‘The Trial’: Michael McCarthy Discusses Philip Glass’s New Opera for Music Theatre Wales

Steph Power interviews Michael McCarthy in order to discuss Philip Glass’s New Opera for Music Theatre Wales, The Trail. 

‘Iconic’ is an over-used word, but it is surely apt to describe Kafka’s novel The Trial. Written in 1914-15, but not completed and only published in 1925 after his death, this extraordinary work has come to be seen as the definitive tale of existential angst in the face of a pitiless, meaningless bureaucratic machine. Of course, the novel also contains much more besides; there have been many different readings of it, and many adaptations have been made by other writers, artists and film-makers from Orson Welles to Steven Berkoff (and including opera adaptations by Gottfried von Einem and Poul Ruders*).

Tonight, Friday October 10th, composer Philip Glass will add to the conversation with the world premiere of his opera The Trial at London’s Royal Opera House, Linbury Studio Theatre, to a libretto by Christopher Hampton. Himself now an iconic figure, Glass has long desired to set The Trial to music. So it is surely an accolade which Music Theatre Wales will treasure amongst their many plaudits and awards to have been offered the first ever production.

Mid-way through rehearsals in Cardiff, MTW co-Artistic Director Michael McCarthy spoke with Steph Power about the exciting opportunity of this further collaboration with Glass – the third opera of the composer’s to be presented by the company. He spoke about Kafka and the novel itself, about Glass and Hampton’s setting of it, and about how he intended to go about staging the opera.


First rehearsal: Philip Glass, Christopher Hampton & Michael McCarthy
First rehearsal: Philip Glass,
Christopher Hampton
& Michael McCarthy


Steph Power: The Trial has been over four years in the making. That seems a long time but perhaps it isn’t in real terms?

Michael McCarthy: No, that’s about normal. Originally we thought we were going to premiere it last year when Glass offered the opera to us, and then it was apparent that that wasn’t going to be realistic, which was fine, we were able to postpone. As you would with a project like this! But of course it’s a lot of time in terms of anticipation and so it is a relief now to be at the final stage. It is the last bit of the race and for me it’s the start of the physical realisation of the production itself – you know I’ve had all these ideas, we’ve designed it. We had to finish the design before we had very much of the music. In fact, most of the design process happened before we had a completed libretto!

That’s an unusual way round isn’t it – design before libretto and music?

Yes! But that was just the nature of the beast, and fortunately we had had lots of meetings with Philip and Christopher who had talked about the structure and how we would do it. So we knew what they were planning. Their intention was always to be as faithful as possible to the book because they both love it and think Kafka’s writing is remarkable – Glass has talked about how extraordinary and way ahead of his time Kafka’s thinking is.

And Glass has set Kafka before of course – Music Theatre Wales staged In the Penal Colony in 2010 with great success.

Penal Colony absolutely, and one of the real privileges for us and joyous confidence in The Trial was that Philip said he’d been wanting to write an opera based on the novel since he read it as a teenager. That’s a little while ago as Philip’s first to admit! I thought, well, that’s fascinating because Philip was reading this book when it was still quite new literature actually; it had only been published in English in the year Philip was born [1937]. To him it was a real discovery. Whereas we now take Kafka for granted in a way – and we have this word ‘Kafkaesque’ in our vocabulary.

Like ‘Orwellian’ – he’s one of the few writers who has become a well-known term.

Absolutely! And sometimes it’s too narrow an understanding – you know the baggage that comes with Kafka is all about the paranoia and the lone man, and people talk about it in terms of predicting the Holocaust, predicting the surveillance state and totalitarian societies and all the rest. Well you can interpret it like that for sure.

You’re saying that’s one layer perhaps?

Yes it’s one layer, but it’s the layer of hindsight. When you think about it from Kafka’s point of view, he was looking at the individual in the world and the world itself. He had his own very personal take on the world and it made life very difficult for him.

