Project Pygmalion: Q&A with Karolina Sofulak

Hello Karolina! Ensemble Molière is very excited to be working with a director for the first time and would love to take this opportunity to ask you a few questions about you, your career and the creative process.

Hello, thanks for including me in your blog! I’m very excited to be working with you too and can’t wait till we’ll be able to share our Pygmalion rom-com opera with the audience.

·       Where does your love of music and opera in particular stem from?

I’ve been obsessed with classical music since very early childhood – as a kid I dreamt of being an opera conductor. When I was five years old I would run around the house with a baton made from a stick and “conduct” tape recordings of operatic arias. My parents were particularly amused when I would lose my tiny mind waving the stick frantically to Mozart’s Madamina, which I thought at the time was an aria about riding a bicycle. Or I would weep uncontrollably listening to Au fond du temple saint and, not knowing the French words, thought it was about two guys serenading each other and considered it incredibly romantic.

·       How and when did you decide that directing opera was going to become such an integral part of your career?

It happened when I was about 13 and I dropped out from music school (in Poland, if you were into music, you’d be enrolled into a state music school that would run in the evenings after normal school, where you’d study your chosen instrument, chorus singing, band practice, etc). I was tired of being always holed up at home with my piano – I wanted to go out and have fun like normal kids. I decided that instead of conducting opera I would direct opera, which seemed to me at the time pretty much the same thing, but viewed from a different side, so to speak. I don’t regret making that decision, as I love directing, but I must say I wish I hadn’t given up on the piano so early on.

·       How do you go about piecing together all the different aspects of an opera? What kind of training did you receive?

I learned to read music at the aforementioned music school, which is indispensable in my line of work – it has also made me more attuned to what the music wants to say, the emotions it is conveying, what the stage action requires in order to make the best impact. I’ve got a M. A. in comparative literature and as part of this degree I learnt to speak English, Italian and German fluently. It’s hugely helpful to speak these ‘operatic’ languages, as you can study the libretti directly, you don’t have to rely on word for word translations. Finally, after university, I got a drama school degree in opera and musical theatre directing, which was the final touch on my training and gave me the opportunity to get loads of experience in working with singers. I would say those are the most important aspects of working on staging an opera – understanding its music, its text and context, and, last but certainly not least, being able to communicate your vision to the cast and team in a way that will inspire them to engage with it creatively.

·       Have any other directors inspired your work? And whose ideas do you admire?

I’ve worked the most with the Alden brothers – especially closely with Christopher Alden. I admire their work and it has inspired me a great deal over the years. Of course they are very different in their approach and process, but both are geniuses and true masters of their art. What distinguishes them from other directors is the absolute musicality of their stagings and the ability to imprint their bold interpretations and reinterpretation of operatic works onto the received narrative of the libretto in a way that brings out the true meaning of the pieces, or rather, maintains the immediacy of that meaning for contemporary audiences. It allows operas to have an impact as powerful as they had two hundred years ago on the people who saw them when they were first staged. When I watch their shows I have a feeling that hundreds-year-old music was freshly composed to accompany their subversive stagings, rather than a staging was forcibly imposed onto the music. This organic quality is for me the essence of opera directing. Another huge influence on my vision as an artist has been my dear friend and colleague Charles Edwards – a brilliant designer and director, and one of very few people in this business who are intimately familiar with all the aspects of putting on an opera – set design, lighting design, directing, dramaturgy and even singing and performing.

·       You have worked with a huge variety of artists over the years, do you think working with an early music group will be any different?

I’ve had the pleasure of working with early music groups before – with the Marian Consort in Clare Norburn’s concert drama Breaking the Rules that I directed for the Brighton Early Music Festival and with the Monteverdi String Band for whom I directed Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, which was shown in Venice and at the London Festival of Baroque Music. Working with early music groups is different from my opera work in that these projects usually lack the infrastructure provided by opera companies – the conductor and I end up doing by ourselves the job of about five to ten people each. But that is precisely what lends tremendous excitement to these projects, and allows for a true immersion in the process and much greater hold over the final product than one would have in a big opera company with hundreds of people involved. The scarcity of funds inherent in grant-based projects makes one think creatively and be inventive with what one has – I find these can be good conditions for creating original work.

·       What kind of music do you enjoy listening to?

Apart from opera and classical music I love (and always have loved) classic rock – especially Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, The Rolling Stones, Rainbow – anything with that unmistakable vibe of the late 60s and early 70s. I was brought up by a hippie dad and remain a hippie at heart.

In terms of opera I adore Handel, I go wild for his baddie arias, like Sibilar gli angui d'aletto, as well as all those hopeful arias about being a lonely boat floating on a vast ocean looking for a safe haven – it must have been a powerful metaphor at the time because half the arias seem to have it at their centre. Janáček is another favourite of mine – he’s amazingly modern in his musical dramaturgy and a joy to direct. I also have a soft spot for Tchaikovsky – Onegin is one of my most beloved operas of all time.

·       How do you go about visualising the story of Pygmalion?

Having an animation artist on board rather than a conventional set designer meant we had to think very strategically as to what impact we would like the video art to have – we started with identifying the passages of music that would need visual “help” (as they were originally intended for dancing) and thought about how we could interpret them in the projections to further the story. As to the story itself, we needed to flesh it out a little, because the libretto fizzles out after about twenty minutes of action and what was meant to follow was a lot of celebratory dancing… We needed to complicate the story a bit for it to hold dramatic tension throughout the piece. Modern audiences are very different from those of Rameau’s time.

   Do you have a favourite element or scene from Pygmalion?

Yes – the sequence of short dances in which the Graces are meant to teach the Statue how to dance and, well, be graceful. We’ve interpreted it as a journey Galatea (the Statue) takes, in which she is to experience life and the vast world she’s suddenly found herself in.

·       Could you walk us through the basics of the direction process?

The direction process varies from piece to piece, and is hugely dependent on the context of the staging: it’s different when you have six weeks of rehearsals in an opera company, in the actual set or expert mock up of the set, and different when you work on a piece over a week or two in various venues where you have to improvise a bit with the space. And it is especially different in the case of an opera accompanied by video art and animation, which of course has to be prepared and worked out well in advance. So in this particular case, with time constraints and video art in mind, we had to come up with a storyline that we’ll have to more or less stick to during the rehearsal process, instead of depending on the natural, organic development of the staging in rehearsals. That doesn’t mean that I won’t be open to what the singers and the dancer will bring with their particular interpretations and artistic sensibilities (ignoring those would make me, frankly, the worst kind of director), but it means I will have to guide and navigate their energies within the story framework that we’ve already committed to while designing the projections.

·       What up and coming projects are you most looking forward to working on in the future?

I’m very excited about directing Cavalleria rusticana for Opera North this autumn in a set designed by Charles Edwards. It is part of a wider cycle of six “little greats” – one-act operas with huge emotional impact.

·       Where can we see your work?

In Leeds, and then on tour in Manchester, Newcastle, Hull and Nottingham over the course of September, October and November 2017.

Thank you for your time Karolina, we can’t wait to see the finished project in June!

Buy you tickets here for the June performances of Pygmalion at The Stroud Green Festival in North London! 

Alice x