Director Karolina Sofulak and designer George Johnson-Leigh come to OHP this summer as joint winners of the European Opera Directing Prize. They began working on their winning concept while at Opera North in 2017, and this summer their vision will finally be realised on the OHP stage.

Born in Poland, Sofulak first visited OHP in person last summer, where she saw Mascagni’s Isabeau. ‘I’m a complete anglophile – always have been – so it’s no wonder that I’m crazy about British summer opera festivals… OHP seems to me like a London version of this fantastic idea of combining summer, nature and opera – some of my favourite things.’

As a child, Sofulak wanted to be a conductor, but ‘with time this morphed into the dream of being an opera director’. It was hearing The Pearl Fishers’ Duet when she was five years old that inspired her. From there she followed her dream to Poland’s finest drama school: ‘But you don’t learn directing at school; you learn from the masters, as an apprentice or assistant. I’ve been very fortunate to work alongside some truly fantastic mentors.’

Over the last few years she has climbed through the ranks to become a director in her own right, able to bring her own style to the stage. ‘I always start from the music – I listen to the mood of the piece, what emotions it stirs; what worlds it conjures up. Then I research the story itself, what inspired it and how people initially received it… I’d say that my style is narrative yet dreamy; very few operas thrive in a naturalistic setting. Opera requires flights of fancy as it’s a stylised and heightened art form.’ 

One of Sofulak’s biggest challenges as a director is to bring new ideas to well-known repertoire, such as Manon Lescaut. ‘For me the question is always: why does that particular story still want to be told? Why do we need it? What makes it archetypal? How does it apply to our life today? It’s both a joy and a challenge to unearth this layer of meaning beneath an opera’s staging history, to scrape off the local colour and received assumptions, and to look at the raw story underneath.’

As a director she appreciates Puccini’s understanding of stagecraft, and dramaturgically sound operas with varied and exciting themes. ‘I value him personally for his fervent attempts to capture femininity. Many people say his operas are dreadfully misogynistic, but I disagree. In his case, presenting strong women oppressed by patriarchy on stage might have been a way to exorcise his own sense of injustice at how the world is constructed. Times have changed and now we wouldn’t tell those stories from such a perspective, but we must remember within what social structure Puccini was operating in his day… there is a tremendous radical potential in his works.’

In her own interpretation of Manon Lescaut, Sofulak hopes that the audience will admire the title character’s perseverance and empathise with her vulnerability. ‘The production itself furnishes a setting in which we can focus on this meditation on female empowerment and the dangers of commodification.’

As well as the challenges of presenting the work, there are also the spatial challenges of the OHP stage – wide and shallow, unlike in more traditional indoor theatres. ‘I like that in such a set up the design does not have to compete with a gilded or ornamented proscenium.’ She also enjoys working outdoors, and of everything to come at OHP this summer, that is what she’s most excited about. ‘It makes for a truly invigorating change: fresh air, sweet scent from the gardens and the exciting festival atmosphere.’