It seems to me that The Trial is also about ‘code’ – or rather a lack of code. It’s about the giving out of ‘facts’ and ‘messages’ but without the requisite code – in a semiotic sense – to understand them. Hence the absurdity.

Yes. And I think, funnily enough, the only code that K seems to understand – and in fact that Kafka himself understood – was hierarchy. You were someone’s boss and someone else was always your boss, and what you did most of all was to try and make your way up the ladder – so there are certain codes there. But the behaviour codes around his existence – those are classic and also timeless. We all have that consideration now – how should we behave?

Philip Glass
l-r: Johnny Herford (Josef K), Nicholas Folwell (Guard Willem)
Photo: Clive Barda

Kafka seems to suggest that, actually, the code is: there is no code. The message is: there is no message. There is no meaning as everything ‘certain’ gets undermined. There might be a chair and a table in the room – and those are really beautiful! [points to the furniture on the set] –

– yes they are!

– but what do they mean? The rug gets pulled out from beneath even the simplest of physical objects as their context shifts with no apparent logic.

Well the rug does get continually pulled out from under K’s feet in the production, that’s part of the idea.

Can you say how you do that? How do you deal with the locations, for instance?

We’ve put K in an abstract world. It’s a room but it’s not a ‘real’ room and there are several windows and doorways – places where people can watch. Because a big part of the book, and a big part of the sense of being K, is his continually being watched. It starts right in the first scene, where he’s being arrested; there’s a group in the window in the apartment over the street that’s watching him. We’ve got a big window here in the set where people will watch him and he’ll try and shoo them away.

And of course there’ll be an audience looking on!

Yes! And it also builds up into another potential theatrical language which I’ve brought in; we’ve now developed this ‘watching’ so that everybody’s playing a joke on K. It all happens to him. He never knows where he is from one moment to another. He’ll be distracted at one minute, then suddenly discover that everything’s moved around him and – oh! I thought I was in my office and – oh! I thought my bedroom was here but it seems to be over there now. The world is constantly shifting – including the furniture. Every time he’s ‘got’ a place he’s very definite about it in the way that K is, but it’s always ‘apparently definite’. Everything is ‘apparently real’. He thinks he’s in this conversation or he thinks he’s got the solution. And yet everybody else seems to have a solution. Or at least everybody else seems to know.

That brings me to a wider question about the relationship of Glass to Kafka – actually isn’t it interesting that it’s an unfinished novel?! –

Yes! Or is it? [Laughs]

Indeed! Or could it ever be truly ‘finished’? There’s something about that notion of ‘completion’ in my question here: is there any equivalence between Kafka’s writing being a kind of ‘unclear clarity’ if you will, and Glass’s music being a kind of ‘unstable stability’?

I think there is that.

I recently heard HK Gruber’s new opera Tales from the Vienna Woods, and it struck me that he was the perfect composer to set Horváth’s play. I wonder if that’s also true – albeit in a different way – with Glass setting Kafka?

Yes, I think he’s the perfect composer to set it. I would start from the place of Glass being the person who opens up the windows if you like to the psychology of characters, and particularly the paranoia and angst, the darkness and insecurity. Because there’s something about the way his music allows you to go there – it encourages you to think beyond, and so the fact that there is lots of enigmatic stuff in Kafka is perfect for Glass. Because he does enigmatic, you can think what you like. I was playing a trick on myself recently as I was preparing for this, looking at a particular photo which had a particular mood and playing different bits of Philip Glass against it. And they all worked – in really different ways. The music just makes you think differently, whatever it is, and that’s an extraordinary place to come from.

But actually there’s another element: with this piece I found that Glass’s music is more changeable, it shifts more frequently and more rapidly than previous works we’ve done. He has this rhythmic energy, this engine on which everything sits, which moves the drama inexorably forward. You know where you’re going, even if the music is apparently static. ‘Apparently’ again – but it really isn’t. And there are very few repetition marks in this score. He’s really working it through the text and has thought about the mood of each scene, and I think what’s going to be really interesting for us – as it is with any new opera – is just to see, ok how does this all fit together as a single sequence? Where does that go?

