Adam Spreadbury-Maher is the Artistic Director of The King’s Head Theatre and founding Artistic Director of OperaUpClose, which specialises in producing opera in an intimate setting. His latest project is Ballo, a reworking of Verdi’s A Masked Ball, which he has set in a Swedish furniture store.
What is the story of Verdi’s Masked Ball?
It’s about the assassination in 1792 of King Gustav III of Sweden, who was shot while attending his own masked ball. He died 13 days later.
Why did you choose to put on this particular opera?
I was an exchange student to Sweden at 16 and spent time in Gothenburg. I went back several times and became a bit of a Swedophile. In 2008 I was invited, by an amateur company in Guildford, to direct A Masked Ball and they asked what I would do with it. I said I would set it in a Swedish furtniture store and they ran for the hills. When I was doing my Tosca at The King’s Head, I had a conversation with an artistic director in Sweden and the words ‘Masked Ball’ fell from my lips. I went back and suggested it to my colleagues at The King’s Head and they went for it. By setting it in a furniture store I think we’re making some very interesting points about capitalism, corporate hierarchies and also how difficult it is for people who work in such shops to live in a city like London.
Tell me about the story behind the opera.
A Masked Ball has hundreds of years of censorship behind it. It was censored many times and had to move around the world. The setting had to be changed and so did the status of its charcaters. In the original production characters had to be down graded to military status, rather than royalty, because of assassination attempts at the time of its premier on Popes in Europe. Verdi over saw all translations of his operas in his lifetime to remove barriers between the work and his audiences, and I think by putting the piece in a Swedish setting it is made more accessible to an audience today. It also takes it back to the original story.
One of the principal male roles, Oscar, has always been sung by a female singer, but you have cast a man. Why is this?
The lead in the piece is the manager of Ballo, the furniture store (the King in Verdi’s original), and it’s his assistant, Oscar, who will be played by a male actor for the very first time. He has a range so high that I haven’t had to change a note of the original coloratura soprano. It’s extraordinary for the audience to come and hear a man singing this role so beautifully. It’s not a freak show and is very moving.
I wanted to cast a male because it creates another love traingle in the piece. When the store manager has a crush on his best friend’s wife, Oscar responds by asking why he doesn’t have a crush on him. It intensifies the drama and feels like a thread that has been connected up.
In my background research I found out that Oscar, in the historical context, was gay. The King had sex with all his pages and that’s why he was not liked by many people, as he was outwardly homosexual. But Verdi made Oscar gay. That’s the closest he could get to a nod to the accurate history.
You have written a new English version of the piece. How did you go about creating that?
The language I chose to write it in is a bit like a soap opera – Hollyoaks meets Eastenders. I wanted to avoid the use of operatic, old-fashoned words and get straight to the point. I took the draft to rehearsals and through collaboration came up with the final version. My rehearsal process is very much character creation based and I took it a step further this time by inviting my cast to collaborate on the libretto. I’d never done that before and it was a painful, but beautiful process.
Ballo is another example of your work with OperaUpClose at The King’s Head. What was the inspiration for OperaUpClose?
Essentially it’s about removing the preconceived barriers that people who might avoid opera see – things like language, price, outfits and the type of buildings associated with the form. It’s also about tackling the small things, like being able to take a drink into the show. The fact that The King’s Head is in a pub, and everyone goes to a pub, means that it’s just another step across the threshold into the theatre. We also keep the prices as low as we can.
You’ve modernised a number of the operas at The King’s Head. What’s your thought process behind making such a decision?
We’ve now done 14 operas and don’t always modernise them. Our Barber of Seville was set in Jane Austen’s Englanbd, for example, so we do period work too. Putting everyone in contemporary dress and using young singers is not a raison d’etre for us, but having said that we like to use singers that are the right age. It’s really nice to see a La Boheme with a Rodolfo who is in his twenties. The important thing for me is to treat each piece very sensitively and reverentially. An opera often comes from a precursing poem or book and I like to go back and ask where the piece originally came from. It dispels the myth that the music is written first, which is what a lot of people think. That’s not the case, the libretto comes first and often by assessing this carefully we can decide whether it would be appropriate to set the piece in more modern times.
Ballo (or A Masked Ball) is at The King’s Head Theatre from 17 April until 25 May
Words: Alex Hopkins
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