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Interview with David Pountney, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Welsh National Opera

(March 01, 2013)

Interview with David Pountney

David Pountney, photo David Massey
David Pountney, image David Massey

CC … What events led to your appointment as Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Welsh National Opera in September 2011?

DP … My tenure as Artistic Director of the Bregenz Festival in Austria was due to come to an end. WNO advertised the job, and I applied for it!

CC … What does the role entail? What would be a 'normal' day for you?

DP … Most importantly having a vision about the future of the company and its artistic identity. Then taking a leading part in all the various areas – financial, administrative, personal, social, political – that are needed to deliver that vision. "Normal" means extremely diverse: I might spend 6 hours rehearsing Lulu. As I write this I am on a train to London for a day of meetings, including a lunch with Kiri te Kanawa about Cardiff Singer of the World.

WNO's Lulu - photo credit Clive BardaLulu, Alban Berg
David Pountney's first production in his role as Chief Executive & Artistic Director of Welsh National Opera

Image: © WNO, photo Clive Barda

CC … How do you begin directing a new production?

DP … I let the work in question play in the background a few times, just to let it "percolate" into my system. Then I would probably sit down and go through it once very thoroughly. I would do a certain amount of background reading – not too much! It’s important at all times to keep a good balance between "information" and "instinct". Too much of the former can inhibit the latter. Then there is the first decisive phase: the work with the designer. This usually involves an exchange of ideas, and what I call creative misunderstanding. In other words, if I say I see this piece set in a bath tub, and the designer designs a bathtub, we haven’t got very far. If he turns this idea of the bath tub into something else that captures its essence, with an idea of how it might be used, and then I come back and use it in a different way, then we are probably getting somewhere. We are adding layers of creative responses to what we started out with.

Then follows a "nitty-gritty" phase of getting these ideas to fit with the theatre’s budget, its technical limitations etc.

Some months later, the actual rehearsals start. Here too, there is a vital initial phase in which it is essential to have a clear idea of what one would like to achieve balanced by a readiness to follow ones instincts into uncharted territory, and also allow a filtered amount of input from all the other people who are suddenly involved in what had been up to now a relatively intimate process – chiefly between director and designer. Now there are singers, conductor, designers, technicians, all with their different creative ideas, not to mention their neuroses! You can’t listen to them all, but achieving a disciplined but creative atmosphere in the rehearsal room is an important aspect.

WNO Lulu - Peter Hoare (Alwa) photo credit Clive Barda 0243Peter Hoare (Alwa), in Lulu
Image: © WNO, photo Clive Barda

CC … Which do you prefer, producing or directing?

DP … I am a director, so that process is still very exciting and essential for me. As a "producer" – I presume you mean in the sense of "impresario" or "artistic director" – I get the opportunity to think about the art form itself, and to create interesting and hopefully intelligent plans. I have had a life-long ambition to keep pushing at the boundaries of the art form, and the producer function gives me the chance to do that in a consistent and constructive way.

WNO Lulu - Marie Arnet (Lulu) and Ashley Holland (Dr Schon) photo credit ClMarie Arnet (Lulu) and Ashley Holland (Dr Schon), in Lulu
Image: © WNO, photo Clive Barda

CC … Tell us about your work with the Bregenzer Festspiele (Bregenz Festival).

DP … I am coming to the end of a ten-year period as artistic director of the Festival, which is chiefly known for its huge outdoor stage on Lake Constance, which seats 7,000 people and attracts around 200,000 visitors per year. I call the productions we mount on this stage "intelligent spectacles" as they obviously have to cater for a mass audience, but we have managed to maintain a tradition of doing this without dumbing down or becoming mere tourist fodder, like many other so-called "Festivals" – mentioning no names!!

Alongside this "popular" element, I have given the rest of the Festival – a programme of operas, concerts, theatre and contemporary music theatre - a deliberately adventurous artistic profile, with five world premieres in the main inside opera house over the last five years. I think the audience is still somewhat in a state of shock, but they have mostly stayed with me!

CC … What music do you listen to at home and in the car?

DP … What’s on, mostly – i.e. on the radio. France Musique at home in France, Radio 3 or 4 in the UK. I very rarely deliberately put music on for my own pleasure – I usually prefer to let someone else make that choice for me, and then complain about it!

CC … Given that few people outside Wales would have heard the legend of the Physicians of Myddfai, on which the opera is based, what inspired you to write the libretto for The Doctor of Myddfai?

DP … This was a commission from WNO, and a condition of it was that it had to have a Welsh subject, so I was scratching around with my rather limited knowledge of Welsh literature, when a friend of my then wife’s who lives above Swansea suggested this story. What immediately fascinated me was the idea of a mythological story – the typical "lady of the lake" etc., - that then emerges into "modern" reality – by which I mean that in the village of Myddfai you can see an 18th century tombstone in the entrance to the church which mentions the "Physicians of Myddfai" – so myth has become a tangible person. I then developed this story, and found myself giving it an ecological disaster plot – an idea which turned out to be about ten years ahead of its time!

