British director’s modern take on classic Puccini opera at the Olympia

From Paris’s Latin Quarter, director Graham Vick has taken the action of Puccini’s well-known opera «La Boheme» to a prosperous western city. It doesn’t matter which one it is. At the Olympia Theater the acclaimed British director has set up a production which explores bohemian life today. Kathimerini met up with Vick during one of the final rehearsals, before the opera’s recent opening. The Greek National Opera is counting greatly on «La Boheme,» a huge production which will be staged through January 6. Vick was invited to Athens by former artistic director Stefanos Lazaridis to guide two different casts in one of Puccini’s most popular works. One of Lazaridis and Vick’s main concerns was the transfer of the action to the present day, but the initial idea to place the story in today’s Omonia Square fell through. «We don’t really have a bohemian society today, because we are wealthy. Today’s equivalent of the 1830 Paris situation is 30-year-olds calling home to ask their parents for money. These are the bohemians of 2007 and opera can demonstrate real people in real life,» said Vick. Vick should not be exclusively linked to modern takes on classic works, because he loves the classics per se. «It depends on the text. For instance, there isn’t much you can do with the historical context of the character of Figaro, it is a work deeply connected to its era. I am more interested in the issues that emerge from every text. On the other hand, a work’s familiarity is a trap: The more familiar it is, the greater the effort you make make to discover what you didn’t see in your previous contact with it. Familiarity is an obstacle against which you have to make a big effort.» What is noteworthy in Vick’s case is that in Athens he worked on two separate productions for the different casts of «La Boheme.» «It is something I do – work with the different casts entirely separately, for the very simple reason that I have to deal with different people, different voices and different interpretations. No matter how much they look alike, we can never have the same Mimi when we are working with two different sopranos. Even if the difference is only slight, each Mimi will have a different chemistry with Rodolfo and in the end will give us a different ‘Boheme.’ That is why I do it.» Vick does not accept the separation between the classic and the modern repertoire. He loves 17th-century composer Monteverdi as well as Mozart. «The 18th century also has some good works. The 19th is a difficult period, but Wagner is open to so many interpretations. We then have the 19th-century operas and I think that bel canto is tough for any director because the roots and the moral of these works lie millions of miles away from us. In contrast, the 20th century is the easiest for a director, because on top of everything else the director features prominently in the entire procedure. It is something that begins at the end of Puccini and Janacek’s time. The composer is aware that his work has to be directed.» We always wonder why directors of Vick’s caliber come to work in Athens. Although the Greek National Opera is still affected by the impact of Stefanos Lazaridis – the former artistic director has a large network of opera acquaintances whom he used as much as he could – we still wonder. After Athens, Vick will travel to Venice’s Teatro La Fenice. During 2008 he is scheduled to go to Madrid, where he will direct Placido Domingo, and then to San Francisco. Yet Vick has another opinion. «Theaters and organizations like the National Opera in Athens give me the opportunity to explore a familiar work in my own time, with a serious and young cast at my disposal. That was the way I wanted to work in November 2007 and it is an atmosphere that big, international theaters can hardly provide. In big theaters the extent of experimentation and exploring you can do with a work is always an open issue. The interpreters are open to working on that basis and from that point of view, Athens is a very good experience.» He doesn’t want to be misunderstood. «In New York, London and Paris you can still see an amazing progressive opera. Let’s just say that 10 years ago there was much more room for experimentation in the big theaters around the world. Everyone is much more careful today. Our societies are much more careful, it is a reaction to the insecurity that is generally prevailing. It was always easier for the big theaters to go deep inside difficult works. That is something that hasn’t changed.» At the same time, he points out that in the big opera houses the Italian repertoire does not enjoy the same seriousness as the German repertoire. «You can find more adventurous takes and more rehearsals with German works. There is a certainty with Italian works, what I said about the trap of familiarity.» When reminded of the new New York City Opera (NYCO) artistic director Gerard Mortier, who has declared that during his stint no Puccini will be staged, he replies that obviously Mortier is one of the people who don’t take Puccini seriously. «The problem is not so much what you like and what you don’t like. The problem is to do a good job.»