The chance to return to direct Opera North’s All Is Calm, again
A Conversation with Nora Winsler
In her Director’s Note for the Opera North production of All Is Calm, Peter Rothstein’s poignant a capella telling of the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, Nora Winsler quotes the famous poem, “In Flanders Fields.”
Written by Canadian physician Major John McCrae after tending to soldiers from the battlefield of Ypres (he died of pneumonia during the war, at age 45), the poem says, “We are the dead. Short days ago, we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow. Loved and were loved…”
Just outside of Arras (near the French-Belgian borderlands of Flanders), deep underground tunnels, built by British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealander engineers to bivouac their troops as they prepared to confront the German line, are now a museum. The tunnels are filled not only with reminders of the real men who carved their initials in the limestone and left cans, bottles and pieces of equipment, but are animated by a lightshow of photographs of the soldiers in those spaces, and their voices.
Those are the men Nora seeks to present, animated, as the production does, by the voices of real soldiers on both sides – as they enlisted, headed off to war, experienced life in the trenches, or officiated from offices far away from the actualities of World War I.
“Louis [Burkot] laughed when I told him, the first time I directed All Is Calm in 2019, that I was probably the most unlikely person to direct a war story,” she said recently. “I tend to be more anti-war, if anything and am better known for directing lighter pieces, like Pirates of Penzance.” As a Resident Artist in 2019 she was assistant director for that Opera North production.
“My goal is to show the humanity,” she explained. “Their daily life of these men on the front. Because so many more hours were spent passing the time than in actual combat. In my research for the show, I saw photographs of men wrapped in blankets, cuddled up together to stay warm. The Germans dressing up their dogs as soldiers, little helmets and all. Writing letters home to their families and giving each other haircuts. In my production, I intentionally exclude the use of prop guns, no glorification of war, just these ordinary guys, many of whom were so young. Those are the moments I want to highlight in the production.”
Nora created the idea for how the 2019 production was staged and is bringing much of the same blocking from Briggs Opera House to the Lebanon Opera House (LOH), with some tweaks and additions.
“When I first got my hands on this piece in 2019, I was worried I had to be entirely historically accurate,” she said. “The show uses the actual names and regiments of the men who wrote the letters [that are the script]. I thought we needed to get the archival record of uniforms and insignia, for example, in order to show a realistic portrayal of WWI. But that isn't actually what the show is about. I realized that getting the emotional world right - portraying the complexities of what it might have felt like for these soldiers to find peace in the middle of a terrible war, was much more important than historical accuracy.”
One of the adjustments that’s coming out of moving to the larger LOH stage and space is to bring out the subtlety of the disconnect between the soldiers in the trenches and their commanders in the War Office in London.
“There was such a disconnect between the authorities and the humans in the trenches. Because the communications were not good, very often the commanders had no idea what was really happening on the front. So, in this production, you won’t see the commanders. You’ll only hear their voices, coming from a place, high off stage, the idea being that this mirrors how it may have felt for the men on the front,” she explained.
“It was such a nihilistic moment for the troops,” she continued. “They all enlisted and went off to war in September. They were promised they’d be home for Christmas. And here they are on Christmas Eve, still in the mud and the cold of the trenches, facing rats and the suicidal space of No Man’s Land, wondering what it all actually was about and why they were doing it.”
That’s the pivotal moment when the Christmas Truce “breaks out.”
Nora will have a week of rehearsal to make All Is Calm 2021 happen. Fortunately, she has everything blocked out in an iPad system that lets her share the lighting design and other elements with the rest of the creative team. She’s excited that this year’s lighting director, Mary Shabatura, was the associate lighting designer on the off-Broadway run of the original production of All is Calm. The two met this September working together on a production of La Boheme at Virginia Opera and are very excited to work together again on a piece they both love.
She is also delighted that eight of the original ten cast members of ON’s AIC are returning -- and that one of the ‘replacements’ is Sam Mathis with whom she worked as the assistant stage manager for La Boheme this past summer. “They are all so happy to be coming back, which is very affirming to me and to Opera North.”
Still, she’s hoping it’s been long enough that they don’t all remember the exact blocking from 2019 because she wants to add a few elements this time.
“This is my first ‘remount’ of a production,” she said. “I’m looking forward to have the chance to make a second pass and work out some of the kinks. Directors don’t often get a chance to do that. It’s usually, ‘well, that part didn’t really work, but we’re on to the next show.’”
Nora is also watching to see how the audience reacts to the same show after experiencing the pandemic. “I anticipate that certain moments will have a whole new meaning. The trenches held the sense of an omnipresent threat that filled the soldiers’ hearts and minds with anxieties. COVID-19 is like that, too.”
Returning to Opera North for her fourth directorial effort (plus having assistant stage-managed Macbeth and La Boheme) Nora obviously fits the description Louis Burkot gave last summer when he introduced her at the start of her Extraordinary Women: “a true creative spirit with great ideas and the discipline and research skills to back up her ideas.”
Nora quoted a rule of thumb in the theater business: You have your choice of fast, cheap and good. You can have two, but not all three.
“Opera North knows I can get things done,” she laughed. “I aim to succeed at all three.”