An alumnus of the Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, Portuguese stage director Pedro Ribeiro is paving the way for young people in opera. With a hugely varied list of work behind him, Pedro is now working with the Royal Opera House as he directs the UK premiere of rarely heard Spanish opera El Gato Con Botas. Penned by Xavier Montsalvatge and based on Charles Perrault’s fairytale, it tells the story of a wily cat who decides to transform the fortunes of his impoverished keeper.

But has he always loved opera? “No, no!” he tells me. “The first opera I saw was Nabucco and it was the most boring night of my life! It was really bad. It was this kind of classical production and I never thought about directing opera when I was seeing that.” This will be a familiar tale for many young people across the globe, who perhaps see opera as an art form that alienates all but a very select audience. And the result is that “we miss good productions,” says Ribeiro. “Especially new productions of new commissions and new music. That would be something I would like to do: contemporary opera. It is a really interesting area because you can start by singing musical theatre, then operetta and that can evolve into opera.” So is Ribeiro hoping to bring more people to opera in the near future? “When I started opera I started it as a challenge, as I realised it is the most difficult [type of] show to stage. It’s like reading a book. You start with children’s books and you develop the way you want to see and hear the story.” Even one of opera’s most exciting new stars wasn’t always completely enamoured by the art. Like any good story, Ribeiro’s love of opera has been a journey of discovery.

Having studied directing theatre at university, Pedro worked as an assistant for a Portuguese production company and found a new excitement for opera when working on The Enchantments of Medea there. “It was a discovery for me that it was a Baroque opera and everyone was completely engaged in the story. It was fun and the story was superbly well told.” His passion for directing opera grew rapidly, and a quick glance at his CV reveals he has worked on some of greatest stages in the world, and here in the UK, Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House itself.

The Jette Parker Young Artists Programme is a development opportunity for emerging artists whose career has attracted the attention of the Opera House, and Ribeiro graduated from the programme this August. For some, returning to the Opera House as a professional in their own right might present a challenge, but not for Ribeiro. “It’s quite comfortable coming back to the Linbury [Theatre] and to the Royal Opera House because now I know everyone. In the beginning I didn’t know anyone and I was thinking, ‘Oh my god it’s the Royal Opera House!’ and after two years I got used to it. Even though it’s a big house, it’s weird; I think 800 people work here but there is some sort of family thing. We know each other; we speak with each other and a lot of different departments. It doesn’t feel like somewhere that isn’t home. The problem is going to be work outside!”

Ribeiro’s career is in full swing, but for aspiring performers, directors and the like, breaking into the opera industry may seem like an impossible task. I ask his advice: “When I used to be a teacher a lot of students would ask me this. Honestly, I would say to them, do you really love it, really really love it and cannot see yourself doing anything else? Are you sure you don’t want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or an architect?” It’s clear Ribeiro passionately feels the dedication and intense focus this career demands as he recalls these moments. “It’s a really hard career, really demanding and the only way you can stay in directing theatre or opera is because you love it and you cannot see yourself doing anything else.”

If you do have that burning passion for the art, however, Ribeiro enthuses that the UK is a great place to be. “You have so many shows premiering all the time in London, it was so good to be able to come here and see French shows for example. I was completely fascinated because we don’t have this kind of thing in Portugal. The way that London produces is very clever and it’s a complete world of things that come to you and you absorb. I don’t think there is a better place to be in the world for arts.”

Image of Pedro Ribeiro by Richard H. Smith

El Gato Con Botas plays at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House 16-18 October 2013. For tickets and more information visit the Royal Opera House’s website.