The beauty of storytelling

2 Nov 2016

We spoke to Director Nancy Black about her work with Victorian Opera.


Your most recent production for Victorian Opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, had a sold out season and received major critical acclaim. Were you pleased with the outcome?

Oh wow. Are you kidding?  Pleased is hardly the word for what I felt.  First of all the collaborations with Deakin – with Kim, Jordan, Kieran, Steve, Tom, Simon, Casey – all the team – was fabulous.  Really satisfying.  I wanted the 3D imagery to add a visual journey to that completely fragmented libretto. 

The journey was to reference – lightly and humourously, in keeping with Gertrude Stein’s wonderful irreverence - mankind’s search for meaning, and we created images from sources as widespread as the Bible and Fury Road. I think we found images that were beautiful, suggestive, sometimes funny, and always engaging. Having the stereoscopic effect added that extra touch of magic. 

I was nervous about having only 1 week to rehearse the cast, but they were so talented, so open to what we were doing and so willing to work hard – that they went far beyond my expectations.  And of course the team at VO – as always – were wonderful.  Absolutely supportive and expert.

So yeah.... this was a dream project.

In 2017, you’ll be returning to Victorian Opera to direct another forgotten gem of the early 20th century with Respighi’s The Sleeping Beauty. What have you enjoyed about discovering this opera?

Oh my goodness.  So much.  First of all the music is beautiful, very lyrical, and also funny. The opera is filled with interesting characters- from the lovers to animals to satirical representatives of capitalism. It is romantic but also lightly nuanced with philosophical and even political references.  At the beginning Respighi seems to be taking us through a traditional rendition of a well known fairy tale, but then his narrative leaps forward in time to what he imagined would be 1940, and he incorporates mid- 20th Century dance rhythms. Our vision for the work needs to incorporate all of those elements!  What an exciting challenge!

You’ve worked extensively with puppetry in the past and will be working alongside production designer Joe Blanck to create this fascinating blend of opera and puppetry. How are you planning to approach the production?

After reading the libretto, I knew I wanted to approach this work as though it was a community of people telling a story.  It is a village. Maybe they have come through hard times.  When Respighi wrote this Italy was still struggling with the aftermath of WWI and the devastation of the Spanish Flu. In setting the celebratory end in 1940, he could not have known what lay ahead.

I am fascinated by our human need for story. Even before mankind had written language, we have used stories as a tool for bringing order out of chaos, for giving us meaning when reason has failed, for instilling hope.

In our production, a group gathers around a fire; it’s a lovely night.  An ember leaps into the air. It becomes a nightingale puppet, whose song is picked up by one of the singers.  The story unfolds as a combined effort with some taking the singing parts, others the puppetry. Together they tell a story that initially takes them away from their present into a beautiful fantasy, but then weaves itself back into their reality.  

I don’t want to give away too many details, but our creative team that includes Joe, Ben Cobham, Philip Lethlean and Michelle Heaven are devising a production design that draws inspiration from the exquisite illustrations of Kay Nielsen (pictured) and organic shapes from our forests.  The puppetry will use several forms, always provoking and teasing the imagination, with circus and dance skills adding to what we hope will be a visual delight.


The cast of singers are sometimes positioned in the pit. How will you be incorporating them on stage?

The singers will certainly not be in the pit in this production.  They’ll be onstage – as part of the community telling the story.  Sometimes they’ll even be using puppets. Both singers and puppeteers will be costumed in a way that says they belong to one group.

Where will you be setting it and why?

It is set in a place, initially, that suggests the outskirts of a 20th century village without being definitive as to year.  Shapes in the background might be the arches of bridges or even Roman aqueducts. As the story unfolds those shapes transform into a fantastical forest, a tower, and a castle.  In the end we return to the outskirts.

Audiences might be familiar with Respighi’s orchestral works, such as The Pines or Fountains of Rome. How would you describe his opera musically?

Lyrical, romantic, playful, humourous, and slyly satirical.

The Sleeping Beauty was part of Victorian Opera's Season 2017.