Q & A: Martin Glaser on His Directing Style & His Production of ‘The Jacobin’ in Brno

By Alan Neilson

Performances of Antonín Dvořák’s opera “The Jacobin” are certainly rare events, particularly outside the Czech Republic. Whether or not its neglect can be deemed deserved, however, is less certain. Its recent production by the Brno National Theatre, directed by Martin Glaser, would suggest that it has, indeed, been treated unfairly. Sure, it is full of folk melodies, dancing peasants, stock characters and the usual simple narrative beloved by comic operas, but it is also much more, both musically and dramatically. Dvořák’s music is beautifully woven, moving beyond the folk idiom to incorporate the dramatic sensitivities of the narrative, which is more developed than the work is often given credit for.

Glaser’s interpretation won a series of fine reviews and deservedly so! He created a colorful, vibrant staging in which the characters were clearly drawn to bring out the dramatic nature of the work. Moreover, he achieved this without abandoning the work’s essential Czech characteristics. The audience was able to engage and enjoy both aspects of the work. It smiled alongside the exuberant peasantry and idiotic behavior of some of its characters and sympathized with others. It all made for a wonderful evening of entertainment.

While in Brno to review the production, Operawire took the opportunity to meet up with the director for what turned out to be a fascinating interview.

OW: What made you want to become a director of opera?

Martin Glaser: I came from the western part of Bohemia where there are no theaters, only coal mines and factories, and at that point in my life I didn’t want to do theatre. I was interested in chemistry and wanted to pursue a career as a scientist. However, when I started to study at university, I found I didn’t have as much passion for chemistry as the other students. I didn’t want to spend every evening in the laboratory. I was far more interested in going to the film club, to the theatre, exhibitions and concerts. So, I decided to abandon chemistry and apply to study the staging of drama at an academy in Prague. The teachers there saw some talent in me, and I was admitted onto the course where I studied staging and dramaturgy.

Then I went to České Budějovice, a small town in the South of Bohemia, where I became a house director. I spent seven years there and this was the first time I directed an opera. Mainly I was directing spoken drama, but director of the opera offered me the opportunity to direct Verdi’s “Otello.” That was in 2012; I came to opera very late in my career.

Now, I direct one spoken drama each season and an opera every two years. I enjoy the crossing between the two worlds. They are very different. In drama you have to work a lot harder to create the correct emotional rhythm of the scenes, although you do have more freedom in how to do this. In opera, however, the music is able to lead you and the path is usually very clear.

OW: What is your starting point when you are given an opera to direct?

MG: I need a long time to prepare a work. Normally, I spend two years on each production. Of course, I listen to the music, but it is also important for me to understand the themes of the work; I need to know why I am staging it. I think this has arisen because of my roots in spoken drama. I need to find connections between the opera’s narrative and its characters with contemporary society. As a director, I am interested in the roots of the story. I use the time in which the composer and the librettist created the work to inspire me, and then build upon this to create a bridge across time to the present day. However, I do not feel the need to stage it in a present day context.

OW: What role does the music have in your reading of the work?

MG: I cannot read music, but I love music. So, when I decide to stage an opera, I have listened to it for months beforehand. However, until I came to direct “The Jacobin,” the crucial points for me were always the themes of the work, the story and the drama. I have so far directed about nine operas and they all have very strong stories, such as “Otello” and “Jenufa,” and, therefore, my stagings are centered on the drama.

“The Jacobin” is the first opera I am staging solely because of the music, which came as a very big surprise to me. It was a difficult process for me to decide to say yes to staging the opera. In the past I have rejected operas even though I have liked the story, for example Cherubini’s “Medea,” and this is because I could not connect to the music. When I was offered “The Jacobin” by the opera director, he said to me “I know you have a complicated relationship with Czech national operas but try to listen to it.” I didn’t know the work, and when I listened to it, I fell in love with the music. This is why I decided to stage it, it wasn’t because of the drama.

OW: When you direct an opera are you simply looking to tell the story or are you attempting to reveal its hidden depths? 

MG: Absolutely I am trying to get to the core of the work and bring out its deeper meanings. It is also what I do in spoken drama. I try to make sure I know the truth that lies beneath the words, beneath the music, before I start on the practicalities of devising a staging. Sometimes, it can be difficult to communicate these deeper meanings in words, but I have to try to find a way to touch the audience.

OW: How important is the reaction of the audience to what you are doing?

MG: When I was training to become a scientist, I realized I would be much happier telling people stories and affecting their emotions. I want to tell people my version of stories and I am very happy if they react by laughing where I want them to, or feel sad where I want them to. This is how I judge my success. Their reactions are fundamental to what I am doing.

When I started out as a director, I was working in a small provincial theatre where you had to fight for your audiences; I know what a great feeling it is when the house is full. If the people understand what you are doing, they will come. So, it became very important for me to create a production that the audience clearly understands and enjoys. I always aim to do something that will mean we have a full house.

It is also important for me to challenge the audience intellectually. I believe it is possible to talk to audiences about any issue providing you are not afraid to use emotions, which I know is not popular these days. I want people to think about why they behave and feel the way they do.

