Though he was born in Canada, director Robert Carsen found his greatest success staging operas across Europe -- from Glyndebourne to Cologne.
Perhaps the secret of Robert Carsen’s success lies in the meticulous care he takes in preparing his many critically acclaimed productions.
"I start with the words, but it is the music that lends me any particular ideas I have for a scenic solution," he says. The Canadian-born stage director knew early on in life that theater would play a central role, but it wasn’t until after he had started studying acting that it became clear which side of the stage he would be on.
Carsen was a student at the Old Vic Theater School in Bristol, England when an observation by one of his instructors moved him into a new direction. "I had a wonderful teacher who called me aside one day and said: 'You go to all of the rehearsals and you drive everybody mad with your ideas, but did you notice they do tend to use those ideas? Have you ever thought about directing?'"
This struck a chord with Carsen -- so much so, that after acting school he took on a long series of apprenticeships as an assistant stage director, including five years at the Glyndebourne Festival in Britain.
"It seemed like a long time," says Carsen. "It was difficult for me being a Canadian in England and not having an Oxford or Cambridge education. At the time, it was expected of people in that profession there."
A string of early successes
Nonetheless, Carsen's perseverance paid off. His big break came in 1986 after he staged Mozart's ''La Finta Giardiniera'' at the Camden Festival in London. One of the audience members was Hugues Gall, then the director of the Grand Theater in Geneva and now head of the Paris Opera. It was Gall, Carsen recalls, who gave him the chance that was the real beginning of his career. He entrusted him with a series of new productions, beginning with Boito's ''Mefistofele,'' in the Grand Theatre in Geneva. The success of this production led to a tour of the United States that helped launch Carsen's international directing career.
Productions of Bellini's "Romeo and Juliet" opera, ''I Capuleti e i Montecchi,'' Wagner's ''Lohengrin'' and Gounod's ''Faust'' followed in Geneva. Later, he was asked to do a Puccini cycle for the Flanders Opera in Belgium, the trio of Verdi's Shakespearean operas for the Cologne Opera, Verdi's early ''Nabucco'' in Paris and several productions for the festival at Aix-en-Provence, including Britten's ''Midsummer Night's Dream,'' Handel's ''Orlando'' and ''Semele'' and Mozart's ''Magic Flute'' -- the last three conducted by Christie. He also made his debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera with a staging of Tchaikovsky's ''Eugene Onegin.''
And Carsen's career has not stopped at the opera stage. He directed the world-premier of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical "A Beautiful Game" in 2000 and both wrote and directed a special production for Disneyland Paris called "The Wild West of Buffalo Bill." There have even been a few encounters with the legitimate theater as well, including a New York staging of Tom Stoppard's ''Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead'' and Wilde's ''Lady Windermere's Fan'' for the Bristol Old Vic.
"I am a story teller and I am retelling stories that have been told by other people, in other words, that have been handed down to us" says Carsen. Closest to his heart are the stories of opera. "The staging of an opera is a very complex thing," he says. "The word itself is plural, meaning works, and, therefore, it means bringing together a number of different things on the stage."
Bringing these various aspects together inspires Carsen. "Opera itself is a mixture of head and heart,” he says. "You have the words which are maybe more intellectually based -- they have a more concrete quality -- and you have the music that is more emotional. The two together create a tension that allows opera, when it works, to be unbelievably satisfying because you're challenged mentally while, at the same time, being fulfilled emotionally."