In the 2020s – remembered worldwide as the trail-breaking enfant terrible of spectacular iconoclastic dance theatre rock’roll-rooted shows in the 1970s and 1980s with the Kemp Company – Lindsay’s work as a director, designer and overall creative supervisor of major Opera productions is little known or appreciated outside of Italy and Spain, where from 1995 to 2017 he staged 9 different Operas, between them reaching an astonishing total of just over 100 performances.
This lack of awareness is a great pity, because his opera productions were actually some of the most extraordinary expressions of his visionary genius and passion. It’s high time that these creations become at least a little more accessible – through descriptions, drawings, archives and above all photos – on this, his website.
The following is a bare list of the operas he directed, and the year they were premiered. It does not show the number of performances or cities involved, every one of which Lindsay personally rehearsed and restaged… unlike many opera directors, who leave this task to assistants. Each of the following productions will eventually have their own area within this Opera section of the website:
THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, 1995, ROSSINI
THE MAGIC FLUTE, 1998, MOZART
IRIS, 1998, MASCAGNI
LE MASCHERE, 2001, MASCAGNI
THE FAIRY QUEEN, 2002, PURCELL
MADAMEBUTTERFLY, 2002, PUCCINI
LA TRAVIATA, 2003, VERDI
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, 2004, BRITTEN
THE TALES OF HOFFMANN, 2007, OFFENBACH
Compared to the 1990s, today the world of Opera staging is considerably less encrusted with rigid hierarchical conventions concerning what is permissible, but back then it seemed to many people a bizarre and worrying prospect that Lindsay Kemp should smuggle Dionysus, Mercury and Pan into Opera Theatres and let them loose among the stately chandeliers. But actually, this was a marriage made in heaven. After all, by the late 1970s and early 1980’s, The Lindsay Kemp Company had evolved an amazingly inebriating and successful total theatre style, whose emotional impact was grounded above all in storytelling through music, movement and visuals. Having begun very young to try to create stage magic with the simplest and poorest resources, as Kemp became more successful he was able to expand the size of his company and the costs of his unsubsidised productions. Given his company’s basically non-verbal and non-rationalised sensual and sensory shows, and his insatiable appetite for all possible kinds of music, he had actually long since had one foot in his own personal version of the world of Opera long before he signed his first opera contract… bringing with him a vast knowledge of the histories of music, theatre, dance and opera. That first contract was in 1995, for a production of “The Barber of Seville” in the open air Rossini Festival in Macerata, in the Le Marche Region of Italy.
Lindsay was ready for opera, but was opera ready for Lindsay? Having worked with him through out every one of his opera projects, I can confirm that given his lifelong love of opera, when the call came he was more than ready. For the following 20 years, this marriage was to create much beauty and much pleasure… for himself, for a start, but also for audiences and the inhabitants of the ‘opera industry’. He brought a breath of fresh air and playfulness to a world that needed it and mostly appreciated it. With everyone from superintendents to artistic directors and conductors, he brought his sparkle and wit, his informal childish enthusiasm, as he subsequently did with soloists, members of the chorus, the orchestra, dancers and extras, technicians, costume and scenery and make-up staff. Basically, he used his natural charm and team-building skills to permeate a whole production’s mood… extending to several hundred people a close sense of “company” similar to that which he had always created with his own company of several dozen people. His lifelong experience in and mastery of every aspect of stagecraft further contributed to his opera productions’ all-round theatrical harmony.
All love and effortless harmony then? Of course not. His perfectionist obsession with detail and improvement (his every request was always for things that were “absolutely essential!”) and his allergy to compromise ruled that out. He refused to ever admit to feeling “satisfied” about any of his creations. And despite his charm and discipline (most of the time) he continually pressured administrators to obtain more resources, more rehearsal time, more everything… in order to obtain his endless “essentials”. “If you don’t insist you don’t get what you need”, he repeated. Given the hideous complexity of organising opera productions, my presence as a cushion between his desires and those of the producers was also “essential” to allow him to concentrate on the more creative side of show-moulding. I should add that by the late 1990s the more extreme forms of his past self-destructiveness, often displayed in his work with his own company, were gradually becoming less frequent and less dramatic… and also that not having to sustain his lifelong tooth-and-nail battle against the demons of stage fright certainly allowed him to deal with directing Opera with much less anxiety than when directing his own company, where he also had to perform. Most of the time (with some notable exceptions), he was extraordinarily happy during his opera experiences.
What were his ‘methods’? For a start, absolved of the need to write the story and find the music or the composers for new shows, it was much easier than usual for him to carry out his basic formula for creating new productions: “I put the music on, close my eyes and wait for my visions to appear.” This is what infallibly characterised all his staging, for his own shows as for his opera work: the music was the emotional text, the wellspring of the movement, the score for lighting, the inspiration for everything. Long before starting to direct opera, he had given movement and performance classes for opera singers. Ninety percent of opera singers had been trained to move naturally, and to never walk or gesture in time with the music… so they were often confused at first by Lindsay’s insistence to ALWAYS move in time with the music. But after a few weeks rehearsing with him, eighty percent would get into the habit, and frequently found that it helped their singing. A few mature prima donnas or tenors grumbled that they were not dancers, to which Lindsay would smile and say “well then, aren’t you glad that that I’m trying to teach you?” Getting everyone on the stage to move in time with the music meant marrying the story with the music was a key aspect of his opera directing… along with his insistence on persuading singers to risk abandoning themselves to their emotions and their roles, and to embrace the music as the source and channel for their energy. A whiff of shamanic practices was always hidden somewhere in Lindsay’s approach to performance!
