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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Colin Graham

Colin Graham

The 1986 season of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis was in full swing when its multifaceted artistic director, Colin Graham, paused to reflect on the role of stage directors in general and on his life in particular. It was a gloriously sunny Saturday morning on the banks of the Mississippi and, as the leisurely conversation unfolded under the festival tent on the sloping green hillside at Webster University, one might not have thought that he would soon be supervising a matinee (Tales of Hoffmann) and evening (Journey to Rheims) performance of two of his own productions, attending meetings with delegates from the National Endowment for the Arts, mixing and mingling with visiting press — it was "press week" in St. Louis — and hosting a spray of social receptions. Unflappably low-key and sharply articulate, Colin Graham sipped Coke and talked of his past, present, and future.

He was born in Hove, England, in 1931 and studied to be an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Says Graham: "At that time I also wanted to be a dancer and a singer and a composer and a stage director and the whole lot. And I'm glad I did, too, because it's all turned out to be very useful." His family was fond of, but not involved in, the arts except for his great-grandmother who had, for a short time, been an actress. "But that was in Edwardian days when it wasn't really respectable to be an actress, and when she got married she was removed from the boards immediately." One year, while still a student, he got a holiday job as an assistant stage manager at Covent Garden during a particularly exciting season when Erich Kleiber was still holding forth in the historic house. "That's what really decided me that opera was going to involve all the things that I was interested in. When I went back to the Academy, I elected to concentrate only on stage management so that I could watch the directors at work." After graduation, he went off to be an actor for two years to get some more performing experience, and then he wrote to all the opera and ballet companies about getting a job as a stage manager. His first professional engagement was the beginning of a 23-year association with Benjamin Britten.

Britten's English Opera Group proved to be a crucible for the artistic consciousness of the young Graham. He loses no time in crediting the great English composer with truly rare integrity, insight and imagination and the model he provided was unforgettable. In turn, Britten must have recognized Graham's gifts: all the opera premieres after 1961 were entrusted to the director, who has staged every Britten opera with the exception of Billy Budd . ("Strangely enough, that one has eluded me. I've been asked to do it twice, but couldn't.")

At the beginning of his career, his work in opera and theatre was evenly divided. "I loved working in theatre. It was very good for me to have to, in a sense, conceive my own music, orchestration, timing. And I miss it, but the fact is that one gets booked up years in advance for an opera production, but only weeks in advance for a play. So whenever I was asked to do a play, I had already been booked to do an opera. It's always saddened me. I miss Shakespeare particularly. It makes you think much more when you don't have the composer doing half the thinking for you. It's easy to impose something on an opera because so much is already there. In a play you can't just add another coat of varnish. You've got to get to the heart of it and spring from that."

Adding coats of varnish is hardly Graham's approach to opera either. "I learned so much from Britten. Above all, he said, you must rely on the music. The fountspring must be the music, and if you're going to start imposing other conventions on opera, you've got to be very sure that you're not distorting the work." It is this total commitment to the composer's vision that has made Graham such a desirable collaborator to such contemporary figures as Richard Rodney Bennett, Sir William Walton, Thea Musgrave, the American Stephen Paulus, and many others. But his scope is very broad and, in addition to his collaboration with the composers of his own time — Graham has also contributed his own librettos to works by a number of composers including Britten and Paulus — the operas he has directed range from Monteverdi through the standard repertory to Debussy and Janacek.

While he himself got into stage direction by way of his experience as an actor, Graham does not know many directors who got started as performers. Most, he says, get their start with university productions of either plays or operas. Once they have earned professional reputations, they are taken on by concert managers, just as performing artists are, and it is supposed that these managers, in handling singers and conductors, know what opera companies' needs are. But according to Graham it's very rare that directors get engagements through management. "It's nearly always the grapevine, people having seen their productions. Opera managements are not prepared to take risks on stage directors because it's a very expensive risk. You can afford to fall down on one singer, but in the case of a stage director or designer, the risk is too heavy."

When Graham discusses the organizational structure of opera companies, there is nothing ambiguous in his explanation. While the overall responsibility of choosing directors, conductors, designers, and singers may lie with a general director whose job it is to determine artistic policy, it must be the stage director whose vision shapes every aspect of a given production. "Once a general director engages somebody to do a show, he has to put trust in them. The stage director has the initial concept which he passes on to the designer and to everyone else. There are many types of directors: some work on the purely pictorial side and are not terribly concerned with what's going on inside the character. You also have those who feel that it is their mission to reinterpret a work for the 20th century and make it a sociological document — which works with some operas and doesn't work with others. (It becomes obtrusive when it doesn't work.) Composers sometimes even express surprise when you have seen something which they themselves had not seen in their work. Stage directions are important and bear examination, but acting styles and conventions change in every decade. You'll find yourself doing a rather old-fashioned production if you adhere too rigidly to some stage directions. You can't make rules about these things. There are many ways of presenting the same point. And tastes are always changing, the pendulum always going back and forth."