WNO Madam Butterfly - Butterfly cast. Photo credit Jeni Clegg 28
Madam Butterfly
, Giacomo Puccini, WNO 2013 cast
Image: © WNO, photo Jeni Clegg

CC … Can we look forward to further collaborations with Peter Maxwell Davies?

DP … Max is a very secretive and whimsical character…we wrote another piece together: "Mr Emmet takes a walk" and then he said he would not write any more stage works. But a few years later he suddenly got in touch again, and the result was Kommilitonen – a piece we wrote for the Royal Academy of Music and the Juilliard School in New York – which I am very proud of! When the tide is right on his Orkney island, who knows? He may get in touch again …


CC … Who were your childhood heroes?

DP … Peter May and Ted Dexter – I am a cricket fan!


CC … Why did you decide to go to Cambridge University, having grown up in Oxford?

DP … I was born in Oxford, but didn’t really grow up there. We lived in an isolated Mill House in the Vale of the White Horse. I went to Cambridge as a chorister in St. John’s College Choir, so I probably spent more time growing up in Cambridge than Oxford.


CC … Does your love of opera stem from your parents? Have you passed it on?

DP … My parents were both excellent amateur musicians, from a family where music was a constant element. My father conducted a local amateur operatic society – mostly Gilbert and Sullivan, and a local orchestra. He sang in New College Choir in Oxford, and also appeared in several of the ground breaking Handel opera productions that took place in Abingdon. In those days the New Theatre Oxford was a major out-of-London try-out venue for all the big London productions, and we went every week, so music and theatre were totally familiar to me from an early age.

My daughter sings, and my son makes drum and bass music, and DJs all over the world, so I have passed something on – more creative misunderstanding perhaps?


CC … Is the current WNO recognisable to the company you worked with in the 1970s?

DP … It’s still very much a company rooted in an excellent chorus and orchestra, though I think the orchestra is vastly better than it was in the 70s (someone is bound to disagree!). In general I think the company still punches way above its weight, and delivers a lot of reputational impact for a modest investment. The main differences are in the buildings: in the 70s they performed in the New Theatre, Cardiff, which had a sort of hugger-mugger charm but was in other words terribly cramped, and rehearsed in conditions that were Victorian. Now we are based in a beautiful theatre which has the sole disadvantage that it puts all our other touring venues to shame – there is a terrible need for proper investment there – and the rehearsal facilities are world class. People may think there is something romantic about muddling through in cramped buildings with peeling paint and ill-placed pillars, but making good opera demands a lot of concentration from a lot of people, and it is far easier to achieve that in a proper professional environment.

WNO Madam Butterfly - Cheryl Baker (Madam Butterfly) and Gwyn Hughes JonesCheryl Baker (Madam Butterfly) and Gwyn Hughes Jones (Pinkerton), in Madam Butterfly
Image: © WNO, photo Jeni Clegg

CC … What's Welsh about Welsh National Opera?

DP … Well, I am not very Welsh as you may have noticed, but the company employs very many Welsh people, and celebrates an art – singing – at which the Welsh are exceptionally gifted. As someone pointed out, if all the famous Welsh singers who are known all over the world had all come from Birmingham – a city with much the same population as Wales – people would think there had been some strange genetic phenomenon! And in all those benighted parts of the world who don’t play Rugby – like Germany for instance – Welsh National Opera is the biggest flag bearer for Wales that there is.

CC … Arts subsidies are controversial during the best of times. How is spending public money on the the arts justified during times of austerity i.e. now?

DP … I don’t agree with "subsidies" – they are investments, and investments that bring a substantial return in economic as well as cultural terms.

I don’t agree that these investments are "controversial" in any times. They are axiomatic and have been for millennia.

When mankind first achieved even a glimmer of independence from mere survival, he reached up and drew on the wall of his cave, he sang, he danced, he beat out a rhythm. And very quickly the society around the people who were good at these things agreed to allow them to spend more time doing that, and agreed to reward them with some of their surplus food. They invested in culture, and have been doing so ever since.

Why? Because culture is the school of imagination, and people and societies who exercise their imagination do better than those who don’t. They invent things, they think of better ways of doing things, they progress into the unknown. That is what imagination is for.

Public money should be spent on the arts at any time because firstly it is the acknowledgment that our society is more than a purely animal arrangement – it has spiritual, idealistic, philosophical, aesthetic and cultural aspects.

And secondly because it is profoundly in our interests to do so. We shall only survive in the modern world if we are sophisticated, inventive, imaginative. That is why any society and any business that knows what is good for it should invest in the arts, and DEMAND that the arts form an essential part of our children’s education. What is the point in producing generations of children schooled only in brute facts which alone will not be enough for them to survive in the post industrial age?

