Filming an operatic theme

Writer and director Carys Lewis is the first filmmaker in residence at Welsh National Opera (WNO), in collaboration with Ffilm Cymru Wales. Here she talks about what this new role entails, and how she will be taking inspiration from the current opera season and linking the themes to modern issues.

As the filmmaker in residence at Welsh National Opera, I’ll be creating and directing a trilogy of short narrative films, each based around the themes highlighted in the operas that are part of WNO’s autumn season – Eugene OneginKhovanshchina and From the House of the Dead.

For the project, I initially wanted to merge opera and film together in a single storyline. However, while sitting in on rehearsals and talking with the company members, I came to realise that what was important in these operas was to focus on the core themes and the emotional stories that drove the action forward.

Khovanshchina mood board
Khovanshchina mood board

Attempting to capture opera directly on film is quite challenging, as film and opera demand vastly different things from both the performers and the audience. In opera, the depth and power of the orchestra, the storylines and the immense power of the operatic voices fill a landscape that is vast and expansive. In film, the beauty comes from the small nooks and crevasses of life that the medium allows us to explore; we can capture a small gesture, a tone of voice, a look.

As a filmmaker, it’s important for me to ensure that the work I create is relevant to a modern audience, and because opera can be seen as a mystery to many young people my hope is that these films will make them more curious to explore the world of opera and classical music.

As the theme of WNO’s autumn season is revolution, I felt it made sense to look at what modern revolutions are happening within our own society, and link these to current issues such as racial tensions, gender, immigration and class divisions. With the rise of new voices, it feels that typical power structures are begging to be dismantled.

House of the Dead mood board
From the House of the Dead mood board

The three narrative shorts (or monologues) that I’m creating from the three operas will each have a distinctive visual look; they’ll be stylistically lit in neons – yellow, blue, pink and red – and we will use urban lighting to enhance the mood and tone of each film.

The film that will represent the opera Khovanshchina will focus on the political unrest and racial/gender tension that is giving rise to the alt-right and groups like the ‘Proud Boys’. This monologue is taken from an interview by the individual who helped organise the riot in Charlottesville. The film explores how fringe groups are “revolting” against the progressive liberal movements.

In From the House of the Dead, the themes of liberation and captivity are what ring loudest to me. This film will deal with a woman whose journey of immigration is over, but whose suffering continues. Even though she has been liberated and freed from her homeland, she is still captive within herself. This monologue will, I hope, give voice to the women who have been hardened by immigration.

The title character in Eugene Onegin attempts to recreate himself in the image of the men that he has read about in novels. He pushes aside anyone and anything that does not fit this ideal. The film will explore the way that social media is revolutionising our interactions with each other, and delve into the personas that we create on social media; the obsessive curating that we do of our own lives, presenting a version of ourselves to the people that we share space with.

Eugene Onegin mood board
Eugene Onegin mood board

The soundscape for each film will be a mix of everyday environmental sounds and music, combined with the score from the operas. I hope that by using the idea of ‘modern day revolution’ along with the medium of film, it will bring the themes of these operas alive for modern audiences.

Carys is a Cardiff and Toronto based filmmaker. She recently finished shooting a BFI NETWORK comedy called Stuffed, which she wrote and directed. Her short film Afiach (Sick) premiered at the Iris Prize Festival and a documentary short, Ernest, premiered at the Wales International Documentary Festival and is now making the festival circuit. As an advocate for equal representation of women in front of, and behind the camera, Carys is the founder of FEM Script Lab, a writing lab for female-identifying screenwriters in Toronto.

For the next month, Carys will be documenting her journey through WNO’s Instagram page @WNOtweet and you can follow her adventures with her personalised hashtag #WNOfilmmaker |