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12 Sep 2019

In conversation with Nina Brazier

When British opera director Nina Brazier tries to telephone me from Frankfurt, where she is in the middle of rehearsals for a revival of Florentine Klepper’s 2015 production of Martinů’s Julietta, she finds herself - to my embarrassment - ‘blocked’ by my telephone preference settings. The technical hitch is soon solved; but doors, in the UK and Europe, are certainly very much wide open for Nina, who has been described by The Observer as ‘one of Britain’s leading young directors of opera’.

An interview with Nina Brazier

By Claire Seymour

Above: Nina Brazier


Nina joined Frankfurt Opera in 2018 as a staff director and she describes some of the challenges of leading the company’s revivals, not least the very short amount of time - just a couple of weeks - that she has to prepare a new cast and chorus. In the case of Julietta , one or two of the soloists and many of the chorus are familiar with Klepper’s production, which sets Martinů’s strange, surreal opera (in which the inhabitants of a town have no memories) in what Nina describes as a “theatrical dream world” which plays with the aesthetics of impersonal spaces such as offices, nursing homes and cafeterias where otherwise inconspicuous waiting-room plants grow and develop into a forest of dreams. It’s beautifully directed, she says, and the challenge is to find a balance between honouring Martinů’s opera and doing justice to the work itself, and respecting the original director’s conception.

I ask Nina how she goes about preparing a revival? She explains that when she arrived in Frankfurt eighteen months ago, all the productions were ‘new’ to her. There is usually a video recording of the premiere, so she will watch one or two DVD versions and also study the original staff director’s book, which will indicate the blocking. Comparing the two will sometimes reveal when a mistake has been made and Nina will aim, as far as possible, to be loyal to the original, though she’s concerned, too, to allow the singer some ‘freedom’: “All singers are different, in terms of their instinct and emotional response to a character, and I try to respect that, as the original director would have done.” So, while the choreography needs to be observed, so that characters are in the right place at the right time, a singer must have some freedom to be and feel that character. On a few occasions Nina has had to call the original assistant director, if a detail isn’t clear - especially is the lighting design involved a lot of darkness and shadow, making it difficult to see on the DVD exactly what was happening!

There’s a real satisfaction in getting the production ready for its revival run, but with rehearsal time so restricted Nina confesses to finding it frustrating when it’s not possible to observe every detail of the original. She must have found it satisfying to have the opportunity to mount her first fully independent opera production in Germany recently - Le nozze di Figaro at Delphi Theater Berlin, which inaugurated Opernfest, the International Festival of Young Opera Singers hosted by the Berlin Opera Academy, and which was described by one critic as ‘characterized by an economy of gesture married to an unbridled sense of whimsical fun’.

NB Rehearsal Tristram Kenton.jpgNina Brazier in rehearsal. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

The autumn will be busy, as Nina will be travelling between Germany, Austria and the UK: in September, for the reprise at Kings Place of Dear Marie Stopes - an opera by Alex Mills first performed at the Wellcome Collection museum as part of the Tête à Tête opera festival in 2018, commemorating the centenary of the publication of Stopes’ Married Love - and the following month when the ongoing world tour of East West Street - a partly staged reading inspired by international human rights lawyer Philippe Sands’ award-winning bestseller about the Nuremberg trials - arrives at the Southbank Centre and later tours to MuTh in Vienna in November.

How did Nina come to be involved in these unusual creative projects? She explains that Mills had seen and enjoyed her one-hour ‘re-imagining’ of A Winter’s Tale with The Hermes Experiment, involving four musicians and five actors, at the Tête à Tête Opera Festival in 2017, and subsequently approached her to direct Dear Marie Stopes. With issues relating to birth control and female sexual health still very much current today, and as the proposal fitted her schedule, Nina accepted. Mills’ chamber opera sets emotionally charged letters, now stored in the Wellcome Collection’s archives, from readers asking Stopes for advice and sharing their individual stories. Nina comments that many could have been written today and that they are often utterly heart-breaking. The opera opens with a harrowing letter from a woman who has had fourteen children, nine of whom were still living, asking for help as a doctor had told her that she will die if she has another child.

As for East West Street, Nina comments that it’s surprising that her path ever collided with that of Philippe Sands, prize-winning author of book exploring the lives of three men involved in the Nuremberg Trials who, while on opposite sides of the ‘good-evil’ divide, find solace in the same piece of music: Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Hans Frank, who had been Hitler’s personal lawyer, was known as the ‘Butcher of Poland’ and was accused and convicted for his role in the murder of three million Jews and Poles. Raphael Lemkin was an advisor to the American prosecutors who championed the concept of genocide, a term he invented. Hersch Lauterpacht was a member of the British prosecution team who argues for the concept of ‘crimes against humanity’. As Nina describes the action in a programme article for a performance at the 92nd St Y in New York: ‘The two men contemplated different moments in their lives: Frank awaited judgement for his terrible role in the atrocities in Poland and a possible sentence of death; Lauterpacht had just learned of the murder of his entire family - by the man he was prosecuting. Music, it seems, does not discriminate.’

Sands originally presented his research as a lecture at Oxford Unversity, and then expanded this by integrating a violist in a second reading at Inner Temple. But, as the project grew he realised that it needed more music. One of his childhood friends was the French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri; Sands ‘pestered’ a reluctant Naouri to look at the text, and when the singer finally agreed to take a look he recognised a musical thread woven through the story and selected an eclectic range of pieces, from Ravel to Beethoven, Rachmaninov to Leonard Cohen. Naouri involved a friend from Paris, the renowned jazz pianist Guillaume de Chassy: East West Street was growing - and it was a work in need of a director.

