San Francisco Opera: Catch Up with 'Mephistopheles' Director Robert Carsen

Catch Up with 'Mephistopheles' Director Robert Carsen

As a child, Robert Carsen dreamed of being an actor — but soon he found himself drawn into a different world, one that lies beyond the curtains, hidden to average theater-goer. He had the instinct for directing. And as a result, opera theaters around the world now play host to his visions, from New York to Paris and beyond.

Arrigo Boito’s Mephistopheles was the Canadian director’s breakthrough opera, his first entry into the world of international theater. A San Francisco Opera co-production, his Mephistopheles traveled from Geneva in 1988 to our stage the following year. Since then, it’s been revived twice in San Francisco, each time bringing a trademark mixture of chills and devilish glee.

Ahead of our online broadcast of Mephistopheles, airing on our website Saturday, May 9, we revisit this interview with Carsen, as he looks back on how this production came to life.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What were your inspirations for this production?

ROBERT CARSEN: We started working on this in 1986 as a co-production between Geneva and San Francisco. It was a huge thing to prepare, and I never thought we would be still living with the show at this point; it’s so gratifying.

The thing about Mephistopheles for me is that it’s arguably the best operatic treatment of Goethe’s Faust, and it’s the only one to attempt to deal with all the parts of Goethe’s story. So I went to the original play, to get a sense of its scope. The whole magnificent, very intense prologue in heaven that frames the piece — because the epilogue happens in heaven as well — seemed to call for a production grounded in a theatrical equivalent visually.

In Goethe’s play, the prologue sets the tone for the whole piece, very much as it does for the opera—although in a slightly more ironic way. To balance it with how to theatricalize the notion of God, who speaks through one voice in the play and through the choir in the opera, came the notion of heaven as a theater.

I love Boito’s music and I think it’s extremely effective dramatically. The aim of the piece is so broad, so it was wonderful to see how we could serve the theatricality of the piece but also respond to Boito’s desire to respect Goethe as much as he could.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How did Boito’s music affect your staging?

CARSEN: I would hope that any production is heavily influenced by the music, and I think that’s certainly the case with ours. Boito shows a real pleasure in the use of the operatic medium — particularly the way in which he extends scenes.

I think that Boito as a young artist searching for a new, revolutionary form in his composition seems to have created an unusual combination of Italian and Germanic styles in his composition. By Germanic, I mean the way he manages to develop a melody longer and longer, like in the prologue and some other scenes, so of course we were very influenced by that.

Goethe’s Faust works on so many levels — there are tragic scenes, grotesque scenes, lyric scenes — and I think the Boito score manages all of that beautifully. The music is not all verismo; it’s not all of one piece. I think the writing for Helen of Troy is very modern and sounds quite a bit like Turandot. One day, we’ll come to a better understanding of Boito. I think we’re due for a really good biography on him, because he was such a brilliant man and not fully appreciated.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: This is arguably one of your most famous productions. What are your thoughts looking back on it nearly 25 years later? 

CARSEN: I think I established my language as a director and what one could do with a production, while still remaining very respectful of the music and libretto. I never would have thought that the first big, professional production I did would still be with us after all these years, and hopefully it still comes up quite fresh. I’m actually quite touched by that. We worked on this production for a very long time, and I have a great affection for it and Boito’s opera.

The production also was the first time that I worked with [production designer] Michael Levine. We discovered how we could collaborate together, and we’ve now done approximately 25 productions. All in all, it was a truly wonderful experience.

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