‘Using sound like a composer uses an orchestra’: An Interview with Daisy Evans

Daisy Evans is an opera director whose pioneering company Silent Opera has become known for bold explorations of staging and sound design in their immersive productions of classic operas. leoemercer finds out more.

Can you talk me through what happens in a Silent Opera performance?

The audience are given headphones. It’s a full recording, with full orchestra. The audience stand close to the singers and are free to follow them and listen to the singers up close. Take the headphones off and you have the lone voice with external sound effects/ambience.

In Bluebeard’s Castle, for example, the audience will walk with the singers through the castle. They get to choose whether to listen to the live voices or (by putting on the headphones) the accompaniment of a full orchestra, sound design, and spoken text.

You’ve written that what excites you about opera is the emotion of the voice?

Yes – that’s exactly right. It’s the naked intensity that I absolutely love – it’s very moving, surprising and visceral. A lot of the operas so far have been earlier (Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Mozart’s Don Giovanni), but I’m now veering to more modern ones. I guess it’s the harsh narratives.

As a director (that’s very important), and not a musician, what interests me is watching the audience experience whatever is thrown at them. And in opera the music takes you right into their depths. That can be shocking and scary. The point of being close to a singer is so you can feel that crazy vocal pallette. This is also a reason the headphones help. It’s very very important not to use the headphones as a gimmick.

How do you differentiate between a gimmick and a non-gimmick?

Well – a gimmick would be ‘oh I go to this opera and we’re all sitting in one room, and you can listen to everything on headphones’. A non-gimmick would be when you’re wearing headphones because they add something to the experience – they free you to move around, there’s something else outside the headphones, or perhaps you wouldn’t hear the singer (they might be across a lake or something). You contextualise the headphones: the opera wouldn’t be able to happen without them. If you can just play the accompaniment through speakers, why not just do that?

This set up seems to require a nontraditional staging. Are you interested in working at traditional opera houses?

It’s funny, I feel like I’ve had a total revelation recently. Silent opera is a way of making opera new, a way of making it accessible, of opening it up, or turning it on its head. The big opera houses don’t want that on their stages. So my career in those houses needs to be informed by, but separate from, Silent Opera. That’s not a bad thing at all. I hope that one day one of them will have the guts to book us to do something along the lines of our Giovanni for the mainstage. Silent Opera can be adapted, but I’m not sure opera is ready for that.

Do you have a particular vision for what you’d want to do at a traditional opera house?

Well this is all really me as a director – I’d say my work aims to give audiences new perspectives on traditional operas, from a proscenium arch to an installation. I am keen to push the boundaries of what opera can be to a contemporary audience. That can translate in many ways: for example I’m really interested in building the theatre differently – so you might build out the stage over the pit, and put the orchestra at the back, on levels or anything. Then you might even put the audience on stage!

Do digital visuals interest you?

Absolutely. I’m working on a project at the moment that has a totally projected set. I want to use it like sound – you conjure up images, people, memories – all through a digital, filmic surround. For example, you’ve got a back wall – why paint it like chainlink fence when you can project the fence? Then go further and have some people loitering behind it – in fact you can also play with focus and perspective with projections.

Is there anyone whose work particularly inspires you?

Katie Mitchell. She’s my mentor, leader and inspiration!

How did that come about?

I wrote to her and said how much I love her. Then we met, and then I did a course with her in Aix en Provence…

What does it mean for her to be a mentor?

She is there for me when I need to vent/work something out/get advice. For example, if there’s a tricky character or narrative, or if I’m troubled by the themes or attitude in a piece. It’s often amazing what a different perspective can do.

daisy colour headshotwebtab
Daisy Evans

Have you seen yourself having an impact, or trickles of influences in other productions?

Yes! I think people are using pre-record and manipulation a lot now. We started the trend for that 6 years ago, when people were terrified of cracking opera open (actually they still are). Which means allowing us to pull it around, cut it, use electronics, put text in.

Whose job is it to work out what extra sounds to use? Is there a composer on board, a sound designer; is that you?

A sound designer and me. I feel I am using sound like a composer uses an orchestra. It’s more than a soundscape.

You’ve written about being involved in new commissions. What sort of new works would appeal to you, given your directorial approach?

Yes, I have a strong opinion on what should be made new, what merits being a new composition and so forth. I’m sick of new works being churned out that replicate what was being made 60 years ago. A new composition should push experiential boundaries, sound boundaries, and concept boundaries. There’s no point in spending all that money on something that might as well have been written in 1978.

Is there anyone who’s doing this sorta stuff that particularly excites you?

Hmm. Ed Finnis is great, and Louis d’Heudieres. They’re interesting because of how they capture a narrative, how they think about what journey they’re taking the audience on and getting them there with innovative techniques. They’re not bound by convention and they’re not afraid to use alternative sounds in their palette.

Do you have particular classic operas you want to work on?

Yes! Macbeth, Rusalka, Salome, Cunning little Vixen, Ullise, Tosca! So many!

Do you feel as though you’ve now basically cracked the elements of what a Daisy Evans production will be like sound-wise, or are there further things you’d like to incorporate or play around with?

You literally always have places to go. I think if I ever thought, yes, that’s it, I’ve done it, then I wouldn’t do anything else. It fills me with horror to perpetuate.

You’ve said “I fully intend it [Silent Opera] to shape the future of opera” – what does it feel like to say this?

I feel very confident and like I’m very happy with what I do! I really think opera is in a rut. I want to be part of the solution not the problem!

leoemercer

More information about Silent Opera can be found on their website.

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