Elijah Moshinsky the prodigal son of Australian opera returns for Don Carlos
Opera director Elijah Moshinsky returns to Australia, and to Don Carlos, writes Miriam Cosic
Elijah Moshinsky has unfinished business in Australia. The Shanghai-born, Melbourne-raised, London-based director was last here 16 years ago when he staged Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos for Opera Australia. His stay in Sydney was as politically and emotionally intense as the opera. He was badly rattled at the time: his mother was dying and he was flying to Melbourne every weekend to be with her. He stirred controversy when he attacked musical standards in the Opera House orchestra pit, prompting music director Simone Young, who was conducting Don Carlos, and former music director Richard Bonynge to jump to the musicians’ defence. The musicians’ union got involved, and ABC radio’s current affairs programs AM and PM covered the skirmish as an unfolding news story.
“I was not in a good state when I was directing the opera here, and the opera was not a success,” Moshinsky says now with startling frankness. “A lot of the problems were that my personality wasn’t clicking with other people’s.”
He also feels indebted to Opera Australia’s former artistic director Moffatt Oxenbould, who had repeatedly invited him to Australia to direct visually rich, lively and popular productions of The Barber of Seville, Werther, Beatrice and Benedict, and more. “In his last season as artistic director, he asked what opera I most wanted to do,” Moshinsky says. “No one does Don Carlos because it’s so hard, but he believed in me. And then I felt I let him down.”
Moshinsky is talking at Opera Australia’s Sydney HQ, where he is working on a revision of that original Don Carlos, which opens in Melbourne this month. Last time he was here, he still had the dark-eyed charisma of his youth. Today, at 69, he is greying and struggling physically. He speaks slowly and sheer strength of will seems to be keeping him going. He repeatedly refers to himself as a 70-year-old, jumping the gun, and as a survivor.
The cancer he has been dealing with since 1984 roared back in 2000, and now he is permanently under siege. His blood plasma is replaced every month. The long haul across the world has been beyond him all that time and he was able to come this time only because his oncologist organised for him to have the procedure at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre while he is in Melbourne.
He resists questions about his health. “I don’t want my life to be a disease,” he says.
But when reminded that other people’s bravery is encouraging for those dealing with cancer, Moshinsky regains momentum and starts on what his ordeal has taught him about life, art, and even about this opera. “I feel I understand more about suffering,” he says. “It’s partly to do
May 9-10, 2015 with illness, partly to do with growing up, partly to do with having memories in a different way.”
Of Don Carlos he says, “I didn’t understand the depth of the suffering of the characters. They were opera characters to me. Now the real experiences that I have had — the regrets, the hopes, the need for ideals in a world that appears to be disintegrating, absolute commitment to the hatred of autocracy — are much more important to me, and the whole argument of whether ordered society can exist with freedom. We live in a politically different world and this is a political opera.” He refers to current autocrats, but doesn’t want them named because he doesn’t like “opera productions that try to make things relevant”.
Verdi had no such qualms. He based his fiveact work, written in French grand opera style, on Schiller’s epic poem Don Karlos, Infant von Spanien, about the son of Phillip II of Spain in the aftermath of the 16th-century Italian war between the Hapsburgs and the Valois. Verdi was deeply involved in Italy’s Risorgimento. His name was shouted as an acronym for the move- ment’s slogan — Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia! — and he was elected to parliament after unification in 1861. All his operas are deeply political: even a romantic tragedy such as La Traviata says a lot about the social and political position of women in the 19th century.
Don Carlos is even more pointedly so. Napoleon III, who ruled France at the time of the opera’s premiere in Paris in 1867, was seen to face a similar problem of political legitimacy to Phillip’s. In fact, Napoleon’s wife walked out of the pivotal auto-da-fe scene, in which Don Carlos draws his sword on Phillip and Phillip’s guards refuse to arrest him.
Verdi tried but failed to break his contract for the work with the Paris Opera after Italy’s military defeat at the hands of the Hapsburgs, who gave the Veneto to France as a reward for its support.
“Imagine what pleasure for an Italian who loves his country to find himself now in Paris,” Verdi said at the time. The day after the premiere, he wrote words that strangely echo Moshinsky’s now. “It was not a success!” he wrote. “I do not know what it will be in the future, and I would not be surprised if things change.”
Things are certainly changing here. “I’m reinventing the opera, I’m not reviving it,” Moshinsky says. Though he has economically kept the sets, he has changed some of the clothing. “I decided to go down the path of trying to capture the world of Velasquez as a metaphor for the Spain that existed.” The primary changes are to some of the women’s costumes, suggesting carapaces and restricting their movement.
He has staged Don Carlos twice since the Sydney production of 1999 — in Toulouse, France, and in Seoul — and has continued to wrestle with specific difficulties of French-style grand opera: reconciling the grand sweep of history required with the private conflicts of individuals “without it being banal, or hollow, or over-gestural”, and neutralising the anachronism that historicism has become.
“History is no longer treated as an important intellectual idea in the postmodern age. We’re living in a constant present,” he says.