We need to remember that the arts are not only an essential part of education, but also of health. Physical health is one thing, but surely we all know now that it is insufficient. What is the point of a healthy liver if the brain, let alone the heart, is empty?


CC … Do you see private sponsorship of new productions a way to fill the funding gap? What are the benefits and the drawbacks?

DP … I see private and corporate sponsorship as a good thing in itself, irrespective of whether there is a "gap" or not. That is because, just like the most primitive societies, those with a surplus should invest part of that surplus in something important and non-material: that is an aspect of their social responsibility. And they should also do this because, as I say above, it is in their interest. If they want intelligent, sophisticated, imaginative and motivated employees who will bring them profit in the new world environment, they had better make sure these people have access to the appropriate stimuli.

WNO Madam Butterfly - Cheryl Baker (Madam Butterfly) photo credit Jeni ClegCheryl Baker (Madam Butterfly), in Madam Butterfly
Image: © WNO, photo Jeni Clegg

CC … How did the collaboration with Wrexham Maelor Hospital come about? What has been the reaction to it?

DP … It came about as part of our MAX programme’s focus on the Wrexham area, following on 3 years work in the Valleys. The MAX programme is our outreach department which exists to take the resource of creativity of which an opera company is a custodian, and share it among young people, as well as in this case others who are in some way disadvantaged. The MAX programme is a very important part of WNO’s existence – our way, if you like, of paying something back into the community.


CC … Which of your productions is the most memorable? And why?

DP … I did my first professional production 41 years ago, so I am inclined to say my latest, as my memory is not getting any better!!


CC … If you had any spare time, how would you like to spend it?

DP … In my garden. In my kitchen. In bed.

CC … The WNO's recent 'Free Spirits' season saw a new production of Berg's Lulu and the production of Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen, on which you worked in the late 1970s, staged within days of each other. What are the relative benefits and drawbacks of new and old productions?

DP … The Vixen has performed that trick of maturing into a classic which everyone now pretends they always liked! In fact, when it started, the critics were not all enthusiastic, but then they rarely are! Butterfly, which is also revived in this season, is also a vintage production, and still excellent. But without stimulating new work, not all of which will turn into classics of course, a company and its audience will atrophy.

WNO The Cunning Little Vixen - Sarah Castle (Fox) Sophie Bevan (Vixen) and
The Cunning Little Vixen, Leoš Janáček
Sarah Castle (Fox), Sophie Bevan (Vixen) and foxcubs in David Pountney's 2013 production
Image: © WNO, photo Catherine Ashmore

CC … The WNO have acquired a reputation for Janáček's productions over the years - will this continue?

DP … I have no plans for more Janáček at the moment.


CC … The WNO have produced an outstanding Tristan and now we have the rarely performed Lohengrin. When will we see the next Ring Cycle in Wales? It's been a couple of decades …

DP … When someone gives us a lot, and really a lot, of money!!


CC … Your productions at the ENO inspired both love and hate, how different is the WNO? Have you found more or less freedom?

DP … I am afraid to say that I take freedom – if that doesn’t sound too arrogant – and grant everyone else the freedom to react how they please!


CC … Have you any plans to bring on younger talent at the WNO?

DP … We have a brilliant and very constructive relationship with the Royal Welsh College of Music, and are constantly scouting for new talented singers. That is our life-blood. I am also bringing in some young directors, and we have a very talented young music staff many of whom are taking their first steps as conductors with us. We are committed to nurturing young talent – and it is also obviously in our interest to do so. We can’t afford stars, so we had better make them!

WNO The Cunning Little Vixen - Sophie Bevan (Vixen) photo credit Catherine Sophie Bevan (Vixen), in The Cunning Little Vixen
Image: © WNO, photo Catherine Ashmore

CC … The Barbican recently performed Einstein on the Beach and there is a growing interest in the minimalists such as Glass and Adams. Are we likely to see any take-up from the WNO?

DP … Curiously enough I am just off to direct another new Glass opera to open a new opera house in Linz, Austria, having directed his very first opera in 1980! The minimalists have performed a really important function in our recent cultural history by reminding us that simplicity is also a virtue and that a C major chord is still a beautiful thing! WNO has also announced an exciting series of contemporary work – British Firsts – though none of these are minimalist. We are very committed to nurturing the future of the genre, though not necessarily in a minimalist direction.


CC … The English National Opera tool their production of Die Walküre to Glastonbury. Do you have similar plans for outreach, around say the Eisteddfod?

DP … I am very interested in site specific work, and there are some conversations going on about that, though for an opera company it is an extremely expensive option – especially bearing in mind our very special acoustic needs.

WNO logo

CC … Have you any ambitions, as yet unfulfilled?

DP … Yes, thank you!

CC … David Pountney, thank you.

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