At Home With – Stage Director Julia Burbach in London

By Chris Ruel

“At Home With… ” is a new series collaboration between OperaWire and photographer Frances Marshall of Marshall Light Studio, combining original photography with insightful interviews. In this second edition, OperaWire spoke with Stage Director, Julia Burbach.

“Truth be told, I only realized that things were accelerating when I was in Iceland, rehearsing ‘Valkyrie.’ We were going to do a week of intensive Valkyrie/Wotan stuff. Well, Wotan was stuck somewhere, so that was that. And then one of the Valkyries had been on a skiing holiday in Austria, which at that time was a total disaster.”

Burbach, saw the ripple effect of COVID-19’s deadly entrance into Europe on her Iceland show. And, while it comes across as a bit humorous—gods and mythological horse-riding undertakers running into travel trouble—within days, it became clear to Burbach and her team that the onslaught of the pandemic might grind the production to a halt. Suddenly, social distancing became the rule. No one could shake hands. Seats were designated one per artist. And, then, rehearsals came to an abrupt stop. To pass time, members of the team explored Iceland.

“It was surreal because I was with my assistant in this incredible countryside between the tectonic plates of Europe and North America with hand sanitizer everywhere, ironically, and we thought, is this the last time we’ll be outdoors? Is this the last time we’ll have a meal? I remember on the flight back to London there was an eerie silence, like when something is very serious.”

“La Bohème” in Germany; “Das Wundertheater,” also in Germany; “Barbiere di Siviglia” in the United Kingdom; a reduction of “Die Walküre” at the Grimeborn Festival; “Edmea” at the Wexford Festival in Ireland; “Die Walküre” in Iceland; and “Eugène Onegin” at Holland Park Opera in the UK were all impacted.

“Did I think it [the pandemic] was going to affect seven shows since this started? No.”

Burbach is a director whose work and life have few borders. She was born in Tokyo to German parents. Her mother was an actress and chanson-singer, while her grandfather was an operatic baritone. Her studies at University College in London centered on History and History of Art, along with a MSc in International Public Policy. Burbach even did a stint at the United Nations in Paris.

But theater, film, and choreography tugged at her, and so, alongside her academic work, she started directing while at university. And, now, she’s one of opera’s brightest directors whose star continues to rise. In 2019, Burbach garnered a nomination for an International Opera Award in the Best Newcomer (Director) category. Also in 2019, the director earned a nomination for an Offie (Off West End Theatre Awards) for Best Opera Production 2019 for “Das Rheingold” at Grimeborn. Critics at The Guardian, Bachtrack, The Evening Standard, Broadway World, The Spectator, and many other publications have sung her praises.

Burbach worked as a Royal Opera House Staff Director before recently going freelance. Her ROH credits include revivals of “La bohème,” “Carmen,” “Così fan tutte,” “Il trovatore,” “Ariadne auf Naxos,” and “Tristan und Isolde.”

As she waits for the world to return to “normal,” she is reimagining opera direction and coming up with innovative solutions through creative problem solving—something the director finds both challenging and rewarding.

OperaWire: What challenges are directors facing during this time?

Julia Burbach: Our job is to be creative and to be inventive. You can find many solutions for many things; however, I don’t believe we can find solutions two days before. You need time, so you need to anticipate what’s coming your way. For instance, with something as grandiose as The Ring Cycle, if you do that in its original format, it involves many people and isn’t realistic unless you have a lot of money and can test everybody.

I’m dabbling in a few projects where we are taking a larger classic and thinking of how to re-orchestrate it, how to re-jig the narrative into something that is shorter, more concise. In practical terms, you work to make productions more manageable in terms of numbers and length while not taking away from an interesting exploration of a human journey. I find that to be very challenging and interesting work.

When I wasn’t leaving my room for two weeks because I didn’t want to kill off my parents, I had a lot of time with my hands. I was ready to direct this big “Onegin,” and I thought, can you do “Onegin” with one or two people?  What does that look like? What would you take and what would you leave? Can you just distill it down and tell it differently that is maybe more modern or more psychological, highlighting certain aspects over others?

I think producers are more willing to accept different approaches. I’m not sure that in previous years they would have been so flexible, innovative, or open to change. If COVID is speeding up innovation while the industry is trying to come up with different ways of packaging and presenting the art form, then all the better.

OW: When you think about repertoire, and scenes in which the artists have to be close, let’s take “Roméo et Juliette,” for example, how do you make romance work in the time of COVID?

JB:It’s not ideal, but there are ways to express longing through distance. You can have a situation where Juliette sings to Roméo as if he were there, but he’s not. That increases the world of the imagination. The artist can still be interactive with essentially nothing—the air or atmospheric lighting or something like that.

I think blocking is a wonderful thing, blocking is endless, isn’t it? There are ways you can express emotion, passion, and meaningful contact without physically being very close. Will it be as satisfying for the audience? I guess that depends. I’ve seen plenty of operas where people have been all over each other, and it meant nothing.

