Daniel Kramer: ‘Opera is so important, so stop coming for our building. Back off’
Over the last few years, English National Opera has at times appeared to be falling apart in the most public way possible.
In January 2015, Martyn Rose, the company’s then chairman, announced he was resigning. His explicit criticisms of artistic director John Berry quickly appeared in the press. Shortly afterwards, ENO’s executive director Henriette Gotz also handed in her cards.
Having already sliced £5 million off ENO’s grant in 2014, Arts Council England then removed the company from the national portfolio of arts organisations to receive regular funding and placed it instead in special measures, citing concerns about its business model and governance.
Eventually, in July 2015, Berry departed; the only good news at the top of ENO’s management was that the successor to the much-admired Edward Gardner as music director was the equally acclaimed Mark Wigglesworth. But then he too resigned, in March, with effect from the end of the 2015/16 season.
Meanwhile, ENO’s new chief executive Cressida Pollock was seeking a replacement for Berry: whoever was selected would not only be responsible for the company’s productions, but also inevitably be seen as the person tasked with steadying a ship that had nearly gone down in the roughest of artistic seas.
Enter, as potential saviour, 39-year-old American Daniel Kramer, whose name had not cropped up within the frame of candidates thought likely to succeed Berry – at least not among those who considered themselves in the know.
But that was a miscalculation.
Kramer, after all, had previously directed two shows for ENO – Harrison Birtwistle’s chamber opera Punch and Judy in 2008 in the company’s first collaboration with the Young Vic, and Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at the Coliseum in 2009. A few weeks after he was announced as the successful applicant for the ENO job, Kramer’s production of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde opened, again at the Coliseum, on June 16.
I first interviewed Kramer back in 2008 when Punch and Judy was opening. He was understandably nervous about the whole project. It was his very first opera and, unlike so many opera composers who are dead and can’t complain, Birtwistle is very much alive. In the event he liked the show a lot and said so. The press was pretty positive too.
Following it, Kramer’s career as an opera director, while not maintaining an entirely consistent upward trajectory – whose does? – has included significant successes. Together with Lost Highway, Punch and Judy went on to win the South Bank Show award for outstanding achievement in opera and was restaged in Geneva. Meanwhile, Bluebeard – although clearly disliked by some UK critics – was taken up by the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg (where Valery Gergiev conducted it) and subsequently seen at the Bolshoi in Moscow, where it was nominated for a Golden Mask award; Kramer and Gergiev went on to renew their collaboration with Debussy’s Pelleas Et Melisande.
Kramer’s subsequent productions have included a dance version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition at the Young Vic and Sadler’s Wells, while he has continued to work in theatre and, to a lesser extent, in musical theatre – most visibly as director of King Kong, based on the classic 1933 movie, which ran for eight months in Melbourne in 2013/14 but whose future is uncertain: Kramer is no longer involved with it.
His own path to opera has not been a conventional one. He explains: “I’m completely aware that I’m not a pure-bred opera person, that I don’t carry within me the same background as the wonderful Edward Gardner or the marvellous Mark Wigglesworth. I came at it in a different way.”
Kramer is from small-town America: Wadsworth, Ohio, to be precise, where he was born on a sheep farm to a headmaster father and a teacher mother.
“I went to a very good school but I immediately didn’t fit in, because I knew from a very early age that I was attracted to men. You have that sense of being ‘other’, and other kids don’t understand what it is about you but they instantly ostracise you.”
Classes in the various arts – drawing, painting, clay modelling and music – helped give his life meaning. “These things were at the centre for me. I was into a world that involved cultivating and creating and nurturing and nourishing things.”
Then one year his father decided to put on a school play. Around the same time, Kramer remembers being excited by a touring production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel – “this singing that I’d never heard before” – which also passed through his school gymnasium. Sadly, his father died the following year; yet the play’s success led the school to appoint a drama teacher, and the grieving Kramer began to get involved in school productions of every conceivable kind.
“My favourite thing about theatre is being hands on. I still am that director who needs to sweep the stage in the morning to calm and focus my nerves. I miss painting the sets. I think there needs to be a community spirit, which is why the ENO chorus and orchestra are sacred to me, because the community is working together to create this ritual for the audience to undergo.”
Ongoing participation in theatre, musicals and dance (he also took ballet) allowed him to become “a talented kid in a small town”. But he knew that if theatre was going to be his life focus, he had to train seriously.
Q&A: Daniel Kramer
What was your first professional theatre job? Directing Through the Leaves at Southwark Playhouse.
What is your next job as a director? Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko at Flanders Opera in Ghent.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Your work is not a reflection of your self-worth and your greatest creation must always be, every morning, the evolution of your own heart and grace.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Nature. The gentle breeze across a wheat field. The rise and fall of the tide. The largesse of nature and the daily reminder what tiny specks of stardust with story we are. How we howl and love and mourn and storm and destroy and create.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Whatever happens, celebrate what happened in that moment. It was exactly what needed to happen for your bigger picture. Embrace it. Grow from it. Face it. We are adults playing dress-up. It’s a luxury, it’s a gift.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? I’d be a farmer growing vegetables.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? On opening night I walk a specific geometric pattern on stage to open the space.