“In the 19th century there was a sense of history unrolling, and a belief in the liberal idea that history would somehow lead to liberty and a better life. I have to go back and try to convince people to be interested in that idea of the unrolling of history.”
Liberalism has been a lifelong interest. An unconventional boy who didn’t quite fit into a family and a society relatively uninterested in the arts, Moshinsky came alive when he won a scholarship to Oxford and began a doctorate with the eminent theorist of liberalism, the Russian philosopher Isaiah Berlin.
Moshinsky had been born in Shanghai to Russian Jewish parents fleeing pogroms. The family came to Australia when he was five, and he and his two brothers grew up here. His brothers still live in Melbourne.
At Oxford he studied the work of the Russian liberal Alexander Herzen, who was, Moshinsky points out, a neo-Hegelian. (And who, it must be said, is referred to more often as a socialist than as a liberal.)
“The Russians took on Hegel. They were concerned with this interesting question of history, whether Russia had to go through the same stages of history as Western Europe or whether they could jump. This is where Lenin came in ...”
Moshinsky was already deeply involved in theatre. He had directed plays at the Melbourne University Union. In 1965, he joined the Melbourne New Theatre run by John Ellis, “a wonderful man, my inspiration and mentor”. He recalls designing a production of Brecht’s Mother Courage there: “We took it as seriously as if we were (Brecht’s) Berlin Ensemble.”
He had no intention of making it a career
I HAD TO BE AN ARTIST. IT’S A VOCATION
when he went to England. “I was never going to be a theatre director, I was going to be an academic of some kind,” he says.
It was Berlin who nudged him towards Verdi. “We were discussing the history of liberalism, and the history of free will and political action in 19th-century philosophy, and he pointed out to me that there is no thinker who was as extensive in his concern and view of the world as Verdi, apart from Tolstoy.
“And Isaiah Berlin opened my eyes to Verdi as an ethical and moral thinker about history. This is what we’re dealing with — all the issues of freedom, the rights of the individual, the nobility of love, the transcendence of love.”
Verdi’s characters also have what Moshinsky calls “an imperative”: not a dry old philosophical concept like Kant’s categorical imperative, but an imperative of passion. “The way (the characters) react to each other is the plot,” he explains. “And Verdi is interested in situations which are absolutely irresolvable, and the heroism and nobility with which the characters face their destiny.”
Moshinsky “almost” finished his doctorate in Oxford, he says, but the London stage lured him away. “I don’t have the brain to be an academic, and I don’t have the interest. I didn’t like the career or the people involved in academic life. Except Isaiah Berlin, who was a great inspiration — he made me think clearly.”
He is not much more flattering about life in the performing arts.
“Theatre can be the place for a very narcissistic and phony life, and I didn’t want to get involved with that,” he says. The result, he says, is that his career has not been stellar, but it has been steady and it gave him his raison d’etre. He mentions the word “imperative” again. “I had to be an artist. It’s a vocation. I couldn’t be an accountant or a lawyer.”
In fact, he has worked in the most rarefied realms of opera. He did an Otello with Carlos Kleiber and Placido Domingo, for example, and many productions with Colin Davis, “who I adored”. He did four operas with the great Georg Solti, whom he also adored. “We adored each other,” he says. “And we’d shout. He’d say, ‘Moshinsky, that’s terrible on stage!’ And I’d say, ‘Don’t look, Georg!’ ”
He becomes reflective. Does religion give him purpose, or does art replace religion for him? He is Jewish, he says, but equivocates. “Well, I had my sons bar mitzvahed and all that,” he says tentatively. “I’m not religious, but I have had this constant debate about the moral life and it’s impossible to do that and discount the possibility of what might be called religion.
“But there’s a lot about religion I don’t like. I don’t like demagogues, and that means even atheists ... and vegans.”
When I start referring to “Him up there”, however, Moshinsky replies more firmly, “No, no, I’m not religious. Basically I’m a rationalist.” He refers back to the opera, at the point when the Grand Inquisitor wants Phillip to kill Don Carlos. “And Phillip says, ‘But how can I kill my own son?’ And (the Inquisitor) says, ‘God did that.’ It’s one of the most chilling moments.”
For a man who hates publicity so much he didn’t want to be interviewed for this story — Opera Australia talked him into it, he says — he has settled in comfortably to our chat, which stretches well beyond the allocated hour. He has become almost meditative, and one gets the feeling his experience of illness has made that his primary mood.
Unlike the 18th and 19th-century romanticists with whom he has so often engaged, Moshinsky does not believe art can replace religion.
“You don’t need a replacement,” he says. “You have to live a meaningful life. When you realise how tenuous your life is, you can’t live just for the pleasure of the moment. You can’t live just for making more money.
“You can’t live for lifestyle. There has to be something more.
“And for me, I found it in exploring these works of literature and art, vehicles in which to discuss and explore the world.
“It’s a form of philosophy, basically. It doesn’t replace religion. You don’t worship an opera.”
Elijah Moshinsky, left; facing page, from left, Diego Torre, Milijana Nikolic and Jose Carbo in costume for Opera Australia’s Don Carlos
Elijah Moshinsky in 1982