“Opera is never translated in Athens, where I grew up. To understand the stories, I learnt to focus on the way music is expressed, to read what lies inside the melodies and look at performers’ body language,” says Natalie Katsou. The 32-year-old director is softly-spoken and considered, her voice coloured with a gentle Greek lilt as she describes her fascination with physical expression. “How might we respond if we allowed our bodies to be ‘genuine’ all the time? If, rather than abiding by social expectation, we could respond naturally and physically? How would you cherish a cuddle? If someone said they were deaf, would you touch them? I want to bring a magnifying glass to our impulses.”
Natalie is the artistic director of Operaview, a company which she founded early last year with her friend, soprano Helen Bailey. The fusion of opera with movement, dance, puppetry and circus arts forms the basis of their productions. “When I approach a work, I imagine someone watching that doesn’t understand the language. What is the most expressive thing we have, after all? It’s our body.”
Natalie is intrigued, too, by stories which possess a sense of otherwordliness, enjoying the freedom of imagination this gives her as a director. “I am drawn to the unusual. There’s a mystery attached to things we can’t see – I grew up immersing myself in fairytales, always creating worlds in my head.”
And yet she is remarkably grounded for someone who spends so much time fantasising (“you have to make yourself fly before bringing yourself back to reality – I wanted a hot air balloon in a show I did recently, but had to accept it would be made from bits of string and balloons from Pound Land.”)
Natalie left Athens five years ago, armed with two degrees in law and theatre studies, plus acting school training, and came to London for an MFA in directing at the East 15 Acting School in Essex. “I got an idea of my own style and realised that for me, opera and theatre is all about communicating and bringing people together, no matter how frugal the means.”
Natalie spent some time as an observer director at the Royal Opera House; it’s absolutely stunning, she admits, but got her thinking about alternatives. “I started to wonder, is there a way of making opera if you can’t afford a revolving stage and five tiers of audience? Can we stop people believing it’s something remote and elitist? Can we bring an intimacy to it? Surely you don’t need red carpets for that!”
Her priority with Operaview is to perform in unconventional spaces. The company’s first foray into the professional circuit was a production of Menotti’s The Medium at the Arcola Theatre, as part of its Grimeborn fringe opera festival. Given the work’s theme of communicating with phantoms, it gave Natalie scope to explore the idea of the ‘extra-terrestial’ which so fascinates her. “We had an aerial performer suspended in a hoop from the ceiling, and just used a piano accompaniment so as not to distract from the relationship between voice and movement.”
But you couldn’t accuse Natalie of disregarding the music, and she’s quick to gush about her love of listening to opera. “I believe very much in the way music, singing and voices all work together to trigger emotion. With good performers (and there are so many), this happens naturally. Sometimes you can put on a CD and burst into tears just from the beauty of the sound.”
This week (from 16 February) sees the premiere of Operaview’s second production, a double bill combining Mozart’s Bastien & Bastienne with Gustav Holst’s Savitri. “The former is a really likable opera, which Helen and I loved immediately. As for the Holst, we were drawn to its super-natural themes. It’s an Indian tale of myths and gods, so there is a strong idea of the invisible. We’re using shadow puppets, to tie in with the Indian tradition.”
Composed almost 150 years apart (Mozart was just 12 years old when he wrote his one-act comedy in 1768), it’s not easy on first glance to see what connects these two works. “Both are love stories. I’m talking about genuine love here, not superficial Saint Valentine’s love. On some level, the young couple in Bastien & Bastienne (which we’re setting in modern day Camden town) is more straight forward, whereas Savitri is about sacrificing and negotiating. It confronts those big questions we don’t dare think about in our daily routine – that of existing and feeling and thinking.”
Natalie attributes her tendency to visualise everything (“I work almost solely with images in my head”) to being surrounded by art as a child. “My mother loved art, so there were books everywhere about all kinds of painting. We’d go to every exhibition that was on, and I still do. I love the National Gallery in particular.”
She also takes visual inspiration from watching other people when she’s out and about, which, she jokes, can make her seem a bit weird. “I’m a bit of a peeping tom most of the time, to be honest. I think (or hope!) most directors are. It’s especially exciting in London – in such a multi-coloured and vibrant city, you can go to Tesco to buy apples and something interesting will happen in those three minutes.”
If something interesting can happen in a three-minute trip to the supermarket, imagine the potential for wonderment when you combine beautiful music, shadow puppets, Indian mythology and a director whose passion for invention outweighs all else.
Operaview’s double bill of Mozart’s Bastien & Bastienne with Gustav Holst’s Savitri premiered today, and continues until 18 April at various venues in London and Kent. For more details, visit operaview.org.
Photography © Yiannis Katsaris