James Conway

The general director of English Touring Opera on his ten years with the company and refusing to play it safe

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This year is James Conway’s tenth as general director of English Touring Opera. But he’s not putting his feet up. This season he’s directing Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, as well as Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis. We talked to him about the joys and challenges of performing in regional theatres and why this is no time to play it safe.

James ConwayYou’re directing Viktor Ullmann’s opera The Emperor of Atlantis later this year, paired, unusually, with Bach’s Cantata Christ lay in Death’s Bonds. Tell us a bit about the pairing.
People know the circumstances of the composition of Ullmann’s work better than the opera itself because it was written in the Terezin concentration camp, a sort of ‘model’ camp in what is now the Czech Republic. The prisoners were being shown off to the Red Cross to show how well they were all treated – before they were all shipped off to Auschwitz. I think it’s Ullman’s strongest work: it’s based on his experiences as a soldier in the First World War and it’s both poignant and funny. It’s one opera alongside Puccini’s La bohème that always makes me cry. The pairing with the Bach Cantata is a little unusual, but Ullman quotes from another Bach Cantata in the opera and the singers from the Ullmann will perform the Cantata, so it’ll be one contiguous production.

You’ve been with the company for ten years now – have you achieved what you wanted to in that time?
I can still remember the interview for the role of general director – they asked me what I thought was the most important thing and I said ‘ Well, I think it’s just to make good work.’ You’re entrusted with subsidy, you have to be canny with audiences but also have faith that they will come if you do good work. We operate on a scale suited to the small pit size of the theatres we play in, and I wanted to do work that we had a chance of doing with particular distinction.

What have the surprises been along the way?
The Janáček productions went very well, but, over the course of the three – The Cunning Little Vixen, Jenůfa and Katya Kabanová – the audiences did not get bigger, and I’d really hoped they would. On the other hand, the success of the Baroque seasons in the autumn has taken me a bit by surprise. I knew that Handel was an operatic genius of the same class as Mozart, Verdi and Janáček – and if you’re going to succeed with them anywhere, you’re going to succeed in England. But I’ve been pleased and surprised by that.

Do you have a favourite theatre that you visit with ETO?
They’d all kill me for saying things like that. But I go into places like the Wolverhampton Grand and think ‘Oh, this is a palace, it’s so beautiful’. The Hackney Empire is fantastic too – there is nowhere in London I’d rather see opera – and that includes the two big houses because it’s a perfect scale and a lovely acoustic. Each venue presents its own challenges, many of them are quite dry and that is frustrating.

What more do you want to achieve with the company?
I’ve wanted to do Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride since I was in my 20s and I can see the chance ahead. I’m also very excited because we have it almost within our grasp to do Michael Tippett’s King Priam everywhere we go – which means it’s not one experience for a metropolitan audience and a different one for people living elsewhere in the country. But I think the most interesting challenge facing people working in performing arts and particularly opera is the proliferation of relayed performances in cinemas, in every town, alongside live performance. It’s no good us opera guys saying live opera is a different experience. How is it different? In the cinema relays audiences have the guarantee of celebrity, they don’t have to listen because the sound is tweaked, they don’t have to look because the camera tells them where to look – the experience is exquisitely passive. And the seats are often more comfortable. So if we’re trying to sell an active experience of live performing art – let’s face it – we’ve got to talk people into it after a day at work or a day’s pleasant retirement in the garden. Live opera is a much richer experience, but we need to define how much richer it is – and that’s what I’m obsessed with.

ETO's production of 'Eugene Onegin' is currently touring the UK, 'The Emperor of Atlantis' begins its tour in October 2012