With the long-awaited international production of Verdi’s Aida taking to the Pjazza Teatru Rjal stage this week, Jo Caruana speaks to director Corina van Eijk about her unique approach to creating truly dynamic opera theatre.

Corina van Eijk is a formidable woman. Bubbly and funny, she makes a strong impression, and I can tell as soon as we meet that we are going to get along.

First off, there is her lifelong passion for the theatre – and particularly the opera – that comes across in droves. Born and raised in the Netherlands, Corinne acquired her love of opera from her grandfather, who sang in the choir of the Amsterdam Opera before World War II. Some of her earliest memories are of listening to music when with him.

“Then, when I was about 10, my grandparents took me to my first opera at the Royal Theatre Carré in Amsterdam, a truly beautiful venue,” Corinne recalls. “I re­member closing my eyes so that I could listen to the music without any of the visuals, because I loved the music so much. Even then I couldn’t align the way opera was presented with the way it was played and sung.”

Interestingly, that moment in time may well have been a catalyst for Corinne’s whole ethos and career, and she developed a lifelong passion for effectively blending these two aspects of the opera­tic craft. For her, opera should be all about the music while the visuals should be planned to suit it, rather than the other way around.

“With good composers like Verdi the text is presented in such an emotional way, and is so beautifully aligned with the music, that you can only properly understand it if you listen very carefully. It’s not something abstract.”

Of course, this also links in very much with Corinne’s passion for directing. “I think I have been directing (and telling everyone what to do!) since I was a child,” she quips. “So it was only natural that I went to theatre school.”

Corina van EijkCorina van Eijk

And she did, quickly rejecting the acting route and instead focusing on directing full-time. “I chose to study in Maastricht because Amsterdam was too political at the time, whereas the south was more solid and very technical. The school did encourage me to consider acting for a while but I resisted; I’m actually a lot of trouble for any director!

“It was a good decision, because it led to some good jobs after theatre school – such as at the School of Music – and one thing led to another. Then, when I was 27, I started Opera Spanga and I have loved working on it and developing it ever since.”

It is no doubt thanks to Corinne that Opera Spanga has since become one of the most successful independent opera companies in the Netherlands. Based in the tiny village of Spanga (which has just 200 inhabitants), people have tra­velled from across the country to see the company’s quirky shows since it was launched in 1989.

“Looking back, I guess I started Spanga because I wanted to do things my way. I hated the limits associated with opera theatre – the conservative approach, and the fact that directors and singers only focused on the voice and didn’t tell the real story. To me, opera is all about listening to the writer and composer – they have taken the time and effort to create a piece, and our job to make that the springboard.

“I consider myself so lucky to be able to touch these pieces of art and to develop productions around them. Admittedly, some people tell me I have destroyed the operas I have worked on… but many others tell me they have finally understood and loved them.”

Aida – Opera Spanga’s upcoming production at Pjazza Teatru Rjal – will no doubt have the same effect on audiences, having recently wowed at its run in the Netherlands as part of their European Capital of Culture programme.

After all, it is one of the best-known and best-loved operas in the world, and Corinne’s ap­proach is somewhat controversial. “Verdi wrote it for the people,” she stresses. “There is no pretence here. Yes, this is opera, but perhaps not as many will have seen it before.”

In fact, for Corinne – who is outspoken about her beliefs and political with a small ‘p’ – Aida makes a strong statement.

“It is no surprise to me that this piece has remained relevant in the 150 years since it first premiered because it highlights shame, loyalty and religious conflict, and also questions the nature of love, war, peace and forgiveness. There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the best operas ever written – both musically and from the perspective of its beautiful story. If you haven’t seen or heard it before, then this is your opportunity,” she says.   

Meanwhile, Corinne – who has spent quite a lot of time in Malta in recent years working on this and other productions – underlines how well she believes the opera scene is doing here.

“I think it’s fantastic; the Maltese clearly have a love of opera,” she says. “Just look at the number of operatic productions taking place at the moment – from Corto Maltese with the Malta Youth Opera at Teatru Manoel, to Aida and others. There is an exciting scene here and I am happy to have been part of it. If you love opera, or even if you would just like to try opera, there is plenty to look forward to in the next few weeks.”

Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida will be performed by Opera Spanga at Pjazza Teatru Rjal in Valletta on Thursday and Saturday and is part of the Valletta 2018 programme. Tickets are available online.