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Mad for it: Director Katie Mitchell on her new Royal Opera production of Lucia di Lammermoor

The director discusses her vision of Donizetti's opera as a tale of drama, jeopardy and feminism.

By Warwick Thompson (Classical music journalist)

7 October 2015 at 2.08pm | 23 Comments

‘The male characters in Lucia di Lammermoor are on stage a lot, their psychologies are well drawn, they’re complex and thrilling and interesting,’ says director Katie Mitchell. ‘My beef with the piece is that there just isn’t that same degree of attention and thoughtfulness in the drawing of the female characters. There are scenes that seem to be missing. So my production will try to fill in some of the gaps in the central character’s story. It will balance things out.’

After the success of her eerily beautiful main-house staging of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin (first seen at Aix-en-Provence), and her ROH2/Linbury Studio Theatre productions of James MacMillan’s pieces Clemency and Parthenogenesis, to say that Mitchell’s take on Donizetti’s 1835 opera Lucia di Lammermoor is eagerly awaited is something of an understatement – all the more so as it will be her first production to receive its premiere on the main stage at Covent Garden.

In addition to the presence of the most sought-after Lucia of the moment – Bavarian soprano Diana Damrau – there’s also an intriguing spice of controversy to the project: Mitchell has her detractors as well as supporters, and her English National Opera piece After Dido, a film/live action staging of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which shelved the original plot and grafted on three separate but simultaneous contemporary narratives instead, proved to be a real Marmite moment.

By the time we talk, Mitchell and her regular design collaborator Vicki Mortimer have already given their Lucia model-showing, so, although rehearsals are some way off, the bones of the staging are firmly in place. One adjective about the production that has been much whispered on the operatic jungle drums is ‘feminist’. So when I speak to Mitchell, I feel I have to grasp the nettle from the get-go and ask: is this indeed going to be ‘a feminist Lucia’, or is that descriptor a mere piece of journalistic laziness?

Mitchell is a thoughtful interviewee and chews on the question for a few moments. ‘If feminism is a political movement about equality then, yes, you could say that this interpretation will favour a feminist viewpoint. I want to find ideas that support the movement of the drama, but fill in the gaps in the female narrative in a dynamic way.’

Could she give me an example of the kind of gap she means? ‘There’s something about the tradition of a singer in her thirties or forties playing a 19-year-old Lucia that, for me, is very mixed-messagey,’ she says. ‘So I want to free us up a bit there. The character of Lucia will be represented as a woman in her early forties, who has very much accepted that she’s never going to be married. And I want to make sense of that as a good story, a positive story. When she falls in love with Edgardo, and she experiences the erotic for the first time, it’s an enormous shock and surprise to her system.’

Mitchell has chosen to set the story in the mid-19th century, to reflect the era of the opera’s composition. ‘Unmarried women often found other ways to channel their energies. It was a period of brilliant female artists – just think of the Brontës or George Eliot. Or of other women who were fossil-hunters, or scientists.’

How is such a gap in Lucia’s back-story going to be filled? ‘My concept is to create a split-stage, in which there will be lots of different simultaneous environments. In the first scene, the main action, the sung action, will show Normanno [the captain of the castle guard] describing the search for the lovers – but we will also see Lucia and her maid sneaking into her brother’s bedroom to try on men’s clothes in order to disguise herself. She’s in a threatening situation, and she mustn’t be recognized going to meet her beloved Edgardo, whom her brother hates; she doesn’t just waft down in her normal clothing. I want to show scenes like that, which raise the IQ and agency of Lucia. Those are the sort of gaps I mean.’

Thinking of the theory of the mask, and the questions raised by the nature of disguise, I ask if Lucia’s cross-dressing implies some examination of a masculine side to her character? ‘No, that would be crude and nasty. Her wearing men’s clothes is a one-off thing to avoid danger, so that she won’t be noticed.’

Are there other gaps that Mitchell would like to see filled? ‘We need to understand why Lucia goes mad. There’s a missing scene, rather like in Hamlet, where we don’t see how Ophelia goes mad. It’s the same with Lucia: we see her sane, then insane. We’ll fill that gap here as well. After all, if on your wedding night you took a sharp implement and tried to kill a very strong man, and it went horribly wrong – not like in the movies, where a knife just pops in and out, but it’s a complete bloody mess – it’s enough to unsettle anyone. We’re going to see all of that.’

