He said it was all fine. And he does it so well.
EM: He’s so subtle, too.
IC: At the end of Act One, we’re doing a crucifixion. Becket says earlier that as Christ dies for sinners, he may have to die for the Church. He ends with this beautiful climax, one of the greatest in an opera. I said I wanted him to go into a crucified position, a crown of thorns put on his head, and the women reaching up to him. He wasn’t sure, but this is where you work with the singer. When we ran it the first time with chorus he said, “Exactly. Perfect.” You finish with the only light on stage being him. Then blackout and curtain. It’ll be a very powerful ending to the act. He just threw himself into the concept of the way I’m doing it.
EM: That’s the sign of a true star.
IC: Exactly. And it’s a pleasure. I’ve always loved the piece, since I first heard it on reel-to-reel tape in the 70s. But I don’t see it as a ritual; I see it as a drama, a play with music, and the people become real, even the female chorus.
EM: As far as the play and libretto, they’re quite close, aren’t they?
IC: They are. The play uses some real situations, and phrases we can trace back to historic records that Becket actually said. For example, at the beginning the Herald announces Becket’s return, and the people throw flowers in front of him, like Jesus entering Jerusalem. The priests are arguing about Becket spending time with the king of France rather than with King Henry, and in fact they were trying to settle these differences. So it’s a historically accurate reference, but the phrases are said differently.
EM: Dramatic license.
IC: In some cases statements reflect exactly what happened or was said. The murder, for example, was written down a year later by a priest (Edward Grim) who was there, though he may have glamorized it. But we know the top of Becket’s head was sliced off, so that will have to be stylized though dramatic.
EM: They still don’t know if Henry actually ordered the murder.
IC: They don’t, but the indication is that Henry said something like, “Will nobody rid me of this meddlesome priest?” So the knights clearly believed they would get promotion in Henry’s eyes if they killed Becket. When Henry did penance at the cathedral a year later, he said he didn’t believe it was his fault but was prepared to be punished in case it was; which was political, because the Becket cult had become so great that it threatened Henry’s relationship with the Church.
EM: Did you go to Canterbury?
IC: Yes. When you go to where Becket was actually killed you can see a chip in the stone, supposedly from the first sword. I don’t know if they’ve replaced the stone over the years, but you know he fell right there. It’s quite powerful to be where a major person like that was killed, particularly in such awful circumstances. I staged the murder in front of an altar, not where it occurred but we’re doing theater and it’s a good place to do it. Fascinating man, fascinating history. Church and State disagreements continue all around the world, it’s a part of human history.
EM: That’s one reason why this piece is so relevant hundreds of years later, because of those universal truths.
IC: Yes. The Church was making legal decisions in Becket’s time. He fought the king over the right to try priests. Henry tried to apply public sentencing, but Becket said, “No, these are our people.” There was “benefit of Clergy.” Today we’ve seen a similar thing. There are parallels. It’s interesting, too, that Becket’s tomb was destroyed, along with his remains, so there could be nowhere anyone could come worship the “English Saint.” He remained a threat to the monarchy after four hundred years when the Church of England was created, headed by the Crown, not the Pope. Some years ago in Canterbury they found what they thought were Becket’s bones – a skeleton more than six feet tall with cracks in the skull. But the crown was still there, attached, so it wasn’t him. There also are stories that his bones are still there but in somebody else’s tomb. It’s good mythology.
EM: Do people still go there on Becket pilgrimages?
IC: They still go. Apparently where he was actually killed was never destroyed and rebuilt the way other parts of the church were. You see a big candle where the tomb was. They have souvenirs of Becket stained glass windows. In our production when you go into the theater the red curtain is up. You see one set of stairs but not inside the cathedral. We have a “show cloth” with a representation of the windows, one with Henry, one with Becket, as genuine as we could paint them. The windows weren’t done until years after the murder because the king was still feared, but they gave us images of what we think he looked like. The priest Grim tried to protect Becket – his arm was cut through by one of the swords, so we know he was there. But Becket kneeling and saying certain things, we don’t know. He may have said, “Don’t kill me.” But we have a history of who killed him and where, and what Henry subsequently did. The monks later beat him – it may have been with a matchstick, I don’t think they really hurt him – it was great symbolism for Henry.
EM: Part of his penance. I imagine Eliot must have done exhaustive research to write the play.
IC: Somebody did. One of the Tempters says, “We’ve met before at Monreale and at Main.” These were where conferences happened trying to settle differences, so that stuff is extant. Many of Becket’s writings apparently survived, particularly from his French period.
EM: How many times did you read the play for this production?
IC: I read it originally for a literature course at the University of Sydney, but deciding to direct it I read it more than once, then I translated it for the supertitles. When I do those I try to keep them as close to the original text as possible. I think it helps.
EM: I’ve noticed. I’m very impressed. It’s important for the audience to not only understand the words but to enjoy the stories’ subtleties.
IC: I try to have the important words sung. That takes a lot of time, but I learn the opera even more closely. One interesting “play to opera” thing in Murder In The Cathedral is the knights justifying themselves. The fourth wall goes away and they talk directly to the audience – I have to be careful directing it – saying, “Four against one may not look very nice, but…” American audiences may laugh at that point because you’ve just seen Becket killed. So I have that knight take the piece of cloth from Becket’s wrist and wipe his sword on it. With such an ugly idea, people might look at what he’s doing and realize these are very nasty characters. Some productions cut that scene, but it’s a great scene so for us it was never a debate.
EM: Did Becket make a conscious decision to sacrifice himself?
IC: He gave himself into the hands of God. That’s why I’m having him crucified. God will decide martyrdom. When Becket gives his sermon about martyrdom in Act Two, it shows he suspects he’ll be martyred. Does he want to be? I don’t know. Eliot is very clever, where the Tempters come to offer Becket ideas, tempting him at different levels. It’s great structure. The opera reduces these speeches in a way that they remain powerful; Pizzetti’s music makes them so special. A great example of how music can make plays better than what they were, how certain operas can move us time after time. This work deserves to be heard elsewhere in the country. I hope it gets an American life. That would be wonderful.
EM: It would indeed. I can’t wait to see it. Thank you so much for so generously offering us your insights into this exciting premiere.
IC: My pleasure.