Nina Brazier - 'Jump in the deep end'
Fatima Lahham talks to director Nina Brazier on a range of different topics including the importance of championing new music and elitism in classical music...
How did you get involved with opera and theatre?
I came very much from a theatre background, studying Drama at Exeter University followed by a Masters at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Soon after, I was on a course for directors at the Royal Court Theatre, when I was recommended as an assistant director by a friend (Vicky Jones, DryWrite) for a contemporary opera directed by John Wright (of Told by an Idiot). John was such a creative director, and I fell in love with composer Paul Clark’s extraordinary music. Although I had always played musical instruments, I had never experienced live opera – and certainly not contemporary opera. I was hooked! Since then I continued assisting - from the Opera North to the Royal Opera, ENO to the Bayerische Staatsoper, alongside developing and directing more of my own work. I’m not sure if it is because of my first opera experience, but I have always worked with contemporary music as much as on the classical repertoire.
Can you describe to us some of the most exciting projects you have worked on to date?
For me it is always the most recent projects, because my mind is still so full of them! The latest was the world premiere of composer Danyal Dhondy’s opera Shahrazad based on the 1001 Arabian Nights, produced by Cantata Dramatica and Opera Vera at Leighton House Museum in Kensington. It’s a sumptuous space - from the Arab rooms downstairs, to the beautiful tiled staircase, to the modestly-named upstairs ‘studio’ complete with balcony, window seat and stage. Reflecting the immersive nature of Danyal’s music, I wanted to really surround the audience with the action, without moving into the realm of promenade theatre. Prior to that I collaborated with The Hermes Experiment and their unique combination of harp, clarinet, double-bass and soprano on a musical retelling of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Alongside composer Kim Ashton and a group of five incredibly inventive actors, we spent a week devising the performance at an Aldeburgh Music Residency, and developed the outcome for a showcase performance in London. Exploring Shakespeare from a musical perspective gave me permission to think in a completely new way about how to approach the text. In our devising process we chose to use movement and gesture as much as the text and music, creating a theatrical language that seemed to extend beyond the written and spoken word.
We constantly hear about how young people are alienated from the elitist world of 'classical music'. Do you perceive this to be a real problem, and if so, what can we do to address it?
I think that so many of our opera companies are already doing incredible work to solve this problem with their extensive workshops, programmes and performances which are reaching not only schools but the wider community. I do think it begins with reaching people at an early age, and banning the myths of opera and classical music being exclusive, or simply ‘not for me’. It’s about keeping that funding for education going, keeping prices reasonable and making people aware that classical music or opera can be an option for them. However, we can throw open our doors, we can (and should) welcome everyone in - but at the end of the day we can’t drag people in, sit them down and make them enjoy it.
What are your plans for the future?
On a less operatic note, I’m planning a seven-hour reading of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man at the Southbank Centre, which I think is going to be extraordinary. Working with human rights lawyer Philippe Sands and writer A. L. Kennedy, we have brought together a group of readers including survivors of Auschwitz and Rwanda alongside actors, writers and broadcasters including Sam West, Tom Stoppard and Robert Peston. The evening will be punctuated with music led by Tomo Keller, the leader of The Academy of St Martin in the Fields with a chamber ensemble, and we are just finalising the musical programme. On a much lighter note, I’m also preparing for Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail with the Ahmadi Music Group at the JACC in Kuwait. I’m excited not only to return to Mozart, but to tackle a Singspiel, to practise my German, and of course, to work in a new continent.
Who are your role models?
A few years ago I watched Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Peter Grimes at Opera North. As well as the production being both beautiful and devastating in equal proportion, there was a point in the performance when I realised my jaw had actually dropped. It was an instinctive reaction to Britten’s score, Phyllida’s Lloyd’s staging and Richard Farnes’ conducting all immaculately interwoven. It was simply exquisite, and I remember thinking: I want to inspire this reaction in other people.
How do you think we can celebrate the work of female directors in the world of music and theatre without making the fact that they happen to identify as female dominate the discourse and ultimately running the risk of this focus detracting from their achievements?
I think in the first instance we have to continue creating exciting and inspiring work, and to allow that work to speak for itself. We also need to foster a cultural change where women stop thinking of themselves as ‘not good enough’, and are comfortable putting themselves forward for roles at every level. However, we (unfortunately) need to continue to ask the question and challenge decision-makers and programmers: why is it that there are there so few women directing and choreographing at the major houses, and what is being done to redress that balance?
What words of advice would you offer to an aspiring director?
To jump in the deep end. Looking back I feel I spent too long feeling I needed to learn from others’ - I assumed more valid - experience, and feeling that I wasn’t ‘ready’ to direct my own work. On the other hand, as an assistant you do gain a unique insight into not only how a director works, but how different singers do and don’t like to be directed, so I wouldn’t recommend bypassing that step altogether!
In your opinion, how important is it to keep staging new works?
It is crucial to keep staging new work - how else can we keep opera as an art form alive? We must have new pieces, pieces that reflect and comment our social and cultural landscape as it is today. However, the wider question is: how can we actually programme and nurture this new work? ‘Do we hurl a new work into the ring, testing its stripling agility against musical heavy-weights?’ Kate Romano asks, and answers the question eloquently in her thoughtful blog On caring for new music.
What would you be doing now if you weren't a director?
I sometimes wonder that myself, then I think, what on earth else would I do?
ABOUT NINA (headshot by Michael Wharley)
Nina trained at RADA, Exeter University, The Royal Court/Channel 4 Director’s Scheme, and the Operating Table Course at the Royal Opera House. Nina’s upcoming productions include: Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the JACC, Kuwait; a full reading of If This is a Man at the Royal Festival Hall; and A Song of Good & Evil on tour to Den Haag, Lviv Opera House and the Berlin Konzerthaus. Previous productions include Debussy & his Muse (Buxton Festival), and productions for Ryedale, Lammermuir, Tête à Tête and Stockholm Interplay festivals, including Time Out Critic’s Choice for both The Magic Flute and Spilt Milk & Trouble in Tahiti at The Arcola Theatre. She has acted as visiting director at the Royal College of Music, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, the Italian Opera Summer School and Birkbeck University. She has also worked as a Staff and Assistant Director at the Royal Opera, the Bayerische Staatsoper, English National Opera, Welsh National Opera and Opera North.