Hearing Colin Graham discourse on concepts such as dualities, time, and the multiplicity of perception, one becomes aware of his own many-sidedness, always rooted in his profound humanism. "I have another side to my life, you see. I'm studying for the Church as well, which is one of the reasons that I'm now resident in St. Louis since my studies for that are here. So when [founder and first general director] Richard Gaddes offered me this "part-time job" with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, it just seemed to fit in very well. But I have to be very careful how much other work I accept because it starts prejudicing my time." Except for the eight weeks in the summer that he spends staging opera at the Banff Festival and a mere few days each year in London, Colin Graham stays put in St. Louis. "I've gone off big cities," he quips.

"I don't call it a conversion; that sounds too much like a mid-life crisis. It was an awakening from a life which was entirely self-centered. I was really involved only with success: my success, my reviews, my position, my productions. It excluded everybody and everything else entirely. One day, I realized that it didn't mean very much and that, whatever I was going to do in the future, I needed to do for the sake of other people. At that particular moment, God didn't enter into it (although He was obviously working on me). That happened a couple of weeks later. I was working in Banff at the time, in the winter. Those mountains are very conducive to deep thought and I underwent a whole series of . . . supernatural experiences, really, which — I hate to use the phrase, it's always so misunderstood — led to my being 'born again."' But to do what in the Church? "I have a very great feeling of responsibility inside this strange profession. There are a whole lot of people who need comfort and guidance and counseling, particularly in this country. So many people, especially when they're constantly touring, find themselves really snarled up, thinking solely about success and career to the exclusion of everything else. They lose touch with human relationships, even with their nearest and dearest." There was no mistaking Graham's unbounded sensibility and compassion, and his resolve to put his life to the service of others was equally clear.

When Colin Graham speaks of audiences in New York, Paris, London, the world's great centers as opposed to the sometimes less sophisticated audiences of more provincial cities, he suggests that the metropolitan spectator is at a distinct advantage, having more data available, constantly being exposed to more (and often contradictory) stimuli and changing styles. "That can be very difficult. One has no intention of playing down to audiences with less experience than, say, a London audience, or reducing the quality or intensity of what one is doing. At the same time, one must be aware of the fact that they may not be as receptive to certain styles or concepts. One must inevitably have the audience in the back of one's mind. The audience is a crucial part of all this and if they resist, it's very difficult, and when they go with it, it's wonderful.

"Britten was very consciously trying to reach to an audience. He was more concerned with that than anything else, that's what would upset his stomach every time there was a performance, whether the audience was going to receive it. That was paramount to him." The intangible but privileged communion between creator and receptor via the interpreter, so central to Britten's values, is equally prized by Graham, contrasted to certain (unnamed) contemporaries ("incestuous and masturbatory") whose professed disdain for audiences is total. At a rehearsal of a new opera with a particularly wordy and philosophical libretto, the orchestral cacophony drowned out all semblance of comprehensibility. When the composer's attention was drawn to the fact that no one knew what was happening on stage, he responded "I'm not in the least interested in whether the audience hears the words or understands what's going on or not. The only reason the words were there was to inspire me to write the music." The anecdote illustrates where Graham stands: he has little patience for a certain type of arrogance at the expense of lay people who have done their best to tune in to the creative mind.

Anecdotes and vignettes from his experience — always charmingly told — provide further insight into Colin Graham's interests and tastes. He tells, for instance, the story of obtaining permission from Ingmar Bergman to base a libretto on one of the Swedish film maker's movies, provided a suitable composer could be found. The English composer Nicholas Maw heard about it and asked if he might be considered to write the music for such a show. On getting back to Bergman with his choice, Graham learned that the exclusive rights had just been assigned to a then-unknown American named Stephen Sondheim. The film, of course, was Smiles of a Summer Night ; the show, A Little Night Music . (Maw went on to write The Rising of the Moon for Glyndebourne instead.) Graham will have his first opportunity of directing the Sondheim classic at Banff next year, along with Cavalli's L'Ormindo. "I do have very catholic tastes. I've always wanted to do musicals because of this wonderful mix of the theatre, the spoken word and the music. But I've done few in my time, having backed off when I discovered the hideous circumstances in which new musicals are put on."

Producer-director-librettist-clergyman-humanist Graham talks about his life with astonishing clarity and candor. In the middle of a flourishing career, he has seized the reigns of his personal destiny by asking himself some fundamental questions and, where he has felt it necessary, starting over again. "The effect it has had on my work — I no longer need to focus everything on myself — is that I now know that I trust the music much more, that I do everything for the benefit of the work and the people who are putting it on and the audience, rather than for my own gratification and my own réclame." At least in St. Louis and in Banff, opera goers are witnessing a fresh and unusual dimension in Colin Graham productions.

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