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Photo Credit: Håvard Christensen

Thomas Guthrie: Musings On Opera, part one

We asked Thomas Guthrie about his views on making great opera happen. Here’s an excerpt from part one of his reply, taken from a voice recording he made on an early morning lockdown walks.

‘All theatrical story telling, opera included, is on one level simply about solving problems and overcoming challenges — of space, of budget, of dramaturgy, of target audience, of rehearsal time, of cast, of relevance, of clarity, of freshness — to achieve one single goal: to speak, through the emotions, to people’s souls. To move them, to amuse them, to inspire them, to surprise them, whoever they are, to take them out of themselves, to take them deeper into themselves, to change them, to challenge them, to help them see themselves and the world we all live in in a new light.

Nothing else.

Of course I think most people – certainly in our business – would agree that has never been more important — more of a responsibility for theatre and opera-makers — than now.

Story and music have a very special ability to do these things. And it’s frustrating when we see opera and theatre that seem to ignore what are fairly obvious, inherent values. I mean, isn’t it a mistake NOT to seek tell a story clearly, NOT to allow the audience to follow it and draw its own conclusions, but to impose and enforce one’s own — for whatever reason — one’s career, perhaps, or showing off, or merely satisfying one’s ego?

Actually, since we’re talking about it, and you’ve got me going on it, it’s more than a mistake, it’s a crime against the theatre-going public! Who in our business doesn’t believe that theatre can be for everyone?

And yet, all too often, at our leading institutions, there seems to be a blind and damaging misunderstanding of what theatre and opera actually are, of what most people come to the theatre for, and the result can be a waste of resource, time and space.

Auteur-led productions – let’s face it, that’s what this is about [the manipulation of a theatrical or operatic work to suit an director’s personal agenda] – CAN move the art form forward, can stimulate discussion, can even be game-changing — but there has to be an understanding of — and critically an intention to respect — what theatre and storytelling are, and what they can do.

Without those things, and in a system (certainly in international opera, with its often apparent disregard for ‘ordinary’ audiences) which can all too easily encourage ego-trips (the enemy of good theatre anywhere!), too many opportunities are wasted.

And what’s really interesting is what stimulating people’s imaginations can do when we allow the story to speak.

There are so many ways to tell a story.

Which suits best? In opera, the story’s already been directed once by the composer. What have they already drawn out? And then, what resonates best with your particular audience, in your particular space, on your budget, with your cast, in the time available to you? What is most clear and most likely to speak to people through their emotions in any given circumstance?’

Stay tuned for Part Two!

Read more about Thomas Guthrie’s process for devising Director’s Visions for the 2020 Royal Opera House Design Challenge “Carmen” here

For more on the Royal Opera House Design Challenge, please visit or email

Read the Director’s Visions for “Carmen” in full here

Written by

Stories by director, musician, actor, storyteller, and Artistic Director of Music and Theatre for All. “I want to be gripped, to have my imagination inspired”.

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