‘We will take your mind, heart and imagination to a new place’

Neil Bartlett is a theatre maker and author – and now he’s directing opera. Nick Ahad met him in rehearsals for The Queen of Spades.

You’re clearly a workaholic, aren’t you? has to be the first question for Neil Bartlett.

“Maybe, but look at where I work,” he says, from a box in the Leeds Grand Theatre.

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“This is one of the most beautiful theatres in the country and this is where I work. It’s not hard to get out of bed for somewhere like this.”

It’s easy to agree. Bartlett does get to ply his trade in some wonderful places, but he is ridiculously modest about his many achievements.

The 53-year-old is an award-winning artist. He began his career in 1982 when he set up a theatre collective and soon began working across Europe and the world, working with Theatre de Complicite’s artistic director Simon McBurney.

In 1988 he published his first book Who Was That Man? a ground-breaking study of Oscar Wilde and served as the artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith from 1994 to 2004. Since then he has adapted plays, written several novels and won more awards than it is possible to name here.

In short, he has achieved what most would be quite pleased with, were they given several lifetimes to go about their business.

“Oh, I’m very old,” he says self-deprecatingly, managing somehow to eat lunch, conduct an interview and clearly keep one eye on what is happening on the enormous stage below on which he is directing his first opera.

Given that he has done so much in his career already, it is a bit of a surprise that he has managed to find something he hasn’t yet achieved – namely taking charge of a full scale opera.

“Well, I have done a little piece here in Leeds before but this is my first big opera production. We have been working on this for some time now, waiting for the right time for all the pieces to come together,” he says.

“People have been saying to me for 30 years ‘when are we going to see your opera?’ I’m just really pleased that Opera North have put their money where their mouth is and actually asked me to do this.”

Later, watching rehearsals unfold in front of Bartlett, the joy at taking on something new in his career is pretty obvious to see. When a group of local young boys march on stage dressed as soldiers he appears absolutely delighted, watching from behind a desk set up in the stalls of the Grand.

“Although I haven’t directed an opera before, the drive is the same as when you are directing any piece of theatre – we are trying to tell a story.

“We have a certain number of hours to rehearse this thing, then, on a set date at a set time, the curtain goes up and we better be ready to astound the people sitting out there watching,” he says.

Barltett’s theatrical bent is very clear and his eye for creating grand stage pictures is why Opera North have asked him to take charge of this production of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. Which is why it is such a surprise that this man, a theatre animal to his core, is also an accomplished, award-winning novelist.

“Whether I am directing on stage or writing a novel, my job is to articulate the imagination of the person who is watching the show, or reading the book,” he says.

“It’s the audience’s mind and imagination entirely that I am trying to provoke and entertain. The curtain goes up, or the book is opened and the promise is that we will take your mind, heart and imagination to a different place.”

A story of love, fate and obsession

Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades had its premiere in St Petersburg in 1890.

It tells the story of Herman, a man in the grip of an obsession – to learn a secret that will grant him eternal wealth and the woman he loves.

When fate deals against him, he gambles with both love and life – and comes off worse in the gamble.

Sung in English, this is the world premiere of Opera North’s production.

Leeds Grand Theatre, Oct 20, 22, 25, 28. Tickets 0844 848 2705.

The season also restages productions of Ruddigore and Madama Butterfly.