Theatre: Interview with Lara Bye

Posted: January 24, 2011 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews

The Flying Dutchman

The creatively irrepressible director, Lara Bye, is at it again.  This time she’s pouring her wicked imagination into Richard Wagner’s Opera, The Flying Dutchman, which is presented by The Richard Wagner Society as part of the annual Suidooster Festival.  The Flying Dutchman tells the mythical and magical tale of a Captain cursed to roam the seas forever, without rest, because he once invoked Satan.  The possibility of redemption comes from an angel who informs the distraught Captain that the curse will be broken should a woman devote her life and absolute love to him.  A chest of gold bullion, a greedy father, a young woman – named Senta – filled with romantic notions about her tragically hip ghost Captain, and her jealous hunter ex-boyfriend, all make a grand appearance in this gothic tale.  

Lara and the girls of the Wagner Festival Choir 1


Lara Bye, American conductor Kamal Khan, his assistant conductor, Lisa Engelbrecht, and the youngsters of the Wagner Festival Choir are all elbow deep into rehearsals at the Dutch Reformed Church in Gardens.  It is a windless 34 degrees in Cape Town and around three weeks before opening night. Bye is hanging around outside the venue where Khan is conducting the girls of the Wagner Festival Choir. She keeps peering into the room at the young girls. “Kamal’s just arrived,” She stage whispers to me, “I don’t want to go in there just yet.  Give him time with the girls.”  She’s obviously itching to get in there and weave her directorial wand.  It’s not Bye’s first fling with opera or The Wagner Society.  Three years ago she directed Wagner’s La Serva Padrona as her first opera.  As we settle under the shade of an old tree in the church grounds, she says, “Once you get a taste for it…,” she cocks her head towards the sound of the powerful young voices, “You can’t let go”.  By now the men of the Wagner Festival Choir have started practicing in the second rehearsal room.  For a while we sit quietly listening to the two streams of strong voices pouring out into the church yard.  

Front left to right Ina Wichterich with assistant conductor Lisa Engelbrecht on pianoand  conductor Kamal Khan   Lara Bye's at the back

Front left to right Ina Wichterich with assistant conductor Lisa Engelbrecht on pianoand conductor Kamal Khan Lara Bye's at the back

Bye says she is usually more into smaller theatrical pieces with a large emotional resonance.  Her award-winning works, London Road and, I Claudia, springs to mind.  The Flying Dutchman’s  55- strong cast is offering a very different challenge.  “I think my experience as a freelance theatre maker is one of my great strengths,” she explains. “Working on a shoestring budget, with severe time restrictions, has taught me how to make every moment count.  I am also skilled at bringing the right kind of people together and working with a diverse group of creatives.”

Over the years Bye’s body of work has collected an informal posse of creative people that she loves working with.  “It’s amazing working with a creative team where you don’t have to explain yourself all the time,” She says, “They just get it. And then they take it to the next level. Take Reza Levy’s costume design.  He studied the 45 chorusmen, and then created individual characters out of them.  One had beautiful arms so he ripped the sleeves of his costume. Another was short and chubby and he emphasises this particular character trait to create individuality. I never expected such attention to detail.”

Bye says Nkosazana Dimande was an obvious choice for the lead role of Senta due to her powerful voice which lends itself naturally to the dramatic Wagnerian opera style.   The American, Gary Simpson, stepped in last minute into the role of the Dutchman.  Ntobeko Rwanqa, who was originally placed in the lead role has since lost his voice during the production of Porgy and Bess.

Ina Wichterich choreographs. “Ina is an amazing artist,” Bye explains.  “She is not only a dance choreographer, she also has an innate sense of acting performance, of rhythm, of bodies in space creating meaning. It is my first time working with her and I have learnt so much;  her calm focus,  her clarity of communication, her  demand for authenticity and the way she fuses her own very European aesthetic, with a South African flair and flavour.  She has a unique vision, and we are very blessed to have her involved in the creation of the show.” 

The youngsters of the Wagner Festival Choir are from areas such as Khayelitsha and Gugulethu. They are between the ages of 18 to 25 and have minimal, if any, stage experience.   “They sing the German lyrics phonetically,” Bye explains.  “I keep reminding them of the story so that they understand what they are singing.  It has also been an interesting journey teaching them theatre discipline, such as leaving their cellphones alone, and taking out their chewing gum.”  She says they sing like angels.

Bye says she is very interested in Wagner’s cosmic nature. “He was fascinated by spirituality, magic, human tragedy and redemption. He was a kind of a German expressionist.  Wagner creates images with his music. Through his music you can hear the rumbling thunder and see the devil brides rising from the mist.”  Rather than forcing a particular style onto the work, Bye says she is very careful to let the music tell the story, rather than her imposing set ideas onto it.

She laughs when she remembers Fahiem Bardien, responsible for lighting, and one of her creative posse’s, reaction to her directing The Flying Dutchman.  ‘Another tragedy!’ he cried. But Bye says she loves the high drama of tragedy, the extreme emotions that it evokes.  “A lot of people are doing comedy and they are doing it well,” She says.   “Part of our healing process as human beings is to be able to share tragedy and sorrow -something that profoundly moves us.  We are always trying so hard to pretend that everything is ok and we are perfectly happy. When in fact, tragedy, sorrow, loss and heartache are all part of the human condition, and its ok to feel it and share it.”

The Flying Dutchmen will show at the Artscape on 27 and 29 January.  Prices range from R100 to R220. For reservations phone 021 421 1425. Bye says the Wagner Groupies who travel all over the world to see his produced works already have their tickets booked.  She says her big wish is that parents will bring their children to experience the magic of the opera.

The End


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