OW: Three years ago, at the Brno Janáček Festival you directed a very well received production of “Jenufa.” What was the most important theme you wished to bring out, and how did you achieve it? 

MG: Along with my team, we discovered a paradox in the work that dictated our staging. Janáček created a work in which the characters talked to each other in a way that reflected real life, but we realized that none of the the characters actually listened to each other. Yes, they heard the words, but there was no understanding of truth that underpins them. This was crucial to our interpretation. Initially, we played the second act in a single room and spent a lot of time on every gesture to emphasize that the characters were not listening to each other, but this proved to be very difficult. We, therefore, changed it and set the act so that the characters were situated in separate rooms, which proved to be very effective in creating a sense of isolation.

OW: How closely do you work with other members of the production team in devising the overall structure of the interpretation?

 MG: I work regularly with the scenographer Pavel Borák, who happens to be one of the best set designers in the Czech Republic and also a close friend. We live close to each other and meet every week to discuss the productions we are doing. So, it is very much a collaboration.

OW: What sort of input do you like to receive from the singers? 

MG: When I arrive to work on a production, I like to be fully prepared. But, I also like listening to the singers’ ideas as much as I can; I know how difficult it is for singers to be on a stage interpreting a role, and I want to let them breath. I, therefore, outline the basis for the production, and then I try to accommodate what they want to do.

What is very different about opera to spoken drama is that the singers have probably played their roles many times in other productions, and they bring their experiences with them. In spoken drama this is not so common. It means that in directing an opera, I sometimes have to coach singers to abandon parts or all their past interpretation of a character. This was not, however, the case with “The Jacobin;” most of the singers had not performed the opera before, which is actually better for me.

Most singers are talented actors and know how to successfully interpret a character. My method is to watch them carefully and when I see them do something, which maybe only a small thing that doesn’t relate to the wider context, use it to redirect and build their interpretation.

OW: What are your thoughts about directing “The Jacobin?” 

MG: What attracted me to the opera was the music, which touched me deeply. It may sound pathetic, but the music is the music of my home, and for me the theme of home is becoming more and more important in the difficult times societies are going through. I said yes to staging it, even though I had no idea about how I was going to do it. When I read the libretto for the first time, I thought this is a very simple story, very effective and very Czech. However, I also saw in it a universal story about the struggle between good and evil, about the powerful versus the weak and the fight for truth and love. I also recognized that it is through the music that the characters fight. In many operas, it is difficult for me to understand why the singers are singing, but in “The Jacobin” they sing because it is their way of fighting to change things.

We wanted to incorporate the Czech landscape into the opera, which is not an easy thing to do. We didn’t want to use projections. We wanted to incorporate it in an artificial way, so we opted for a stage which was comprised of movable wooden waves to represent the rhythm of the Czech countryside as well as the rhythms of behavior of the Czech people.

We wanted to recreate Czech music, Czech countryside and the Czech people, but in a way that can be understood by non-Czechs and my generation.

I say my generation because we grew up when the communists were in power, and they used nationalist composers, such as Dvořák and Smetana for propaganda purposes. We saw and heard them on TV; we were told about them in school, in which the folk were presented in heavy traditional folk costumes in images full of traditional houses in Czech villages. As children we hated it, and my generation still does not like it. We do not want to listen to the music. There is plenty of other music to listen to, and this is what we did. The only piece of Czech opera I really liked was “Rusalka.”

When my friends asked me what I was working on and I told them it was “The Jacobin,” they were very skeptical. The thing is, I have to overcome what is a very strong prejudice in the memories of the people of my generation. It is a challenge.

OW: What type of costumes are being used? Are they traditional costumes?  

MG: The inspiration is the traditional costumes of the past, but we have not created traditional designs. We certainly did not want to replicate the costumes even though the opera is set in a specific time and place and is essential to the interpretation. We, therefore, settled upon designs that gave the impression of tradition; they are abstractions of folk costumes which hopefully won’t alienate people.

The only character who is dressed in a traditional costume is the count.

OW: How quickly did the singers adapt to your interpretation of the work?

MG: Well, they are opera people, so they love opera and don’t have this dislike of nationalist works, which was great for me as I don’t have to convince them of its worth.

It was the third or fourth time that I have worked with the cast, so we know each other well and they have a good understanding of my methods, and what I am trying to do. It was the first opera of the season which made it easier as we have more time and space. They quickly realized that my idea would work, so things moved quickly and smoothly.

OW: Why do you think “The Jacobin” is so rarely played outside the Czech Republic? 

MG: I think it is because when people don’t listen to the music or read the words carefully, they think it is a piece of Czech kitsch. But actually the music is lovely. It is true that the story can be interpreted as too local and too nationalist, but it is basically dealing with universal issues, and this is what I have tried to convey in my staging.

OW: If you could direct any opera, what would it be?

MG: That is not easy to answer as I am not well-educated in opera. But I do have a dream opera which I would like to direct one day: Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.”


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