Meet the director of Koanga Michael Gieleta

With only hours to go to the opening night of Koanga, marketing manager Tracy Ryan caught up with director Michael Gieleta to talk about growing up, ethnic casting and the opera stereotype.

"Music was part of my childhood so we never had that division between classical music versus popular music.  We had instruments at home,  I trained as a pianist and everybody in my family played music so we were lucky to have that sort of sense of European cultural background where high culture was not considered elite, it was just part of life.".

What was your first experience of opera?

I can't remember.  I have been going to opera all my life.   I spent the early part of my childhood in Italy and going to the opera was never an odd or exotic experience.  I just remember going as a child to the Arena de Verona. Music was part of my childhood so we never had that division between classical music versus popular music.  We had instruments at home,  I trained as a pianist and everybody in my family played music so we were lucky to have that sort of sense of European background where high culture was not considered elite, it was just part of life.

In my early school years we lived in Poland under the communist regime, when again culture was one of the most prominent vehicles of propaganda.  By the 80s propaganda was not really Stalinist propaganda, but still culture was cheap, it was accessible to all so again the concept of going to the theatre or the concept of going to the opera, going to a gallery or buying books never had an economic aspect.  It wasn't actually until as a teenager I settled in Britain where I realised that going to the opera involves a major financial expense, that buying books requires having £25 to spend.  It was only then that I realised that culture costs a lot of money and may be available only to the few who can afford it.

What do you enjoy most about being a director?

The time in the rehearsal room, and the time when you are devising the show. When you are given something like Koanga which theoretically is an impossible equation if you don't have the realistic ethnic casting which this piece requires. We should have a white chorus, we should have an African-American chorus, we should have all these types if were doing say Twelve Years A Slave with all the realism of it, whereas here we have to push the imagination of ourselves push the imagination of the audience.  We start with the principle of the white box so no colour  throughout the show. We are asking 'what is colour', how much does it matter and one of the things that made me so happy after the dress rehearsal was nobody questioned that fact that we have a bunch of Anglo-Irish chorus on stage playing African-Americans and nobody noticed that as a problem which was from the beginning a big preoccupation of myself and David Agler. Therefore devising things and working with managements like this which allow you to be creative, who don't expect you to do the tried and tested, is one of the greatest privileges of my profession.

What would you like your audiences to take from Koanga?

Without sounding pretentious, a sense of hope because it is a story that happens in the past, it is a story which is quite accusatory. One of the most amazing things in Koanga, is a half African woman discovering her roots, her religion and realising that it makes her feel proud of her ancestry and in the end she rejects Christianity. She associates Christianity with the crimes of colonialism, that’s why she chooses her mother’s religion her mother’s ancestry.  We knew from the very beginning that we were doing the show in a country that has a long history of oppression and pain, and I knew from the beginning that it didn’t really matter that it was an oppression of African people under the colonial system or it was the oppression of Irish people under the British colonialism.  There is a sense of hope in this story, of universality.  I always find it so touching that Africa and the concept of Africanism isn’t being patronised and because I have spent a lot of time in Africa it was a sort of revelation to me the things I have learnt, how it humbled me and grounded me as a person. Here we are in an opera talking grown-up language in a grown-up theatrical idiom about Africa I think this is an unique operatic thing because this doesn’t really happen. We know what to expect of opera. We are trying to create a serious piece of political theatre and if that registers with people, if people realise this is a debate we are trying to open, not just an evening of entertainment looking at pretty images that would be the biggest compliment I could get.

How would you describe the role of opera in society?

I think it depends very much on the country.  The role of opera in this city is very special and again we can say so many people can’t afford we have these wonderful open public dress rehersals where people from the town come.  I was quite surprised how many people from Wexford had never been in to the Opera House. This is your National Opera House, a source of great pride and joy.   I think opera is catching up on being realistic and naturalistic in its presentation.  It is growing up the way theatre has grown up.  If you think three generations ago where certain mannerisms, theatricality and pretence was expected of a certain level of theatre. The pressure in the industry was not to be real to interpret these stories with the same depth and commitment that you interpret theatrical stories, realism or lack of realism whatever it is. I think opera at the moment is the fastest performance art form because theatre has already done it, ballet has already done it, whereas in opera we are still fighting the stereotype of 'the fat lady who sings'.  You know it is changing so fast and whatever one thinks of the Met broadcasts and everything that follows, Peter Gelb has created a revolution because you can be in any small town in the world and still go and feel like you are at the Met.  This fuels my enthusiasm for the art form because  I have always been creating theatre rather than opera in which I let someone on and they sing and come off the stage, and I change the set and light it.  I direct opera as if I am directing theatre, I direct theatre as if I am directing opera, that is why it always feels fresh to me and my process is what the piece needs not what the art form dictates.  

Koanga by Frederick Delius runs at the National Opera House as part of the 64th Wexford Festival Opera Wednesday 21 October, Saturday 24 October, Tuesday 27 October and Friday 30 October 2015.