Calixto Bieito is wearing a black leather jacket, black T-shirt, black jeans and black boots. “I can see why I might seem a nihilist,” he says. “My work isn’t nihilist, though. That’s too simple a label.” His thin mouth flickers into the smile that charms and slightly unnerves interviewers. “But it’s true that I have to take care not to drown in pessimism.”
The 49-year-old opera and theatre director is all too aware of how he’s been labelled over the years. Since the artistic director of Barcelona’s Teatre Romea burst on to the European scene as an uneven, but brilliant, creator of spellbinding effects, his press coverage has too often boiled down to a handful of notorious moments. There was his 2004 sadomasochistic breast-slicing version of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio. Then there was that production of Verdi’s Masked Ball in London, which opened with the cast seated on a row of toilets.
His latest production, a dramatised version of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, which opens next Thursday at the Theater Basel, seems muted by contrast: no soldiers, no spurting blood. The oratorio, which Bieito has always adored, has the soloists act out their stories through gestures and expressions in a series of calm, installation-like tableaux.
Not that this signals any long-term change in style. London is soon to get another Bieito opera, in which the Spaniard’s transgressive energy is undimmed: this time, his Fidelio, which the English National Opera is bringing to the Coliseum in September, with Emma Bell and Stuart Skelton as Leonore and Florestan. As to whether we can expect to see the triumph of love and justice in his version of Beethoven’s only opera – well, as anyone who saw its premiere in Munich in 2010 would know, not quite. There is tenderness in it, Bieito insists, as well as a deep respect for Beethoven, “whose quartets I’ve loved since I first heard them as a teenager”.
Bieito meets me near the beach in Castelldefels, south of Barcelona, where he lives with his wife and their two children – “both trilingual in Spanish, Catalan and English,” he says proudly. He took them with him to Chicago, where he recently directed Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, though he ruefully admits that he’s not with them as much as he’d like – endlessly shuttling between rehearsals in Basel and Zurich, where he’s preparing Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s gargantuan Die Soldaten for the Zurich opera in September.
Yet it is the UK where Bieito first sprang to fame – and notoriety. While many of his triumphs were staged there, such as his extraordinary 2003 Macbeth (in which his actress wife Roser Camí played Lady Macbeth), some British critics like nothing better than a bit of Bieito-baiting. For the philosopher Roger Scruton, Bieito’s Seraglio epitomised “a loveless culture, which is afraid of beauty because it is disturbed by love”. “Tacky, tawdry and tasteless,” the Daily Mail alliterated on last year’s Carmen at ENO.
Like his contemporary Pedro Almodóvar, Bieito has expressed frustration that certain British audiences can’t see beyond the sex. But in our conversation he’s magnanimous. “More light than shadows,” he says of his UK experiences, while admitting there are certain things the British don’t get. The films of Luis Buñuel, for example. “Profound, but full of childish jokes, a particular dark humour you find more in Catholic countries.”
Cinema and art are a major influence on Bieito’s opera work. “I love playing with light, with chiaroscuro ... My Carmen was very influenced by Goya.” For September’s Fidelio, Bieito has drawn on the work of Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, as well as the cult 1997 movie Cube.
Traditionalists beware: Leonore, Florestan – indeed all the characters – are trapped not in a prison in Seville, but in a Borgesian labyrinth. While Don Fernando traditionally dispenses justice, exalts Florestan, punishes Pizarro and frees the rest of the prisoners, in Bieito’s version he is the Joker character from Batman – and shoots Florestan.
“In this Fidelio, I wanted to avoid everything picturesque, about Seville,” Bieito says. “I want to show the loneliness in our hypercompetitive society, where everyone is lost in glass, open-plan offices ... I want to get to the essence of the work: liberty. Liberty of thought, artistic liberty.”