Glass’s music plays with the notion of closure it seems to me. It literally revolves around continually repeated cadences; around and around –

– which don’t close!

Exactly – so Glass’s sound-world seems curiously apropos Kafka here. And how ironic perhaps that Kafka is seen as a titan of modernism, whilst Glass is often assumed to be a great post-modernist. Perhaps that shows the danger or limits of such categorising?

Well I think that’s right! And if you’re creating opera, it’s about finding the right material for the composer and for the writer, and Philip was very fond of what we had done with his Edgar Allan Poe opera The Fall of the House of Usher – he liked where we’d gone with In the Penal Colony – so he saw this definitely as the third one. He teased us about doing all three at one point!

Well now, that’s a thought!

It would be an extraordinary thing to do and it’s a remarkable thing for us to have this trilogy. Actually I think it would also be fascinating to study the progression from Usher – which was premiered in America in ’87 – we gave the European premiere in ’89. There is definitely a journey, and The Trial is a much more complex piece than Usher because of the nature of the story, all of the characters in it and the way that it works, whereas actually in Usher it’s all about the house. The house is the primary character, affecting everybody in it. So I have reflected a bit on that in this production, in terms of theatricalising the world in which K exists. We’ve done that through creating a gallery of rogues who play multiple characters, who at any point can come on and move a stick of furniture, who can look through the window and stare strangely and enigmatically at what K is doing, and who exchange glances now and then.

As if K’s in a nightmare, the people change around him and suddenly he finds it’s all changed, and they’re not real at all. I will be very overt about the same people playing different characters. And in fact there’s a bit of poor theatre about it in that they’re not going to have huge costume changes. The costumes will be variations on the same kind of thing – you know, obvious false beards – and yet K has to stand in the middle and believe every single moment of it. I’m building the production in layers.

Philip Glass
l-r: Johnny Herford (Josef K), Paul Curievici (Titorelli). In doorway top-bottom: Amanda Forbes, Michael Bennett, Rowan Hellier, (Watchers).
Photo: Clive Barda

So how do you interlock the characterisation, music and narrative? Or do you?

Well the narrative is episodic of course, and the only centre to the narrative is K. It changes a bit as we go on. The end of Act 1 is where we meet the Uncle, and then the Uncle takes us to the Lawyer in Act 2, so there’s a little bit more character continuity as the piece develops. But in Act 1 it’s just one character, one situation after another to leave poor old K utterly bewildered and confused. And Act 1 finishes with this fantastic flogging scene and that should be a surprise to people whether or not they’ve remembered the book – it is just bizarre.

Yes, that lumber room scene is completely surreal. And then K goes back and opens the door 24 hours or something later and it’s still happening, the same scene –

– and yet later on it’s gone – no explanation. Christopher Hampton’s really captured something very nicely. We’ve got the flogging scene – so that happens in the opera. Then we close the door on that, and then an assistant comes along and says ‘what’s that noise?’ And K says, oh nothing just the sound of a dog. ‘Like a dog’: those are his very last words as he’s killed ‘like a dog’.

The book is highly pictorial isn’t it?

Yes, it’s full of pictures and images, personalities, places, locations. I mean the Orson Welles film of The Trial is quite good there.

Did you draw on that film at all?

No – if you tried to draw on that it would be too strong and it’s a very cinematic world. I was excited to see it and I enjoyed it but it’s also a very strong Wellesian adaptation and it’s interesting that Christopher Hampton in particular said he didn’t want to do that kind of adaptation – he didn’t want to do a version, he wanted to do it. And the skill that Hampton has is remarkable – it’s incredible how he has distilled that complex, dense text into an opera libretto, which, by definition, has to be far less than dense. It’s still quite a lot of words for an opera and inevitably there are lots of dialogue scenes – and that’s a challenge in opera. We’re trying to work out we play that, and that’s where the idea of theatrical counterpoint and the watchers can help perhaps highlight moments, and continue to motivate scenes – and continue to play with the audience’s understanding of what’s happening in the scene. That’s an element I’ve yet to find. K is trapped in his own dream. So it’s interior – it’s people peering into the inside, into a dreamscape.

