Sydney Opera House

Dancer-director a perfect fit for Carmen revival

Resident director Matthew Barclay, who started his career as a dancer, says he particularly enjoys directing Opera Australia’s revival of Francesca Zambello’s finely choreographed Carmen production, which opens at the Sydney Opera House this month. “I enjoy reproducing the show’s choreography and find it relatively easy to do so,” he says.

Growing up a boy soprano, Barclay used to dream of being a musical theatre singer, a career for which his mother thought ballet lessons would be a good start. Eight years later, dancing in Opera Australia productions and observing the Company’s directors in action, he approached former Artistic Director, Moffatt Oxenbould, with a view to becoming an assistant director. Barclay has been Resident Director with Opera Australia since 1998. 

The detour into dance has stood him in good stead. He says: “Directors with a dance background definitely have the edge when it comes to moving large casts and choruses around the stage – dancers are good at sensing how to move crowds in a way that creates an image that the audience is able to read.”

This is because dancers are familiar with movement language. “They’re constantly thinking about how the body functions, what it looks like in a mirror and whether they’re making a good or bad shape.” When Barclay first set out on his directing career, the tendency to express himself through his body rather than through his words was very strong. “Most directors are very good at articulating ideas to motivate the cast, yet that’s something that I’ve had to learn – for me the challenge is still to get out of the body and into the head!” he laughs.

Zambello had a clear vision of what she wanted her Carmen production, which premièred in Sydney in 2008, to achieve. When he assists a director, Barclay prefers this kind of guidance. “When a director has a strong opinion about a piece, it makes it so much easier to explain to the cast what the production is trying to achieve when you revive it.”

Not all directors operate in this way. “Some directors are passive, preferring to give singers the freedom to create, and some of them create brilliant productions in this way – very personal productions that come from what the artists brought to the rehearsal room at the time. But when you revive it with a different cast, it’s completely different.”

At its Sydney première, the live animals in Zambello’s Carmen production were a big talking point. This time they will be absent during the performances of Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham, who is allergic to horse hair. “We’re not having the horse, the chickens or the donkey when the show opens; they’ll be back in the second half of the season when Miljana [Nikolic] takes over,” Barclay says.

He will be directing Carmen for Mazda Opera in the Domain too, and says that any director who attempts putting on opera in a huge, open-air venue firstly has to bear in mind that that the audience is far from the stage. “So much is lost through the tyranny of distance.” Secondly, sound issues have to be taken into account. “The chorus has to be parked at the side of the stage, behind microphones, so we have to tell the story without them. This means working out a staging that incorporates the dancers and actors to a greater extent, so that the story keeps moving.” 

Barclay, who recently directed Opera Australia’s Il Trovatore production in Macau, with a Slovakian chorus and an international cast (he had to communicate in pidgin Italian to ensure that everyone understood), says not knowing a cast brings its own directorial challenges.

“You have to create trust in a few days, which can be difficult when no one knows anyone and there are language issues.” And yet, directors often get in the way of what is possible because they bring their own defences and expectations to a rehearsal room. “When we’re challenged, we often don’t see the possibilities that still remain. It’s easy to anticipate what can go wrong, yet when people are there to do their absolute best, they just need you to empower them to do so.”

Although Barclay would like to direct a show of his own (“that is after all what motivated me to stop dancing”), he enjoys directing revivals. “At Opera Australia we take the integrity of our productions very seriously. Not all companies do. Directors are very appreciative of that.”

Carmen is on at Sydney Opera House from 15 January to 30 March.