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Polly Graham: ‘Having a baby gave me the impetus to work harder for oppportunities’

Polly Graham. Photo: Studio Cano Polly Graham. Photo: Studio Cano

Director Polly Graham has worked across several genres but is developing a specialist career in opera, having spent two years at Welsh National Opera. As the 2016 recipient of Independent Opera’s director fellowship, she tells Georgia Snow about directing the UK premiere of Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s chamber opera, Simplicius Simplicissimus, at Sadler’s Wells…

What is the premise of Simplicius Simplicissimus?

It’s an opera about a boy whose life is upturned by the events of conflict. It was written in 1934 and is very much an allegory for his experience of living through the rise of National Socialism, but the libretto ostensibly sets the piece in 17th-century Germany during the 30 Years’ War. So, our production draws on both those time periods – it’s really interesting.

How have you approached it as a director?

What’s really cool about this opera is that it’s not that much of an opera, if that makes sense. There are loads of other qualities to it. Sometimes it’s like a play and sometimes it’s more like a ballet. There are enormous orchestral interludes and a very long overture – we’re staging all of those. Little bits of texts link the passages together and it’s very episodic. Because of that there is quite a nice amount of devising as well as working on the material in front of us.

What other experience have you gained from your fellowship?

This is the main part of the programme, and it’s been quite a long and supportive process. We started designing the show in February so I’ve been working on it since then. As part of the fellowship I worked as an associate director at Welsh National Opera on a show, and had lots of really great mentoring through this process.

How did you get into opera directing?

I did a masters in theatre directing at RADA, but I’ve always been really interested in opera. I don’t see the two genres as different things. The directors I most admire do both, such as Katie Mitchell or Richard Jones. I grew up near the Royal Shakespeare Company, and had lots of exposure to that kind of thing, but it was after university that I realised I wanted to direct, so I went to RADA for my masters and then kept working. I had a baby when I was still at RADA, which gave me the impetus to work harder for the opportunities. I think working with a baby is harder, but it kind of gives you more of a push to get those opportunities.

How important is it to you to attract new audiences to opera?

It’s one of the main things I think about in my work. It should be everyone’s priority. When I did a production with the WNO youth opera, we had 80 young people involved. It felt like we were really drawing the audience into the middle of it. That was great, and I think breaking down those boundaries is really important.

CV: Polly Graham

Training: RADA (2009-2011)
First professional job: Nighthawks, Yellow Earth Theatre (2011)
Agent: Caroline Phillips

Simplicius Simplicissimus runs at Sadler’s Wells, London, from November 11 to 19


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