As with his version of the War Requiem, where the postwar “characters” grope towards a redemption that they cannot quite achieve, Bieito’s Fidelio might seem as if all the hope has been drained out. “But it is about love,” Bieito insists. “And there are two endings: the redemptive ending of love. And the ending involving justice, which cannot be redemptive because we live in such an unjust society ... The justice we have is a parody – it laughs in our faces!”
Fidelio is an apt title for him to tackle: fidelity to sometimes canonical works has always been at the heart of the Bieito riddle. As director of Barcelona’s Romea until 2011, he proved an eclectic programmer, tackling Shaw, Ibsen, an adaptation of Michel Houellebecq’s novel Platform, and a great deal of Shakespeare, among much else. His 1997 La Verbena de La Paloma updated a frothy Spanish zarzuela into a gritty drama of sexual jealousy and hedonism, consolidating a fascination with musical theatre that would ease his transition into opera. It was at Edinburgh that year that the edgy adaptation caught the attention of festival director Brian McMaster.
While some critics will always see Bieito’s ideas as mere shock tactics, McMaster insists that “Calixto reinterprets texts with extreme honesty. He does it in a way that is totally theatrical and speaks to us in the 21st century. He goes to the heart of it – the essence.”
McMaster invited Bieito to direct an English-language version of Calderón’s mystical fable Life is a Dream in 1998 – but there was one snag: Bieito hardly spoke any English. “He went off,” McMaster recalls, “and three weeks later came back speaking English.” It was the moment when Bieito became international, opening his path to the great opera houses of Europe.
Playwright David Hare, whose minutely observed plays of socio-political realism couldn’t be further from Bieito’s ferocious style, also speaks warmly of him. Bieito held a Hare season at the Romea in 2003, “and he was completely faithful to my work. That belies his reputation as a scatological child,” Hare argues. “He wants theatre to resonate in the society he represents. He plays up the enfant terrible, but he’s much, much more intelligent than that.”
While few can doubt Bieito’s intelligence, even fans flinch from the sometimes predictable displays of sexual violence. His 2003 Hamlet at Edinburgh, with George Anton as the prince, teemed with beautiful moments but also had Hamlet raping Ophelia. Gratuitous brutality? Perhaps, but it radically transformed Ophelia’s reaction, “Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown”; more often than not, behind Bieito’s fury, there is careful, textual calculation.
Bieito may owe such instincts to his roots. His father, a railway worker, moved the family from northern Spain to Barcelona when Bieito was 15. His mother, a singer, passed on her love of music to her children. Educational prospects in the sclerotic Spain of the early 1970s were in the hands of the church, and the young Calixto was taught by the Jesuits.
“Strict and cruel,” is his verdict – “though the school also had a progressive streak. There was the choir, plays, even films.” Exposure to art books awakened a life-long fascination with the baroque. And above all, there were texts. “That kind of education, well, it gives you certain tools,” Bieito says. “It can make certain people reactionary, or it can make others into anarchists.”
Perhaps such experiences, in the dying days of the Franco dictatorship, shaped Bieito’s particular view of power. He likes to strip the sumptuousness out of palace or castle, to show power at its ugliest. Sometimes, Bieito depicts characters from the nobility as little more than yobs, leading to accusations that any motivation for pity or tragedy is undercut.
Another criticism levelled at Bieito is that his productions dispense with the spiritual. Just as his accusers claim there is no love with Bieito, there are no ghosts either, only psychology: labyrinths of the mind, phantoms conjured only by drugs or alcohol.
Bieito accepts this. “They talk about witches in northern Spain,” he says, “but there’s something much more terrifying. When I was in Munich recently, I went to see Dachau, and wondered, what conceived all this? What left this terrible silence here, this void? Far more powerful and far more terrifying than any ghost, is the mind itself.”
‘War Requiem’, Theater Basel, from May 16, www.theater-basel.ch; ‘Die Soldaten’, Zurich Opera, from September 22, www.opernhaus.ch; ‘Fidelio’, English National Opera, London, from September 25, www.eno.org