Stage Director Thomas Guthrie Takes Unique Approach to Greek Mythology With Masks and Puppets

Thomas Guthrie

Like so many artists, award-winning British stage director Thomas Guthrie has completely embraced his craft. He recently visited the town where he sang as a boy and as an undergraduate, and realized how much these experiences shaped him.

“My life is my art and my art is my life, just as storytelling is central to who we are as people and communities,” Thomas says. “Perhaps that shouldn’t have been any kind of surprise. The mix of music and text, ritual and personal/soulful investment, discipline and adventure: These things are very present in my work now.”

L’Orfeo and Greek masks

In July, Thomas joins forces with I Fagiolini, Robert Hollingworth, and designer Ruth Paton in a groundbreaking production of one of the first and greatest operas: Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Building on their previous theatrical work, including their critically acclaimed concert stagings together of L’Orfeo during the Monteverdi 450th anniversary year, this production uses ancient Greek techniques of masks and puppets to tell the story of Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld. 

The group had actually worked together on this project during the 2017-2018 season in Princeton, and the production was a big hit. They wanted to stage the production back in Europe, which is what they will do on July 5 at York’s Early Music Festival (where he is guest artistic director) and July 7 at LSO St. Luke’s.

“We found the mix of accessibility, stagecraft development, and groundbreaking excitement of the singer-operated puppets was something that should be experienced over here!” Thomas says.

In ancient Greek theater, the chorus used masks to represent the people themselves, reacting and commenting on the action, as well as sometimes being directly involved. The masks in this way reflect archetypal characters, on which each individual in the audience can project their own story and their own face.

“Masks and puppets have, since the earliest days of theatre, been tools that inspire the imagination,” Thomas says. “So they are powerful tools to explore the ancient story of Orpheus, which like all myths, deals with archetypes and experiences common to everyone: grief, loss, hope, love, recovery.”

This performance also re-establishes the idea of singers directly operating the puppets, which usually doesn’t happen these days, let alone using puppets in opera. This can lead to a direct sense of communication and opening the ears to the music.

“We’re very excited about this aspect,” Thomas says.

Also, Thomas is using this opportunity to use the production as an outreach program, as he is the founder and artistic director of charity Music and Theatre for All, pursuing relatable aspects of puppetry and applying it to early opera and myth. The idea is to make those for which a standard classical music performance that is unusual and uncomfortable to feel completely at ease.

Other projects

Right now, Thomas is in the middle of a tour of Handel’s Semele with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra throughout Europe.

“It’s unusual for a director to tour with a production but every venue is so different that the staging has to develop quite radically from place to place,” Thomas says.

During the summer, he will be working on a project he is involved in as a performer called Alehouse Sessions, this time through Austria, Denmark, and Norway. He also will be working on the revival of The Marriage of Figaro with Sir John Eliot Gardiner at the Royal Opera House.

His most cherished accomplishment is “the ongoing exploration of who I am as an artist and how that serves the world I am existing in.” His wife and two sons are at the center of everything he does, and he is honored to provide for them while doing something he loves and contributes to the world.

Improving Audience Experience

It is the job of presenters of any kind of music, especially one where storytelling is central, to take responsibility providing clarity and a sense of putting ordinary people first, who can all too easily be lost and become not interested. This is not only in terms of it being possible for everyone to access and attend classical music performances, without barriers of economy, architecture, or a sense of welcome, but also in terms of the actual presentation of the music.

“It is vital that — in a relaxed way — we continue to be clear, and constantly renew our efforts to ensure, that there is a standard for accessibility,” Thomas says.

While constantly evolving technologies and ideas are worth exploring for productions, artists should never forget about the live experience.

“The basic interaction between humans on ‘stage’ and an audience in the ‘auditorium’, is fundamentally about just that: human interaction and communication,” he says. “We should treasure and value this. You can’t get it anywhere else.”

Learn more about Thomas Guthrie on his website.