Cultural Insights With…… Jack Furness

Jack Furness has been working in and around Opera for many years.  Here, he shares his thoughts on his own place in the operatic world, and whats on the horizon for this ever-evolving industry.



Could you describe your job?

Jack FurnessI’m a stage director, mainly for operas.  On a day to day basis, I work with conductors, designers, movement directors, cast members and crew to formulate what experience people are going to have when they see the show.  So I’ll work with the designers on what set we have on stage, what the costumes and lights look like; I’ll work with the cast on the characterisation of their roles.  I’ll work with the crew as they solve a technical challenge.  It’s hugely varied and the challenge is in bringing everything together into a coherent whole, preferably in time for opening night.


What drew you to opera, to begin with?

My parents used to take my siblings and me to Welsh National Opera when I was a teenager, and I grew up in a very musical family, so the world of opera was never far away.  I think I really started getting wondering whether I could direct operas when I watched DVDs of old Glyndebourne productions to prepare for my Cambridge interview.  When I got to Cambridge I watched my brother Sam perform in some operas and I thought, “maybe I could be the person behind the scenes on these things!” Sam has always inspired me in the way he loves opera and singing.  Watching him perform keeps me connected to how much I love the art form.


What’s the biggest misconception about the world of opera?

People talk about audiences a lot, about access, exposure.  I wonder, however, whether the biggest misconception isn’t actually that people think of opera as somehow old or conservative artistically.  That isn’t true – opera has always been crazily experimental, madcap even. It’s always assimilated new art forms and found novel combinations.  There is some amazing new opera being written today, stuff that feels engaged with the world, that feels important.  There are loads of smaller opera companies taking opera into unexpected places, re-contextualising what an opera can be.  People are experimenting with digital technologies, both sonically and visually. People are putting operas on film.  If opera is what happens when you mash different art forms together, of course, it’s experimental, and it can always stay fresh.


What are the most challenging parts of putting an opera production in place?

For me, there are two really important relationships – with the conductor and the designer(s).  If you have a really strong director-conductor-designer trio in those roles you can accomplish anything! I love that with my company, Shadwell Opera, we’re able to build those relationships properly. There isn’t always time in the big opera houses.  There needs to be an amazing support mechanism to realise a designer’s ideas.  Production Managers, who translate the designs into practical reality on the stage have a hugely important role to play.  There are all kinds of behind-the-scenes roles who are absolutely crucial.  Nothing would ever happen without Stage Management.  Of course, to put on an opera you have to have a great cast.  If you cut corners on the casting you can be sure the audience will know about it.


Could you tell our readers what they should look for when considering attending an opera event for the first time?

People’s tastes are so different, and people look for such different kind of experiences.  If you want to hear the best singers in the world performing night after night on stage with an absolutely magnificent chorus, then go to the Royal Opera House. They have a good range of ticket prices right down to the cost of a few pints.  If you live in the North then Opera North tour around the country and make fantastic, fierce work.  In London, there’s a huge range of things.  My preference would be to seek out something contemporary and exciting, a real new experience, somewhere you wouldn’t expect to see an opera.  English National Opera has a scheme for younger people to watch operas for cheap, which is really excellent.


What do you think the future of opera looks like?

I hope it looks more diverse.  Things are changing for the better, new voices are coming through.  The industry needs to fully embrace its direction of travel.  We need more opportunities for young composers to get their work performed.  We need to find ways of inviting people from different backgrounds into the opera house, both as performers and as audience members.  There’s so much work to be done.  But there are also a lot of people trying to do that work.  I hope the future is mad and confusing and chaotic, and desperately, heart-stoppingly emotional.

My hope is that the small-scale strategies of so many new companies over the last ten years are going to pay off in a wave of new operas being commissioned that teach us more about who we can be.  Opera has enormous potential to roll with the times, to keep developing.  Anything could happen!


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Twitter handle: @jefurness

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