Czech opera undergoing revolution, says up-and-coming director Tomáš Pilař

Tomáš Pilař, photo: Ian Willoughby

Director Tomáš Pilař is regarded as a coming man in the world of Czech opera. And the 25-year-old is already incredibly busy; this season he is working on more than a dozen different projects at opera houses in various corners of the country. When we met recently, we discussed the craft of opera direction, the state of the art form in the Czech Republic and his own ambitions. But I first asked Pilař – who is also a stage designer – whether he came from a musical family.

Tomáš Pilař,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“My father was a violin player at the State Opera in Prague. He was the first person who brought me to an opera. I was four when he brought me to a performance of Verdi’s A Masked Ball – and I was amazed.

“I was something of a theatre child. I brought my dad a snack in the theatre every evening. I spent a lot of hours watching performances from behind the scenes, and I was amazed by opera and music.

“And of course I was forced by them [laughs] to play violin and to study music actively. I can say they built a love of music in me.

“My mother was a radio…”

You were telling me earlier she was a radio presenter.

“Exactly, yes, she was a radio presenter on Vltava. I can remember every evening going asleep – when I was four, or five, or six – listening to her voice on the radio, connected with all those classical pieces being played. So I can say I’m from a musical family.”

What was it in particular about opera that appealed to you at that young age?

“When I think of it now, I’m surprised that a child can understand opera. I was lucky that the first opera performances I saw were understandable to me.

“I was amazed by the connection of the story and the music, the emotions – both the story and the music. It was something like riding a rollercoaster. It was thrilling for me.

“It was the most emotive experience of my life to see opera at that age. It was more entertaining for me than films or cartoons or anything.”

You studied opera direction at the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno. Do many people get accepted every year to study opera direction – in this country, not just in Brno?

“Opera direction is such a special subject to study. In the whole of Europe there are only eight universities teaching opera direction, and there are two in the Czech Republic – one in Prague, one in Brno.

Giuseppe Verdi - 'The Force of Destiny',  directed by Tomáš Pilař,  photo: official website of Tomáš Pilař
“Only one student a year is accepted in Brno, and two students are accepted every two years in Prague. And I was so surprised that I was accepted at the first attempt. I was so happy I can’t describe it [laughs].”

How can you prove to the selectors that you can do it? I guess in every school there’s a drama group and people can show that they can direct drama. How can you prove that you have the abilities that would suit opera direction?

“I spent a whole day doing the exams, which comprised tests such as a test in musicology, playing the piano, music history, visual art history, some painting – I had to give them sketches of a stage and of costumes and two conceptions of operas.

“Then I received a score and I was told to arrange a scene with two real singers, to show them how I work with singers, or how I direct. It was quite surprising to that I had two real singers, just for me.

“[The selectors] were watching how I worked, how I direct – and I was lucky that they decided that I should do it [laughs]”

Tell us about the actual craft of directing opera – what’s the single hardest aspect of it, would you say?

“For me there are three hardest things. The first is to perfectly understand both music and drama, and to decide how to perform it for an audience of today.

“I think it’s the hardest and longest part of preparation – to understand everything perfectly and to understand it. Because there is no chance to take it back, when you decide.

“The second thing is to have good time management. You know one year in advance when you have the first night, when you have the opening.

“You have to do a time management of every single rehearsal, every single meeting. It’s your responsibility to do it perfectly, to fit in the time you have.

“The third thing is to communicate with a lot of people in different jobs and of different nations. You work with technicians as well as designers, singers, actors, people from marketing – it’s hundreds and hundreds of people.

“And every single person is different and I, as the director, must work personally and openly with every one of them.”

Prague State Opera,  photo: Kristýna Maková
What about the aspect of your age, given that you’re 25 years old and working with people who, I presume, are mainly older than you? How does that work?

“[Laughs]. That’s a nice question. In my career there have only been two singers I’ve directed who were younger than me – everybody else was older.

“Honestly, I’ve never had problems with my age. I’m surprised I’ve never been told, you’re so young, you shouldn’t direct us [laughs].

“Maybe it’s because I’m not a dictator. I’m a person who wants to discuss everything with everybody. I need everybody to understand my goals and my point of view. I think this is the reason age doesn’t play any role.”

Can we speak a bit about the acting side of theatre direction? They say that on TV or in film people have to act very subtly, but on the theatre stage they have to act in bigger gestures. In opera I suppose they are bigger still; is all opera acting overacting?

“I think now, today, opera acting is going through big developments. Twenty years ago it was overacting – absolutely.

“But now is a time when opera is changing and acting in opera is really similar to dramatic acting, like in a drama.

“Sometimes it’s more connected with movement stylization, as in, for example, dance theatre or ballet theatre.

“For me, opera acting is a connection of real movement, like in real life, and of stylized movement of a special theatrical shape which the director develops.

“For me, it’s not overacting. It should be understandable to the audience like real movement, but it should be higher than real movement; like surrealism was more than realism, opera acting for me is more than real acting.”

I was reading that you have a particular approach and that you focus on the psychology of the audience experience. What does that mean?

“Now we live in a fast age, in an age of fast cuts in films, full schedules in our working days…”

Prague State Opera,  photo: CzechTourism
People have short attention spans – they can’t concentrate for very long.

“Absolutely. And I think opera should be done bearing in mind what the audience would think of it, what would the audience feel, what is the goal, and what a production is saying.

“For me, it’s important to know how the experience works psychologically. The psychology of theatrical narration is similar to the user experience in web design, for example, or to PR, or to advertising. And I use different sources of inspiration to create an experience in opera.”

My next question is quite a huge one, but what would you say is the general state of opera in the Czech Republic today?

“I think today a revolution is happening in opera in the Czech Republic.

“In the communist era opera was conserved a bit, because there was little development between the ‘60s and the ‘90s in Czech opera. It was quite similar all the time.

“But now audiences for this kind of opera are getting older and a new generation of opera audience is growing. And of course they want a different approach to opera than their grandparents.

“Now a lot of new and young directors are coming into the scene and a lot of new approaches are seen on stage – for example, new technologies, new ways to use the set, or how to act.

“I can say that in 10 years opera will be absolutely different than it is today. Opera will be more theatrical, opera will be more interactive, making more use of multimedia, light technologies and so on. I think today a revolution is happening.”

I’ve seen you described as one of the most distinctive talents of the coming generation. How ambitious are you Tomáš? You were talking about how opera in this country will look in 10 years – where do you want to be in 10 years? Or in 20 years?

“I would like to do opera as I do it today. I would like to convey messages to audiences like I do today. And it depends on the audience whether they want me to direct at the National Theatre or at another theatre or somewhere else.

“I think my job is a service to music and a service to culture and to the audience. If I am successful at it, all very well. If I am not, I will try to find another way to be a servant of culture.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on November 11, 2013.