Jonathan Miller is in a state of disgruntlement. Despite his congeniality and his mischievous good humor, things are getting him down. "I really can't carry on doing this," he said. "It barely covers the cost."
The life of a globe-trotting opera director is not as glamorous as it may seem. The decades of dreary hotels, drafty rehearsal rooms, and bumping up against indifferent opera house managements have taken their toll. Apart from a project at the Brooklyn Academy of Music next year, to which he is committed, he is preparing to abandon working in New York for good.
Having spent the summer in Cooperstown with his electrifying Glimmerglass Opera production of Janácek's "Jenufa," he is in New York to bring to life Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love" at City Opera, which opens Saturday. He is happy to be back in New York, "which I know as well as London" since arriving with Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore, and Peter Cook with their satirical revue, "Beyond the Fringe,"in 1962. Right now, however, things are not so much going badly with the opera as not going well with Mr. Miller's state of mind.
"I wonder whether it is worth it any more?" he said. "I even have to pay my own hotel. It took three hours to get the papers I need to work here. And another seven hours flying here. And what do I get in return? The New York Times."
Mr. Miller is not only one of the world's most prodigious and ingenious opera directors, he is also one of the most intelligent and articulate. His meticulously crafted productions, laden with telling details taken from everyday life, form a staple part of the repertoire at the Met, City Opera, the Coliseum, and Covent Garden in London, La Scala in Milan, Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin, and many more opera houses around the world.
Which is why he found it so frustrating that a New York Times opera critic was prepared to journey four hours to Cooperstown to see a scrappy, chaotic "Pirates of Penzance," but not to return to offer judgment on Mr. Miller's "Jenufa," the undoubted hit of the Glimmerglass season.
Good reviews from the Wall Street Journal and others were little compensation to Mr. Miller, who, notwithstanding his easygoing manner, expects his work to be taken seriously. Hardly the archetypal prima donna, Mr. Miller was stung by being ignored. And after a lifetime of accepting modest fees to — his phrase — "strip away the varnish" on operas to make them accessible to new audiences, at age 72 he is in no mood to be treated as if he were invisible.
His recurring trick is to recast an opera out of its time, as his Glimmerglass "Jenufa" was relocated to a Czech immigrant community in Midwest America and his "Tosca" took place not in Napoleonic times but in Fascist Italy. But recasting an opera in another time and place has its dangers. "I call it theater schlepping, or driving 300 years up the freeway, or dragging it into last Thursday. I wouldn't do it to ‘Figaro' or ‘Don Giovanni,' when they set the opera in their own year."
After years of invention and concentrating his vast knowledge into operas that audiences like, what appears to gall him is that he is still traveling the world like a backpacker on a limited budget and can still be ignored by critics.
"If I had done ‘Mamma Mia' I would be a millionaire many times over," he complained. "If I were Nick Hytner [the British National Theatre head who directed "Miss Saigon," "Carousel," and now "The History Boys"], I would at least be comfortable enough to be able to educate my grandchildren and not have to worry. At Cambridge I was taught medicine by Nobel laureates. It makes me wonder whether I should not have resisted the lure of the stage all those years ago."
This is not the first time that this director has threatened to retreat from the opera life. He has been at odds with his employers and the opera establishment many times before.
His connections to the Met were dissolved in 1998 when he objected to a private arrangement between the diva Cecilia Bartoli, cast as Susanna in a new Miller production of "The Marriage of Figaro," and conductor James Levine to sing a pair of alternative arias. "The words had nothing to do with what was going on," explained Mr. Miller, still stung by his rejection. "It got blown up into a huge scandal. Volpe said that I had agreed, and it resulted in a row which resulted in my never being invited back again."
Then he was banished from the Coliseum, his former home base in London. A number of milestone Mr. Miller productions emerged there, including his trademark "Rigoletto," updated to the world of the Mafia, and his all-singing, all-dancing "The Mikado," which still reappears regularly at the State Theater.
But following the arrival of a new managing director, Peter Jonas in 1985, it was clear there was no room for any more new Miller productions. The English National Opera, always wanting the latest thing, let him know that he was yesterday's man. "And yet they continue to prosper on revivals of my operas which are 20 years old," Mr. Miller said.
"I have just begun to feel that this is a silly business," he said. "It is partly to do with the diva and the star. It is all to do with audience expectations of opera and the notion of ‘grand opera.' People want it to be grand because it is when things are seen as grand that it permits the possibility of it being important. The Met is much too big, much too grand."
Instead, taking his queue from Chekhov and W. H. Auden, Mr. Miller likes to concentrate on the small gestures, the telling details, the betrayals of body language to tell his operatic stories. "The more you concentrate on the negligible, the more you end up with the grand," he said. "And the more you concentrate on the grand, the more you end up with the negligible."
Mr. Miller makes little attempt to disguise his contempt for those in the audience who go to opera to be impressed at their own behavior. Those opulent opera patrons who sit in the grand tier at the Met, for instance, "look as if they have been looted from the Valley of the Kings" and "want to see that their wealth and generosity is realized on the stage."
He similarly hates the banality of collectors of operatic events, "sedentary tourists" who say to each other, "Oh my God! We were there last year," as well as "an audience which likes to applaud when the curtain goes up." He has similarly dismissed opera critics as "parasitic invertebrates," "midgets talking into a loudspeaker," and "tsetse flies."
But nothing has irritated him more lately than fellow Briton Anthony Minghella's "Madame Butterfly" which has just opened at the Met. "It was like receiving a maple syrup enema," Mr. Miller said.
His current plight reminds him of all the opera composers before the 19th century, when opera was staged according to an established idiom and the composer meant little. That is the fate of Donizetti and his "Elixir of Love."
"The reason Donizetti wrote 50 to 60 operas is because the audience wouldn't put up with repeats," Mr. Miller said. "Composers were just talented typists. Now there is very little which is new and there is very little new which is liked."
But perhaps all this railing is because he has simply come to the end of what has been a golden seam of creativity. He has turned to scrap metal sculpture as an alternative. And he finds that as time goes on he likes to spend more time with his family.
"I really want to stop doing it," he said. "I like my casts, and I like working with the designers and my other colleagues. So the work I like .... I am tired of traveling. I'm tired of having to put up with managements. And the wearisome living alone, living in hotels, getting visas and then not being paid enough to make it break even."