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Julia Burbach: ‘Storytelling always felt like home’

Opera director Julia Burbach takes time out of her tight rehearsal schedule for Grimeborn Festival’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung to give Florence Lockheart an insight into her career and creative process

Tokyo-born German operates director Julia Burbach is a force to be reckoned with. Internationally raised and now based in London, Burbach worked her way up the ranks as a director, revival director, movement director and assistant director in opera, theater and film and was recently nominated for Best Newcomer at the 2019 International Opera Awards.

With just four weeks to rehearse Grimeborn Festival‘s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung I’m lucky to catch her on her lunch break to find out more about her career and experiences, as well as how she’s tackling the completion of the Ring Cycle at London’s Arcola Theater.

This completion of the ring cycle has been a long time coming, with the initial production of Das Rheingold having taken place at the Arcola Theater in 2019. How do you feel about finishing off this three-year-long project?

When we’ve achieved it, I’ll be happy and relieved. It’s a huge undertaking and it’s been sort of a mammoth task, there’s been so many people involved and it’s really quite extraordinary.

I’m proud of all of us. Everybody is so on board with wanting to be here and wanting to give their all and that’s really wonderful. People are getting the chance to sing these roles, which they might otherwise not be singing and people might hear this opera that otherwise it’s not readily available, so that’s really exciting. That’s why we’re doing it. It’s politically, culturally, socially important for many reasons.

We’re rehearsing Siegfried and Götterdämmerung at the moment and it’s insane because those pieces, even in reduction, are just short of five hours. I could rehear them for four months, but I am rehearsing them for four weeks. I have a very tight schedule that’s all marked out for four weeks and there is no way I can deviate from the plan. Even if there’s a scene where I’d really like to spend another two days on it I will not because I cannot. Being a director is a strange thing because you need to be very creative, but you also need to be very realistic and managerial and then marry it all together.

Why did you want to become a director?

Storytelling always felt like home for me because, when I was a child, we always traveled a lot so I found a sense of familiarity in the world of a story. I initially had the idea for directing as a teenager, and I guess it came out of loving performance. A lot of my interests were in film, theatre, dance, art, music, and I just thought storytelling was exciting.

I went to performing arts school and was a pretty good dancer. Then I went to university doing very academic things and that’s when I started doing my first dance pieces and my first plays. I did a stint at the Royal Shakespeare and I wrote a thousand applications. Then I did a postgraduate degree but I was always doing directing on the side.

I worked in film, but the doors in film didn’t really open for me in the same way. My mum, in a moment of frustration with film, said, “why don’t you apply to operate? They direct too.” It hadn’t even occurred to me.

I first did what is called observer-ships, which is like being an unpaid intern or an unpaid assistant. I think I did that five times and then slowly I got in. I was an observer on a very big show with a famous German director called ChristofLoy in Munich and he had two gigs in London at the Royal Opera House and that’s how I got into Covent Garden. I then became a regular assistant and I sort of climbed up through the ranks: second director, first, revival director, staff director. I learned an awful lot there. It’s amazing, the difference that those couple of years made.

Parallel to all of that I always did my own shows and that has now come to be really important. I always did the two parallel to each other, so that now I can leave one of them behind and feel like that’s been invaluable in my growth and move on to do my own work. I started very small with straight theater in every little tiny pub theater in London and moved slowly, slowly up the ladder.

The Arcola has been very good to me. I’ve been here for many, many years and they gave me chances when other people didn’t, when I was starting out as an opera director. It’s been really important for my career. Even when we had little money, we had big ideas and we had good people.

Do you recommend your less conventional career path to aspiring directors?

There is no right path. I think there are a couple of basic human skills that you should have to direct well, but those are not really taught. Being a director is a deeply personal thing, I feel very close to my instinct, my emotions, my experiences when I create work. So it’s really important that directors come from different paths and different avenues.

It’s scary wanting to be an artist, and at 18 or 19 I wasn’t ready to do it full-blown, so it was good to do the academic path. I was directing alongside my degree in a safe environment where I could explore if I was good at this at all. I think the first thing I directed was Romeo and Juliet, and my Juliet was doing biomedical sciences.

It was a good route for me, but other people have other routes and I think that’s really good. It’s organic, I’d say, if you have a strong drive to direct – and you can only know that within yourself – don’t worry about what’s right and wrong because everybody has their own path.

How have you seen those elements of what makes up a good director manifest themselves?

It’s like back when you were at school, the teacher comes into the classroom and the class knows in two seconds whether this is a person they will respect or not. It’s the same with a director.

The director can control the climate in the room for good and for bad. I’ve been in many rooms where it has been bad and I’ve been in rooms where it’s been good. I direct very much the way that it comes organically out of my personality and I’m not a tyrant, I’m not somebody who screams and shouts at everybody and I’m not a natural bully. I’m very precise and fast and of course I have expectations of everybody around me, especially my team, but I’m not somebody who thrives on ego and pain. I thrive on teamwork and nurturing and supporting each other, and then you create something together.

You manage people artistically, you manage them structurally, but you also manage them in terms of pastoral care. That’s really important and that you have to do with really small things. You wouldn’t let somebody be in a position where they’re not ready to do the job that you ask them to do. You have to be aware of their skills so that you don’t give someone a task where they can’t shine or where they can’t achieve it.

Timing is important. It’s important not to get things before you’re ready for them. It’s nothing to do with age, really it has to do with experience.

How does your approach to reviving productions differ from your other direction engagements?

A revival director is somebody who stages somebody else’s work in their absence, and I’ve done these many times. It is a completely different approach to the work than when I would do my own show because you’re working alongside a brief that might, in some cases, be really well put together, and in some cases it’s not. You might have to connect the dots and create the things that are missing.

Even when we had little money, we had big ideas and we had good people.

Of course it takes all the skills of a director that you would use in your own work. Every show is different. Every person is different. Every performer is different. Every scenario is different. Conditions are different, so you’re always adjusting and adapting. I think that’s a very important thing to be able to do: you have a plan and then you learn to change your plan.

Sometimes you have to support things that maybe are not necessarily your own opinion, but you have to find a way to sell them, or find solutions for them.

What advice to you have for aspiring opera directors, particularly female opera directors?

It’s really important to have good instincts and trust them. There are good artists and good colleagues, and those are the ones you should surround yourself with and will help you in your work.

Of course, there has been a gender imbalance. I’ve never assisted a woman, and I’ve assisted countless men. There have not been as many female directors as male directors and that should not be so.

I have a lot of female assistants, I don’t necessarily choose them because they’re girls, but I think they come to a woman because they feel safe, and I take them in and we have a good time working together. I also have male assistants – it’s not like I have weird rules about this at all – but it’s sort of like a natural progression of things. Girls are usually very good at this job. They’re good at multitasking. They’re good at emotions, being nurturing. Girls make great directors, there’s no question, there’s no two ways about it.

Equally, I think it’s important that we focus on talent first and foremost. It’s also about who you are as a human being, who you are as an artist, it’s very individual. It’s not easy. It’s not linear, but nobody should be discouraged. I wanted to give up many many times and I didn’t because people were supportive.

If it makes you nervous, if it makes you unhappy don’t do it. It needs to be your place of refuge and calm. Only in a safe place can you make good art and that’s what it should be, not the place where you get stressed and fearful. Directing is where we are safe. That’s the big doll house. It’s the outside world that’s scary.

Grimeborn Festival‘s The Ring Cycle: Siegfried & Götterdämmerung will be performed by arrangement with Birmingham Opera Company under the direction of Julia Burbach on 6 and 7 August 2022.

Tickets for the performances can be found here.

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