Q & A: Paco Azorín on ‘Tosca,’ & the Art of Directing Opera

By Mauricio Villa

Paco Azorín is one of today’s most prolific artists in Spain. In a 25 years, he has participated in more than 300 productions in theater and opera.

Recently his 2014 “Tosca” debuted at the Teatro Real de Madrid for the very first time and with it audiences got to see three different casts with the likes of Anna Netrebko, Sondra Radvanovsky, Maria Agresta, Joseph Calleja, Michael Fabiano, and Jonas Kaufmann, among others. Azorin worked with all three casts finding new approaches to his production and each creating their own interpretation of the production.

OperWire spoke to the Spanish director on his approach to opera, “Tosca” and his dream role.

Opera Wire: You have directed over 300 productions. Tell me how you got into set design and stage direction and how you have been able to direct so many productions at such a young age?

Paco Azorín: I basically started very young, and I am hyperactive. I studied set design at “Institu del Teatre” where the main subject was stage designing. But according to the studies regulations at my time, you could choose alternative subjects, and I did stage directing, so in the end, I obtained a double degree.

OW:  You founded the festival “Shakespeare de Santa Susana” and you have lots of plays. How did you get into opera?

PA: Well, you must take into consideration the vast catalog of operas based on Shakespeare. When I founded this festival, it was not only about performing Shakespeare, but we also did a “How to translate Shakespeare workshop,” an exposition about “Shakespeare and the comic world.” Shakespeare is constantly present in life. The Beatles, for example, made a Music Video performing an extract of “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And I remember that in one of the workshops we did, most people agreed that Verdi’s “Macbeth” was more Shakespearean than the original play. Shakespeare and opera are inseparable. I am in a moment in my life where I don’t want to choose…I want it all!

OW: Are you in a position where you can choose your projects?

PA: I feel I am a very privileged person. During my almost 30 year career, I have always been seen in a position of choosing. At the beginning of my career, I had more offers than I could attend. That gave me the possibility of choosing. I got into theater because of opera. My grandfather Paco was an amateur clarinetist and a devoted Zarzuela (Spanish Operetta) fan. There was always Zarzuela at home, with his vinyl records or cassettes. My parents always say that my brother and I sang before we talked. So, Zarzuela was the soundtrack of my childhood.

There was no opera tradition at home. It was something that came from my brother and me. We saw the television opera transmissions from Spanish theaters. I was around 11 years old when I decided I wanted to work in opera. But, from the very beginning, I conceived opera as a poetic dimension of space. I used to do models of theaters using cookie cardboard boxes. One of my favorite Christmas presents was a set of modeling and painting. Building sets for Zarzuelas was my main hobby and when I decided to study set design, my parents supported me in my decision.

OW: To direct opera it is crucial to know the score and the music. Where did you study music?

PA: I have a medium level in music theory and piano because you need to know about music. You also need to know the different kind of musical rehearsals that go through the process of creating an opera. I use the score to study the opera I am working on. But when I have the singers and I must think about how I can obtain the result I want from them, there is no set method for me about working with them.

I began working with the greatest Spanish directors in my youth like Luis Pascual or Mario Gas. I could see how different their approaches in rehearsals were. I don’t work with the score that much, but with the music itself. A score is a poor notation book where the grandiosity of the music is beyond its pages. However, when I can’t find a good theatrical solution for a scene, I always go back to the score and find the solution in the music. I rarely go back to the libretto, although there are a few exceptions. Tosca’s libretto is one of them. But, most opera libretti are completely useless. Even if “Tosca” is a very good libretto, if you read Sardou’s play which the opera is based on, you can see that Puccini cut the act which happens in “La Villa.” Sardou’s play has five acts while the opera has only three and there is some vital information lost that Puccini and Illica had to condense in the three act opera.

OW: How is the experience of working with singing actors?