East West Street_Nina & Katja Riemann offstage Kopie.jpgKatja Riemann and Nina Brazier, East West Street (offstage).

Sands didn’t have many musical contacts, but one such was Paul Cremo, dramaturg at the Metropolitan Opera New York. Asked if he knew of any directors in the UK who might be interested, Cremo contacted English National Opera where Nina was working as a freelance staff director. As Nina puts it, she’d been badgering producing director Terri-Jayne Griffin to see some of her work, and so when the call from Cremo arrived Terri-Jayne recommended that Sands get in touch with Nina. Surprised to find herself receiving a telephone call from the Metropolitan Opera, Nina subsequently travelled to the Hay Festival in 2014, where the work was performed, with Sands as narrator, piano and bass-baritone contributions, some images, but no movement. It was fascinating but not very theatrical, she remembers; but the next day, the group sat in the garden at Hay and brainstormed development ideas, with contributions too from Naouri’s wife, Natalie Dessay.

One major decision was to introduce a second narrator: 90 minutes is a long time, even with musical interjections, for the audience to listen to a single voice, Nina suggests. Vanessa Redgrave agreed to perform the role of female narrator for the performance in the Purcell Room, and while there was not much time to rehearse, and Nina would not describe the work at this point as ‘staged’, the resulting performance had greater “theatrical shape”. Sands began to receive invitations to present East West Street overseas, often in academic or judicial contexts, and the ensemble travelled to Stockholm and, in the 70th anniversary year of the Nuremburg Trials, to the original court room itself. This was obviously an incredibly emotional performance: as Nina explains, there were elderly people present who had themselves been at the Trials. Awarded an Evening Standard Theatre Award, Vanessa Redgrave was unable to participate in the Nuremberg performances; her ‘replacement’ was German film doyenne Katja Riemann - when Nina asked her German uncle if he knew of Riemann, he replied, “She’s a genre of her own!”

Sands’ book had now been published, and the ensemble accompanied him on what was essentially a ‘world book tour’. The emotional resonances of the performance accumulated: Emmanuel Ax joined them as guest pianist, performing East West Street for the first time in November 2017 in Lviv in western Ukraine, the city of his birth, which he had left as a child in 1956 and not since revisited. His encore, not surprisingly, wrought tears from many as the city’s, the people’s and the pianist’s shared history came together. The impact of East West Street was absolutely unanticipated, says Nina. Sitting on the lawn in Hay in 2013, no one knew what it would become.

Given that her initial training was in the field of drama (Drama at Exeter University, followed by a Masters in Text and Performance at RADA), I wonder how Nina came to be involved in opera? She explains, with characteristic modesty, that finding herself in London, a recent graduate hoping to make a career in the theatre and dreadful at networking, she wrote what she describes as “terribly bad letters” seeking opportunities to gain experience. The result of one such letter was an invitation from Ian Riches, then Artistic Director at the Royal Court Theatre, to participate in a two-week directors’ course, working alongside playwrights, directors such as Katie Mitchell, actors and writers, and involving workshops and performances. During the course, hearing that John Wright was looking for a director who could read music to assist him on a new contemporary opera, Arcane, by Paul Clark, another director, Vicky Jones, suggested Nina. “My childhood in Wales had involved lots of singing and playing music, but at that time I hadn’t even been to the opera.”

Cosi at Ryedale.jpgCosì fan tutte, Ryedale Festival Opera, 2019.

This first experience of opera “brought together everything I love about theatre - I was completely overwhelmed with the way it heightened human expression”. Things snowballed from there: Nina assisted Charles Edwards on his Rigoletto for Opera North in 2006, and thereafter has worked as an Assistant/Staff director at Welsh National Opera, the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, then more recently as an Associate Director at Theater Bonn, and directed independent productions at Ryedale Festival Opera, Tête à Tête, Theâtre de la Colline in Paris, 92 nd St Y and the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York, Kings Place, Buxton International Opera Festival and the Royal Festival Hall, among other venues. Her productions have earned stellar praise, withOpera Now admiring her ‘genuine music theatre sensibility’ ( A Telephone Call, Tête à Tête 2015); Opera Magazine calling her a ‘skilful director’ (The Merry Widow, Ryedale Festival Opera 2015) Early Music extolling the ‘impressively light directorial touch’ and the ‘simplicity of the staging and direction [which] meant that the music was allowed to speak for itself, portraying the characters in the way that Handel’s music suggests’ (Alcina, Ryedale Festival Opera and national tour 2016); and Opera Scotland noting her ‘talent as a director ... emphasising clarity of plot outline’ (La finta giardiniera, Ryedale Festival Opera and national tour 2018).

October will see Nina back in Frankfurt, turning her attention to the revival of David Hermann’s 2017 production of Ernst Křenek’s Drei Kurzopern . Her contract with Frankfurt Opera ends next summer, though she can imagine herself staying in Germany longer to “learn the language better”: “there’s a lot of pressure rehearsing a chorus of 60 in a language that is not your own!” - particularly as German houses do not have full stage management teams, unlike the UK where even for a revival production, the director might work with as many as three stage managers and an assistant director. Her work in Frankfurt will, Nina hopes, be a springboard for subsequent directorial work in the UK and worldwide.

In the meantime, Londoners can enjoy Dear Marie Stopes on 21st September at Kings Place and East West Street on 21st October at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Claire Seymour

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