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ROH’s Hansel and Gretel director and designer Antony McDonald: ‘Creative tension can be good’

When we meet, Antony McDonald has been working all day on his new production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel [1], which opened this week at the Royal Opera House.

The multi-award winner is designing and directing this revival of Humperdinck’s fairytale opera, a dual role he has performed repeatedly to huge acclaim.

His love of the arts, and especially theatre, goes back to childhood. “I did ballet lessons until I was seven and I was in a school drama group. A big moment was going to see The Seagull at the Bristol Old Vic when I was about 14.”

Rather than study drama at Bristol University, he chose Central School of Speech and Drama instead, where he joined the teaching course. “Though in fact I never really wanted to be a drama teacher,” he says. “I wanted to direct. I’d written plays when I was young and I’d staged things, so that interest was always there.”

Mary Plazas in Powder Her Face at Nevill Holt Opera. Photo: Patrick Redmond

After that he moved on to Manchester School of Theatre, where he studied stage management and acting – though he did direct one play – and where his fellow-students included Peter Flannery, Julie Walters and Tim Albery; the latter would become a regular collaborator.

When McDonald left Manchester, he became assistant director with CASCO, the Community and Schools Company, based in Cardiff. It was in the Welsh capital and specifically at Welsh National Opera that he had what he describes as a “Damascus-like moment” when in 1975 he saw the company’s production of Janacek’s Jenufa, directed by David Pountney and designed by Maria Bjornson. “Seeing that was my way into opera. Janacek is such honest theatre.”

He spent two years in Cardiff where he befriended Bjornson and David Fielding and decided that maybe he’d like to design himself. “Someone mentioned the Motley course run by Percy Harris, and I went for an interview and was taken on,” he says.

But it was through Albery that he obtained his first work as a designer and made contacts with other directors. “I got a job designing for a company called Avon Touring, which was based in Bristol. Tim and I did a production together of Women Beware Women, and later when he did his first opera at the Musica Nel Chiostro festival at Batignano in Tuscany [The Turn of the Screw, 1983] I designed that too.” Early on, he also designed dance for Second Stride with Sue Davis, Richard Alston and Ian Spink, as well as experimental work at the ICA.

Anne Sophie Duprels as Rusalka for Scottish Opera in 2016. Photo: James Glossop

Designing opera first came through Cardiff contacts. Benjamin Britten’s Let’s Make An Opera  was his first piece for the WNO in 1978, and then on a grander scale he designed Christopher Fettes’ production of Handel’s Orlando for Scottish Opera in 1985.

 Already an admirer of European production styles and a keen enthusiast for the work on stage at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, he was invited by Philip Prowse – himself a designer and director – to take charge of The Birthday Party at the Citz. “Scottish Opera’s music director Richard Armstrong saw it and said: ‘I think you should do an opera’, so my first opera as a director was Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah in Glasgow [in 1997]. That went well, and I was invited back to create a production of Janacek’s The Makropulos Case for a small-scale tour in Scotland.”

Since then, McDonald has been constantly in demand throughout the UK, and indeed the rest of Europe, for assignments either as a director and designer, or simply as a designer working with other directors including Albery and Richard Jones, with both of whom he has maintained long-term artistic partnerships. “I’ve had similar relationships with choreographers Ashley Page and Sue Davies and playwright Caryl Churchill [2],” he says.

 What is he most proud of? “The production Tim and I did of Berlioz’s The Trojans, which was shared between three companies – Opera North, WNO and Scottish Opera – and with Richard, the Pelleas and Melisande he and I did at Opera North, ENO and Munich.”

Two acclaimed contemporary works he has staged were Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest in 2013, and Thomas Ades’ Powder Her Face four years later; currently there are plans for him to direct a new opera by Barry.

Q&A Antony McDonald

What was your first non-theatrical job?
Strawberry-picking in Cheddar Gorge (holiday job)

What was your first theatrical job?
Assistant Director at the Community and Schools Company connected to the Welsh National Opera and Drama Company.