On a more practical side, he worked a lot on trying to break singers’ tics and habits, to simplify and amplify their movements as part of their communication with the audience… one part of finding a way to project themselves to reach the back rows and the upstairs seats with their bodies and emotions as well as their voices. To explore themselves and find aspects of themselves that corresponded to the roles they were playing. Even successful and experienced singers often declared themselves grateful for his simplest advice on performance technique, both physical and psychological, which previous directors had evidently not always offered… including elementary things like holding their heads up in order to find their lights and illuminate their faces, exchanging energy with other singers and with the public, remembering that stillness is always more powerful than fidgeting, and that their eyes must always shine “as the messengers of your soul” (and so not always to fully obey the conductor’s demands that singers watch only them… “work on your peripheral vision, dear”, Lindsay would insist with a wink).
“Is Opera a wrestling match between music and theatre?”, Lindsay was once asked in an interview. “Goodness no!”, he replied, “Opera is a conversation, a duet, a passionate centuries-long love affair between music and theatre!” In other words, unlike many theatre directors engaging with Opera for the first time, he totally respected the singers’ vocal chords and the conductors’ needs to mould the unnatural sounds coming from their throats and the orchestra’s hundreds of hands… along with all the consequent layers of technique, superstition, tradition and anxiety surrounding this most unpredictable of sounds and art forms. In theory Lindsay was enamoured of this mystique and usually accepted the imperatives of musical needs… although in practice – either by light-heartedly demystifying this domination or by suddenly flaring up with fury if some “essential” theatrical need was threatened – he always fought “to be able to thrill the public’s eyes as much as the music thrills their ears.” And of course he knew well how to defend his corner in the kingdom of the Prima Donna!
One area of potential friction, for example, was the little matter of casting… a process traditionally carried out almost exclusively following musical criteria. Roles for delicate young maidens could easily be sung by immense old ladies, handsome princes by bow-legged dwarves. Nor was body-shape the only problem: angelic or thundering voices often belonged to low-charisma stage presences. Complicated pre-production casting negotiations would take place: on one side of the table sat Lindsay, myself and Nuria Moreno (a true “essential” in the Lindsay Kemp Company as well as in our operatic adventures… while after 2013, it was Daniela Maccari who accompanied us on operatic operations), on the other side sat producers, theatre or festival directors, conductors and even politicians, some adoring Lindsay (and eager for his media impact) and others adamant that stage directors had no business to be meddling with casting. Naturally, these potentially tense discussions were conducted either in Italian or Spanish… complicating things, but at times also easing conflicts: the translator could “tone down”administration’s demands to Lindsay or Lindsay’s demands to administration… and I was the translator.
One quick stylistic point to make: beginning his adventures in the Wonderland of Opera in 1995, Lindsay had long since finished performing “Flowers” or “Salomé” and had been developing very different kinds of production. Furthermore, his more recent creations had been revealing how his work frequently seemed avant-garde precisely because of the depth of his visceral love for theatrical tradition… with which Opera was saturated. In creating any of his shows, he always needed to identify with someone from the past, and in opera his natural instinct was to ask himself, intimately, what the composer would have liked. This meant that he mostly set the action in the style and place where the authors (but especially the composers) had imagined it… nothing to do with aesthetic theory, simply his spontaneous instinct. This was something that disappointed some critics, as though hoping that Rossini or Mozart could be staged in the style of “Flowers”, “Salomé” or “Duende”. This was not a matter of inhibition. As he repeatedly said, it was a matter of respect… and in everything he ever did, he did what he wanted to do… irrespective of what others expected him to do. Incidentally, countless Opera administrators told me how happy they were to see how the presence of Lindsay Kemp attracted a significant number of new spectators, from outside the circle of opera habitués… something that deeply gratified Lindsay.
In this section of Lindsay’s website, you will find individual areas devoted to each of the Operas he directed… with much less text and many more photos and archive material than this introduction. But before moving on to that, this seems like the best place to stop and mention the role of Opera in some of the Lindsay Kemp Company’s productions, and vice versa… and the extraordinary importance of his long prolific relationship with the composer Carlos Miranda.
