During the last decade and a half, the name Jean-Pierre Mignon has practically disappeared from theatre bills around Australia. For many years a leading light of Melbourne's independent theatre scene, with his trailblazing company Anthill Theatre, he introduced an unashamedly Continental vision onto Australian stages, stark and powerfully expressive, the profound influence of which is only now being realised. Yet, meeting him today, at the Victorian Opera headquarters on Victoria Street, he seems just as energetic and enthusiastic as ever. So what has he been doing all these years?
"Doing television, mostly," he says, with the same jovial smile he wears throughout the interview. And it's true. A lot of television. Mignon is a regular director for shows such as All Saints, City Homicide, Neighbours, Winners and Losers and Packed to the Rafters. "I love it! It was something I always wanted to do, working in television, at the back of my mind."
But it hasn't all been television. There has been the odd act of theatrical recidivism.
"I need to get back to the stage sometimes – I need a bit more poetry."
So in 2004, ten years after disapearing, he "came in from the cold" for a series of collaborations with the STC's Actors' Company. Then, in 2005, he was approached by Richard Gill, Victorian Opera's artistic director, to join in an ambitious seven-year plan to stage a quartet of Mozart's best-loved operas, Cosi fan tutte, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute.
In 2012, three operas down, one to go, the pair, Gill and Mignon, are closing out their collaboration with The Marriage of Figaro.
Mignon has directed Figaro three times before – the opera once, with the old Victorian State Opera, and Pierre Beaumarchais's original play twice. In its day, Beaumarchais's satire was a famous scandal. A political challenge that mocked the aristocracy, exposing their ordinary failings and cravings to the mirth of the mob. The play was not only banned in Beaumarchais's native France, but also proscribed by Emperor Joseph II, who ruled The Holy Roman Empire from Vienna, where Mozart and Pierre Da Ponte's operatic adaptation premiered.
"Mozart and Da Ponte did have to compromise on the political aspect of it," says Mignon. "So there is more love and less politics. But the politics is palpably there, between the lines and in the plot, and the opera is faithful to Beaumarchais' plot. It is still quite audacious for the period."
But what about today? Is it still audacious today? Does this relic from the age of empire and aristocracy still resonate politically in our own chaotic age, in a country like Australia, with its bloated middle-class, its politicians forever droning on about ladders of opportunity?
"Of course!" Mignon points immediately to recent celebrations in England and across the Commonwealth. "Did you miss the Diamond Jubilee and all of this crap? They worship this old woman, dripping in pearls, while not 500 miles away there are people sleeping in the streets."
Even in Australia there is evidence of a despotic aristocracy. "Here you have this Gina Rinehart buying the media. There is so much class difference. People are still suffering because of where they were born."
Outgoing Victorian Opera artistic director Richard Gill has been musical director on all of four of the Mozart productions Mignon has directed, conducting in three of them.
"When he approached me with this original plan," says Mignon, "I could tell we had the same idea, of illuminating the work from within, not imposing from without. I said to him, 'I'm your man. I'm ready for this journey.'"
Mignon says that both he and Gill are purists when it comes to the stage.
"I haven't asked him, but I would call him a purist. I think he wants to analyse the sound at its origin, based on what he believes was handed down to him. We want to look at, well, what did Mozart create? Cleaning it back, in a way. You know, if someone says to me, 'In this part, what is often done here is–––' well I don't care, you know?"
The cast includes Brett Carter making his Victorian Opera debut as Count Almaviva and Tiffany Speight as Countess Almaiviva, while Jacqueline Porter debuts the role of Susanna. Andrew Collis returns as Figaro, having performed the role with Opera Australia. The design team, with set by Richard Roberts, costume by Christina Smith and lighting by Paul Jackson is the same as on the previous VO Mozart collaborations.
The Marriage of Figaro, Arts Centre Playhouse, 18 Jul-3 Aug 2012.
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