That leads to a debate about the nature of Lucia’s madness, doesn’t it? ‘Absolutely. Are we looking at long-lasting psychosis, or at someone who just flips out for an evening? There’s a huge spectrum of mental disturbance, from someone clinically insane through to someone profoundly shocked and destabilized, and I think it’s the trauma of murdering that fuels Lucia’s instability. I want to put some psychological steps in place so that we really understand her mental state in the so-called “Mad Scene”.’

A lot has been written about why women die in 19th-century operas. What are Mitchell’s thoughts on the matter? ‘It’s a cultural problem that we’ve inherited, seeing all those women repeatedly die or go mad.’ she says. ‘If it were matched by the equivalent number of dead and mentally disturbed men, I’d be happy as Larry. But it isn’t. So we have to be a bit more rigorous now about how we think about it and how we represent those 19th-century heroines. We can’t just glamourize them, or leave them unexamined. Just because there are beautiful sounds, they can’t be immune to scrutiny.’

Mitchell then talks some more about the thrill of working on such a ‘gorgeous and iconic’ score, and how pleased she was to be offered the project by Kasper Holten. ‘It was irresistible,’ she says with uncontained glee. But then she offers me some advice (an offer I’m surprised that more interviewees don’t make). ‘Do be careful when you write about the production not to reduce it just to the feminist take, because it sounds like that’s your angle and it would be a pity. Because, feminism aside, this is a fantastically well-made drama, which really moves with a lick and has lots of jeopardy in it. All the choices we’re making will support the story and hopefully nudge it into more of a thriller genre. I don’t want to do anything reductive, or simplifying. I want to fill in the female narrative in a dynamic and exciting way.’

This article was originally published in the Royal Opera House Magazine, received quarterly by the Friends of Covent Garden.

Lucia di Lammermoor runs 30 October-27 November 2017. Tickets are still available.

It is a co-production with Greek National Opera.

This article has 23 comments

  1. Stephen Diviani responded on 20 November 2015 at 11:46am Reply

    One of Europe's best directors & I cannot wait to see her staging of 'Lucia'. Sure, her productions are challenging in the way that she engages with any text, but her stagecraft is astonishing & her work is never, ever dull. Next year is something of a Mitchell Festival in the UK, with four of her productions at the ROH, the NT, the Royal Court & the Barbican. Fantastic!

  2. Not Going! responded on 31 December 2015 at 9:30am Reply

    From everything read above, it seems a ghastly prospect visually: yet another in the catalogue of stagings to be avoided at all costs. You head the article "How do you solve a problem like Lucia?" Why must it be a problem? Why must there be a "take", a "concept"? It, like the countless other great works of the past which yours and many other companies nowadays misrepresent, would not have stood the test of time and survived if it needed altering. Those great composers and librettists who shaped the operatic art form were not idiots: they knew exactly what they were doing and left a legacy as much in their rubrics as in their music and texts. To deny us that full package is to mis-direct that legacy. If this lady does not like it as bequeathed, why did she accept the task? She says it was "irresistible"; the sort of staging she describes is eminently resistible to anyone who loves and understands this work and what opera generally is. To have to pay to suffer it, no matter how good the singing and playing may be, is to play into the hands of these artistic charlatans. I prefer to cherish my memories of Sutherland et al. The pity is that those encountering these perpetrations for the first time imagine that they are seeing the real thing. No wonder the academics stay away in droves!

    • Stephen Diviani responded on 2 January 2016 at 6:50pm

      I, too, saw Sutherland in the role at the ROH, with Carlo Bergonzi singing Edgardo, but there is absolutely no way that I could sit through that staging again.

    • Michael responded on 6 January 2016 at 12:05am

      Exactly my thoughts - couldn't have stated it better!

    • Stephen Diviani responded on 7 January 2016 at 11:14am

      Incidentally, I am an academic and I am definitely going. Can't wait!

    • Kenneth responded on 29 January 2016 at 7:55pm

      I agree with Not Going. Why do these Directors and designers think that they are better thant the geniuses who created the work. Is it purely to feed their own over inflated egos? Be true to the work and stage it as the authors and, in this instance, including the originator, Sir Walter Scott, intended. More often than not the "modernisation ends up confusing any new audience and annoying all those who love it whilst pandering to the psuedo-intellectuals. (Critics)
      The version of Aida from Sydney Harbour was a dogs breafast of costumes styles spanning around 5000 years. A Vienna State Opera production of Nabucco has him arriving on stage dressed as a cross between Herman Goring and a Mafia boss and singing about Assyrians. The Hebrew slaves looked as if they were about to board a train for Auswitch. It made no sense whatsover. The libretto has to fit the staging and vice versa

  3. David Besley responded on 19 January 2016 at 6:02pm Reply

    I am planning a trip to London in April/May from San Francisco and had thought about seeing this production. However, I am disturbed about how this producer is going to deal with my favorite Opera. I also have talked with "academic" friends in London who said "Don't go".

