Opera as Drama: An Interview with Director Stephen Lawless

The following conversation took place at the Santa Fe Opera Cantina, with the much-appreciated facilitation of the Santa Fe Opera.


[British Director Stephen Lawless; edited image, based on a photograph from Askonas Holt.]


Wm: My traditional first question is: What are your earliest memories of music, and of opera?

SL: My parents were of the generation where the radio was of more importance than the television so there was always music around. When I later started to listen to opera I was surprised how much I recognized and had absorbed.

The school that I went to did an annual production of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta so I became interested in that and that then led me on to Opera.

I was lucky that in those days all the major British opera companies (with the exception of Covent Garden) toured, so I was able to see performances in both Manchester and Liverpool and at a price a school kid could afford.

Also the school went on a regular basis to see the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford which was then producing the best theatre in the country – they had just done Peter Brooks famous Midsummer Nights Dream. There was a director there called John Barton whose production of Richard the Second showed me what the potential of good and radical direction could be and made me decide that that was what I wanted to do.

But it was seeing Peter Hall’s production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” on television in the early 1970s that really awoke my interest in opera. It’s honesty and lack of pretension really struck a chord. I read an interview in the Times with John Copley and wrote to him for help and with characteristic generosity he replied and got me started as an assistant.

Wm: You were in London at a time when John Copley, Sir Peter Hall, John Schlesinger, Elijah Moshinsky, Andrei Tarkovsky and others with experience in theater and cinema were forces that were helping transform how opera was produced, directed, acted and sung.  Which of those directors were particular influences on you and your creative approaches to staging opera?

SL: I had the opportunity to assist all of those, particularly Peter Hall at Glyndebourne. (I even revived that production of “Marriage of Figaro” I had seen both at Glyndebourne and in America).

Peter was a great influence on me in how to direct singers as actors (he basically said – rightly in my view-that there is no difference.)

Elijah was just starting to work as a director at Covent Garden and his productions of Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and Verdi’s “Macbeth” were  visually arresting and innovative. I think if anyone has influenced me as to how my shows “look” it was him.

Elijah had assisted Peter as well and had progressed to directing his own shows and I was to follow the same path. Such a progression was standard in those days. That’s not necessarily the case now.

[Below: Adina (Sarah Coburn) reads to the assembled villagers in a 2014 Washington National Opera performance of the Stephen Lawless production of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]


Wm: In my review of The Dallas Opera revival of Tarkovsky’s production of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov”, which I had previously seen at the San Francisco Opera, I described it as a “world treasure” [World Treasure: a Stunning Dallas Opera Revival of Tarkovsky’s Classic, Insightful “Boris Godunov” – April 1, 2011.]

SL: “Boris” was the only opera production that Tarkovsky directed (although he was supposed to have directed Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Holländer” for Covent Garden but lateness of design and then his final illness prevented it. I was 26 and Tarkovsky treated me as he would an assistant director on a movie, i.e., to do the crowd scenes.

I was presented with a chorus of a 140, 30 supers and 40 ballet. I was really thrown in at the deep end and it was a sink or swim situation. But it taught me a lot and totally removed any fears I might have had with working with large numbers of people. Great experience!

Wm: My first review of one of your creations was your “Trovatore” at the San Diego Opera [Nicely Done “Il Trovatore” in Verdi-Friendly San Diego – April 4, 2007], in a production that they rented from the Los Angeles Opera. I praised your innovative ideas about staging the work, even while you showed fidelity to and sympathy with the often-maligned story.

SL: It is indeed wrongly maligned in my opinion. “Trovatore” is an absolute masterpiece. 

[Below: Queen Elizabeth I (Sondra Radvanovsky, above) expresses her annoyance at her lover, Roberto Devereux, Earl of Essex (Leonardo Capalbo, below) in a 2014 Canadian Opera Company performance of the Stephen Lawless production of Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux”; edited image, based on a Michael Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company.]


Wm: However, it was three Donizetti operas that have been called the Tudor Trilogy –  “Anna Bolena”,”Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereux” that really caught my attention. I first saw “Devereux” in Dallas [The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Papian, Costello in Lawless’ Dallas “Devereux” – January 23, 2009]. I remarked at that time “Stage director Lawless is hardly a ‘stand and sing’ director. His principals crouch and sing, slink down staircases and sing, crawl along the floor and sing”. 

SL: When Karen Stone asked me about directing Donizetti’s so called “Tudor” trilogy for Dallas, I was slightly reluctant. I didn’t know them but I soon changed my mind. The only Donizetti operas i had directed at that time were the two well known comedies “L’Elisir d’Amore” and “Don Pasquale”. They had both surprised me because they are not conventional 19th century comedies. There is a vein of something serious running through them and it is this mix of comedy and melancholy that I found really interesting.

