A Conversation with OWEN WINGRAVE director Daniel Fish

Benjamin Britten’s opera Owen Wingrave focuses on a young British pacifist who struggles to break free from the expectations of his renowned military family.  Britten wrote his most political and personal opera for television, premiering on BBC2 in 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War.  The made-for-TV opera brings with it a unique set of challenges whenever it is brought to the stage.  Enter first-time opera director Daniel Fish, whose Owen Wingrave, presented by the Curtis Institute of Music in association with Opera Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, is a bold take told through a contemporary American lens, instigating a conversation about guns and violence and war in society.  Fish recently sat down to talk about his theatrical vision for the provocative work being staged in the Aurora Series at the Perelman Theater from March 13-17, 2013.  SPOILER ALERT!

Can you describe the set design?  Who are the suited men who tower over the stage?  What do they represent?

The images come from a series of Richard Avedon photos that he took in the late 1960s.  Last summer, when I started working on Owen Wingrave, I saw a series of Avedon portraits at a gallery in New York which included portraits of the men who planned the Vietnam War.  Something about those portraits really grabbed me, and so when we started designing the opera we started adapting those images to be the Wingrave family portraits. They’re there to provoke a response. What do you think when you see eight guys in suits with their heads cut off who are 30 feet tall?  What does that do to the men on stage and the women on stage? There are no women in those portraits but the women have a very strong place in this opera. 

If those portraits are from that era, then are we to assume this opera is set in 1960s America?

Not necessarily. I believe that everything that happens in the theater is set now.  

You project many quotes and definitions throughout the piece. What is the significance of the famous Charlton Heston NRA quote, “"I'll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands?”

The quotes came about because we started thinking about the supertitles.  Supertitles are often things we tack on at the last minute but they are a HUGE part of the visual production. So, I thought how can we integrate them into the design?  We decided to take certain lines that we thought were really key, like ‘family,’ and ‘They’ll straighten you out at Paramore’ and highlight them with projections. We also decided to incorporate slogans and quotes not found in the libretto, which pull out some ideas and themes that are in the opera.   The Heston quote comes at a moment when Owen’s aunt says “I am not going to have anything more to do with you, I’m turning you over to the General.” The General is the most masculine, oldest, paternal figure in the opera, and musically it is a very hard, percussive moment.  Incorporating the Heston quote at this point in the score helps embody that character and that moment in a way that is hopefully exciting and provocative.

What is the significance of the start of Act II, when the cast places handguns in the students’ backpacks?

It’s a statement about a society that advocates militarism.  That image came from a news article that I read a couple of months ago, after the Connecticut shootings.  It was the story of a woman who sent her son to school with her guns in his backpack, forgetting that she had put her guns in the boy’s backpack.  I thought, ‘Oh. That’s interesting.’ 

The ghost story elements seem to be downplayed in this production. 

I think it depends on how you define a ghost story.  Whenever I do a piece that has elements of the supernatural, the first question I ask is ‘Well, what’s a ghost?’  Is it a guy running around with a sheet with two holes for his eyes?  I feel like the visual world we’ve created feels like a nightmare or a ghost story, especially in the first 20 minutes of the opera as all of these things happen around Owen and he is searching with the lamp.

What is the significance of the 4:18 countdown?  Is it from John 4:18 – ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment?'

Well that’s great, but totally not my intention.  I never thought of it as a Bible verse.  In the opera, 4:18 is the amount of time from when Owen is locked in the room until Kate finds his body.  That's the amount of time that he has left in his life.

Why did you stage Owen’s death the way that you did?

The challenge of that scene is where you come down on the mystery of Owen’s death.  It’s written to take place in a haunted room, offstage.  I was interested in finding a way to make the death clear enough while also preserving some sense of the ambiguity about how he dies.  In this production, his death is about his vocal and his physical absence from the opera.

Without giving away too much about the ending, what is the significance of the boy?  Is he ‘replacing’ Owen as the next victim in this vicious cycle?  Or is he rejecting it as Owen did? 

There really is no right answer. I am trying to start a conversation. A boy comes forward, and what each person draws from that is different.  What did you think?