Meet Jonathan Kent

I interviewed the director Jonathan Kent for The Independent, trailing the opening tonight of his celebrated production of The Turn of the Screw at Glyndebourne Touring Opera. Do catch it if you can. Interview is in today's Radar section, but somewhat chopped, so here's the director's cut.

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:  

Posted in Classical Pit

Ulster Orchestra under threat – the latest

UPDATE, SUNDAY 19 October: A petition has been organised online and you can sign it here. 

The Belfast-based Ulster Orchestra has become the latest UK ensemble to face closure due to financial dire straits. Its public funding cuts amount to a reduction of 28 per cent (about £1m), which threaten to bleed it to death by the middle of next month.

This orchestra has a long and distinguished history; since its founding in 1966 it has released around 100 recordings and a new principal conductor, the dynamic Rafael Payare (aka Mr Alisa Weilerstein) has just started with them. There's a Facebook group, Save the Ulster Orchestra - please join it here.

The UK has already lost the Guildford Philharmonic and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta; last year the Brighton Philharmonic was saved at the last moment with the help of its fans. As you'll note, these organisations serve(d) good-sized towns rather than the country's biggest cities and brought live orchestral music to places where it was otherwise in short supply. The London Mozart Players, based in Croydon, has managed to restructure itself rather than close down, and carries on with a new modus operandi. Not all have been able to follow suit.

But the end of the Ulster - which receives a chunk of BBC money every year, btw - would be catastrophic since it would mean essentially the end of live orchestral music in Northern Ireland. It is the city's biggest arts institution and only full-time professional orchestra. As Tom Service says here, its demise would mean the "instant and irreversible" annihilation of orchestral culture in the country.

Musicians on the Facebook page point out, furthermore, that if it goes it will take with it large quantities of Belfast's instrumental tuition for children, concerts in schools and other school music programmes.

The pianist Peter Donohoe writes:
"The...increasing financial pressure on the arts is in danger of ridding many communities of institutions like this without any possibility of them being started up again, whatever state the economy ends up in. Look at what happened to the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, and observe how many small communities that were served by that excellent chamber orchestra - including the mounting of education projects - and that are now not served at all.It is short-termist thinking on a vast scale, stupid to the point of lunacy, and not only will it put so many great musicians out of a job, but will be a tragedy for Northern Ireland."

Another musician on the Facebook page declares:
"There are so many of us from Belfast and Northern Ireland who through the darkest days of the troubles were inspired by the Ulster Orchestra.We were taught and encouraged by its members and my career is a result of that. This orchestra is a beacon in the cultural life of Northern Ireland and needs to be cherished by all the community."
And brass player Andrew Tovey adds that the closure of the UO would make Northern Ireland "the only developed nation without an orchestra".

In this piece from the US's WQXR, Oliver Condy, editor of BBC Music Magazine, reminisces about the way the Ulster Orchestra played on through the Troubles even though its offices were threatened daily with terrorist bombs.

More info from BBC News here.

You can make a donation to the orchestra here, via Paypal. Please do.

A statement from the orchestra is expected towards the end of the week ahead.
Posted in Classical Pit


It's official: Grigory Sokolov has signed a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. For those of us who've known for donkey's years that this man is basically piano god and heir to Richter and Gilels, saying that this is seriously good news is kind of an understatement.

The first disc (and we hope not the last) is due out in January and will be a live recital from the 2008 Salzburg Festival. Sokolov doesn't do studios. Or concertos. Or the UK.

Here's a teeny taster so you can see what we all mean. This is the Bach-Siloti Prelude in B minor. The first time I heard Sokolov, in London at the Wigmore Hall many years ago (those were the days!), he performed this as an encore. It was heaven.

Posted in Classical Pit