Elijah Moshinsky: opera isn't over any more than the writing of novels is

Back to direct his first opera in Australia since his infamous ‘tizzy fit’, the self-confessed dissident on the future of the artform and his leftwing politics

For a man about to burn heretics on stage, Elijah Moshinsky isn’t shy of uttering a few heresies of his own. Back in Australia, where he grew up, to restage his 1999 production of Don Carlos for Opera Australia, the UK-based director takes aim at the orthodoxy that opera is dying, salutes the absence of statesmen on the global political stage and calls Melbourne a city of beauty.

And all while discussing Verdi’s epic clash of the titans, with its terrifying Grand Inquisitor staring down the tyrannical King Philip of Spain. “It is one of the great operas because it does discuss religious and political ideas,’’ says Moshinsky of Don Carlos. “It isn’t only a love story or sentimental story about a death.’’

Ideas fire Moshinsky, they always have, especially the central conflict of Verdi’s opera: personal liberty versus the power of the church and state. The director was initially poised for a life in academia. He taught history at Melbourne University before winning a scholarship to study Russian liberalism at Oxford, where he veered into “showbiz”, as he calls it.

He remains a liberal and humanist, although he no longer calls himself a leftwing director. “Leftwing doesn’t sort of mean anything any more. I certainly come from what I call the dissident tendency, even though I’m directing in the most conservative art form there is,’’ he says. “A conservative art form can give rise to discussions of political ethics which allow you to present a dissident point of view.’’

The dissident director, 69, has an international career in opera, theatre and television and has had a long association with Opera Australia – his Rigoletto and La Traviata have been cornerstones of the company’s repertoire for years. But he has not worked with the company since Don Carlos premiered 16 years ago.

Much has changed since then. “I think I’m a better producer,’’ he says of his own work. “When I did it previously, the problems of just staging it overwhelmed the content. It was a bit overdecorated it, so I’m simplifying it.”

Elijah Moshinsky's 'simplified' Don Carlos for Opera Australia.
Moshinsky on Don Carlos: ‘It isn’t only a love story.’ Photograph: Jeff Busby

Overwhelming too was the furore that erupted ahead of opening night when, as he exited a particularly taxing Sydney rehearsal, Moshinsky told an interviewer that musical standards in the orchestra were appalling. “I had a tizzy fit,’’ he says now. “The frustrations of the moment took over ... I had to apologise and my apology had to be put on the desk of every orchestra member.”

He is more cautious when asked about musical standards today – “it’s a different orchestra” – and denies any rift with the company in the aftermath of the row. Rather, ill-health meant he could not travel. He was diagnosed with lymphoma some years ago and that made working in Australia impossible, he says.

Moshinsky approaches Verdi, a liberal whose political views informed his work, with a historian’s eye. But he views the composer’s 19th-century world, with its grand historical narratives and towering political figures, as vastly different from ours.

“We no longer believe in history and we don’t have statesmen,’’ he says. “We are very lucky to live in an age without statesmen, because we live in an age when political decisions are made by consensus. I would much prefer to live now. I’m not nostalgic for the past. I don’t want to live in the age of Bismarck, or indeed Margaret Thatcher.”

Born in Shanghai to Russian parents, one of his earliest memories is seeing Mao Zedong enter the city in 1951. His family fled to Melbourne soon after where he lived until the 1970s, studying flute at the conservatorium – “I had no ability” – before setting his sights on an academic career.

With Don Carlos opening in Melbourne before transferring to Sydney, he has reacquainted himself with his former home –“the most wonderful city to live in”, he says. “Here things open up to you, the living is easier and the attitude to life is more relaxed.”

He will return to England after the Melbourne opening where he has another heretic to burn. He will direct Verdi’s little known opera Giovanna d’Arc for Buxton Festival.

Although staging expensive grand opera is increasingly rare, Moshinsky rejects suggestions that the art form is on life support. “It’s like saying the writing of novels is over,’’ he says. “The writing of novels isn’t over. New people come along with new ideas ... [opera] will change, it won’t be the same art form we had 30 years ago, but I don’t fear for its future.”

And while Don Carlos – the grandest of grand operas – is a work of its time, its central dilemma remains pertinent. “It really goes into the paradox of human existence, that actually our destiny is not to live life fulfilled on Earth,” he says. “Our destiny is to learn how to live when your life is not fulfilled on Earth.’’

  • Don Carlos is at the Arts Centre, Melbourne from 20-29 May and the Sydney Opera House from 14 July to 15 August


Joyce Morgan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Elijah Moshinsky obituary
Opera director who came to prize directness and psychological insight over deconstruction and irony

Barry Millington

25, Jan, 2021 @5:38 PM

Article image
Aida review – Sydney harbour opera's head is bigger than its heart
Pyrotechnics, camels and a 15-tonne head: no rhinestone is left unturned in this ostentatious production whose setting alone ensures it cannot fail

Nancy Groves

30, Mar, 2015 @8:06 AM

Opera Australia: The Force of Destiny, Sydney Opera House – video

A glimpse of Opera Australia's new production of Verdi's The Force of Destiny, filmed in dress rehearsal at Sydney Opera House

27, Jun, 2013 @10:39 PM

Article image
Sydney Opera House: The Opera – as new as you're going to get in 2016
Opera Australia’s 60th anniversary season of Bell’s Bizet, Turandot on the harbour and more rabbits may not satisfy all Australian lovers of the art form

Steve Dow

11, Aug, 2015 @9:19 PM

Article image
The Ring Cycle review – thrilling spectacle matched by talent, over 16 hours of unforgettable opera
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
With the revival of Neil Armfield and Opera Australia’s dazzling and moving production of Wagner’s epic, it’s easy to see how a ‘Ring-nut’ is born

Clem Bastow

29, Nov, 2016 @7:43 AM

Article image
The Eighth Wonder review – Sydney Opera House hosts the world's first large-scale 'silent opera'
With a slight whiff of propaganda, the bubbly opera about Sydney’s most iconic building ends up upstaged – by the venue

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

31, Oct, 2016 @12:04 AM

Article image
Sydney Opera House goes Broadway with South Pacific

Opera Australia's artistic director Lyndon Terracini stages first musical at Opera Theatre to broaden audience appeal

Alison Rourke in Sydney

07, Aug, 2012 @9:00 PM

Article image
Why does opera like women behaving badly?

The Welsh National Opera's new season explores opera's fascination with 'fallen women'. But it wasn't just the women who fell, writes artistic director David Pountney

David Pountney

06, Feb, 2014 @6:00 PM

Article image
Otello: opera, identity politics and blacking-up
Opera companies now eschew the once traditional black makeup for the lead in Verdi’s masterpiece, but it remains a controversial issue that highlights the need to nurture more diverse talent

Alison Kinney

15, Jun, 2017 @12:13 PM

Article image
The BBC opera season makes ITV's sound flat

Tom Service: The Beeb and ITV each want to sing opera's praises – the former with a full season celebration, the latter with a reality show. Who do you think will do a better job?

Tom Service

27, Jan, 2010 @12:33 PM