A Journey into "Bieitoland"

By: Tanya Palmer
Source: OnStage Magazine

Over the past 15 years, Spanish director Calixto Bieito has earned a reputation as a “bad boy” of European theater, simultaneously admired and reviled for his radical revisionist productions of classic operas and dramatic texts. His harshest critics have condemned his work as “sickening,” “puerile” and “tasteless,” while his advocates describe him as a “director of vision and courage, an Almodóvar of the opera stage.” His most famous (or infamous) productions include a version of Verdi’s A Masked Ball at the English National Opera (in a co-production with the Liceu in Barcelona and the Royal Danish Opera) which relocated the mise-en-scene from eighteenth century Sweden to 1970s Spain and began with a controversial image of a vast public urinal; a staging of Macbeth (first produced in German for the Salzburg Festival and then restaged in Catalan at Teatre Romea) in which the characters were cast as mafia dons and molls, monarchs of what one reviewer called a “hedonistic, drug and drink-fuelled culture with no bounds” on a set of garish white leather sofas, cluttered drink trolleys and porcelain tigers growling ominously at passersby; and a production of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s Golden Age classic Life is a Dream, which Bieito staged on a gray sandy set dominated by a giant suspended mirror which functioned as a “metaphorical tool, providing both a dazzling image of an elusive world that can never be entirely controlled and a commentary on a play that continuously questions what we mean by ‘reality’ and ‘fiction.’”

Fluent in five languages, Bieito has juggled a career in his native Spain—where he was the artistic director of Barcelona’s Teatre Romea from 1999 to 2011—with an international career directing primarily opera around the globe. His work has taken him to Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, France, Italy, Switzerland, South America and Mexico, but his upcoming collaboration with the Goodman will mark only the second time his work will have been seen in the United States, and his first collaboration with American actors and designers on the work of an American playwright.

While some critics accuse Bieito of desecrating classic texts with needlessly shocking images of violence and sexuality, his work is the result of a conscious approach to create a visceral connection between contemporary audiences and classic works. Theater scholar Maria Delgado suggests that Bieito’s work consistently asks radical questions about how and what texts mean to different generations. In a profile of Bieito in Fifty Key Theatre Directors, a book that explores the work of directors from around the world who “have shaped and pushed back the boundaries of theater and performance,” Delgado writes, “With the classics especially, he has demonstrated the ability to reinvent texts, stripping them of the legacy of past productions and reimagining them for contemporary audiences.” This method of “reinventing texts” often involves working closely with a translator and/or adaptor to cut and rearrange canonical works—deleting characters and interpolating contemporary musical or cinematic references into the performance texts, such as a 2004 production of King Lear which contained depictions of violence that were a direct homage to the final sequences of Kill Bill and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. For Bieito, this process of connecting the dramatic text or opera to the contemporary moment—and locating himself and his collaborators within the work—all begins with an effort to interpret what the writer was trying to communicate. Rather than simply laying on a concept, Bieito’s goal is to create a visual and auditory universe that releases the text from the confines of history—thus unlocking its meaning and connecting it more directly to the present moment. In a recent conversation with the Goodman’s Associate Dramaturg, Neena Arndt, Bieito explained his process this way:

I have a way of approaching the text, I have to prepare…reading a lot about the context, the period, about the writer. In this case, with Tennessee Williams, there are his Memoirs. After that, you think—what was the writer trying to do? And what does it mean for the audience, today, or what doesit mean to me today? And what can I express of myself with this?

Bieito first came to prominence internationally in 1997, when his production of Tómas Bretón’s 1894 zarzuela (or popular operetta) La verbena de la paloma (The Festival of the Dove) was performed at the Edinburgh International Festival. Setting the piece in an urban wasteland, Bieito’s production undermined the “celebratory tone” in which the piece was generally read, presenting it instead through the “prism of an overt social criticism of bourgeois complacency and corruption.” The production marked Bieito as an important and original young voice, but by that time he was already well known in his native Spain, where he’d built a reputation tackling a wide variety of texts—everything from Shakespeare to Sondheim.

Born in 1963 in a small Spanish town called Miranda de Ebro, Bieito moved to Barcelona at the age of 14. He came of age in the final days of the Franco regime and was educated by Jesuits. Bieito grew up in a musical household—his mother was an amateur singer and his brother teaches in the Barcelona Conservatoire—and went on to study art history at the University of Barcelona. As a young man he traveled around Europe, studying and working alongside some of the continent’s most visionary directors, including Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Giorgio Strehler and Ingmar Bergman. He made his professional debut in the mid-1980s at Barcelona’s Adrià Gual theater with a production of Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance. His directorial approach—marked by rigorous textual readings of complex dramatic works that evolved on sparse stage environments where décor is reduced to its bare essentials—was in many ways at odds with the Spanish, and in particular Catalan, theater scene at the time, which was defined in large part by the acrobatic ingenuity of non-text based performance companies like Els Joglars, Comediants and La Fura dels Baus.