What is your next job?
Designing Katya Kabanova for Richard Jones at the Royal Opera House.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Be truly yourself – no one else sees things quite like you do!

Who or what is your biggest influence?
Pina Bausch, Ken Russell, the Glasgow Citizens Theatre, Diaghilev, Anton Chekhov, Visconti.

What is your advice for auditions?
They are always using things that come out of auditions – however gruelling.

What is your advice for auditions?
There are always useful things that come out of auditions – however gruelling they may be.

If you hadn’t been a designer/director, what would you have been?
Historian or diplomat.

But arguably his most famous single creation, he suspects, is the enormous set he created for the open-air lakeside theatre in the Austrian town of Bregenz, where audiences of 7,000 a night gather to experience a spectacular live opera for one month each summer; the shows are then repeated for a second year.

The extraordinary image of McDonald’s set for Verdi’s A Masked Ball at the turn of the century – consisting of a huge skeleton holding an open book – made numerous front pages, while he and Jones were immediately invited back for La Boheme.

These days, though, McDonald is more often to be found working as a director and designer than just designing, and as a director he has never worked with a designer other than himself. “My way into these pieces is through the design, so I’d find it difficult to give that over to someone else. On the other hand I don’t want to be in an ivory tower thinking I know all the answers. I work a lot, for instance, with movement director Lucy Burge.”

In commissioning Hansel from McDonald, the Royal Opera’s artistic director Oliver Mears also asked for something that the family could come to at Christmas – which fortunately chimed in with the director’s own broad intentions.

Fairy-stories go deep inside us, so there’s no need for a director to underline things: if you do that too much you destroy them

How does he begin to work on an opera? “The visual ideas come from reading and listening – I listen a lot.” For Hansel and Gretel McDonald has taken a broadly similar approach to his magical, yet intelligently explorative version of Dvorak’s Rusalka – a hit for Grange Park Opera a decade ago, and subsequently taken over by Scottish Opera in 2016.

“Fairy-stories go deep inside us, so there’s no need for a director to underline things: if you do that too much you destroy them.” His Hansel is set in a Germanic world, pre-First World War, “and I’ve put some twists in it that I hope will be amusing. It might be slightly frightening for children, but then children like to be frightened.”

Later on in the season he returns as the designer for Richard Jones’ new production of Janacek’s Katya Kabanova, which opens at the Opera House in February: it turns out that he and Jones have been assembling their own private Janacek cycle over the last few years, thus far either in Holland or Germany: you’re just as likely to see McDonald’s work at La Scala, the Vienna State Opera or the Bolshoi.

Despite his own top-flight career as a director, his ongoing collaboration with Jones remains important to him. “Richard is a very visual, musical and choreographic director, and very demanding. His brain never stops and you’ll work through many ideas. Creative tension can be good.”

McDonald agrees there’s quite a sharp contrast between the two operas. “The visual worlds of Hansel and Gretel and of Katya will be so utterly different it will probably make me seem like Jekyll and Hyde. Katya’s very much about shame, I think. It will be very stripped away, very exposed, almost as if you’re looking at a group of people in a space where there’s nowhere to hide.”

CV Antony McDonald

Place and year of birth
Weston-Super-Mare, 1950
Central School of Speech and Drama; Manchester University; Motley Theatre Design Course

• Royal Designer for Industry

• Part of UK team that won The Golden Triga Award for theatre design at the Prague Quadrennial 1991
• Russian Golden Mask for Best Costume Design for L’Enfant et Les Sortileges at the Bolshoi
Landmark productions:
• Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera for Bregenz Festival
• Dvořák’s Rusalka for Grange Park Opera and Scottish Opera

• Gerald Barry’s Importance of Being Ernest for Northern Ireland Opera
Agent: Loesje Sanders Associates