Manon has inspired several composers to immortalize her in music in very different ways. How do you see this character?
Manon is a very lively, free young woman, who manipulates all the men around her purely for her own pleasure, and little by little climbs the echelons of society. She ends up in a very bad place, of course, but in the middle of the opera, she’s at her height. At the end of Act II, we leave her as a flirtatious girl, and then in the next act we find her as the queen of Paris—a monster of egoism, arrogance, and pretension. She’s both naïve and manipulative—that’s what makes her so complex. She chooses the material world but she can’t live without love either.
You’ve set your production in the late-19th century. Why?
I wanted to put the work into the historical context of when Massenet wrote the music. We’re showing a male perspective toward women at the end of the 19th century. The idea of the "free woman" was seen as something diabolical in that society. There are parallels to characters like Carmen and Violetta, great heroines who violate the rules of bourgeois society and who are sacrificed to a hostile, male world. I was interested to find out why people in that era were so obsessed, fascinated, and also terrified by this kind of character.
How does the look of your production reflect that?
The costumes were inspired by photos and drawings of the period, with the men all in black and white, very severe, displaying their power, and the women in colorful "grande toilette." For the set, [designer] Chantal Thomas and I came up with the idea of a world that’s a little off balance, a dangerous place where at any moment everything could collapse and fall apart—as if they’re dancing on a volcano.
Anna Netrebko won raves when she sang the title role in your staging two seasons ago in London. What makes her an ideal Manon?
Manon is a "femme enfant," a woman who is also a girl, and Anna is remarkable at capturing this. She has an incredible power of seduction over the audience. She has sex appeal, a bewitching voice, and she is an extraordinary actress. She’s not afraid to turn Manon into a monster—which makes it interesting, because it’s not superficial. It’s extremely touching. —Interview by Marian Lacombe, edited by Philipp Brieler
Manon opens March 26 and will be seen live in HD on April 7.
This interview was first published online and in the Met’s Playbill in March 2012.