Having discovered a leading liberal arts training programme for theatre at Northwestern University at Evanston, Illinois, he knew where to go. Meanwhile, as part of an exchange programme he spent time at a French lycee, including a brief period in London when he gorged himself on the best theatre in town.
“I went back and did the summer programme at Northwestern to get into the university. I started off as a theatre major and got a few starring roles, but at the end of my freshman year, I didn’t get cast as the lead in Hair.”
His teacher, however, recognised other possibilities.
Kramer recalls: “She said, ‘You’re a leader, and that is a gift, and you have no choice but to lead now. You either have to become an actor-manager, or you have to direct, so I challenge you to direct next autumn.’ They hired me to direct Falsettos and it was a big hit. Then they gave me Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Right after that, Kramer became ill, and was initially misdiagnosed as HIV-positive.
“I lay in bed reading Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. The whole notion of doing theatre just to make people happy went out of the window. I set my path on doing art that reaches people on a level that is sometimes confrontational and sometimes uncomfortable, but always trying to awaken the audience to hear or see a piece in a totally new way.”
While studying at Northwestern, he was taken to see Britten’s Peter Grimes at Chicago Lyric Opera. “And I thought, ‘That’s it – visual arts, movement, singing, acting at the highest level, all working as one – that’s what I’ll do.’ So I started to immerse myself more in classical music. The musical is a very important industry – there’s room for all of the trees in the forest – but it’s not for me anymore. I can go and see a friend’s musical and have the time of my life, but it’s not what I want to do, not right now.”
Meeting Simon Callow in New York was another significant moment. “Simon and I had an immediate chemistry. He introduced me to Simon McBurney and Peter Brook. Both of them said: ‘The first thing you should do is get out of America right now for more training, and expand your physical vocabulary.’ ”
Kramer’s self-defined course at Northwestern and subsequent studies in modern dance and physical theatre have helped him envision his own wide-ranging conception of theatre.
His first work as a professional director was in London. In 2003, he staged Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Through the Leaves at Southwark Playhouse, starring Callow and Ann Mitchell. It later transferred to the Duchess Theatre in the West End. Nominations would follow for a varied collection of other shows, such as Hair, Woyzeck and Angels in America – all of them preceding his operatic debut with Punch and Judy. Further theatre productions are currently lined up.
But opera has become Kramer’s passion, and he talks about it with evangelical zeal. “I’ve never experienced a more powerful work of art than in the opera house, when you have the energy of the principals and chorus on stage and the orchestra in the pit all working towards one intention. To me, it’s the most moving art form on earth because of the collaboration and harmony that happens in one live moment.”
He compares it to communion, or a form of meditation, or a form of cleansing. “I believe that Tristan and Isolde, for example, is a ritual. Wagner takes our DNA from the physical plane and resonates it for five hours, so if you really let the music work upon you, with the Liebestod at the end he releases it on to another plane. Birtwistle said an incredible thing about Punch and Judy, which is that it works upon you one hour after you’ve left the theatre.”
So he sees opera as possessing a spiritual basis? “For myself, absolutely. The idea of leading a building like the Coliseum is an act of service and community. I see my role as providing a safe, sacred space for people to come into the dark, to go inside the womb, to see themselves reflected, hear their cry, their rage, their pain, their sorrow, and then slowly bring the lights up and be reborn into their lives. But meanwhile something’s happened!”
ENO has clearly employed someone with a visionary conception of the company’s work. But how will Kramer get people who are distrustful or even afraid of opera inside the Coliseum?
There will be new initiatives at the West End’s largest theatre, some of them already in the planning when Kramer arrived. “One is that if you look at what theatres like the Royal Court or the National have done, we can rethink our entire five-storey foyer so that the doors are wide open, there’s a cafe, and there’s music playing.”
Kramer wants to connect to people walking down St Martin’s Lane. “Our front yard is Trafalgar Square, just like Covent Garden is the backyard to the Royal Opera House. They’re doing everything they can to say, ‘Hey, this is your space.’ We have a huge initiative here so that everyone in London can feel that this is their space.”
But that doesn’t necessarily get them to buy tickets, does it?
“Cressida and I will be working very hard on that. In my dreams I would like to double the amount of tickets for £20. I have many friends in the arts who want to come to the opera, but they still say it’s too expensive. Those 500 tickets we have at £20 for every show go immediately. So could I double that? Could I even triple it? Could I come up with a season pass, where if you buy all eight operas, you get every ticket for £20? We know that there are 500 seats for our diehard opera fans who want those seats and will pay top price for them, but what if ENO – the people’s opera – made every other seat as accessible as possible? What if under-18s could come for free?”
