Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simoneis very strange and full of contradictions and inherently anti-theatrical. When I first listened to it, it wasn’t the story that stood out to me, which is usually where my head goes. In fact, I had a hard time trying to make any narrative sense of not just the libretto, but of the music.

La Passione de Simone Soprano Jane Sheldon in La Passion de Simone. Photo © Samuel Hodge

And that was a really weird and daunting thing as a director, especially as the music felt like it was heading somewhere and then would disappear. And then it would roll forward again and you’d forget whether you’d heard that same thing or something new. Saariaho’s work operates like an ocean of sound, so that’s where my head went, this rolling quality. Her music feels like rolling waves, rolling backward and forwards.

A few ideas stood out to me on further listens. One was the idea of a life of endurance. Simone Weil [a French philosopher, political activist and mystic] essentially dedicated her life to profound acts of empathy. She was unable to separate herself from the suffering...