Billy Budd - Michael Grandage

Michael Grandage is one of this country’s most distinguished theatre directors, but Billy Budd marks his debut in the opera house. He describes himself as “neither operaphile, opera sceptic nor opera virgin. I started going to see opera in the early 1980s, which was a heady time. Designers were cutting their teeth in new and interesting ways, and there were several directors coming from the theatre for the first time. There was a real sense that opera was for all, and I loved it. Then I went off into the theatre, and opera-going became a less frequent occurrence in my life.”

While this is his operatic debut, the idea of directing opera has been in the air for a long time: “About 10 years ago, David Pickard saw a production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It that I’d directed, and he started a conversation about me directing my first opera. Now, 10 years later, I am finally doing it. Thankfully, David had patience. It took me years to decide to stage an opera, because I wanted to consolidate my theatre career before moving into a new medium. I have been a theatre director since 1996 and I feel that now is about the right time.”

Much of Grandage’s theatre work has been in the publicly subsidised theatre. Glyndebourne does not fall into that category, but working here had an immediate appeal: “This once rarefied house is home to a company that, in its own way, has its own ‘opera for all’ policy while still preserving a great tradition of serious opera-going for its core audience. It’s a miracle, and that’s why I wanted to come and work here. That, and the fact that it has the best artists in the world and a picnic at the interval.”

Hardly less important in Grandage’s decision to direct his first opera was the choice of work:“I was brought up by the sea and Britten’s music has always moved me; and I was particularly keen that the first opera that I directed should be in English. I’ve seen Billy Budd many times in the past and have always been struck by the extraordinary depth of character in the piece. That’s what I enjoy most when excavating text in the theatre and I’ve enjoyed a similar journey with Budd .”

Directors who work in the theatre are often dismayed when it comes to dealing with the problems of having to follow the timing that the score imposes. For Grandage, they are one of the main attractions of staging an opera:“All directors are control freaks (don’t believe any of them who say they aren’t) and so the dictates of a score are a gift. It’s only like working on a great classical text: every beat is controlled, and that is bliss. The big difference is the relationship with the conductor and I’ve enjoyed that enormously. It must be hell if you don’t see eye to eye.”

Words: Nick Kimberley