Katie Mitchell’s new production of Handel’s Theodora opens tonight at the Royal Opera House.
In an alternative modern-day reality, Theodora, a religious fundamentalist, plots for the resistance against the Roman occupation. But when her secret plan to destroy the Roman embassy is discovered, she learns the true brutality of her oppressors. The production stars Julia Bullock, Joyce DiDonato and Jakub Józef Orliński.
Not heard in Covent Garden since its 1750 premiere, and sung in the original English libretto by Thomas Morell, Theodora is a tour de force for soloists and chorus alike, with ensembles, duets and arias of profound depth and beauty. This new interpretation, conducted by Baroque specialist Harry Bicket, shines a new, feminist light on the story.
The production runs until February 16, 2022.
Mitchell’s interview with The Evening Standard:
Has the culture finally caught up with Katie Mitchell? In years prior, she’s been regarded as Britain’s most respected auteur – or its most divisive and uncompromising, depending on who you asked. Her feminist interventions into the classical canon of theatre and opera have provoked devotion, along with their fair share of grumpiness from certain quarters. But at the end of last year, there was that rare sound of critical harmony: her visionary production of Rebecca Watson’s experimental debut novel, little scratch, prompted a raft of unanimous praise, with the director hailed as being at the peak of her powers. And now, anticipation is building as she prepares to bring Handel’s Theodora back to the Royal Opera House for the first time since its 1750 premiere – adding some Mitchell-esque surprises (of which more later).
“I think some of those narratives about sort of being, you know, difficult, controversial, all of those things, are the narratives from earlier in the 21st century,” she tells me, before erupting into a big laugh. “Gosh, who knows? Who knows where these narratives come from? I just try my best on each piece of work I make, to make it as clear and dynamic as I possibly can.”
Upending narratives is Mitchell’s terrain – as a director she’s been doing it to the classic texts of theatre and opera for over 30 years. And now she’s sending her own up in flames on the phone to me. Fearsome and stern she is not, cackling her way through our conversation while on a break from Theodora rehearsals; she’s an ebullient figure who sounds like she’d be quite fun to go to the pub with. An hour or so before we speak, Boris has issued his first party-gate apology at PMQs – “isn’t it exciting!” she says.
Theodora’s libretto is written by Thomas Morell and tells the story of a woman who is punished by the Roman Empire for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. In this world, men are sentenced to death, but women are forced into prostitution – “such an interesting, unconscious bit of misogyny,” observes Mitchell, who tells me she loves the music of Theodora, but “the story is trickier,” she says.
“When we drag these historical pieces through time, we drag the wonderful branches and leaves of the music. But down below, we’re bringing the toxic roots of the gender politics or the misogyny of the original historical period. And so as the theatre person responsible for that side of things, I have to tackle those toxic roots and work out how to manage them. Because if I don’t tackle them, it may look like I’m condoning the misogyny. It requires I suppose what you could call keyhole surgery on the original libretto.”
This kind of work is a challenge she likes to undertake – she and Alice Birch notably exposed Hamlet as basically a gaslighting stalker in 2015 show Ophelias Zimmer – but the work is hard. “It’s like you put down a little red flag in time that says ‘no more’. And you hope that if you put that flag down somewhere along the journey of, you know, the history of Hamlet or Theodora being produced, then you hope it will maybe reset the coordinates of how people think about doing those pieces,” she explains.
Despite the heaviness of the material, when I sit in on rehearsals, the mood is light. Mitchell watches each scene carefully, and chatters with castmates in between; there’s lots of laughter. Everyone is masked, including performers when they are not singing. Set in an “alternate modern-day”, Chloe Lamford’s design is thrilling and contemporary – but its details are being kept firmly under wraps for audiences.
Fundamental in Mitchell’s interpretation of Theodora, which stars American soprano Julia Bullock in the title role, with Joyce DiDonato as her friend Irene and Jakub Józef Orliński as her lover Didymus, has been the choice to give Theodora and Irene more agency. “We’ve shifted them from having a passive relationship to their faith, to having an active relationship with their faith. So they’re going to use violence to change the system. So we really do see them try to take down the Roman Empire” – a little smile creeps into her voice – “…which is quite exciting.”
Another intervention has come courtesy of Mitchell’s 16-year-old daughter – she’s instructed her mum that she’s not allowed to make any more plays about women killing themselves. What exactly Mitchell has done with the ending of Theodora is a closely guarded secret, but, she says, “if you’re doing the classical canon, the tragedies are often that women turn the violence inwards. I suppose what we’ve tried to explore with Theodora is to turn the violence outwards.”
These are the kind of decisions that go to the heart of how she engages with classical work. “When you’re dealing with the canon, you have to look the misogyny in the eye and work out what you’re going to do with it. Are you going to go with the original, inward-looking, inward-destroying characterisation? Or is there another route you can take, which still works with the music and the situation?” The aim is to bring “more equality in the storytelling”, because “otherwise, you’re watching pieces again and again, where the men are the agents and the women are the passive recipients.”
This has long been part of Mitchell’s artistic signature, but it’s taken some time for the inclusion of different gazes or perspectives to approach anything close to the mainstream in terms of wider culture. Her work has been remarkably influential to generations of theatremakers, but through craft rather than specific leadership roles within buildings. The latter, though, isn’t something she’d rule out in future. “Now I’m older, and a bit calmer and a bit wiser, it may in the future be of interest.”
What might keep her from it, though, is the lack of time she’d have for her daughter, who will take her GCSEs next summer. Although acknowledging it was dreadful for many, she says lockdown was “privately a blessing” because of the time it allowed them to spend together. Having worked in Europe for many years, “I probably don’t want to go back on the road again,” she tells me, and, give or take “a few little German adventures”, considers herself now “happily back in the UK.”
Lockdown was an invigorating time in other ways, too. Alongside writing a couple of books, one about “what it’s like to be a female British artist making a lot in Europe”, Mitchell decided to spend her time teaching young people in drama schools around the UK and universities around the world. “I just learnt so much about how people are thinking about feminism and gender fluidity. That was a really rejuvenating time to spend with the younger generation.” She also made two shows virtually in Europe, and spent a lot of time thinking about how theatre can respond to the climate catastrophe (last summer she was involved with the first ever off-grid classical concert at the Royal Festival Hall, powered by 16 bicycles).
“A lot to do!” she tells me. That, of course, is all on top of the deep scars left by the pandemic. Mitchell doesn’t point to any particular lessons that can be learned from Europe’s more subsidised sectors – their theatres have been equally bruised.
“I suppose it would be great to feel that, whether it’s in Europe or the UK – and I’m very sad to have to say that sentence, that we’re separate – but that we’re somehow going to rise to the existential challenge that has been posed by the pandemic, and by all of the turbulent intellectual events that are going on. And somehow, the art form is going to reinvent itself and reimagine itself and reach out to a really, truly diverse audience,” she says.
All of this is, she adds, “really, really, really hard.” But it’s reassuring to hear her, reinvigorated and sounding pretty ready to lead, setting her sights on resetting another narrative. “Hopefully we’re going to emerge blinking into the sunlight soon. And in that moment, I hope we’re going to step up to the challenge, because there’s a lot of folks who’ve had a very, very bad time, and the arts could really, really help the necessary process of healing.”
Theodora is at the Royal Opera House from Jan 31 to Feb 16; roh.org.uk