What could inspire Australia’s best-known theatre director to take on the world of opera? John Bell is a stalwart of the Australian theatre scene: the founder of Bell Shakespeare, an acclaimed director and celebrated actor in his own right.
“It’s a change of pace, a change of style, I love the scale of it,” Bell said. “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.”
“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 said.
The man in the signature black skivvy came to direct Tosca at the request of Opera Australia’s artistic director, Lyndon Terracini, who had long wanted the theatre veteran to direct the beloved work.
“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 explained.
“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 like Tosca.”
Bell came to the challenge with an arrestingly humble attitude.
“I don’t think directing is the right word in this context,” he said. “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.”
Despite his deferential approach, the seasoned director took on Tosca with a bold ambition: to restore the truth in the drama at the opera’s heart. He wanted to recapture the shock that original audiences felt as they watched Puccini’s masterpiece unfold, he said.
“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 explained. “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”. The change of context was not an attempt to place his own stamp on a timeless story, Bell said, rather, it was 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.”
That service came through in his mastery of stagecraft: as he suggested an entrance here, corrected a hand movement there, Bell made sure even tiny details served to tell the story. Relocating the tale into a familiar context was a carefully considered masterstroke.
“I’m saying this story is not what you thought it was,” he explained. “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.”
While this is only Bell’s second opera production and first for the mainstage, there is more and more crossover between the worlds of opera and theatre, he said. “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.”
Bell’s critically acclaimed production of Tosca is coming to Melbourne in November 2014. For tickets and more information, click HERE.