Staging Brokeback Mountain the opera

A week in the life of Ivo van Hove, the stage director behind Brokeback Mountain, the opera

It’s past midnight when I take off from Santiago. I’ve been in Chile to resolve a casting issue with Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of John Cassavetes’ Opening Night, which we’re performing there as part of a South American tour. Elsie de Brauw, who plays the lead role, has had an operation and can no longer fly out to Chile. I asked Chris Nietvelt, who has been acting in Opening Night since 2006, to play the lead. Fortunately, she accepted. Janni Goslinga will take Chris’ part, preparing the role from scratch. The passion from both actresses during the run-through moved me deeply. It was a display of the resilience of an ensemble like Toneelgroep Amsterdam.

Back in Madrid, it’s the first rehearsal with the choir for Brokeback Mountain, the opera, by librettist Annie Proulx – who also wrote the original short story about two men falling in love in 1960s Wyoming. I give a short introduction about the performance, and explain to the singers that it’s not just a love story, but an opera about homophobia. The choir will be portraying the wider culture of homophobia surrounding the two main characters. That is a lot to swallow for some members, some merely nod. But they are excited. Having a choir join the stage is always a time-consuming business. Every time I interrupt, there’s a storm of Spanish chattering. Luckily I have Marcelo, my fabulous assistant (who speaks seven languages) to call them to order.

Today we’re rehearsing the moment Ennis’ wife decides to leave him, and Jack hopes that his relationship with Ennis can truly begin. It’s a beautiful scene both visually and musically, but it’s also emotionally intense. Through it all, the singers must keep counting to keep the right tempo. I really admire the leads, Tom Randle and Daniel Okulitch, who strive to make this opera work.

I make various calls – firstly with Luk Perceval, guest director at Toneelgroep Amsterdam, about the 2015 programme; the next to resolve some issues in the dramaturgy department; and finally a press interview. Later there’s an intensive rehearsal of the two cowboys’ final goodbye.

It’s another full day of rehearsals. We decide to present the faltering love lives of Jack and Ennis on stage simultaneously during the second half. Again I reflect that whilst the opera is about homosexuality, it’s also about how society responds to someone who is different from the norm.

Ivo van Hove © Jan Versweyveld
Ivo van Hove © Jan Versweyveld

Gerard Mortier, the artistic director of Teatro Real, arrived a few days ago. He was diagnosed with cancer last summer, and he’s been very open about it with the media. He’s a great artist – and therefore often difficult to please. I invited him to attend rehearsals as soon as I knew he was in town. But he couldn’t make it today as planned. I later find out that he had to go back home for more chemotherapy treatment. It leaves me quiet. Life, and especially death, is brutal. Daniel, who plays Ennis, comes over to chat with me about the piece. He shares his concerns, both about the level of difficulty in the music, and the emotional demands of the role. ‘It’s a big thing for me,’ he says. There’s an overwhelming amount of press attention about this production: later in the day I do an interview with The New York Times.

The sixth day of rehearsal in a row is always a tough one. The love scenes between the cowboys are proceeding well. We work on their fight for a short while, then it’s time for the family and marriage scenes. The music demands a lot from the singers, but I insist that they also fully surrender to the acting. It’s like balancing on a tightrope. The composer, Charles Wuorinen, is here. It’s bad timing; he wasn’t due until Tuesday and I planned to do my corrections today. After the rehearsal, he says he likes the scene where Ennis tells his life story. But he’s concerned about the apparition of the ghost of Ennis’ father-in-law. I listen to his views, and tell him I’ll give it some thought – by which I mean, I intend to stand my ground. In the evening, the artistic team come over to my apartment for dinner. We have some intriguing discussions on the future of contemporary music and the existence of free will, which continue late into the night. Tomorrow will be my first day off in two weeks, but it will begin with a brainstorm session about The Fountainhead, which Toneelgroep Amsterdam will be performing at the Holland Festival in June.

Ivo van Hove is artistic director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam, and stage director of Brokeback Mountain, which runs at Teatro Real Madrid until 11 February.