Theatre turned opera director John Bell on bringing Puccini’s tragic opera to life.

Your new Toscafor Opera Australia is set in Mussolini’s Italy: was that an obvious choice?

This particular period of the German occupation of Rome fits in very well with the story of Tosca; the characters match that scenario. I think the audience will tune into it very easily. When it’s in 19th-century costume there’s a danger of being too melodramatic; in this setting it can’t help but take on echoes of the resistance movement – it necessarily becomes broader, more political.

Michael Scott-Mitchell’s design features a replica of the Sant’Andrea della Valle basilica fresco; what else will we see?

We originally conceived of something a bit more abstract, but after discussions with the company we decided we’d go for something representational, so the first set is a very faithful replication of the church; the second is based on the fascist architecture of an office building, and a third is something resembling Auschwitz concentration camp. It starts out very opulent and ends up incredibly bleak.

You previously directed Madame Butterflyfor Oz Opera; how do you approach Puccini?

As far as credibility and verismo, he’s certainly a great dramatist –...