Search online for “Jonathan Kent” and you might discover he is the adoptive father of Superman. As it happens, the real Jonathan Kent, 68, the versatile theatre director, has nurtured many super stagings across an eclectic variety of styles and genres. I catch him during a break from rehearsals for his new Gypsy at Chichester Festival Theatre, starring Imelda Staunton; simultaneously, Glyndebourne is reviving for its autumn tour his production of Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw.
A former actor himself, born in South Africa and resident in Britain since the late 1960s, Kent was joint director of the Almeida Theatre with Ian McDiarmid between 1990 and 2002; but since testing his operatic wings at Santa Fe in 2003, he has soared in this field.
Kent describes himself as “a theatre director who does opera”, rather than a specialist. “I was occasionally asked to direct an opera while I was running the Almeida,” he says, “but opera books you three or four years ahead and it was always impossible because theatre operates on a much shorter timescale. One of the glories of being freelance is that I can now take on more opera and I’ve had a very happy and fulfilling time.”
He insists that working with singers is not so different from working with actors: “It’s rather a canard to think that singers don’t want to act,” he says. “They absolutely do – they are interested in the psychology of their roles – and they want to be recognised for it, especially now that so much is being filmed.”
Psychology is more than central to The Turn of the Screw. Britten’s opera is based on Henry James’s novella in which a governess tries to save two children from what she suspects are malevolent spirits bent on their destruction. “It’s about the nature of being haunted” says Kent, “and the exploration of what evil is – whether there is such a thing, and how we generate our own evil.”
This production, first created for Glyndebourne On Tour in 2006, has travelled well – it been taken up by Los Angeles Opera, among others – and Kent says he is “thrilled” by its longevity. It makes use of contemporary devices such as filmed projections, while nevertheless placing the action firmly in the 1950s, in which era Britten composed it; the mix gives it a timeless feel. “That was a decade when social hierarchies were in place, however shakily – governesses and housekeepers ‘knew their place’ and also had credibility,” says Kent, “but it also marked the end of a sort of age of innocence.” The two ghosts sing a terrifying line from WB Yeats: “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
“The opera is different from the novella because the ghosts inevitably are corporeal: they sing, they exist and there’s no question about it,” Kent continues. “The ‘thin skin’ of a window separates reality from imagination and keeps feared things at bay, but of course it’s completely translucent and permeable.”
The projections, which Kent says he wanted to resemble the wobbly old home movies he remembers from his childhood, were mostly filmed at Glyndebourne itself, apparently more out of necessity than design. “Still,” he adds, “one could almost do a production of this opera that travels around Glyndebourne as an installation. It has a lake, an old house – everything is there.”
Unlike certain other directors, Kent’s stagings do not have recurrent hallmarks; he brings each an individual approach on its own terms. For Glyndebourne he has created visions as distinctive as what he terms “a firework” of celebration in Purcell’s The Fairie Queen for the composer’s 350th anniversary in 2009, last year’s venture into Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, and a powerful Don Giovanni in the style of Fellini’s La dolce vita.
At the Royal Opera he has tackled Puccini: his Tosca is a detailed period-piece that has been filmed with the all-star cast of Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel. But earlier this year, his Manon Lescaut – again with Kaufmann, singing opposite the Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais – transferred the action squarely to the present, drawing out the squalid nature of its tragedy. Perhaps inevitably, some critics took against it.
“Tosca demanded to be done in period,” Kent says. “There’s so much historical reference; it’s absolutely specific. But Manon Lescaut explores many of our current preoccupations – the exploitation of women, the cult of celebrity and the collateral damage of all that – so I am unrepentant about not having done that opera in powdered wigs.”
Does he ever feel that critics just don’t get it? “If one’s waiting for critics to ‘get it’, one could be waiting a long time,” he laughs. “You can only do what you do and hope people will like it.”
The Turn of the Screw launches at Glyndebourne on Saturday 18 October before touring to five venues across the country. To book tickets go to: Glyndebourne.com