For the most part, when getting started on a project, it’s best not to think. To be honest, the less you involve whatever intellect you might possess, the better. Instead the key is to listen to the piece, then listen again and again until bits of it are stuck to your head like chunks of fallen masonry that you can’t shake off. Still no intellect.
Slowly, such listening will produce inarticulate feelings of things (perhaps textures or a sense of something) and quite swiftly these impressions shift into images. These lay the foundations for what the world of the story might look like – the visual language and sensory framework that allows the fabric to be woven.
With Hoffmann it’s a dark gothic world, in keeping with its 19th-century romantic origins. We go from the beery intimacy of the prologue to the very boundaries of modern science, onwards to the flickering shadows of spirit conjuring, ghostly apparitions and satanic meddling and finally to the sybaritic licence of sexual indulgence, high-class courtesans and the thievery of souls.
All of these, it seemed to me, found their expression in cinema and it wasn’t hard to find swathes of marvellous visual references. From the Brothers Quay with their Institute Benjamenta and Street of Crocodiles, to Georges Méliès The Man With The Rubber Head; from Nosferatu to the silvered glamour of Hollywood in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s there is a whole universe of work that resonates with Offenbach’s stupendous energy and Hoffmann’s dark concerns. It certainly feels that if either had been around to enjoy them, they would have delighted in the scope of such visual invention, storytelling and the celebration of atmosphere that these films possess.
And so it felt like rewarding and fertile ground to have Hoffmann as a maker of silent movies, just as the talkies are coming to the fore – a director and creator left behind just as the actor was in The Artist. He’s looking over his own work – his leading lady Stella lost to the new technology and his muse foundering.
It was fascinating to discover a great pattern in early film of using opera stars in the lead roles. The style of acting was suited to the silent medium and the singers brought with them status, artistic credibility and a devoted audience. So Stella the opera singer can go on to become Stella the silent movie star and the groundwork for our filmmaker Hoffmann begins to be laid.
Director, The Tales of Hoffmann
ETO’s new production of The Tales of Hoffmann opens at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, on Friday 9 October 2015, before touring to Buxton, Malvern, Durham, Harrogate, Cambridge, Bath, Snape Maltings and Exeter. For more information and to book tickets visithttp://englishtouringopera.org.uk/productions/the-tales-of-hoffmann