There’s a quote from Albert Camus, where he says ‘there is nothing more difficult to understand than a symbolic work of art.’ Perhaps in a sense he’s inviting us not to try to ‘understand’ but to experience?

Yes! And in a funny way, that’s what happening to K as well. And alongside that, if you don’t work at it, then it’s irrelevant – so with K, he must continue the fight. Because so long as you maintain your sense of who you are, or your independence, or your sense of innocence, or your desire, that’s ok. But when you give up, there’s nothing left, it’s over. Gone.

In the book, the characters K pulls on are the ones he sees acting. He shies away from those others he thinks are not doing things.

Restless pursuit. Yes, it’s interesting finding K – and indeed theatricalising him – because you have to find a way to – as we’re doing – just very slightly stylise it. K is the one consistent character all the way through of course, but he is a strange chap and he sees the world differently. One of the first conversations I had with Johnny Herford, who’s playing the role, was: put yourself back into your teenage days, where you’re just so awkward about everything and you’re constantly walking around going, what do they think of me? You know, ‘oh God, do I look like that? – Argh!’ ‘Should I be thinking this?’ And you know, that’s kinda K!

Again, in terms of a potential correlation between Kafka and Glass, I wonder whether there’s something about the way Glass plays with structure on large and small levels, whereby he creates an almost interiorised world where things move in circles but at the same time are through-composed?

Yes, I think that’s true and I think that plays on this interiority, and indeed on the Kafka itself in the sense that apparently everything moves forward, but actually nothing gets done. K gets nowhere with his case. Nobody does. The people K meets in all these corridors have been fighting their case for years and years – the other defendant, Block, who we meet in Act 2, has spent all his time and all his money now employing more and more lawyers in the knowledge that none of them are doing anything.

It’s a kind of pre-existentialist existentialism isn’t it? In the book, you even get the literal ‘nausea’ [the title of a novel by Jean-Paul Sartre published in 1938], which K feels at key moments. There’s a phrase ‘existential crisis’ which seems there in the book but in a very particular, distilled way.

It is, very distilled – but I wonder if it is crisis? He sort of avoids crisis because it’s just about being.

Well, it’s not experienced as an emotional crisis.

No – there isn’t that kind of ‘crisis’ as such. It’s all a crisis, except when he gives up – which you would have thought would be the ‘moment’ of crisis – except it’s just gone. K just sort of accepts it. And again, I’ve been looking at Kafka himself, and Kafka talked about having dreams where he saw himself being sliced up like a piece of meat. And that’s precisely what happens to Joseph K – he’s taken to a quarry and sliced up.

The torture trope is very strong too. In the Penal Colony is very obviously about torture, and there’s another kind of torture at work in The Trial.

There is – the primary torture is mental.

The arrest is a kind of metaphysical arrest.

Yes, and the torture is largely psychological – in a way the death is brutal but it is ‘just’ a death. But – and here we come to another aspect of the opera – Philip and Christopher’s take on the book, and indeed where I need to take the production – is the comedy of it.

That very black, surreal comedy! It’s there throughout isn’t it?

It’s a really important element, and I think it’s a relatively modern reading of Kafka. We need to get away from just the paranoia, just the existentialism, the angst and misery, and predicting the terrible future. We know that Kafka read his stories out loud to his friends and they all split their sides laughing. Kafka found it all very funny, and so you have to think about that. It is absurd and it is very funny – a quirky sense of humour. One of the guards in Scene 1 says to K, ‘oh – nice linen! When you’re arrested can we have your underwear? We’d like to keep it!’ It’s just really bizarre! The first line of the opera is not, ‘Who are you? What’s going on here?’, it is ‘Where’s my breakfast?’ Fantastic! What a great start to an opera! – and this thing goes on all the time. So even K’s death – we talk about him being taken out to a quarry, a dark space, where, interestingly in Kafka – and indeed someone in this production – is watching from a distant window – the two guards take him out there and – we don’t know how to do this yet, we haven’t got to this part yet – they sort of pass the knife between them, slightly Tweedledee and Tweedledum, slightly Marx Brother-ish you know? ‘OK, well, what are we going to do with this one? Who’s going to do it?’ And it’s not about torture at all – it’s the absurdity of the situation.

