In the middle of a raging sea of activity stands John Bell: calm, still, focussed. Around him, mechanics rush around making notes and lists and testing door handles on set pieces. International singers are rehearsing notes, movements, pulling on rehearsal skirts and shoes. Language coaches are etching notes onto well-worn scores. Stage managers are madly scribbling lists.
The man in the signature black skivvy is oblivious to the chaos – standing facing the makeshift rehearsal room stage, he is visualising his Tosca.
“All over the world more theatre directors are coming in to direct operas, and theatre itself is becoming more operatic, less naturalistic. There are revivals of Shakespeare and other classics that tend towards opera rather than ‘kitchen sink realism’, the lines are blurring.”
You could almost imagine Bell was overwhelmed by the scale of the piece he has been asked to direct, unnerved by the experience of the maestro and singers he is working alongside. But though he speaks softly, his words are commanding: correcting a hand movement here, suggesting a different entrance there. Bell’s mastery of stagecraft and storytelling comes through in every word.
There is nothing arrogant or demanding in his manner. Australia’s most prominent theatre director is coming to his first mainstage opera with utter humility, deferring to the experience and knowledge of the seasoned Tosca performers he is charged with directing.
“I don’t think directing is the right word in this context,” he says, in the clear, clipped tones of a lifelong Shakespeare actor. “I’m collaborating with them. I’m there to facilitate their performances. They know these roles very well, I don’t want to take them back to square one and say ‘Let’s start at the beginning’.
“All I can really do is provide circumstances for them to feel comfortable in, a set that works and accommodates what they want to do, staging with moves that make it comfortable and real to them: a staging that is effective as possible.”
Nevertheless, the seasoned director has a bold ambition: to restore the truth in the drama of Tosca, to recapture the original shock audiences felt as they watched Puccini’s masterpiece unfold, he says.
“This is a true story: it has happened many, many times over throughout history, it happened during the world wars, it’s happening now, somewhere in the world,” Bell explains.
“A tyrannical regime, resistance fighters hunted down, women forced to give sexual favours in order to protect a loved one – these things are still happening, and always have been, during war.”
Thus Bell has relocated Puccini’s Tosca to Rome in 1943: a Fascist Italy under German rule. The great city is wartorn, starving: “a city down on its knees.”
It’s not an attempt to place his own stamp on a timeless story, he says, rather a move to challenge the audience to see the story in a different light. “I’m not an auteur type of director, I don’t try to reshape it in my own image. I see my job as an interpreter rather than a creator: I want to try to serve the opera and composer as well as I can.
“I’m saying this is not what you thought it was. This is something else.
“World War II is within the memory of many of our audience: they either lived through it or their families did, they’ve seen the documentary footage, the movies, the books. It’s familiar territory. I want the experience of our own lifetimes to bring the story into focus.”
His hope is that the production will strike a chord with a modern audience. “They’ll say yes, I believe this story, I know these things happen, I believe these characters.”
Artistic director Lyndon Terracini always wanted John Bell to direct this production of Tosca. A household name, Bell is an actor with no equal when it comes to the portrayal of Shakespeare’s heroes and villains. His credentials in the theatre world are strong, but he is not often seen in the halls of the Opera Centre. His opera credits are limited to an Oz Opera touring production of Madama Butterfly.
Why then would Terracini entrust him with one of the world’s most beloved operas? “I felt it was important to have an actor’s director working on this production. John Bell is arguably one of the greatest actors that Australia has ever produced.” Terracini explains. “I wanted the singers to really get under the skin of those characters and create the dramatic tension as well as the musical tension you need to bring off a piece likeTosca.”
In the rehearsal room, Bell is rehearsing Act II, as Tosca stabs Scarpia. They try the move over, and over again. John Wegner lies on his back on a table as Alexia Voulgaridou drives the knife into his chest. Bell wants more. “Yes, yes,” says Alexia Voulgaridou, imitating the move Bell has demonstrated. “This is the kiss of Tosca!”
For the director himself, taking on one of the world’s most beloved operas is an exciting challenge. “It’s a change of pace, a change of style, I love the scale of it,” he says. “You don’t often get a chance to work with 80 actors on a stage – we’ve got 80 singers in this cast at last count. And it’s always great to work on some piece that you love and respond to, it’s great to work on a classic play, it’s also great to encounter a composer, whether its Mozart or Wagner or Puccini, and just rub shoulders with him for a year, study it, learn it, get inside the work. That’s what I think the most rewarding thing about being involved in theatre is: the privilege of working alongside a genius.”
There is more and more crossover between the worlds of opera and theatre, Bell says. “All over the world more theatre directors are coming in to direct operas, and theatre itself is becoming more operatic, less naturalistic. There are revivals of Shakespeare and other classics that tend towards opera rather than ‘kitchen sink realism’, the lines are blurring.”
Puccini’s music can be relied on to stir hearts. Spend five minutes in the rehearsal room of this year’s Toscaand it’s clear that Bell’s production will also captivate minds.