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Getting to Know Maria Stuarda
Ahead of our new production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda this June, we caught up with director Tom Creed, no stranger to the INO stage, to find out more about the opera, his approach and what he’s most looking forward to in the coming months.
How did you first get involved in directing opera? What excites you about the artform?
I studied music as a child growing up in Cork, but left it behind for a while when I discovered the theatre as a teenager. After ten years of working as a theatre director, I started to become interested in opera, initially through seeing opera productions by theatre directors I admired. I took courses in opera directing at Covent Garden and opera writing at Aldeburgh Music, and did one season as an assistant director at Welsh National Opera. Directing my first opera productions with students at the Royal Irish Academy of Music was a fantastic opportunity to figure out how to start working with singers and find inspiration for staging in music. I had the good fortune to become an Opera Theatre Company Opera Hub artist with whom I directed two touring productions, and when Irish National Opera was founded I had the chance to direct The Tales of Hoffmann as part of the first season.
Opera is a combination of all the performing arts, and when all these elements are working, I think it’s among the most powerful experiences you can have. There’s something about music that opens a space for us to use our imaginations and explore ideas in a way that I don’t experience in quite the same way anywhere else. After two years being isolated from each other, there is something life-affirming about sharing the same air with other people and experiencing an art form in which breath is literally the conduit for drama, emotion and story.
Maria Stuarda is an opera based in fact, focussing on the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Can you tell us the story in a nutshell of Maria Stuarda? How does the opera differ from the historical facts?
Mary, Queen of Scots has spent 18 years under a kind of house arrest in England, initially accused of conspiring in her husband’s murder, and more recently implicated in a plot to assassinate her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Mary’s fate is the subject of a power struggle in Elizabeth’s court, where various factions attempt to secure a pardon for Mary or hasten her execution. In particular, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, finds himself at the heart of a love triangle between the two women. Mary asks her cousin to come to meet with her at Fotheringay where she is imprisoned, and Elizabeth reluctantly agrees to travel there under the pretence of a hunting party. The fateful confrontation takes place, with Mary’s life in Elizabeth’s hands, and the outcome is unexpected and explosive.
The plot of the opera is drawn from Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 play Mary Stuart, which, like the opera is based on historical characters and events, but invents key elements of the story for maximum dramatic intrigue and impact, including the love triangle with Leicester, and the fateful confrontation between the two queens, which never in reality took place. It’s a kind of speculative fiction, or alternative history, using history as a basis to present the ideas that Schiller and Donizetti were interested in exploring on stage.
Your operas often incorporate contemporary references in traditional or historical works. Can you tell us a little about what motivates this choice? Why do you think it works?
I consider opera as a contemporary art form and a place to explore the world we live in now. I’m especially interested in placing historical works in dialogue with the present to help us do this. So, in Maria Stuarda, we have the real history of the relationship between England and Scotland as embodied in the two queens, but also the fictional version imagined by Schiller and Donizetti, and also everything that has happened in the meantime, right up to the present. It’s a way of looking at how things change and how things stay the same, and of finding ways to tell stories clearly using images and references which are familiar to the audience.
What was your inspiration for this particular production?
The set and costume designer for Maria Stuarda is Katie Davenport, who also worked with me on The Tales of Hoffmann and Griselda for INO. We’ve been exploring what royalty looks like now, and how celebrity is presented in the media. We’ve also been looking at the contemporary relationship between England and Scotland, including all the conflicts over Brexit and Scottish independence, letting us be inspired by contemporary politics, and trying to find modern equivalents for Mary’s house arrest. I hope people will find the images striking and surprising, and that they will be able to think about history and the present in new ways.
We have some fantastic artists performing in this production, Tara Erraught and Anna Devin, to name just two. What are some of the stand out musical or dramatic moments audiences won’t want to miss?
The famous confrontation between the two queens is one of the most electrifying scenes in opera, with real dramatic intensity and vocal fireworks, and I’m really excited to experience what Tara Erraught and Anna Devin bring to this iconic moment. Apparently, in rehearsals for the original production, the two singers were overcome by the situation, actually came to blows, and had to be separated by the composer. I’m sure the drama in this production will be kept firmly on stage!
What are you most looking forward to about this production?
This is my first time staging a production for the Gaiety, and I’m really looking forward to working on a larger scale and filling it with drama and spectacle. I’m excited to work with the brilliant INO chorus to bring the world of the opera to life. And I’m particularly excited that the production will tour to Wexford and to my home city of Cork, places for which opera has long been an intrinsic part of local culture.
This is your fourth collaboration as a director with INO (Tales of Hoffmann in 2018, Griselda in 2019, and Libris Solar for 20 Shots of Opera in 2020). But for audiences who aren’t familiar with your work, can you tell us a little about your work in opera or further afield? What are some of your highlights from the last few years and what are you looking forward to in the year to come?
I spend about half my time working in theatre and the other half in opera – often directing new work but also pieces from the repertoire like Maria Stuarda. I’ve worked on world premieres of new opera and music theatre with many Irish composers, including Donnacha Dennehy, Brian Irvine, Jürgen Simpson, Jennifer Walshe and Ian Wilson, and most recently Michael Gallen’s Elsewhere at the Abbey Theatre in 2021. My international work includes Britten’s Owen Wingrave at the Paris Opera and the world premiere of Annelies van Parys’s Private View which won the first FEDORA prize for opera and toured to eleven European cities. In theatre I most recently directed Mark O’Halloran’s play Conversations After Sex at the 2021 Dublin Theatre Festival. In terms of upcoming work, I’m especially excited for the world premiere of two fantastic new operas by Emma O’Halloran, based on stage plays by Mark O’Halloran, Trade and Mary Motorhead, which will be presented in New York and Los Angeles in early 2023.