Yes the book has that element very strongly. It has constant pairs of characters – whether it’s the bank clerks or the policemen, say – who come along as a kind of blackly comic Laurel and Hardy double-act, where they’re playing off each other and having this kind of ridiculous conversation over K’s head while he looks from one to the other.

Absolutely – and we have our moments doing that – and it all happens to K – it’s all back to that; it’s a cruel joke that’s played on K. Milan Kundera talks about that in relation to Kafka – the cruelty of the humour. Eveyone’s playing this terrible joke on one character and everyone finds it all terribly funny apart from the poor bugger in the middle, who has no idea it’s a joke.

It occurs to me from what you’re saying that, in an audience today, there’d probably be quite a few people who’d enjoy the idea of a banker being taken out and having their bureaucratic, hierarchical world sort of done to them!

Ha ha, yes [laughs]! For a banker with something on their conscience! Although, in all honesty, there won’t be much if anything that tells you here that K’s a banker. He’s a guy who feels his social status, who clearly has a bit of an arrogance issue, looks down on people, doesn’t like to be treated this way and yet of course we sort of need to identify with him as well – we need to feel for him too at moments – ‘don’t do that! – don’t dig yourself into that hole – why do you behave like that’ – you fool?!’ But yes, being manipulated.

Glass has often taken iconic cultural figures and revolved something around them – Satyagraha for instance, and Einstein on the Beach – even the Disney opera [The Perfect American] – but it’s not about their politics or even what they’ve done as such. Which creates an interesting distance, if you like, between the political and social, and the aesthetic.

A cultural figure, an individual, a mind, an influence, yes. I think with The Trial it all comes back to Philip and Christopher saying from the beginning that they’re not trying to create a version – a 21st century ‘take’. They’re trying to do the book as an opera. I think they’re basically saying they trust the audience to watch it in that way, and to think about what it might signify or what it might mean –  they’re interested in the human, individual aspect. I’ve referred to this piece as a social experiment on an unsuspecting and rather unfortunate individual who has all the wrong facets, if you like, as a personality, and therefore all the right ones for it to happen to!

So does K = Kafka = everyman?

Yes, and I’m sure that’s what interests Philip and Christopher. We’re being invited into an existential question I suppose – Why are we here? How do we function? – is fundamental to it. Hence the need for the social experiment, to prod and poke and provoke and cajole and then occasionally treat, and see what happens to the poor guy in the middle.

How he’s stuck in the machine?

Yes – and the question, do you give your soul up to the machine? Which is very Penal Colony – because the machine is it and yet destroys. If you accept and become a part of the bureaucracy – perhaps that’s the totalitarian state warning – well what’s the point of that? Because you’ve lost your identity, you’ve lost your individuality.

In fact, all the characters are lost in The Trial. The focus is on K, but all the characters are lost in that perpetual spiral.

Yes definitely. Never getting anywhere. And what you don’t know is whether you could ever have got anywhere.

Or even where ‘anywhere’ is?!

Yes! As Christopher Hampton says, a whole lot happens, except nothing happens!


* the latter touched on by conductor Thomas Søndergård here

As part of a national tour, MTW bring The Trial to Wales for performances at Aberystwyth Arts Centre (October 28), Theatr y Sherman Cymru (Cardiff, November 7) and Clwyd Theatr Cymru (Mold, November 9 – where, thanks to MTW’s generosity, donators to Wales Arts Review’s crowdfunding campaign have the opportunity to bag tickets).

Further details of these and further performances can be found here: http://thetrial.musictheatrewales.org.uk/