[Below: the aged Queen Elizabeth I (Sondra Radvanovsky, right) in a 2014 Canadian Opera Company performance of the Stephen Lawless production of Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux”  reflects on the impact on her life of her father, Henry VIII (represented in case to the left), of her mother Anne Boleyn (represented in case to the right) and on her own childhood (represented by the Young Elizabeth in case at the center); edited image, based on a Michael Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company.]


I think this holds true of the “Tudor trilogy” in that there is an ironical element to what had been seen as purely serious works. So, for example, Elizabeth in “Roberto Devereux” is conceived as (at times) almost a caricature of an aging woman. It is this irony, this black humour that then makes the tragedy of aging and losing a last love even more potent. I think this is not cliched 19th century melodrama but something very sophisticated and curiously modern.

Wm: My characterization of your work as a key part of a “Donizetti Revival, Second Stage” refers to my belief that Donizetti’s operas have two key elements – enduring moments of the bel canto style of singing and an inherent theatricality, because of Donizetti’s choice of subjects from the popular Romantic drama of the early 19th century.

I think that most of the mid- and late 20th Donizetti productions were designed to display prima donna virtuosity, but the 21st century productions, such as yours and John Pascoe’s “Lucrezia Borgia” give greater emphasis to the dramatic possibilities of these operas.

SL: I agree!

[Below: Faust (Bryan Hymel) goes to the fair in a 2011 Santa Fe Opera performance of Stephen Lawless’ production of Gounod’s “Faust”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Wm: For most of its history the Santa Fe Opera avoided most of the French repertory, including core repertory operas by Gounod, Bizet and Offenbach. You have had the distinction of creating the very first Santa Fe Opera productions ever of Gounod’s “Faust” [Santa Fe Opera Gets Gounod At Last: Hymel, Pérez Soar in Spectacular New Production of “Faust” – July 1, 2011] and “Roméo et Juliette” [Review: A Surprise at Santa Fe Opera – Joshua Guerrero joins Pérez, Aceto in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette”, July 29, 2016] and a new production of Bizet’s “Carmen” [Review: Stephen Lawless’ Creative New “Carmen” Production Opens 2014 Santa Fe Opera Season – June 27, 2014 and Review: A Second Look at the Lawless “Carmen” – Santa Fe Opera, August 2, 2014.]

I’ve argued that famous operas that emerged from Paris’ mid-19th century Théâtre Lyrique and Opéra Comique have an inherent theatricality that translates well into modern productions. Your “Faust”, “Carmen” and “Roméo” all were shifted to more recent times with stunning effect.

[Below: Don Jose (Roberto de Biasio, center left, at fence) has become disillusioned with his life as a smuggler on the United States-Mexican border and his failing love affair with Carmen (Ana Maria Martinez, right) in a 2014 Santa Fe Opera of the Stephen Lawless production of Bizet’s “Carmen”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


SL: I’ve read your essays. Regrettably, neither my “Faust” or “Carmen” Santa Fe Opera productions survive, although the “Roméo et Juliette” will be performed at a later date in Barcelona and probably also elsewhere in North America.

Santa Fe Opera’s General Manager Charles MacKay kept offering me French operas. Gounod’s major opera have been a revelation. Both “Faust” and “Roméo et Juliette” are such fantastically rich dramatic pieces.

Wm: How did you approach creating a new production for this year’s “Roméo”?

SL: There has always been a problem for me with “Roméo” because of the waltzes in the opening party scene. If you set it in the renaissance they always appear anachronistic, so I wanted to find a period in which they wouldn’t appear so which meant 19th century roughly at the time of composition. We thought about the Franco/Prussian war but the nature of the conflict in both play and opera is between people who know each other and not between nations.

The opera is about a love affair in troubled times so I thought it might be interesting for an American audience if we set it during the Civil War. I’m a great believer that when faced with an opera with a literary precedent that you try and make the opera stand on its own two feet rather than trying to drag it kicking and screaming closer to (in this case) the Shakespearean original.  But, to my surprise, in rehearsals I think we have almost inadvertently come closer to themes thrown up by the play.

[Below: Romeo (Stephen Costello, right) mistakenly believes that Juliette (Ailyn Perez, left) is dead in a 2016 Santa Fe Opera performance of the Stephen Lawless production of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” ; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Wm: What inspires your creative approaches to staging opera?

SL: I’m a great believer in opera having relevance. By that I mean that you have to find a  social context for it that the audience recognizes as opposed to being relevant (and by that i mean setting it in a contemporary setting somehow makes it have more meaning).