Then there are dress rehearsals for students, and ENO’s Opera Undressed programme, which has run since 2012. “We have to keep reminding people that you no longer need to come to the opera house dressed up – it’s literally for everyone. And while we need to honour our core audience, we need to celebrate its overall diversity, too.”
What of the ongoing relationship with Arts Council England?
“I’m praying that they will raise our grant again in 2018-21. We need to show them a steady business model for three more years. We have learned from what their frustrations were, and have made every cut we can possibly make.
“What some people can’t conceive is that there was a strong initiative from many outside ENO to cut the chorus and orchestra to freelance contracts. I’m dead opposed to that. Go back to why I love opera more than any other art form. It’s that with the orchestra and chorus, that circle of music with the principals in the middle and the conductor, all working together as a community to create the ritual every night that changes lives: that is the company. That defines the opera house. This is not a musical-theatre house. We’ve got plenty of those.
“You cannot fit 70 musicians inside the Lyceum, and I’m not going to do Puccini with 12 musicians. Opera is something else. Just because you don’t get opera, and that it does something superhuman, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a viable art form. Stop coming for our building. Back off. What we need to show is that this is such an important art form that we deserve to get back to 14 shows a year.”
Kramer reels off a list of titles of major works that he wants the company to do. “You cannot do those if you cut the core of an opera house. Look at our beloved friends at the Royal Opera House. We are a yin and yang – our risk is only interesting because of their classicism. You have to have Greg Doran’s incredible Royal Shakespeare Company and its beautiful Shakespeare productions to see how amazing Emma Rice is at the Globe with her Midsummer Night’s Dream. London and Berlin lead the world in theatre, and that includes opera. We have one of the greatest traditions of composers, of opera directors, of opera singers.”
Daniel Kramer’s top tip for an aspiring director
• Listen to your inner voice, develop your inner voice and cultivate your own vision.
When people point to inconsistencies in ENO’s programme over the last few seasons, it’s not the musical side that has been the problem. In most cases, that has maintained a high level of excellence. But there has been regular criticism that some of the inexperienced opera directors brought in from the worlds of theatre or film have shown a worrying inability to make the art form work for them.
Kramer is aware of this.
“Ultimately, I believe there is a very distinct difference between directing theatre, directing musical theatre and directing opera. Most theatre directors can’t direct musicals. It’s an absolute art form, and with a musical it can be a very painful public failure. I’ve been there.
“Directing opera is different as well. You have to learn to direct the music. I was with a director the other day who’s a wonderful musical theatre director, and I was trying to say that those skills will only take you so far. There are these operatic moments – Peter Grimes Act III is a good example – when you just stop everything, and you want faces out and the music does everything for you. There are simple things, like the way the singer is facing.
“I’m hunting for people like staff directors, who have grown up in opera, but I say to them: ‘You need to be out there directing, working on your communication skills with singers, how to deal with a producer, with designers and a design budget.’ When you walk into a room with Stuart Skelton, you’d better know how to talk to a singer. That’s not just learned from observing.
“Neither is the exercising of vision. I believe that, even more than other directors, an opera director has to be drawn to the visionary end. You have to understand image. It’s not enough to have an opera director who leans on a designer. The form and content are so closely related; the image is speaking with the music.
“But with opera design you are also making a platform to lift the singers, and a shell to bounce the voice. These are very different skills. There are theatre designers and there are opera designers as well. It should and can be a rich crossover, but theatre designers and directors need to understand how to allow music to play its role.”
The company is not out of the woods by a long way, but Kramer seems surprisingly upbeat.
What is his ambition for ENO? “Within five years I would like us to be seen publicly as the most inclusive, fun, classical-music arts venue in London, that every now and then throws up a tropical fish of thrilling audacity. Come and help us reinvent our company!”
CV: Daniel Kramer
Born: 1977, Wadsworth, Ohio
Training: Northwestern University, Ecole Internationale de Mime Corporel Dramatique, Illinois; International School of Commedia Dell’Arte with Antonio Fava, Italy; National Centre for Circus Arts, London
Landmark productions: Woyzeck (Gate Theatre, London, 2004, then St Ann’s Warehouse, New York, 2006), Hair (Gate Theatre, 2005), Bent (Trafalgar Studios, London, 2007), Angels in America (Headlong, Glasgow Citizens Theatre and Lyric Hammersmith, 2007), Punch and Judy (ENO at the Young Vic, 2008; Grand Theatre, Geneva, 2011), Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (ENO, 2009; Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 2010), Pictures from an Exhibition (Young Vic, 2009; Sadler’s Wells, 2011), Carmen (Opera North, 2011; Flanders Opera, 2012), Pelleas Et Melisande (Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 2013), Tristan and Isolde (ENO, 2016)
Award: South Bank Show opera award for Punch and Judy (2009)
Agent: United Agents