Dr. Jonathan Miller directed his first opera in 1974 and his work has been seen at the Metropolitan Opera, Teatro alla Scala, Royal Opera Covent Garden, Vienna State Opera, English National Opera, and many other major houses. In addition to directing opera, Miller is an author, lecturer, television producer, theater and film director, sculptor, and neurologist. In 1960, he and fellow Cambridge students Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, and Dudley Moore created the satirical review Beyond the Fringe, which continued for several years in London and New York. While artistic director of London’s Old Vic, Miller directed several productions, including Andromache, The Tempest, King Lear, and The Liar. Miller’s work for the BBC includes the films Alice in Wonderland and The Body in Question. His books include Nowhere in Particular and Mirror Image. His production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was seen at Seattle Opera in 2002, the same year that he was knighted for his contributions to British culture. He spoke with Ed Hawkins via telephone from his home in London on December 13, 2005.
Ed Hawkins: Although we’ve presented one of your productions here in the past (Eugene Onegin in 2002), this will be the first time you’ve directed a Seattle Opera production in person.
Jonathan Miller: Yes, I’m looking forward to it very much.
EH: Can you talk about how this production may differ from the contemporary Cosí’s which you’ve staged at Covent Garden and the Brooklyn Academy of Music?
JM: Basically it’s the same production. It’s been so successful wherever I’ve done it that there’s no point messing around with it; so it’s very much the same. Now, I think what always happens when you do a production which you’ve done before, you vary it—every time I do it, it differs—but that all depends on the people I’m working with. When I get there and I see the different performers, you react to them, you know. I never ask them to do exactly the same thing. But the look of it will be pretty well the same. We will change the dresses for the girls because we try to keep up to date. We’ve rethought a few of the costumes, you know, but not much. It’s basically the same idea.
EH: And that is to set it in the present day?
JM: That’s right, and it’s the first and only time I’ve ever done it with Mozart. I’ve done many productions of Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, and because Mozart usually writes about his own time, on the whole I’ve never feel tempted to change it. But Cosí fan tutte is a much more abstract work and, although I’ve done 18th-century versions of it four times previously, I suddenly decided how nice it would be to modernize it. But I don’t usually do that with Mozart.
EH: Is that simply to give it a fresh perspective, or do you really feel that this particular work is timeless?
JM: Well, it’s not so much “timeless” as it is relatively abstract. It doesn’t make the same sort of minutely detailed references to the social life of the 18th Century that both Giovanni and Figaro do. It could take place anywhere, you see. It could take place any time, more or less. And as I’ve shown with the success of the production: it works. I would never dream of doing it with Figaro or Don Giovanni.
EH: That brings to mind some of the points you’ve made in your writings, particularly in the book Subsequent Performances where you explore the question of the “afterlife” of a dramatic work of art, when it has outlasted its creator and when time begins to impose awkward problems of re-creation and interpretation.
JM: It’s almost inevitable. When something enters a period which could not have been anticipated by its composer, it undergoes changes. Even when you set it in its own period, your view of the period really influences the production and it undergoes a change. Even if you do what is, nominally speaking, a “traditional” production, if you have any intelligence at all, it’s bound to undergo changes, even without being modernized.
But this is an example of something where in fact I’ve deliberately updated it, as I’ve done several times in the past with other operas. The most famous one I suppose, which is now in its 27th year of revival in London, is my Rigoletto which I set in New York in 1954 and based on The Godfather.
But in this particular case I thought “well how wonderful to suddenly make it just simply yesterday afternoon.” It doesn’t have any relationship to social structures of any specific period. Whereas Figaro is about what it’s like to be employed by an 18th Century aristocrat. Cosi is much more to do with the life that Mozart recognized. I think he’s writing an opera which is not unlike the plays of Mariveaux, you know.
So it’s a work that really thrives by modernization. It comes to life in a very peculiar and unexpected way. People traditionally expect to have a lot of Zeffirelli-esque, Neopolitan scenery with Vesuvius seen in the background, but really it has no relationship to place or time, really. It’s not even about fidelity, which is what most people think it’s about, it’s about identity. It’s about people. You see, feminists often object to the opera because it depicts the women as gullible and foolish; but the fact is that the men are much more deceived than the women are. The most dangerous thing is to get into disguise in the belief that your original identity is invisible. What happens, of course, is that you actually bring to life aspects of your identity which you didn’t suspect. And I think that’s what happens here. It’s very dangerous for a man—or anyone—to disguise themselves because, in addition to deceiving the person who in fact you intend to deceive, you actually find that you’re behaving in ways which you wouldn’t normally behave if you thought your identity was apparent.
EH: So you’re letting a little too much of the beast out, as it were.
JM: Well not so much “the beast;” but all sorts of alternative versions of yourself which you didn’t suspect come into existence. I was partly inspired by a novel which my mother, a very successful English novelist [Betty Spiro Miller], wrote after the war about the experience of being an officer’s wife. My father was a medical officer. She noticed that as soon as all of his colleagues got into uniform, they suddenly started to misbehave in a way which they wouldn’t have done if they were in their professional civilian clothes. They somehow felt that they were not recognizable and therefore not culpable.
That’s one of the reasons why people get into disguise at masked balls. It allows them to be someone else. It lets out an alternative version of yourself—not necessarily a beast, but something that you didn’t expect.
EH: But still, at the end of the day, you must reconcile your “true” self with whatever “alternative” is expressed.
JM: Yes, you do. And of course what happens in the end is that—people always expect at the end for the lovers to return to their original partners or else to take up with the partners which they’ve paired up with when they were in disguise. But I think no one can stand anyone at the end of the opera, because everyone has betrayed everyone else.
EH: So does that give a clue as to what the final stage picture will be for this production?
JM: I think you’ll have to see that yourself, but it’s much more downbeat than everyone thinks. Everyone thinks it’s a great celebratory ending in which there’s wonderful reconciliation but I think that’s unrealistic, I think that people betray one another and that they can’t bear to see each other. The boys have betrayed each other. The girls have betrayed each other. The boys have betrayed their lovers. Despina’s been betrayed by Don Alfonso, who’s only let her in on half of the plot. Who can stand anyone? In the end everyone is guilty of treachery.
EH: The illustration that we’ve come up with for this production is two hands exchanging gold rings, only you’re not exactly sure if they’re putting them on or taking them off.
JM: That’s rather good, because that’s very much what’s happening.
Ed Hawkins, a Seattle Opera staff member, is active in Seattle’s fringe theatre community as a director, actor, and sound designer. His artist interviews are a regular feature of Seattle Opera’s publications.