Interview: Stewart Laing - 'It is a very different company, and I am a very different person'

STEWART LAING likes nothing better than to lace his productions with a twist; to find an edge where no-one else has spotted the lurking opportunity.

Six years ago, the Tony Award-winning stage director-designer created a production of Puccini's La Bohme that threw aside the plot's self-contained innocence and sentimentality – the bedsit misfortunes of four cash-strapped bohemians and the doomed Mimi – to reveal a cutting satire on today's commercialised art world.

"It wasn't just a gimmick," says Laing, who is busy preparing the company for next week's revival of that excellent production. "I don't do things purely to shock. It has to have a relevance to what's happening in the minds of those on stage; that's what interests me."

But to do so with such a household favourite as La Bohme, isn't that a hindrance rather than a help to the probing mind of a director who likes the freedom to take risks? Oddly enough, it's the familiarity factor that excites Laing. "It's a good thing to know you're working with something that works. If what I do doesn't, the problem's with me, not the piece," he says.

"Whenever I go to the theatre or the opera, I want to see a new slant on the old classics. A lot of opera is fundamentally old-fashioned. It's a world that looks backwards, not forwards. I like to take a piece like La Bohme and ask why we are still doing it, and what is there to say about it now?" He's quite right. Beneath the surface of Puccini's liquid stream of show-stopping arias, buoyant ensembles, supersonic conversational dialogue and story-book tragedy, is a universal theme: the underlying plight of youth – the ardent, occasionally selfish altruism of artist Marcello, poet Rodolfo, philosopher Colline and musician Schaunard, captured by the spell of the unsophisticated Mimi – with all its reckless principles, navety and emotional fragility.

"What interests me is that they are a group of unsuccessful artists," says Laing. "We've all been there – I've been there – contrasting that with the commercial arts world which is thriving on a superficial level." He makes the theatrical point by transferring Puccini's 1830s Paris setting to a contemporary arts community in America.

Those who recall the original production will remember Laing's caustic visual references to Brit-artist Tracey Emin and cross-dressing ceramic artist Grayson Perry – as actual characters in the crowd scene (now a fashionable commercial gallery) – and to American Jeff Koons, whose kitsch fingerprint features in Laing's own set designs.

But isn't there a problem here? First time round, the shock factor was significant in guaranteeing the success of Laing's provocative approach. That and the up-to-date images of lap-tops, and mindless Saatchi-ites parading herd-like through an art gallery. How does he propose, in this revival, to deal with the fact we know now what to expect?

Laing is under no illusion. "With a revival, you've lost the element of surprise," he openly admits. But he is convinced that the deeper resonances of his stage concept are as relevant today as they were in 2004. "Emin and Perry – both Turner Prize winners – are still prominent public figures. Perry was even a guest on Have I Got News For You the other week."

Nonetheless, there are new aspects to this revival which do offer a fresh perspective. Some of them are token, such as the presence of iPhones and other newfangled city accessories that weren't around when the production first appeared.

More significantly, though, is the musical combination of a whole new cast and the presence of Scottish Opera's Italian-born conductor and musical director Francesco Corti. Making their debut with Scottish Opera are Irish soprano Celine Byrne as Mimi, and French tenor Avi Klemberg as Rodolfo. Among the more familiar names is Nadine Livingston as Musetta, who appeared earlier this season singing the title role in the company's small-scale touring production of Janacek's Ktya Kabanov.

Not surprisingly, Laing is thrilled to be working with Corti, a man who knows his onions when it comes to Italian opera, but who has not, given the limited output of current Scottish Opera seasons, had the optimum opportunities to show us what he can really do in that arena.

"He is fantastic," says Laing. "He knows the opera inside out. That is critical in Puccini in achieving the complete emotional experience, which goes beyond what is on stage. Take an opera like Turandot, for instance, where reading it like a stage play can be risible, but where the music is an awakening experience."

As for what happens on stage, Laing likes his opera singers to be flexible and open-minded, embracing the "stillness and smallness of gestures" more common in film actors. "I'm interested when they let the music be like a film score. It allows them to do something that fights against the melodrama contained in the music. That's easier to achieve with today's generation of opera singers who are much better actors."

In one sense, it's surprising that Laing was asked back at all to revive his old production, given that relations were soured last time around when Scottish Opera's former music director, Richard Armstrong, angered Laing by insisting on a change to the set late in the original run. Laing reacted by "disowning" the production. "All I want to say on that is that Scottish Opera is a very different company now, and six years on I am a very different person," responds Laing. "We've moved on from that."

As for tomorrow night's special preview performance – populated almost exclusively by Sun readers who took advantage of the newspaper's mass ticket deal with Scottish Opera – Laing is cautiously enthusiastic. "I have lots of friends who bought tickets that way," he says. "But you do wonder if it's something that will do more for middle-class folk buying the Sun than for working-class folk going to the opera." With Laing, it seems, there's always an honest twist.

&#149 Scottish Opera's production of Puccini's La Bohme opens on Saturday at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow. It then tours to Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness throughout April and May.