‘At 14 I saw Tosca and cried and cried’: Director Robin Norton-Hale oepns up ahead of staging La Traviata

La Traviata - Flora McIntosh (Flora), Philip Lee (Alfredo), Prudence Sanders (Violetta). Picture: Ch

La Traviata - Flora McIntosh (Flora), Philip Lee (Alfredo), Prudence Sanders (Violetta). Picture: Christopher Tribble - Credit: Archant

Robin Norton-Hale is director, translator and co-founder of OperaUpClose which specialises in chamber productions of operas in intimate informal venues. Ahead of her latest, Verdi’s La Traviata, she talked to Bridget Galton.

How did your passion for opera start?

My dad used to take me to ENO when I was still at primary school. He doesn’t come from a traditional opera lover’s background - his dad was a bus conductor - but he loves all music, and learned about opera from listening to the radio.

He went to ENO because they perform in English, and because he thought you had to wear a tuxedo at the Royal Opera House. Because I had the stories explained to me, I never thought of it as something posh. At 14, I saw Tosca, and cried and cried.

You famously staged La Boheme above a Kilburn pub, was that to open it to new audiences?

Not specifically. I don’t see opera as a different beast to ‘straight’ theatre, and there are so many pub theatres putting on plays, we thought, why not opera? Also, La Boheme is about a group of students making their first steps into adulthood – so having them live in a run-down flat above a Kilburn pub seemed realistic!

Your productions seem an antidote to the Glyndebourne/Royal Opera House experience – how do these pieces benefit from being done up close, and is there room for different ways of staging them?

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Absolutely. Opera is resilient – it can handle lots of interpretations! I sometimes compare it to Shakespeare which not long ago would have always been acted in doublet and hose without cuts. Now no one blinks at different versions which often illuminate the plays in some new way. I enjoy seeing operas in their original language with full orchestra, but that shouldn’t be the only way to see them – that would limit where opera can be performed, who can afford tickets, and unless you’re in the front rows you can’t see the acting in detail. La Traviata is really about three people – Violetta, her lover Alfredo and his father Germont; how they love, manipulate and hurt each other. The characters are psychologically complex and the story a basic human one about the things we do to athe ones we love. By getting up close, I hope the sometimes brutal nature of the story is revealed in a way you can’t get on a big stage.

How difficult do you find translating and what is gained from performing in English?

It’s always a challenge finding English words wiith exactly the right rhythm for the music – you have to be quite inventive, and sometimes not all that literal in terms of the Italian. Italian is an easier language to sing in – it has nice open vowel sounds – so I also have to think about the singers if I give them tongue-twisters! Performing in English gives the production an immediacy you lose if the audience are having to look above the stage to a surtitle screen. It helps normalize opera for an English audience, and means they can catch the subtleties of what the characters are feeling.

This is set in the prohibition era, why does this story lends itself to that period?

The 1920s was the first ‘modern’ era – just after the First World War tore apart the old order, and consumer society was taking off with movies, cars and celebrity culture. Women had more freedom (‘flappers’ shocked polite society by showing their legs and smoking in public) but there was still a double-standard in terms of what was expected of women and men, and women’s freedom was superficial. That double-standard is crucial for La Traviata, as Violetta cannot be forgiven for her past ‘immoral’ life. Setting the production in the 1920s makes the hypocrisy very clear, without it being too remote from contemporary experience.

What are your future ambitions for OperaUpClose?

I’d like us to perform in more producing theatres like the Tricycle but all over the country. I want to convince people who like plays that opera isn’t different, or weird! I’d also like to bring people in who have never been to the theatre before. We’re also planning more work with younger people including our first opera for school children, called Ulla’s Odyssey, this autumn.

What do you say to people who find opera elitist, overblown and unsubtle?

I’d say give it a go, relax and try not to worry about whether you’ll understand it. If you try one opera and don’t like it, that doesn’t mean you don’t like opera – that would be like going to the cinema for the first time, not liking the film, and deciding you don’t like films. There are lots of different styles of opera, and there are lots of styles of production. Don’t confuse opera with the trappings of where it’s traditionally been performed and who its traditional audience is. As for overblown, opera is often about love, loss and death and can provide a really effective and moving way of dealing with those huge emotions. Come and watch our performers’ faces and listen to the changes in their voices, and I promise you’ll find subtlety.

La Traviata runs at The Tricycle Theatre from June 22 until July 4. Tricycle.co.uk