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The Q&A: Francesco Micheli

Francesco Micheli in conversation with Philip Boot.

‘Opera is the best dish I ever tasted in my life’. Glyndebourne archivist Philip Boot caught up with Francesco Micheli who will be directing Alcina this year for Festival 2022.

At this moment, I think that Handel is a very interesting character, because he’s probably the first truly international, deeply European composer, and we need that at this moment. He was born in Halle, Germany, trained in Italy and triumphed in London. So, from my recent experience, after two years of being locked away at home, a composer with such a vast career is truly a breath of fresh air.

And how does Alcina fit into that?

Alcina is the perfect artistic translation of this triangle – Germany, Italy, the UK. The story is a special one and speaks of our need to dream – and it’s fundamental now to keep that skill. In fact, Handel returned many times to Orlando furioso [Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem that Alcina is based on], a chivalric poem, with a war of religion at its centre. It starts like a fairy tale, lost in a fantastic past, but we are immediately seized by a clear feeling of modernity.

In the dark days of the pandemic hope, imagination and the dream of a possible alternative has kept me going. I’m from Bergamo. In Bergamo, Covid-19 killed thousands of people, so you can hopefully understand my joy at being at Glyndebourne to direct Alcina – an opera about the importance of dreaming. We really need to think, even in the worst moments, that there is hope and a second possibility.

Could you talk about your passion for making opera more accessible to audiences?

Opera is special. Because I love opera so much, I want to share my love with as many people as possible. In my life, my passion for opera has materialised in three main areas: as a stage director, as an artistic director and through my work to make opera more accessible. I talk about opera on TV, in books, in schools, in prisons. But the spirit, wherever I go – be it at La Scala or in an awful prison in Cuba – the spirit is always the same, it can nourish, like good food. Opera is the best dish I ever tasted in my life!

I feel very lucky to be making my debut at Glyndebourne with Alcina, especially as this production is ready and waiting in the wings [Alcina was scheduled to be part of the cancelled 2020 Festival]. Opera is a complex art form, in which you have everything – dance, music, theatre and literature – and because of this we are really able to make the imagination gallop by creating incredible worlds. And that’s our goal.

Do you consider the importance of reaching diverse audiences when creating your productions?

Of course! You know, when I was a teenager, I discovered Kipling’s poem, If and its sentiment has stayed with me, especially these lines:

‘If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;

and finally,

‘Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!’

They have become a bit of a driving force for me because, when you’re watching opera, you’re often dealing with high society. My dream is for all opera to be as Italian opera was in the golden era, during the Donizetti and Verdi period in the 19th century, where you really had the whole of society represented. I love opera because it is able to create a union between all different classes, and it is important to me that I’m able to speak in a fascinating way through to everyone – children, teenagers and adults.

Is it a challenge to draw those audiences together?

There is a challenge. When Alcina was first presented, Orlando furioso was an epic poem familiar to English audiences. So in 1735 in the Theatre Royal, Handel performed Alcina and he did that because he knew everybody loved Orlando furioso. That’s not the situation today, so what is important for the director is to tell the story with this awareness. It’s not important to say ‘once upon a time Orlando and Bradamante…’ because who cares? If I’m interested in Orlando furioso, I’ll read it. Our challenge is to understand why this poem was so important for English audiences and tackle that – its themes were and are universal – the battle between reality and dreams, between duty and desire, between male and female, between cleverness and sexiness.

How did you decide on who to design the set of Alcina?

When I work with the set designer at the beginning we start from scratch every time. I put myself in the centre of the text, without any prejudices. Every opera is a new opera. I don’t like when a director has the same style for different operas. It’s important for me to stay in this void, in the darkness. Over time I have learned to be patient and wait for the libretto, the music, or the composer to speak to me.

So the design is an organic process? You would never go into a production with a predetermined idea?

Never. You know, I love my other job as an artistic director, because it gives me the possibility to create a dialogue with other directors. The design for me is the last step of an organic process, because it starts from the heart. Sometimes we can stay in historic costumes and sets, sometimes a contemporary setting, sometimes it’s a fantasy world. For me, in Alcina, it was fundamental to create a sense of nostalgia for the audience, this historical moment in which European culture changed suddenly.

What were the early influences on your interest in music and theatre?

You know, for an Italian person, family is fundamental. Everyone was passionate about music. I was used to hearing Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin, but also Italian folk music, traditional Bulgarian chords and Beethoven. Nobody loved opera as such, but this musical soundtrack combined with the screams of my very energetic family members has only one name, and that is opera. So I learned opera in my house – passions, actions, tragedy with music!

When did you experience opera for the first time?

When I was 4. But not in a theatre. My mother took me to the cinema to see The Magic Flute by Ingmar Bergman. I basically believe that the purpose of my artistic life is to evoke in the audience the emotion that this film awakened in me a long time ago.

What does opera mean to you?

I think when I go to the opera, it’s a connection with my grandparents. I remember my grandmother’s Christmas dinner. I remember the colours, music, people around me. So that’s opera for me. I believe that this mixture of past and present, useful for building the future, is the immortal secret of the opera.

francesco micheli’s brand new production of Alcina debuts at FESTIVAL 2022 RUNNING FROM 2 july TO 24 august.

This article first appeared in Recit – the Glyndebourne Member magazine.

Image credits: Illustration © Katie Ponder

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