In September 2019, our Director of Opera James Clutton launched the podcast series From the Producer’s Office. In this candid exploration of the working of an opera company, the series tracks James in conversation with creatives and collaborators across the industry, exploring the process of putting opera on stage, and how the artists involved approach their craft. In this interview, we speak to James about what inspired him to begin the podcast, and how he sees it developing in the future.
Would you describe yourself as a radio person by nature?
Yes, I always have been. I love listening to the radio. We have BBC Radio 3 on in the production office all day, listening to presenters that have become friends over the years – Donald Macleod, Petroc Trelawny and Suzy Klein. That station is a national treasure, worth the price of the licence fee on its own. I also listen to Simon Mayo on Scala Radio, and I like and admire what he is trying to do there.
How long have you been listening to podcasts?
For a long time now. Since they first started coming out, maybe ten years ago. I think the idea of having more detailed, focused conversations for people to listen to is fantastic, and a welcome contrast when so much of our media is quick and full of sound bites.
Which podcasts do you enjoy personally?
The West Wing Weekly – I love The West Wing. I’m a genuine addict, and this has been a detailed commentary on each episode over the seven series. I am the EggPod – a Beatles podcast focusing on one album per episode. The Beatles are another one of my obsessions. And Rule of Three – it’s hosted by two comedy writers, Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley, and they talk to people who make comedy about the comedy that they love. I really enjoy this forensic look at the craft of writing comedy.
When did you decide to create your own podcast?
I have wanted to do one for a few years now. I think last summer just felt like the right time. I have so many great conversations with creative people in our industry, and I kept thinking that it would be great to have that on record.
You’ve spoken a lot in the past about wanting to ‘demystify’ the process of making opera in From the Producer’s Office. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Yes. On each and every production that we do, there are probably a thousand times where we could have gone in one direction or another – casting, the choice of director, the design, cutting details during rehearsals. I just like the idea of this process being discussed – as in Rule of Three and West Wing Weekly.
Has the range of guests so far been part of a grand plan or was it just serendipity?
Maybe not a grand plan but it was a plan. I wanted to look at as many different aspects of the business as I could. I think it is also important that people can hear that there are so many different departments and people who work together to get to the performance. It was serendipity, however, when Annilese Miskimmon walked into the podcast with Peter Kirk.
Thinking back to your first podcast with Rodula Gaitanou and Matthew Kofi Waldren, what was so special about that conversation?
Well I know those two so well, as friends and as artists, and I wanted to feel comfortable recording it the first time. It was all new to me. Recording the podcast backstage before one of the last performances of Un ballo in maschera felt very exciting. There is a tangible buzz that you can feel running through all three of us, knowing that the show had been such a hit. It is also a great snapshot in time. We were there doing it on a hot afternoon with singers warming up around us – it takes me straight back.
The Covid crisis has had a massive impact on the industry. It’s a subject we’ll explore shortly but which were the podcast highlights for you before lockdown?
I loved talking to my colleagues in Bergen National Opera immediately after they finished the first night of Sweeney Todd. The podcast episodes from last summer – not just Un ballo in maschera, but also Iolanta and L’arlesiana – have a lovely atmosphere to them as they were recorded right in the middle of it all, and are very much of that time. No chances to look back and edit your memories.
Were you surprised how easy it was to capture a range of conversations with a range of artists, creatives and administrators over such a short period of time?
Not really. These people are people that I know, trust and work with. And we are all very proud of the work we do. People like talking about opera, and I only ask people I really want to see and chat with. I recorded an episode with the multi Olivier Award-winning lighting designer Paule Constable which I really enjoyed. It was also a great pleasure talking to BBC Radio 3’s Donald Macleod, the producer and promoter Raymond Gubbay CBE, David Pickard from the BBC Proms, the director Barrie Kosky, the vocal specialist and surgeon Declan Costello, and John Crace, the political sketch writer for The Guardian.
The reception of From the Producer’s Office has been very positive. Who is your target audience?
I am delighted with the reaction so far. Ideally, I would like it to go out to all of our members and all opera audiences. I don’t think any of the podcasts have been too ‘inside’ in the topics under discussion. It is just more detailed, relaxed and nuanced than when any of us do interviews to push an upcoming show. Like all podcasts, all it needs is an audience that want to hear something they don’t already know.
You’ve been in the heart of the industry for twenty years – are you still learning new things?
Every single day. Obviously you get more experienced – you have seen more things, and know more ways to deal with any given situation. But there are always new things to learn. Of course one can learn new approaches to a piece, new ways to design it or interpret it, but the main thing is that this industry has people at its heart. And there are so many different ways people react to moments – whether those are moments of pleasure or anxiety
Have your guests’ remarks ever made you challenge or reflect upon your own thinking?
Stephen Langridge spoke about the five or ten minutes when a character in a Handel opera may be repeating the same text but looking at things differently, weighing things up. He said if he was trying to work out a problem at home he might be pacing, talking it through with himself for hours, and so five or ten minutes of a da capo aria was nothing. It was just a very nice way of putting it – he says it much better than that on the podcast.
How has the experience of lockdown and the ongoing challenge of getting back to some form of live performance affected your recordings with recent guests? Some people have been surprised by the candour of the artists you have interviewed.
Before we start, I always say that it there is anything any of us feel uncomfortable about at the end of the recording then I will cut it. But it only happens very rarely. I think my peers and colleagues have always been very open with me but since lockdown emotions have been heightened. I think this experience has increased empathy and a sense of connection across the industry. All forms of it. One hundred per cent. And I have listened to more podcasts myself, so I have learned that there is an arc to follow.
And finally, have you ever had to ‘beep’ out any swearing?
Only on the podcast Mike and I recorded together!
From the Producer’s Office is available on SoundCloud, Spotify and Apple Podcasts