    Frankly, I will Keep my memories of Sutherland and Pavorotti in Zefferelli's production which I saw in 1973. And all of the other performances and productions I have seen.

    Oh and by the way I travelled to London last year specifically to see Noah Stewart in Butterfly and he was replaced at the last moment. I wrote to ROH and of course received no good reason as to why. I thought that was extremely rude given the distance I had travelled.

    • Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media) responded on 20 January 2016 at 10:18am

      Hi David,

      Apologies for the lack of reply. Can I check - did you email or send a letter via post?

      Also, if you can recall who the letter was sent to, that'll help in us finding out why you didn't receive a reply.



  4. Ash Armstrong responded on 22 January 2016 at 8:33pm Reply

    After reading this article, I'm intrigued to see how this is staged, and not put off at all. I like a challenge, and if that is what is being presented here, then I'm up for that challenge. I'll be there....

  5. PMichael73 responded on 3 February 2016 at 8:32am Reply

    I think a staging of "Anna Nicole" in the Cromwellian period would be good.

    By imposing our attitudes onto past events drowns what the original creators were trying to say. I just want to hear Diana Damrau live, and I can always close my eyes.

  6. Raphael Camillo responded on 3 February 2016 at 2:40pm Reply

    Hi. I bought some tickets for this production of Lucia di Lammermoor. Are we going to get a preview or any other details about the staging before the actual performances?

    Thank you.

    • Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media) responded on 3 February 2016 at 3:16pm

      Hi Raphael,

      Do keep an eye on these pages and our social media channels - we'll have plenty of information about the production in the coming weeks and months.



  7. Ian Slade responded on 10 March 2016 at 1:48pm Reply

    Very, very nervous about this. Have tickets to see both casts, but definitely echoing the fears expressed here. I don't go to the opera to applaud frocks and have no problems with provocative productions (William Tell was wonderful!) but why do we need gaps filling? We have minds....we can consider things for ourselves and reach our own conclusions. Ditch concepts please....they are making operas almost unwatchable across Europe. Have you not noticed the huge commercial success (not) of the spate of horrors watched by half-empty houses at ENO?

  8. Giacomo responded on 14 March 2016 at 12:57pm Reply

    I like Donizetti.
    I like Lucia di Lammermoor.
    I've never seen Lucia di Lammermoor.
    I want to see Lucia di Lammermoor.
    ...but not overloaded with the baggage of the director so I won't be going to this one.

    to hear Katie Mitchell talking about barriers to opera, she doesn't realise she is a one.

  9. Kevyn responded on 14 March 2016 at 10:22pm Reply

    I don't understand peoples aversion to "something different". If we all presented everything in the same manner "being true to the writer's intentions" then there'd be no West Side Story" and almost certainly no Shakespeare! Judging whether you go and see something based on one person's own opinion is at best disappointing. Surely we're brave enough and educated enough to form our own opinions? Theatre is supposed to be challenging. Theatre is supposed to be thought provoking. I for one am bored of seeing the same old "bums on seat" dross and admire those who look beyond the norm. If it doesn't work, then so be it. But if it does... then we are party to something magical.

    I for one am hoping I can make to the ROH to see what all the fuss is about!

  10. Ms Laura F Farrell responded on 15 March 2016 at 11:13am Reply

    More than a little disheartened by this. Part of the power of Lucia is her sudden appearance in a state, post murder (and probable rape or attempt at such). We have sufficient imagination in order to join the dotted lines as to what occurred.

    I am thankfully, not a victim of sexual assault, though many close friends have been. They did not need to graphically re-enact these events in order for me to understand, empathise to the best of my ability, or be disgusted by the actions of the sadists who carry out such attacks.

    It is deeply saddening that ROH chooses to indulge the sadistic fetishes of violent predators, rather than respect the bodily integrity of victims and on-stage performers alike. Lucia doesn't require this in order to get its message across.