I think I am moved more by Fiordiligi’s predicament in Act Two of Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” if she is dressed in 18th century clothes rather than if she is in modern dress. It’s not that the emotion or the dilemma is any different or that one is intrinsically better than the other. It’s simply the sense that someone who is describing  this feeling written over two hundred years ago has  more resonance because the emotion being expressed has always been eternal.

Wm: One of your next assignments is a new production of Weber’s “Der Freischütz” for Virginia Opera, that I’m scheduled to review. Tell me your thoughts on this opera.

SL: The opera is rarely performed outside of Germany, so I wanted to find a context for it that would work for an American audience.

Wm: You had American themes integrated into your stagings of “Carmen” and “Roméo and Juliet” in Santa Fe. How did you proceed with “Freischütz”.

SL: If “Freischütz” is known for anything, it is the Wolf’s Glen scene. It struck me that this bore many similarities to  the stories of Washington Irving, who was almost a contemporary of Weber.

Wm: There are obvious parallels between Wolf’s Glen and the setting of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

SL: There are other issues that have importance. For example, both societies are obsessed with guns. I think it is important to raise such issues when staging these classic operas.

Wm: I look forward to seeing it. What are some of the operas that you would be interested in directing in future years?

SL: I’m desparate to do Weber’s “Oberon” and Mussorgsky’s comedy “The Fair at Sorochyntsi” as well.

Wm: We’re sitting here with a beautiful view of New Mexico’s Sangre de Christo Mountains. What are your thoughts on working at the Santa Fe Opera?

SL: This is my fourth show here. It’s a wonderful place. I started by career at the Glyndebourne Festival, so appreciate the special nature of a summer festival. 

I’m extremely impressed by the young artists – the Santa Fe Opera Apprentices. I saw the production of Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West” a couple nights ago and was very much taken by that shining sound, and their enthusiasm in their individual characterizations.

Wm: I think not just “The Girl of the Golden West” but the whole post-Verdian verismo period is in great need for revival. This is a group of composers who had ingested the lessons in theater and drama taught by Wagner and the French composers from Gounod through Massenet. These operas need the careful restudy that so many of the great British and North American directors should be able to give them.

SL: I do agree that there are treasures there to be discovered. When I was in San Francisco in 1992 for the Tarkovsky production of “Boris Godunov”, I went to San Francisco’s then prosperous record store Tower of Records and came upon a recording of Franchetti’s “Christopher Columbus”. When I arranged to listen to it, I experienced a wall of sound.

The opera needs a lot of cutting, but it has a sweeping story that includes Christopher Columbus’ Discovery of America and, in the final act, his return home. The middle part is concerned with the Spanish Conquistadors.

Wm: Last year, I reviewed the opening performance of a revival of your “Flying Dutchman” production [Review: Fair Weather and a Well-Sung “Flying Dutchman” at Washington National Opera – March 7, 2015].

Although the production had been seen at New York City Opera (NYCO) and elsewhere,  it was originally scheduled for NYCO for the night of September 11, 2001. I’ve always wondered whether the experience of being in New York influenced your later work.

SL: I was staying in my friend Carol Vaness’s apartment on the West side of Manhattan, which looked directly on the World Trade Center so I saw everything. I remember standing on the balcony and pinching myself as I could not believe it was happening for real. It was only watching the reporting on television that made it seem real, not a nightmare.

The question is how – as an artist – do you respond to the horror of the event? My strongest memory of those days is when the production of “Dutchman” finally premiered on the afternoon of the 15th September. The State Theatre was (understandably) half empty, but the performance was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.

[Below: the cast, crew and chorus observe the reopening of the New York City Opera prior to the first performance of Stephen Lawless’ production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman”,  four days after the horrors of September 11, 2001; edited image, based on a Sara Krulwich photograph for the New York City Opera.]


It was as if everybody involved wanted to negate the horror of 9/11 with this explosion of creativity, our own way of endorsing life as opposed to the destruction of the previous Tuesday. At the end everyone involved was in floods of tears. If anyone ever questions me about the purpose or function of Art I always mention that performance as the prime example of why what we do is so necessary and important.

Wm: Thank you for spending this time between rehearsals with me.

SL: Thank you!


The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Stephen Lawless’ “Maria Stuarda” in Toronto – May 4, 2010,

Joyce DiDonato is Vocally and Dramatically Convincing in Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” – Houston Grand Opera, April 27, 2012,

Sondra Radvanovsky’s Astounding Virgin Queen in Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” – Canadian Opera Company, Toronto, April 25, 2014