Introducing... Keith Warner

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The acclaimed Keith Warner makes his directorial debut at Glyndebourne this summer with a brand new production of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa.

Here, Alexandra Coghlan explores Warner’s past productions at opera houses around the world, and what audiences can expect from Vanessa.

‘The thing I’ve loved in life more than almost anything else is Ibsen. He is my god. Ibsen is extraordinary because you never know what he is thinking, what his opinion is. That is what fascinates me: how you can keep your own voice out of it and just let characters live.’
- Keith Warner

Keith Warner may be discussing Ibsen, but his words offer just as much of an insight into the veteran opera director’s own work and artistic philosophy. There is no such thing as a typical Warner production; you won’t find any of the obvious recurring visual ticks or dramatic signatures you see with some directors. Instead, what unifies the director’s vast and diverse body of work – over 150 different operas conceived over three decades in some 20 different countries – is this sense of openness: a willingness to let the drama speak for itself, to approach it with questions rather than answers.

Although making his much-anticipated Glyndebourne debut this summer, Warner is a familiar figure to British opera-goers both through his work elsewhere in the UK and abroad. His relationships with both ENO and Scottish Opera extend back to the 1980s, and he spent time as associate director of each.

A photo of Keith Warner's production of Thomas Ades’s The Tempest at Opera Frankfurt - the characters are in a rowing boat in front of a large yellow moon.

Photo: Keith Warner’s production of Thomas Ades’s The Tempest at Opera Frankfurt. Photo: Opera Frankfurt/Monika Rittershaus

But it was at the Royal Opera that Warner really made his mark, winning an Olivier Award for his thoughtful production of Wozzeck in 2002. His bold, abstract Ring Cycle was a centrepiece of both the 2004-5 and 2005-6 seasons, and returns again later this year for a second revival. He has also had longstanding relationships with Opera Frankfurt, where he directed the German premiere of Thomas Ades’s The Tempest, and Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, where he repertoire has included everything from Don Giovanni to The Rape of Lucretia.

Warner’s theatrical knowledge and instincts are the starting point for all he does. Asked what typifies his approach he says simply ‘good acting’, an answer that reflects a democratic approach to rehearsal, which allows his cast to build and shape their own characters. The result is a chameleon catalogue of productions, a style that reinvents itself afresh for each new work and situation. Rather than stick with regular collaborators, Warner prefers to move between different designers for sets, costumes and design, responding to the particular needs and style of each different project.

Keith Warner's production of Elegie für junge Liebende (Elegy for Young Lovers) at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. A man and woman lit in blue stand in front of a giant desk lamp and phrenology head

Photo: Keith Warner’s production of Elegie für junge Liebende (Elegy for Young Lovers) at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. Image © Werner Kmetitsch.

Most striking of all, perhaps, is Warner’s breadth of reference. Critic Barry Millington describes Warner’s work as, ‘Rich in theatrical and cinematic resonances from Shakespeare and Beckett to Ingmar Bergman and David Lynch’, speaking to a director for whom text is always the starting point, but whose end point invariably takes it on quite a journey. This journey promises to be particularly fascinating in Vanessa, whose many ambiguities and mysteries Warner – a passionate advocate of the piece since his student days – is keen to explore.

Vanessa is on stage at Festival 2018 from 5–26 August.

Public booking opens online at 6.00pm on Sunday 4 March 2018.

Members’ priority booking is open now.