At 78, Jonathan Miller looks like a caricature of himself. The tufts of white hair, the gangly body, the thinning face behind its enormous nose: All are begging to be crosshatched by David Levine and printed in the New York Review of Books above a 4,000-word essay about cognitive psychology.
Such essays are right up Miller’s alley. He is a neurologist and an operatic stage director, a former comedian who became a public intellectual: the Stephen Fry of an older generation. In conversation, he alternates brilliant insights with commonplaces, as if each were equally fascinating and original, speaking in the kind of Oxbridge accent that communicates the sense that you, the listener, are unlikely to have thought of any of this before and are likely to be awestruck that he did — even if the subject is as familiar as what Miller calls his favorite Jewish joke, the one about how you get to Carnegie Hall: “Practice, practice, practice.”
Miller is in Washington to direct at the Washington National Opera for the first time: His production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” opens Saturday night. It’s surprising that he hasn’t been here before, given his ubiquity on the opera stages of the world and his penchant for serviceable productions that gently update the action without offending. His productions tend to travel and to have a long shelf life. This “Cosi,” his fifth, originated at London’s Royal Opera House in 1995 and came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2003.
Miller is best known for a more dramatic updating. His 1982 version of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” for the English National Opera moved the action to the Mafia underworld of mid-20th-century New York: Seen at opera houses and on television sets around the world, it had its most recent revival at ENO in 2009, some 27 years after it opened. But though that “Rigoletto” sealed his reputation as a daring innovator, Miller’s dramatic interests are generally, and deliberately, more prosaic.
What he’s really interested in, he’ll tell you, are the subtleties of human behavior, what the philosopher Brian O’Shaughnessy called “subintentional movements.” As examples, Miller recently cited “people twirling their hair while they’re talking and playing with their ear lobes, or drumming on the table while they’re talking.”
“I’m doing it now,” he observed, and he stopped fiddling with his pen — he was sitting at a conference table in the River Inn, his hotel near the Kennedy Center — as if he had deliberately suited his action to his words.
“It’s putting all that sort of behavioral rubbish back into a production,” he continued, “which is what most of directing consists of.” The main function of performances, he said, “is simply to remind the audience of something which they had previously overlooked about themselves. About what it’s like being alive.”
His observations, however, are not always as insightful as he thinks they are. In part, this is because, for someone who paints himself as so interested in the minutiae of everyday life, Miller seems singularly uninterested in the world around him — the part of it, at least, unrelated to his own ideas. What fascinates him in conversation, at least, is the life of his own mind, and being an erstwhile entertainer — in the early 1960s he was an original member of the comedy review “Beyond the Fringe” — he can make it quite entertaining. He’s a wonderful raconteur, offering a cross section of apparent erudition: On a recent morning, his scores of references included the 18th-century Welsh painter Thomas Jones, theories of animal behavior and Renaissance depictions of the Annunciation. (North of the Alps, Mary doesn’t look at the angel; south of the Alps, she does.)
Just don’t look too closely. His ideas, like pebbles, are worn smooth from years of handling, until some of the details are blurred (the names of authors, the facts of stories). It doesn’t matter. He has piled those ideas around him into an impregnable wall and is impervious to questions. You don’t need to ask questions, anyway, because Miller can produce variations on the same themes without prompting.
“Directing,” he said, “consists of nothing more than reminding your performers of what they knew all along but had forgotten, and getting them to forget what they ought never to have known in the first place.” His goal — as he first told me in a 1996 interview — is to strip from opera its stock gestures, the outstretched arms and breast-beating that bear no relation to real life. But many of his statements about directing were put forth in his 1986 book, “Subsequent Performances,” which seems to have solidified for him — like many of his productions — into a fixed template.
And this template can get in the way of real observation. “Cosi” is a frothy tale of two young men who test their sweethearts’ fidelity by pretending to leave them and reappearing in disguise. Miller updates it to the present day. “It’s not about infidelity,” he said. “It’s about identity; it’s about who do you think you are and about the dangers of pretending to be someone . . . you’re not.” Miller’s updated disguise for the two Lotharios is something he calls “a heavy-metal biker.” As an example of the kind of behavioral subtlety he introduces to his characters, he struck the pose of a biker, waggling his head, growling out a guttural, “Hey, babe,” before chuckling in delight — evidently unaware that he’s evoking a cliche of 1970s vintage.
Caricature, deliberate or not, is a part of Miller’s art. He has certainly been caricatured himself: from the character of Jeremy Hilary Boob in the Beatles’ 1968 film “Yellow Submarine” to a puppet on the British comedy show “Spitting Image.” But with some of his repetitions — like his frequent statements that he is going to get out of opera forever, something he last averred to me in an interview in 2003 — he can risk becoming that caricature. The secret to the best material in “Beyond the Fringe,” he said, was “the paradoxes of triviality,” and he cited the trivial as an ingredient of great literature — “Madame Bovary,” “Anna Karenina” — as well.
But on stage, it’s the big ideas that are often apparent; the keenly observed details are sometimes lost in the realization. He has made significant contributions to opera, but he also risks being less a master of observation than of the merely innocuous.
starring Elizabeth Futral and conducted by the Washington National Opera’s music director, Philippe Auguin, runs from Saturday to March 15 at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
Call 800-444-1324 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.