  11. C Parkinson responded on 16 March 2016 at 12:11am Reply

    Katie Mitchell's production of Alcina last year at Aix was wonderfully illuminating. It was imaginative, thoughtful and deeply moving, allowing for insights that I wouldn't have thought possible. And musically it was superb. Mitchell gave us a contemporary sensibility while keeping faith with Handel's intentions.

    Ever since then, I've been wanting to see more of Mitchell's work. Perhaps I'll disagree with aspects of her interpretation, perhaps not, but I'm confident she'll make me think while I watch and listen. I'm coming especially from Paris with my spouse (who, incidentally, is an academic).

  12. Brendan Quinn responded on 16 March 2016 at 9:41am Reply

    Look I have booked the tickets and flight and hotel coming from the West of Ireland as I do for my monthly trip to ROH. The fact there has been so much written about this production and now an email from the ROH "warning" me of what is to come, makes the whole thing intriguing. However if I find the production offensive or more to the point out of context I will make my voice clearly heard with loud booing from the Ampitheatre, I've seen enough of these re-interpretations of masterpieces to realise companies like the ROH don't trust their audience. Many of these experimental productions come and go, as do many such directors. The music will stand up for itself, if the production is offensive out of context or just plain daft I won't be coming back to it no matter who is singing, I just hope all this preparing the audience for what it is about to see is a genuine fear on the part of the management that they have dropped a huge clanger, at the end of the day if the company can see a disaster on its hands they have the right to pull the plug or make wholescale changes, the ego of the director is not as important as the fare paying passengers. Brendan. West of Ireland

  13. Sally Gibbons responded on 17 March 2016 at 3:12pm Reply

    When I booked tickets for this production in December, Ms Mitchell's production of "Cleansed" at the National had not opened. Having now read the reviews (and news stories) about that, and having received the "disclaimer" from the ROH, who are clearly concerned that no-one should sue for PTSD, I am seriously concerned about the likely graphic depiction of violence and murder which seems to be involved. This kind of gratuitous bloodbath is becoming more and more prevalent in all aspects of life, and I don't want to see it. I have an imagination, I don't need to be spoonfed. I shall be visiting the Box Office to seek a refund.

  14. Robert Katon responded on 18 March 2016 at 11:32am Reply

    I totally agree with the Ms Laura F Farrel and other similar comments above. Some things are best left to our imagination, we do not need to see scenes of rape and what is obviously planned to be a very bloody murder shown in graphic detail, nor for Ms Mitchel to fill in what she feels are 'the gaps' because she knows better than Sir Walter Scott and Donizetti.
    Perhaps, Ms Mitchell would do well to read the article in the Jan 2016 ROH Magazine concerning the forthcoming production of Il Trovatore, with quotes from its distinguished conductor Gianandrea Noseda. He concludes - 'I am not against going inside the piece from different angles, but the main thing is to tell the tale that Verdi wanted to tell, not the tale Gianandrea Noseda wants to tell!'.
    For me, the same applies to Donizetti and Ms Mitchell.

  15. Gareth Hawker responded on 18 March 2016 at 3:13pm Reply

    Kevyn responded (14 March)

    “...If we all presented everything in the same manner "being true to the writer's intentions" then there'd be no West Side Story" ...”

    It is true that the musical, 'West Side Story' was inspired by William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, but it was new – not an 'interpretation'.

    Katie Mitchell should have followed the example set by Bernstein and Sondheim.

    They produced a new musical: if she had wanted a new opera, she should have produced one.

  16. APB responded on 18 March 2016 at 7:49pm Reply

    After reading this article and the ROH email I feel torn between my love and respect for the art and the artists & my longing for new productions.
    Personally, I don't find any pleasure in seeing painful things but agree that art should help to stir people's consciences as it has always done: taking the example above, we all know that Verdi's Nabucco used the pretext of the biblical story to expose what was happening in Italy during the Austrian invasion, so a production in Vienna presenting Nazis and Jews doesn't really seem unfitting.
    It is also true that after seeing for a 3rd time the same production of Tosca (as much as I like it) one gets bored of the dresses and furniture... that is why I base my choices on the singers!
    I don't know what this production of Lucia will be but it would be good if we (the audience) could make a difference between booing the artists and the mise-en-scène. Let the producers get on scene like the rest of the artists do, so we can leave it clear to everybody who we liked or not. It is heart-breaking to hear booing to some great singers when they were more than perfect just because of a tiny coffin or a bloody scene.

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