From Score to Stage with Martin Constantine

3 June 2019

Martin Constantine is an award-winning theatre and opera director. With credits at companies such as Royal Opera House, Royal Shakespeare Company, English National Opera and Grange Park Opera he returns to Welsh National Opera this Season to direct Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking which forms part of our FREEDOM Season at Wales Millennium Centre. We caught up with him to learn more about his role as a director and his unique process of getting an opera from score to stage.

Dead Man Walking is a gut-wrenching story of redemption, based on the real life story of Joseph de Rocher, a man on death row in Louisiana, and his relationship with Sister Helen Prejean, a leading American advocate for the abolition of the death penalty.

Characterisation is important in any opera and there's never one way to approach it.  I always begin by exploring the information and the facts that are given to us by the composer and librettist, the details in the score that are unarguable. Where we are; when we are; what we are. In this opera, Sister Helen works in Hope House and Hope House is in New Orleans, this we can't argue, however, the score isn’t complete. For me, a score is an invitation for us to meet the composer and the librettist - in this case Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally - and to collaborate with them to fill in all the details that they haven’t given us.

Sister Helen takes a road trip from New Orleans to the Prison and so it would be useful for Lucia, who performs the role, to know what Sister Helen's journey looks like - how exactly she gets from A to B. This we can research on a map. We now know the kind of terrain and the kind of things Sister Helen might see along the way, thus making our characterisation more precise. Its details such as this we need to work out to fully understand what it is that's powering the moments we are creating.

Of course, there are some questions we can't research, and for this you need to make a collective decision with your creative team – Associate Director Tom Roden and Designer Misty Buckley. How we answer those questions will define the production and make our story unique. We have kept to the original setting of 1980s America but have stripped the production right back, showcasing the 40+ piece orchestra on-stage.

On the first day of rehearsal, the singers absorb information from the librettist, the composer, the director, the designer. However, the heart of characterisation always comes from how the singer responds to those elements that are given to them, which in turn, informs behaviour and character objectives.

Every rehearsal we delve deeper beneath the skin of the character, thus breaking the score up into turning points, moments, events. These moments of change are really important to identify, and there are plenty of them in Dead Man Walking. Occasionally, as a director, you’ve got to write changes in, be it with the cast or the dramaturg.

What’s exciting about this production is that I’ve been working with singers at different points in their careers. We have WNO Youth Opera who are still training; WNO Youth Opera Alumni that are at the beginning of their career and those who have been working in the profession for a number of years. Morgan Smith performs the role of Joseph de Rocher and Lucia Cervoni makes her role debut as Sister Helen Prejean.'

To learn more about Dead Man Walking, Composer Jake Heggie (via video link) and Director Martin Constantine will participate in a pre-performance Q&A session at Wales Millennium Centre on 7 June. This event is free with a ticket for the performance, but ticketed due to limited availability.