During this summer season you will be directing three one-act operas; do you think the rehearsal period will be long enough?
Lord,no! This is a thrilling and terrifying job! I have no doubt we will get it all done and in some style given the cast and designers involved. I plan to sleep for a month afterwards! Each piece is so unique that I truly relish the opportunity to try to tie them together on some level, to try to find a common physical language that can be a thru-line for the three pieces. And it has always been my experience that in working with "the little company that could," you can accomplish anything you put your mind and heart to (thank you for that, Pat) [Pat Pearce – General and Artistic Director of Central City Opera]. That is the joy of being isolated on a mountain top for four weeks with nothing to distract you from the artistic challenges at hand.
How do you prepare and how do you keep each opera clear in your mind?
The greatest challenge with these three pieces is the language diversity and the drastically different nature of each piece: the broad, music hall comedy of Schicchi vs. the stark, alienation theatre of 7DSs (as we are referring to The Seven Deadly Sins) vs. the genuine absurdism and surrealism of Mamelles [The Breasts of Tiresias]. To tie that all together into one hopefully semi-cohesive evening of theatre that says something to an audience is a unique challenge. As for learning them, one simply studies and studies and studies. Fortunately, I teach at a major university and have access to a rehearsal space on a fairly regular basis and am in there pretty regularly playing with different ideas for the choreography for 7DSs.
Can you give us a taste for how these operas will work together?
The main theme of the operas is "home and one's place in that home." We have chosen to set the pieces in the period that Mamelles was written, 1947-early 1950s, post-WWII. Dadaism had reached its peak as an art form and with the beginning of the recovery of Europe from the devastation of WWII; people had become machines, working ridiculous hours to rebuild their lives and to restore some semblance of normalcy. The Dadaists used endless imagery of peoples' bodies with machines for heads and limbs and torsos. We construct an actual house on stage as the evening progresses.
First, in Schicchi, the family is desperate to recover some of their former glory but opportunists like Gianni Schicchi simply have better survival skills and outsmart them. The house begins to come together.
Then in 7DSs, the two Annas sell everything they can, including their bodies, to work to build a home for their rather lazy, judgmental family in rural Louisiana, the little tract home so popular after WWII. The Annas literally become furniture for the family to walk over and sit on and abuse. The house is even more complete.
Finally, in Mamelles, a society that has experienced the devastation of war first-hand cries out to have more children, to repopulate. What is a woman's place in this society? What is a husband's place in this society? Everyone is working so hard to rebuild their lives, that they have lost their humanity and become the cafe table they are waiting on, the messengers become their bicycle, the idea of babies being created in test tubes is given full-throttle exposure in this piece. There is a loss of humanity and people have become the things they covet.
This is the thrust of the Dadaist message and Cameron Anderson, our set designer, and Alice Bristow, our costume designer, have brilliantly recreated the Dadaist style. The house onstage is finally completed when husband and wife in Mamelles agree that it takes both of them to conceive and produce a child. I wish there was a fourth opera in this cycle that moved us forward and challenged the classic notion of "husband and wife" as the ultimate family, a hot burner issue for the world today and for me personally, as a gay man. But that's for another summer....
Set renderings for Central City Opera’s 2011 productions of Gianni Schicchi (above) and The Breasts of Tiresias (below) by designer Cameron Anderson.
After an accident that ended the dancing portion of your career, your roommate, a vocal coach, asked you to give his singers dramatic training because they were not required to take acting courses. Do you find that singers are receiving this training these days, and what are some basic acting principles you impart to young singers?
I do believe that singers are receiving better acting training. People like Chuck Hudson, Ann Baltz, and Stephen Wadsworth are training people in a more realistic approach to performing opera. I teach at the University of Southern California Flora Thornton School of Music and I stress a realistic approach to acting. I was trained by members of the Actors Studio at Syracuse University and they stressed an extremely organic approach to performing.
Now, opera is of its very nature an over-the-top art form, heightened dramatically by the spectacular music used to express emotion. Consequently, one often has to stretch the limits of reality to a certain extent. That, to my mind, simply heightens the visceral and sensorial thrill of opera. There is a certain ecstasy that can be achieved when all of the stars align and a performance is absolutely in the groove and the audience gets swept up in that. I also heartily believe that ALL singer actors should take movement and dance classes! One has to understand how their body works and be able to adapt to any physical challenge onstage. We do two to three dance classes a year during the acting classes at USC. I wish there was time in the schedule to do more.
What has been your favorite opera to direct? What was one thing about the production that made it work?
I get asked this question all of the time and it is literally impossible to answer. There have been several favorite productions for me and not all were operas. Near the top would be Waiting for Godot with the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre many years ago. A brilliant cast, a five week rehearsal period, digging for the truth in the absurdity: it all came together for a devastating evening. Salome in Santa Fe in the mid-'90s was a thrill, primarily thanks to the late and truly great Inga Nielsen. She was an amazing colleague and anything I asked her to try, she did. Last summer's Three Decembers here in Central City was a tremendously fulfilling experience. Joyce [Castle], Emily [Pulley], and Keith [Phares] were amazing and the rehearsal period was much more like doing a play thanks to [music director] John Baril's dedication to the drama. Then there were Dialogues of the Carmelites and Gloriana at CCO which were great not only for my career but also for the opportunity to work with Joyce Castle so intimately.
Central City Opera’s THREE DECEMBERS (2010). Pictured (L to R): Emily Pulley (Beatrice), Joyce Castle (Madeline) and Keith Phares (Charlie). Photo by Mark Kiryluk.
Central City Opera’s GLORIANA (2001). Pictured (L to R): Joyce Castle (Queen Elizabeth I). Photo by Mark Kiryluk.
Last year, I had the honor to direct the West Coast premiere of Wagner's Das Liebesverbot at USC. Who would have believed that students could pull of Wagner with such artistry, integrity, and guts? I don't think I have ever been so proud of a cast. I would have to say the number one on my list is Death in Venice which I had the privilege of doing for Chicago Opera Theatre. The elegance and simplicity of the designs, Danny Pelzig's [director and choreographer of Central City Opera’s Carmen this summer] brilliant choreography, and Robin Leggate's other-worldly performance as Ascenbach made an evening that, when the final blackout happened long after the music had died, created a silence that thrilled all of us on the production team. The response from everyone was overwhelming. For once, I felt that maybe we had fulfilled a bit of what Britten was looking for in the piece. I know that that sounds tremendously egotistical but those moments are few and far between in our careers and when they do very rarely happen, you savor it.
You are one of America’s most sought-after directors and have directed more than 140 productions for more than 40 companies; what have been your greatest achievements and what are the reasons for your successes?
I think the above answer addresses a lot of that. Success to me means working regularly and steadily in a very fickle business. I will say that the primary reason for any success I may have achieved is that I have an insane and wonderful family who constantly challenge and inspire me and encourage my life in the arts. The other thing that keeps me going is that I have never shied away from a risk, theatrically. One has to hurl oneself in to a project up to ones eyeballs. If you fail, you fail; at the least you had a mentality and a reason for saying and doing what you did. Our job is first to entertain but further to move, to edify, and to educate. We in the living arts are the historians of the present and the torch bearers of the past. We must always take a risk and stretch an audience's mentality and emotions, whether it is tickling their funny bones or moving them to tears. This risk-taking is the measure of any artist's success.
The article is included in the 2011 Opera Insider (Festival Resource Guide) - pdf created by Central City Opera's Education & Community Programs Department, and the interview was conducted by Deven Shaff, Coordinator of Education & Community Programs. Check out many more insider interviews and background on all of the main stage operas this summer.