In our fall production of Fidelio
, acclaimed director Matthew Ozawa transports the action to a modern-day prison facility, reminding viewers that Beethoven’s warnings about power, corruption, and tyranny remain as relevant today as they were 200 years ago.
Read on to discover what Matthew had to tell us about the opera’s personal significance to him, what informed his vision for a contemporary staging, and the power behind Beethoven’s incredible score.
COC: Can you tell us a bit about the personal resonances that Fidelio has for you?Ozawa:
I’d originally envisioned this production before the pandemic, so it’s interesting coming back to it in 2023, because of course the world has changed! But my main connection to the piece—the reason I’m always so passionate about it—is still the message that, though there may always be injustice in the world, we as individuals have the power to shine a light on that injustice and can collectively defeat tyranny.
I’m fourth-generation Japanese-American: my father was born in an internment camp during World War II. My family were American citizens, but they were seen as enemy aliens, rounded up and sent to these camps. The bureaucracies that set up systems to imprison people unjustly are often part of a larger cycle. Fidelio
demonstrates in a very poignant way how societies should be held accountable for these injustices.
COC: This production examines tyranny, corruption, freedom, and women’s sacrifice through a contemporary lens. Are there any particular places or people that you had in mind as it came together?
As we were initially conceiving our concept, the news was full of images of migrants in what we could call cages —fenced cells and warehouses—along the Mexican border. These became the initial images in a vast amount of research into how people are held in detention facilities around the world. We looked at Guantanamo Bay, at CIA black op sites in Afghanistan, at Uigher internment camps in China. In the States, there were migrant children being held in former Japanese internment camps. I was so struck by that: the cyclical history, and the fact that these buildings still exist.
, I would not have described myself as a political director. But I love creating spaces for audiences to have their perspectives awakened, to have to grapple with what they think they know. The thing that’s striking to me about Fidelio
isn’t only why Beethoven wrote it, but how it’s been used throughout the centuries. It’s always been used to very pointedly highlight tyranny and injustice: whether as a protest against Napoleon in 1814, against the Nazis in 1941, or in 1954 after the death of Stalin in Soviet Russia. So placing it in a contemporary setting wasn’t off the mark at all.
The hero is a woman—this is not to be overlooked. She is a vision for the modern age. A woman whose personal sacrifice to free her husband from wrongful incarceration ends up liberating all the prisoners of the state detention facility. She’s like Lady Liberty in New York near Ellis Island: a symbol of enlightenment and a path to freedom. That became the way I see Leonore, who becomes a sort of liberty goddess shining light on the prison facility. Just like Beethoven’s decidedly revolutionary and humanistic ideals, Leonore’s actions are revolutionary.
COC: The physical prison facility is a striking visual centrepiece in this staging. How does it reflect Fidelio’s central message?
There are two points to mention, the first being the hierarchy of a bureaucracy—who has power and who doesn’t. What we were interested in doing with the cube was highlighting those layers. The beginning of the opera is lighthearted: you meet Marzelline, Jaquino and Rocco in this world where everyone is shuffling papers. The people in the office are focused on domestic concerns like marriage; the walls are mirrored, so they’re only ever watching themselves. But when we get to Pizarro’s tyrannical aria, the entire cube starts to rotate. As it turns, it creates new perspectives—and the audience doesn’t know what’s going to be revealed next. None of the singers enter or exit the cube visibly: everyone exists in the cube within the machinery of the facility.
The second component is the nature of surveillance. There’s a video screen in every cell: this was inspired by a photo we saw of a child in one of those U.S. border detention facility cages, watching a TV screen showing news coverage of what was happening outside. It’s very Big Brother, that these prisoners know they’re always being watched. Florestan describes the lack of light, so we came up with a room filled with an onslaught of videos that also shuts off and leaves him in the dark—a form of sensory overload and deprivation. What was really twisted is, as we were rehearsing in San Francisco, we heard that the Russian activist Alexei Navalny was being held in a cell in Russia, subjected to a form of sensory torture just like what we were doing.
COC: You’ve said that you come to opera first and foremost as a musician; that you always start with the score. What’s remarkable about the music Beethoven composed for Fidelio?
One of the musical hallmarks I really gravitate toward with this piece is its duality. Beethoven expresses light and darkness through duality, sometimes simply moving from a major to a minor key, but a lot is in the orchestration. Act I has the triumphal overture, the lighter scene with Marzelline and Jacquino—and then when you meet Pizarro, you get a totally new orchestral colour and militaristic sonority as Beethoven paints a new picture of this hierarchy of power. By the time you get to Act II, all bets are off. Beethoven takes you on these dark musical pathways where you don’t know where you’re going, where the nature of descending to this subterranean space is reflected through the woodwinds and other orchestral colours. Also incredibly notable are the huge chorus numbers: the Act II finale, which is exhilarating and euphoric, and the chorus in Act I, with its beautifully ephemeral start as the prisoners emerge from their cells.
COC: What do you hope audiences will take away with them after seeing Fidelio this fall?
I would say the biggest takeaway is that someone comes away from Fidelio
reminded that they have the power, as an individual, to create and ignite change. Of course, there are so many other things that I’d love for them to feel, as well—but that’s the big one. That facing any sort of injustice or situation in which they feel otherwise powerless, they realise they, like Leonore, can find the same power to bring about change.
Fidelio opens at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on Friday, September 29.Buy your tickets now!