What I learned from a world-class opera director

Polly Graham is the Welsh National Opera’s first Genesis Assistant Director, working on the organisation’s newest productions and being mentored by David Pountney. Here she reflects on what she’s learned

The dictionary tells us that a mentor is ‘a wise and trusted counsellor or teacher’. Over the past two years of working at Welsh National Opera and being mentored by executive and artistic director David Pountney, I’ve found that a mentor is really a combination of teacher, parent and friend.

The Genesis Foundation gave me the rare opportunity to hone my craft at the heart of one of the UK’s leading opera companies. Above all, what I have learned during my time at WNO is to really question the text and the story on which I’m working. This questioning allows for a strong, incisive and original approach to creating a unique mise en scène. I have also learned much about the value of inclusivity across the team. David’s rehearsals are always happy and relaxed because as a director he is so confident; he doesn’t fear criticism by others, he welcomes their ideas.

His endorsement, combined with the Genesis Foundation’s drive to nurture aspiring talent through partnerships with key figures, has presented me with many directing opportunities, some of which have been outside of main-stage work. Over the past two years I have worked on Fact and Fiction (co-directed by Sophie Rashbrook); Gary the Llama, a new short opera composed by Welsh National Youth Opera’s 10-14 group; and My Perfect World, an opera for school children and professionals by Alan Harris and Richard Barnard.

Before I finish my two-year placement, I’ll direct one final piece. Supported by an Individual Grant from Arts Council Wales, Unheard Voices – CREW is a devised show about what it’s like to be a member of the stage crew and to watch opera from the shadows. It stars four wonderful men from WNO’s casual stage crew, alongside bass-baritone Aidan Smith, WNO Genesis trainee repetiteur David Doidge, and my mentor David Pountney.

David Pountney © Karl Forster
David Pountney © Karl Forster

I’ve discovered so much about good leadership from watching David; he operates with enormously high expectations of himself and of others, without ever appearing stressed. In fact, he exudes the feeling that problems are fun and finding solutions is sport. He is a pragmatist, and I greatly admire how he manages to balance the pressures of leading a company like WNO with his own artistic practice. It has certainly been interesting to learn from a director who is also an impresario
What’s more David is a kind of Joycean artist – he pours the world into his dramas.

One of the most fun WNO rehearsals ever was devising the choreography for the suicide scene in Lulu. The set-up involved three people being locked in on one side of a door, with someone committing suicide on the other. It was a macabre scene that David set on the edge of cartoonish comedy: as his set had no doors, his solution was to bring on a door carried by two people – in this way, the scene could be played out as a chase around the entire stage.

Read: David Pountney discusses creativity, tradition and being a rebel

I have also learnt a huge amount about technical theatre since being here, and I have absolutely loved developing my knowledge of technical theatre through working on and touring our main-stage shows. I’ve had to work closely with the lighting and stage crew depart- ments, all of whom have been so warm and supportive. Under David’s artistic direction, WNO has also been a wonderful place to learn about music. Through his bold programming, I’ve been introduced to so many new works and composers.

As a touring company, WNO’s job is to make the show happen in tricky spaces, to the highest artistic standards, it’s then you see its strong identity. With that in mind, I’m really looking forward to taking the next steps towards making my mark as a director.