A Personal Account by Ian Burton

Extracts from a book on "Opera Practice" edited by Piet de Volde to be published in Amsterdam in 2012


I first started working as a Dramaturg in 1987 when Robert Carsen was invited to direct La Finta Giardiniera in Frankfurt conducted by Gary Bertini with Margaret Marshall, Alicia Naffe and Werner Hollweg as the leading singers. Robert was living in Bath at the time, as I was. He was starting his career as an opera director and I was teaching Shakespeare and the History of Music- Theatre at the University, and since Bath is a village, we often found ourselves talking about opera together. After his training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, in the late 70’s,
he had been working as an assistant at Glyndebourne, and Covent Garden, to Trevor Nunn amongst others, and I had been directing for two semi-professional opera companies in Bath and Bristol and performing my University duties as well as directing students from the Music Department in Die Dreigroschenoper, Il Ballo delle Ingrate, and so on. He asked me to help on the Mozart production and I remember trying to persuade him to look at various American B movies, as well as a few Hitchcock classics of the 1950’s, to help sort out and visualize on stage some of the twists and turns of the Mozart plot. I think I wrote something in the programme also trying to persuade the audience about the analogies between these two completely disparate art forms!

I don’t think I really knew what the word “dramaturg” meant in 1987, although I discovered that that was what I was credited with being in the programme. In France I knew that the word meant a writer of plays (what we in England called a “dramatist”), as well as someone who worked as a “researcher” in the theatre and in opera. And then when I looked again at the history of Brecht’s theatre in Berlin in the late 1920’s, as well as in East Berlin in the 1950’s, I realized that he employed armies of “dramaturgs” not only to help him with the writing of the new plays and adaptations that the Berliner Ensemble were performing, but also in the vital business of rehearsal and creation - and there were dramaturgs for everything, for the direction, for the writing, for the music, for the design, for making the coffee!

In England things have changed slightly, although people still find the word rather curious and difficult to pronounce.
I remember once being in Nicholas John’s office at the ENO in the mid 1990’s with Simon Rees (Dramaturg of the WNO during the exciting period of Brian Macmaster’s intendantship when he brought over Pintillie and the Boroszescus from Paris and Romania, Peter Stein and Ruth Berghaus from Germany and many other famous directors and designers from Europe, and we toasted each other as we drank a glass of white wine and said “We are the only three Dramaturgs working in the opera in England!” The great Kenneth Tynan had called himself a framaturg when Laurence Olivier started the National Theatre on the South Bank in the 1970’s, and invited him to perform his literary and critical research on the plays offered to the public, but nobody knew what the word meant or what he was talking about in that benighted era. His great inspiration, needless to say, was Bertolt Brecht.


As well as initiating two cycles of operatic work, Marc Clemeur also had an extraordinary effect on me personally when he suggested that I should work together with the contemporary Italian composer Giorgio Battistelli in writing an opera which he was going to commission for the Flemish Opera. I was working in Mannheim at the time preparing a revival of Robert’s production of La Boheme, and Giorgio was conducting performances of his Experimentum Mundi as well as watching the rehearsals of the Fura dels Baus production of his opera Auf der Marmorclippen. I watched a performance of Experimentum Mundi and then went with Marc to an after- show cast party. The cast consisted of a large group of Roman street workers with their wives, and so it was a very spirited affair! I met Giorgio, and we got on immediately, and for the next few years our collaboration went from strength to strength until our opera Richard III had been performed in Antwerp, Dusseldorf, Duisberg, Strasbourg, and next year at the Grand Theatre de Geneve. We are already preparing new works and our collaboration has extended to giving two week long seminars with young composition and libretto students at the Britten/Pears School in Aldeburgh, for two years running.

I have therefore come full circle. I am now a Dramaturg in the Brechtian sense of someone who provides texts for theatrical and musical performance, as well as a Librettist. I have always written plays (I wrote half a dozen for BBC Radio Three directed by Piers Plowright, sometimes about composers –Korngold, Purcell, Poulenc, sometimes about Japanese Theatre - Chikamatsu and the Kabuki Theatre etc), and I have always written poetry since I was an adolescent, and now the two aspects have come together. I write libretti for Opera – drama and poetry coming together for operatic performance.


Richard III was a text that I carved out of Shakespeare’s
longest play, hacking at characters and plot lines, modernising,
changing the lineation, providing Latin hymns for a chorus
which of course doesn’t exist in Shakespeare, re-ascribing
lines to different characters, inventing chunks of pseudo-Shakespearean iambic pentameter, in fact doing all the things that Brecht’s dramaturgs performed on Coriolanus or The Duchess of Malfi. Since Richard I have provided the libretto
for Torsten Rasch’s version of The Duchess of Malfi for the
ENO and Punchdrunk; I have also written a modern version (“book and lyrics”) for a re-working by Michael Torke of Monteverdi’s Il Nerone, commissioned by the Chatelet Theatre in Paris, and also provided a libretto for Philippe Fenelon’s opera JJR a commission from the Opera de Geneve to be performed in November 2012 and directed, like Richard III,
by Robert Carsen.

JJR is being written to celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Geneva. After twenty years of working in opera I’ve now acquired a few tips on how a libretto works. In many ways Richard was quite simple; I tried to tell the story according to Shakespeare, enjoying the deep political irony of the character and the way that he woos the audience to collude with him in his life of crime. Rousseau is a different kind of anti-hero. “You’re not going to like me”, he challenges the audience at the beginning, but he was also the author of one of the greatest pieces of proto-Freudian autobiography ever written, with the exception of Saint Augustine’s, and that is The Confessions.

However “ the perfect autobiography” makes the composition of a linear narrative almost impossible for a dramatist. Fortunately Rousseau was also a musician and wrote several operas and pieces of music-theatre as well as masques. His most celebrated, Le Devin du Village, gave me the structural key, being composed in seven scenes with a final Divertissement. And that is just what I have done, composing seven scenes on different themes from Rousseau’s life and work (childhood, education, sex, money..etc)and a final farcical divertissement about music, including quotations from Rousseau’s Dictionnaire de la Musique, from his own Notational System, and rehearsals of Le Devin at Fontainebleau in front of Louis XV! It’s a light-hearted masque about a great political writer’s life and work and like a Costume Ball it jostles Rousseau as a boy, young and old man, next to his hard-talking mistress and finally wife, Robinson Crusoe, the Marquis de Sade, as well as several characters from Rousseau’s novels.

Dramaturgy for me now is a much more varied activity than when I started twenty five years ago, but it still goes on changing, developing and providing surprises.