OW: Your career path isn’t typical. You have degrees in history and art history.

JB: I did very academic things in University. I have an undergrad and post-grad degrees and my Plan B was always going to be something along the lines that what my dad was doing. I was going to be a diplomat or a lawyer or go into international relations. I suppose diplomacy comes into directing big time, and my international background makes me feel at home because opera is so international. When there is a room full of people who all speak different languages, I love it.

The directing bug bit me when I was a teenager. I initially wanted to be a film director. But of course, it’s a scary thing to decide that you want to pursue an artistic career. But while I was at school, I was in the drama society, in the film society, and that’s where I started doing all of those things in a safe environment. I’ve done a lot of things. I tried film; I did theater; I did dance; I worked on film sets as an assistant, then I worked with some curators in museums. Everything polished or fine-tuned some aspect of storytelling, either physically or visually. All of those things are really, really important and useful. I don’t regret having different experiences that shaped my style and my outlook. It’s been enriching.

Credit: Frances Marshall

OW: Tell me more about how your wide range of experience has informed your directing.

JB: I get a lot of inspiration from the fine arts. I went with a colleague, another female director, to the Artemisia Gentileschi exhibit at the National Gallery, and it’s all about girl power. I’ve known about Gentileschi for ages because of my background in art history. My friend and I were both moved because the exhibition talked of how Gentileschi brought a nuanced female perspective to two very classic subjects, “Susanna and the Elders, and “Cleopatra.” We were moved because that’s a bit like what we do. We bring the female perspective, but we also bring our personal perspective. It’s not as easy as oh, every woman director is this and every man is that; I don’t believe in that at all. I think it’s much more complicated. It’s always very personal and of course, your gender, or your history or your experiences plays into all of that.

OW: Along those lines, as a woman director, are there certain places you won’t go. For example, portraying extreme violence towards women.

JB: The Rape of Lucretia” was a piece with many tricky aspects. I directed it in a way I found acceptable by making the audience voyeurs of the situation. By the time you get to the rape, Lucretia steps out of the action and confirms the audience. It’s like, “What are you doing here and who you’re looking at?” I inverted it and made it a critique of the situation.

Do I think that you have to be super, super explicit on stage to an extent that makes the performance uncomfortable? No, not necessarily. If you switch off the lights and do some suggestive things, you let the audience’s imagination connect the dots. It becomes an individual film in everybody’s mind that may be much more harrowing and real than anything we could ever do.

OW: I’m interested in understanding your process for analyzing a text. Where do you start with an opera like “Carmen,” a work where the ground has been covered many times over?

JB:I separate myself from other productions and go to a very personal place. There are multiple ways you can dissect the meaning. There’s the music; the most intimate, private, and secretive way of decoding what is going on, and then there’s the text which, to a certain extent, is up for grabs. The text doesn’t tell you everything and that places meaning between the lines, so I direct the silence, and it’s in the silence where the music takes over.

OW: But that can be confusing because the music rarely matches the text.

JB: That’s the best thing about it. There’s a struggle in the disconnect. It’s significant when the music matches and when it doesn’t match.

Let’s say you use “Tosca,” right? “Vissi d’arte.” I would show her physically stronger. I would show her with a direct eye line towards wherever we place the Madonna. I would stage it like a conversation where you’re waiting for an answer, but you don’t get it. Then of course I would have a moment where there is an answer, and the answer is to take control back. In a way, she gets into a fictitious conversation with somebody who doesn’t exist. Of course, she’s got a plan. She doesn’t decide to kill Scarpia five seconds before. The Madonna gives her strength, gives her the input, the message of absolution. If you direct it as such, I think it’s more interesting.

OW: What are some things you would advise younger directors to consider as they try to be innovative?

JB: I think what is very scary for them. What I’ve encountered is basic survival. They’re not earning any money right now. They’re very conscious that they need to find some kind of job. Then when all of this open up and gets better again, hopefully, the smaller venues that provide the chances for these up-and-coming directors to figure out their craft and learn and grow will still be there providing a platform for them.

I did endless shows in little pub theaters in London, up and down the avenue, on a budget of zero pounds, and it was all really, really important. I did the same shebang again when I entered opera. For young directors or the ones who are starting, don’t give up yet; keep your cool and stick with it for a little while longer.

OW: What do you see as bright spots to the COVID crisis, and what are some innovations you would like to stay?

JBI’ve done some of my best work with very small budgets. By no means am I suggesting that singers or creatives shouldn’t be paid appropriately, but what I am saying is that maybe the sets and everything doesn’t need to be as expensive.

Often, we’ve designed something, they cost it, and come back with, “Could you please chop off x amount.” On various occasions, we improved ourselves because we had to think about it differently. And we liked it more.

Also, it’s forcing collaboration between different people. Be it film, be it dance. I think all of those things are good if it increases the sense of teamwork, camaraderie, and creativity across the board. Those aspects are not dependent necessarily on budgets.


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