“This is where Decca turned down the Beatles,” says Deborah Warner, a little ominously, as we meet inside English National Opera’s spacious rehearsal space in West Hampstead, London. “That’s what you call a life error, isn’t it?” Posterity can be merciless on poor artistic judgement, something of which the 52-year-old theatre and opera director is keenly aware. As she prepares the company’s new production of Eugene Onegin, which opens tonight, Warner admits to a customary feeling of pre-performance anxiety. “You embark on the adventure with huge trepidation,” she says. “Of course you hope it is going to be watertight. And safe.”
Safety, it must be said, is not the word that springs to mind when thinking of Warner’s provocative and frequently pioneering work. She has faced the finely frocked boos of a Glyndebourne audience, and the ire of a literary estate – that of Samuel Beckett – which so strongly disapproved of her production of the playwright’s late work Footfalls that it forced its closure. She has cast a woman as a Shakespearean king, and set Restoration comedy to throbbing club music. It was time for the director to be served “with the theatrical equivalent of an Asbo” wrote one critic in the wake of that last culture shock, her production of The School for Scandal at the Barbican this year. Warner responded by calling two hostile reviewers “complacent toads crouching in their nests”. She says that particular remark was made off the record but, in truth, seems unconcerned by its wider circulation.
She has since more than made her peace with the Beckett estate, and insists she is “pro-critics”. But don’t expect any compromises in her approach. “It is essential that audiences are immediately surprised,” she says. “People come to the theatre lazily. They come to sit down. But they have got to be excited already, otherwise they won’t be able to hear [the performance]. Someone has to jump-start their ears.”
On Onegin, she is reunited with ENO’s music director Edward Gardner, with whom she collaborated on Britten’s Death in Venice, a production that travelled to Milan’s La Scala this year. Tchaikovsky is different fare altogether, I say to her: romantic music, unrequited love, a duel. How radical can you be?
“I fell in love with it three weeks ago,” she replies with some precision, but admits to having had some misgivings. “I wondered if the truth of the story might be difficult to find in the moment of high operatic expression.” She was finally convinced after going home one night in the middle of rehearsals and listening to a recording of the whole piece with the orchestra. “It has this power, although it also has a chamber quality, in terms of the intimacy of the relationships. It is quite tiny, and then it explodes. I thought, if this could be Chekhov, how great would that be?”
She finds that the opera’s lovers, Onegin and Tatyana, have been misunderstood in past interpretations. Traditionally, the eponymous hero is shown as aloof in the face of Tatyana’s ardour. That’s not how Warner sees it. “It is a very equal story between them,” she says. I don’t think [Onegin] is cold and impossible, I find him sympathetic. And she is obviously sympathetic. I find we can love them, and we must, in order to care.”
But come on – there is a duel, I say. How does a sophisticated present-day audience take that seriously? “A great deal of the challenge of doing this is to get over the clichés,” she admits. “I was in fear of the duel. But we have set the piece in the 1890s, a cusping moment, and duels were jolly, jolly rare.” Her protagonists barely know what they are doing. She sets the epic confrontation as “an improvised event. A crazy, awful mess. No one wants to die. It is an error.”
After years of staging theatrical works that have broken boundaries and been received with acclaim – particularly her collaborations with Fiona Shaw in pieces such as Medea, Beckett’s Happy Days, Eliot’s The Waste Land – Warner seems to be transferring her allegiance to the art form of opera. Her next four years are devoted entirely to operatic productions, although when she started working in the medium in the late 1980s, she found herself on a steep learning curve.
“It was very frightening and disorienting,” she says of her first production, Wozzeck, for Opera North. “It is dismaying when you come to opera from the theatre for the first time, this terror of offering something which is already perfect. How do you improve Elvira’s aria [from Don Giovanni]? I didn’t know then how to take this thing, which was like a Fabergé egg, and then smash it. I do now.”
Has she fallen out of love with the “straight” theatre, I ask? She pauses and picks her words carefully. “I may have finished a phase of what I wanted to do. In the arc of my work with Fiona, we achieved so much. I won’t abandon the theatre. But I am not so fascinated by it at the moment. I am not terribly hungry to look at theatre every night.
“But the reason I feel a bit queasy at your question is that I think that opera is theatre, at the very highest level.”
One of Warner’s greatest achievements over the past couple of decades has been to seek and open out new spaces for theatrical work. She played a key role in the rediscovery of Wilton’s Music Hall in east London by staging The Waste Land there, its first live theatre event since the 19th century. The production went on a tour of rediscovered or unusual spaces all over the world, although it was in London where Warner saw Shaw deliver “the best performance of a text that I have ever seen, anywhere. It went way beyond anything I did to it. She possessed it completely.” Among the places that declined the production on the grounds of its unflattering title were the European Parliament in Brussels, and the World Trade Center. “It was fair enough,” says Warner placidly.
The duo were similarly garlanded internationally for their staging of Happy Days, which travelled from the National Theatre to Epidaurus in Greece (“beyond thrilling”, describes Warner, as near as she gets to speechless). That production also mended fences with the Beckett estate. The trouble over Footfalls, performed soon after the playwright’s death, arose because the production “looked and felt very different from previous productions. But it was a young and grieving estate. And I didn’t realise then that there is a moment when an estate grieves. It was all too much.”
And how are relations with the toads? She says she respects critics’ opinions but charges them also with an “acute responsibility. What we don’t want is [that their negative reviews] stop young people from trying something out. Things are going to get tough. We must be very careful not to alienate new audiences. Critics must write from their truth, of course. But they should also report on the temperature of the night.” Expect a fry-up at the Coliseum tonight.
ENO’s ‘Eugene Onegin’ opens at the London Coliseum on Saturday night for eight performances until December 3