Lindsay met Carlos one morning in the early summer of 1975, when the flamboyant young musician recently arrived in London from Chile was playing the piano to accompany morning dance class (with astonishing zest, for such a lowly task) at Ballet Rambert, as it was then called. Lindsay had been invited to come to the Rambert headquarters to discuss the possibility of him creating a work for their company. He was delighted to return to Marie Rambert, at whose school he had trained as a teenager in the late 1950s. This led eventually to the creation of the brilliant and mostly comic dance piece “The Parades Gone By”… but the most important consequence of that meeting in Chiswick was the birth of a deep and laughter-filled friendship that lasted over 40 tumultuous years and (after Carlos’s work as Musical Director for “The Parades Gone By” in 1975) became central to the creation of seven of the Lindsay Kemp Company’s greatest productions, and numerous other creative collaborations. For years Carlos and Lindsay lived on two different floors in the same building overlooking the Plaza Real in Barcelona, and despite being increasingly involved in his own increasingly important musical commissions, Carlos was for long periods ‘one of the boys’ of the Kemp Company’s wandering gypsy caravan… whenever his music was to be played. Like Lindsay, he always fought to have his live music mixed with his recorded music, and was always the leading performer in his 3 or 4-man bands in the pit, delighted to play his accordion onstage as one of the rustic ‘mechanicals’ in the Company’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, or as the Policeman in “Mr. Punch’s Pantomime”. To cut a very long and often inebriated and sometimes bumpy story into a few words, the unique friendship between Lindsay and Carlos was at the heart of Lindsay’s creations for many years… even after Lindsay had moved to live in Italy and Carlos to his mountain retreat in Andalucía.
Is this all pertinent to describing Lindsay’s adventures in the Wonderland of Opera? Yes, absolutely. In the seven Kemp Company productions with music by Miranda – The Dream, Duende, Nijinsky, The Big Parade, Cinderella, Variété and Elizabeth’s Last Dance – the seamless embrace between theatre and music (and between Lindsay and Carlos) was the key source of onstage mood and energy. Carlos played a huge part in expanding and enriching Lindsay’s Music Theatre development with his own company, and eventually this fed into his work in Opera, just as Lindsay’s work in Opera fed back into his work for his own company.
Carlos Miranda’s vital contribution to Lindsay Kemp’s shows deserves further mention. Four of the shows with his music were in particular closest to the world of Opera: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (begun in 1979), “Cinderella” (1994), “Variété” (1996) and “Elizabeth’s Last Dance” (2005). Without a shadow of doubt, the first of these was the most successful, artistically and commercially… so for now we can take a look only at that. At first The Dream contained various examples of the musical collage medley approach favoured by Lindsay up to this point in his career – in this case recorded quotations from Mendelsohn, Elvis Presley, John McCormack and phrases from Shakespeare spoken by aged thespians from the past. As a production it had everything going for it, starting from Shakespeare, with a nimble and spectacular adaptation, and a perfect starring role for Lindsay as the mischievous and often outrageous Puck. It was the right show at the right moment. And being conceived on a wave of European success, its creation could aim high in terms of production spending and cast, including its live orchestrina, plus the vocal talents in particular of The Incredible Orlando as Titania and François Testory as The Changeling. It then reaped its rewards with an extremely long and acclaimed world tour which allowed it time to be reworked and improved, thanks to a company of increasingly talented performers… all riding the crest of a wave of excitement and enthusiasm. During the years while this show toured the world, Carlos gradually waved his wand over every part of the show, slowly making the music his own, weaving it with total stylistic cohesion from start to finish: a zestful masterpiece portraying a vision of a fairytale world steeped in human folly, chthonic nature, laughter and of course… love.
A fleeting final parenthesis on Kemp, Opera and Shakespeare strikes a happy chord: in 2002 Lindsay directed a lavish version of Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen” in Spain, reviving and adapting the original connection between Purcell’s additional music and Shakespeare’s play. In 2004 he directed a magical staging of Benjamin Britten’s“ A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Tuscany, complete with the full children’s fairy chorus. Taken together with the Kemp Company version, this made a trinity of Midsummer Night’s Dreams, connecting three different variations on one of Lindsay’s most beloved fairytales (as we shall see, on a par with his love for “The Magic Flute”).
As far back as 1974, when “Flowers” burst on London’s West End, many distinguished artists and theatre critics called repeatedly for staid British Opera institutions to invite Lindsay Kemp to direct their upcoming productions. Unfortunately, nothing came of this, and another 20 years passed before Lindsay’s first footsteps in directing Opera took place… in Italy and later in Spain. Immense gratitude is due to certain enlightened administrators and producers in those countries, above all to Roman Calleja and Juan Calzada in Santander (the producers of “Madam Butterfly”, “The Tales of Hoffmann” and “Elisabeth’s Last Dance”), and to the theatres of Livorno, Pisa and Lucca in Tuscany, and particularly to Alberto Paloscia, Isabella Bartolini and Marco Bertini in Livorno. All too briefly here, we should also acknowledge especially Giuliano Spinelli’s stage designs, the illumination of Claude Naville and Quico Gutiérrez, the conducting of Angelo Cavallaro and countless other invaluable Opera collaborators who hopefully we can mention later here, in future sections on individual Operas. And Nuria Moreno… ever-present “essential” in staging all the Kempian Opera productions from 1995 to 2008.