From the beginning of his career, Bieito has sought to balance his identity as a Catalan director with his interest in working across linguistic and cultural boundaries. “Bieito is one of the few Catalan-based directors who has consciously sought to work both in Catalan and Castilian,” explains Maria Delgado in her article “Calixto Bieito: A Catalan Director on the International Stage.” “He has resisted the monolingual register favored first by Franco—who promoted Castilian at the expense of the other languages of the Spanish state—and later by Jordi Pujol, president of the Catalan Parliament between 1980 and 2003, who sought to remedy the balance by prioritizing Catalan as the official language of Catalonia.”

As the artistic director of Teatre Romea, which began its long history as a home for Catalan-language drama, Bieito sought to expand the theater’s mission to include presentations of contemporary European plays and reimagined classics alongside contemporary and classical Catalan plays. But while he has sought to break down linguistic and cultural barriers in his work, he continues to identify strongly with his heritage:

My references come from my Catalan, Hispanic and Mediterranean culture. From the Spanish Golden Age, Valle-Inclán, Buñuel, Goya…. The black humor that shapes my work is part of this cultural heritage. Spain is not only about flamenco and bullfighting. It’s part of my imagination. It’s an approach to everything I direct.

Goodman Theatre Artistic Director Robert Falls knew Bieito by reputation, but his first encounter with Bieito’s work came in 2004 with his staging of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio for Berlin’s Komische Oper. In what would become a notorious production, Bieito dispensed with the traditionally “light” opera’s Turkish setting, locating it instead in a modern day European brothel modeled after one that sits near Berlin’s Olympic stadium. The cast, including a contingent of sex workers, displayed their wares in a series of transparent boxes. As one critic put it, “there [was] enough onstage sex and nudity to make the golden calf orgy in the Met’s production of Moses and Aaron seem like a Sunday school play.” For Falls, the production engendered in him an emotional response that convinced him to seek out more of Bieito’s work:

I find it hard to be shocked in the theater. And this production shocked me. Coming in I didn’t know much about The Abduction from the Seraglio; but I was so taken by it and disturbed by it—and to me that is a good thing, because I don’t often feel that way in confronting art. Generally when I see a painting or listen to music or watch a play I may like it, I may think it was good, but in terms of being viscerally stimulated or disturbed, I don’t feel that way very often. I had a profound reaction to that Mozart opera. It sent me back to listen to the music and study the libretto, at which point I realized that the story is very much about rape and the subjugation of women. Calixto put those images of subjugation and domination on the surface in a way I felt was brave and profound. I felt that he was unabashedly and fearlessly trying to reveal something deep in the subtext of the work, and that inspired me in my own work. At the time I was preparing my production of King Lear, and I was seeking courage. He provided me the inspiration to go further in examining what the play was really about, and to not be afraid of presenting the horrors of the world to an audience.

Falls initially approached Bieito about directing a Eugene O’Neill play as part of the Goodman’s 2009 festival, A Global Exploration: Eugene O’Neill in the Twenty-First Century. But ultimately their conversation turned to another major American playwright: Tennessee Williams. Bieito was familiar with the more widely known Williams plays like A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, but it was Falls who introduced him to Camino Real. With its inclusion of the iconic Spanish literary figure Don Quixote, its Latin American setting, and its surreal, dreamlike musicality, Falls felt that Bieito might respond to it—and he was right. Falls was excited to see what this distinctly European director would uncover in the work of an iconic American playwright. "We think of Tennessee Williams as a realist. I think Williams was trampled down by the general conformity of the 1950s and the rise of the method actor, some of whom brought everything down to a non-poetic, mumbly, grumbly realism. And Williams was a real poet. I thought that Calixto could illuminate this play in a way that some American directors might not be able to, that he’d identify it as a poem, rather than a play by an American southern playwright."

Williams saw this play as an attempt to challenge himself, his audience—and the theater as a form, writing in the play’s foreword that his intention was “to give audiences…the continually dissolving and transforming images of a dream.” He writes, “We all have in our conscious and unconscious minds a great vocabulary of images, and I think all human communication is based on these images as are our dreams; and a symbol in a play has only one legitimate purpose which is to say a thing more directly and simply and beautifully than it could be said in words.” This wild dreamscape—this reliance on a striking image to reveal what a torrent of words cannot—makes Williams’ play a remarkable match for Calixto Bieito’s approach, in which a text and the theatrical space are stripped to their bare essentials, as Delgado explains, “allowing the construction of a multi-dimensional world where the real and the poetic can exist cheek by jowl.” When asked what he sees as the role of the director in approaching a play, Bieito explains his task this way:

To understand the play. In your way. To be honest with yourself, and be brave. And to express yourself with the piece. To others…and sometimes you don’t know exactly what you want to do; you have an intuition, you have to follow this. Sometimes I am sleeping and I have a dream…and suddenly in the dream I have images that come into my mind and I use them the next day in the process…I try to feel free, to feel open, to feel naked. You have to give answers, but you have to keep the mysteries, the hidden things of the play, keep them hidden as well.