PA: The first thing that has to be understood is that they are not “actors,” they are performers, emotional vessels. They understand drama through the music. Therefore, I talk to them about the color of the music and the voice in a specific moment to transform it into a scenic reaction. On the second hand, singers understand “action” very well. When you begin the first rehearsal process, you find singers that might have lots of information and preconceived ideas from past productions of a given role. This information can sometimes block singers. So, I try to work with them as if they were doing the role for the very first time. The precious gift I can get from a singer is when they tell me, “I never imagined that this could be done this way, after all the productions that I have already done.” I always try to search for a different point of view from the traditional stagings of operas.

OW: What is your process with singers especially when there is such a limited period of rehearsal time? Have you ever been in a situation where you don’t agree on something?

PA: It has rarely happened to me. I had one experience during the rehearsals of a revival. A singer had just arrived for a few rehearsals to join the cast and he couldn’t understand what I wanted from him. He was not opened to my proposal. So he saw a performance with another already performing. After the performance he told me, “I understand your point of view now, it works, I love it, and I’ll try to do the best I can. But I would need a month of rehearsals to reach this result.” You have to take into consideration that in the operatic world that the number of rehearsals ad performances is limited especially a singer is popular.

There might be confrontations in rehearsals, so we share our opinions and try to reach a good solution that we are both happy with. You need to work as a team on stage. I can’t do anything on my own and neither can the soprano. Therefore, you have to reach an agreement. At the end of the day, I might have the most wonderful ideas, but if I am not able to make them work or make them clear in the amount of time available, then I’m a good director. I’m simply a ideologist.

OW: As you have noted, you always look for a different point of view. Tell me about this “Tosca” and what you wanted to convey in this interpretation?

PA: I don’t have a formula. But I think that you must confront the works as if it were the first time you were seeing them. I look to the audience members who have seen dozens of different productions of “Tosca.” I feel obligated to open their minds and show them another point of view. But you also have to think that there might be first time opera goers or it might be an audience member’s first “Tosca.” There are people who also might come with their own ideas and expectations. I try to make a production meaningful to everyone in the audience. This is a complex job, but my solution is to give multiple levels of meaning. This is why I work with the multiple layers of the characters and scenes. I want every person to take something away from what I show and interpret it in their own way. You can see a traditional “Tosca” in this production. I also try follow the music and the libretto before adding new ideas.

OW: This production debuted at Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona in 2014 and has been seen in several revivals in multiple theaters. The production has seen many changes throughout the years. Tell me about the evolution of the production?

PA: The answer is simple: we are alive, and scenic arts are alive. So, I am a different person right now from the person I was in 2014. I use the same concept for myself when I go into the first rehearsal. I try to approach it as if I were directing “Tosca” for the very first time and I have not seen it before. And I am always present in the rehearsals of every production. If an assistant reproduces what had been done two years before in this production, then it is a dead job.

I have been lucky enough to choose and my intent is not to achieve a huge catalog of different opera productions. That’s why I can attend the rehearsals of my revivals. I want to keep the production alive. I can choose what, where, and when. I must tell you that I was afraid of the big opera stars that came to rehearse three days before their debut. But they have been very humble and work very hard. I believe that they have reached that level due to their hard work.

OW: What is an opera you dream of directing?

PA: I go to both extremes of the repertoire; “The birth of Opera” and 20th century and new operas.” I would love to do any Monteverdi opera or 20th-century or new composition. I would love to do “Eugene Onegin” and “Boris Godunov,” but I don’t speak Russian and that’s a big problem for me. But it’s not only the language. If I really want to understand the music, I need to be immersed in the culture and surroundings of these operas. And Russian culture is so far for me. I feel very limited with Russian opera despite my interest. I would consider Wagner and I would obviously love to do a Ring cycle. But I would like to begin with “Lohengrin” and do “Tristan und Isolde” after.

OW: What are you looking forward to next season?

PA: Well, I have several new productions, and I am really looking forward to staging Albeniz’s “The Magic copal” at the Teatro de la Zarzuela. It’s a very interesting project. Then there is “La Voix humane” that I will do in Bilbao. I feel very fortunate and very happy.



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