Wachtel On The Arts - Robert Carsen

Robert Carsen. Photograph by Felipe Sanguinetti.

Robert Carsen. Photograph by Felipe Sanguinetti.


Eleanor Wachtel talks to Robert Carsen, the Canadian who became the world's busiest director of operas. He's in Toronto with one of his most lauded productions, Dialogues des Carmelites, a story of nuns who decided to go to the guillotine rather than renounce their vows during the French Revolution. It's on stage now, performed by the Canadian Opera Company. Robert Carsen tells Eleanor about his early life growing up in a mansion with his art-loving philanthropist parents, and about his spectacular career, and his philosophy of directing, bringing fresh and surprising interpretations to classic operas.

wachtel-carsen-eleanor.jpgRobert Carsen's life sounds like a whirlwind tour of the globe. He works on dozens of opera productions each year, a mix of new creations and re-stagings of previous work. Technically, he lives in Paris and London. In practice, his real home is the opera world, and his real houses are called Teatro alla Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, and Canada's own Four Seasons Centre, among many many others.

Carsen grew up in Toronto, on a large property in Thornhill, surrounded by his father's modern art collection. His parents had built a fortune importing optical equipment and other investments. As a child, Robert was taken to New York to see theatre and opera. He became obsessed with acting at Upper Canada College. In fact, one day, when he was scarcely twenty, he walked out of an exam at York University. He threw his unfinished paper into the garbage, and the very next day, he left Canada to study theatre in England.

It seemed like a risky move, and he never made it as an actor. Carsen spent a decade journeying through the theatre world, working mostly as an apprentice or assistant director, wherever he could get work.  He got his big break with a new production of Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele in Geneva. Teaming up with a young Canadian designer named Michael Levine, Robert Carsen wowed the audience, and vaulted into opera's top rank of directors.

Since then, he's barely paused for breath. He remains in constant demand, thanks to his striking, fresh approach to the stage.  His primary loyalty has always been to the composer, and the core purpose of an opera. He emphasizes the human drama over stagecraft.  "What I'm most interested in," he says, "is creating an experience that is as intense as possible."  A principle he applies to his work in theatre, musicals or designing shows for museums.

The Canadian Opera Company is now featuring one of Carsen's most lauded productions. Dialogues of the Carmelites is based on a true story about 18th century nuns of the Carmelite order. During the "reign of Terror" that followed the French revolution, sixteen nuns chose to face death by the guillotine rather than renounce their vows. Francis Poulenc's opera traces the events leading up to their execution. It's a harrowing, absolutely gripping work.  The DVD of Robert Carsen's production was named best of the year by the BBC Music Magazine.

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