As far as innovative opera directors go, Glasgow-born, out opera director Paul Curran is so ahead of the pack, he can hardly see behind him. Along with famed, star-making turns as a wee young general manager of the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, and as artistic consultant for the Central City Opera of Denver, Curran brought a bold and lively look to Opera Philadelphia’s plush 2015 “La traviata” at a time when Opera Philadelphia boss David B. Devan’s company was just gaining acclaim.
Now, Curran returns to Opera Philadelphia with Bizet’s torrid “Carmen” at the Academy of Music April 27. Curran caught up with PGN on a rare day to himself in Philadelphia.
PGN: Why “Carmen” in 2018? What is relevant and necessary about Bizet’s bullfighting and his dangerous love triangle?
PC: My job is simply telling a story. Theater is subjective; everybody has a slightly different experience and I love that. I never could expect 2,500 people to see the show exactly the same way. I love the idea someone will leave full of big questions, someone else will leave wondering what they just saw, another might leave furious because they were provoked. That’s the theater I love. It should certainly be entertaining, but it can also be so many other experiences. Carmen is an outsider. She is told she’s not welcome by “normal” society because of what she was born as: a gypsy. I think that is an idea any LGBTQ person can relate to in some ways. Younger gay people today benefit from my generation’s stance and protests — I did a lot of marches in the ’80s — just as I did from the generation before me. But the “you’re different and not welcome” bigotry is far from over. We read about it all the time: whether it be sexual preference, color, race or creed. Carmen is us — everybody who was told they just don’t fit in.
PGN: You have played with or directed through Opera Philadelphia in the past with “La traviata.” At that time and throughout that process, what most impressed you about its trajectory?
PC: Opera Philadelphia blew me away when I first met with them: visionary and forward-thinking and totally committed to the theatrical and musical performances they were presenting. Everybody in the company seems to be working to the same end: a great night out. The company’s energy is infectious, and their commitment absolutely real.
PGN: So, considering that, and since that time, Opera Philadelphia has become a world-renowned entity for its inventiveness in terms of staging, programming, marketing and outreach. What is your take on that?
PC: That is exactly as it should be, and as all opera companies should be. But Opera Philadelphia is clearly taking the lead in bold and inventive programming. It is ahead of the rest of the U.S. and a lot of Europe.
PGN: You seem to be a forward-looking chap. Why did you wish to direct with Opera Philadelphia again? Why “Carmen”?
PC: I had turned down “Carmen” seven times in the past. I only said yes this time as all the stars aligned: the right company and ethos, right conductor (the fantastic Yves Abel) and the right youthful, world-class cast. Taking on something that comes with so many preconceived ideas is not easy. You have to clear your mind and make your own path. Now I’m in my 50s, I feel it’s the right time for me to tell this story. I had to interpret this story through my own eyes, and not as prescribed by anyone else. How to make a blue-collar drama come alive and not make it feel like it was under glass in a museum? That’s the challenge.
PGN: Let’s shift to a personal question: you grew up Catholic near Glasgow. I can guess your surroundings. How did being Catholic and gay in that area affect you aesthetically going forward?
PC: I parted company with the church a long time ago due to the constant hypocrisy I saw. Seems as if God created us all in his vision, just not me. I never understood what I’d done wrong. It wasn’t me who created me. Being lectured by priests on “sexual perversion” the day after seeing them cruising teenagers at a bus station left me sickened. Then again, a tough upbringing really does help prepare you for a life in theater. You get used to hearing the word no and you get used to picking yourself up and moving on. As for being gay, like Carmen, being different and told you are a lesser human, only ever made me fight harder. She constantly cries out the same line, “Freedom!” That was me as a kid, desperately telling myself I had to get out of there and live my own life.
PGN: Your first U.S. gigs were the Santa Fe Opera production of Britten’s “Peter Grimes” in 2005 and “Billy Budd” in 2010. How does America see opera differently than Europe? Was there more freedom in the U.S. to innovate technologically, as you did with “Budd”?
PC: Opera in America is essentially very conservative. It’s often reproducing something rather than reinterpreting it here. That’s why Opera Philadelphia is so important right now, with its huge vision and dedication to new works and reviewing existing ones. As for innovating with technology, unfortunately the U.S. usually lags very far behind in that area. Most European houses are government funded, so more able to experiment with their finances in building new theatres and using new technology. But last season at Santa Fe for “The Golden Cockerel” we pushed the envelope by doing an ambitious video production in a theatre we’d been told it would never work in. It did.
PGN: Yes, and your tech is delicate and filled with subtle visual tricks. That’s your signature. How does that fit “Carmen”?
PC: Thanks for noticing that. I’m very proud of how my team and I use technology in our shows. Technology is a tool to be used. It’s not an end in itself. This “Carmen,” though, is not actually technology-based. The design, however, is hugely impactful. Gary McCann, who also designed “Traviata,” is one of the design world’s fast-rising stars. We make a great team, as we both push each other forward. Imagination costs nothing; building it is what is expensive. So we think big and start to edit.