Sunday, November 9, 2014

Opera Week Continues...from Florida, to India?

National Opera Week set records for participation in 37 states this year, and the team at Opera Think Tank was overwhelmed with the support for our posts on American repertoire by women opera directors.

I was struck by how differently we all approach the process of investigating a work and how we digest it. How our ideas add to the history of a piece.

National Opera Week even hit Orlando, Land of Disney. Nice.

Of course, the discussion doesn't need to stop here, and among the operas we looked at, here are some other queries and curiosities that arose:

A Streetcar Named Desire (Previn/Littell)
  • Whether you look at the play or the opera by this name, the challenge is the same: do we keep doing the same Elia Kazan production over and over? If it works, why change it? Does the opera warrant a different look and feel than the famous play?
  • There was a recent opera production in LA and Chicago, directed by Brad Dalton, which some called "semi-staged", but was no less successful. Perhaps the success was partly due to the fact that it kept the period look that audiences know so well, yet allowed a celebration of unencumbered singers and orchestra on the same stage?
  • A 21st century setting could be New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, with TV and flash bulbs replacing Blanche's dim lamps. But would Previn's neo-romantic music withstand a hyper modern re-telling?
Brad Dalton's recent Streetcar production

Glory Denied (Cipullo)
  • What's true about this piece, and also a new veteran-themed piece The Long Walk, is that the subject matter is so specific and naturalistic that a large production is potentially unnecessary. Indeed, the productions of Glory Denied at Chelsea Opera and Fort Worth Opera Festival were very successful with singers in everyday period clothing on a spare unit set.
  • Could we possibly move the piece to a different war setting, or have it reflect the universal plight of all veterans returning home? It seems that the emotional memories surrounding Vietnam and the seismic shifts in pop culture during that time trump any other setting for the piece. Perhaps new productions will turn their creativity to texture and ways of examining our culture's memories of that era.
Glory Denied in Fort Worth


Lizzie Borden (Beeson/Elmslie)
  • Sarah Meyers illustrated a great way that the house and environment can play its own character and drive the story. But I couldn't help thinking of ways this same oppressive environment could be created outside of Victorian New England.
  • Ms. Borden's arrest shocked her conservative society mostly because she was a young woman, and indeed her gender was both her chief defense and the reason for her acquittal. However, if she had a motive it was a yearning for independence: fiercely feeling entitled to more than a life controlled by either a father or a husband. What if the opera were set in a modern day place where women are still treated as property? 


  • Immediately I thought of the thriving stereotypes surrounding Asian women - small-boned, passive and seemingly incapable of independence, much less violence. Just as the Second Industrial Revolution was sweeping post-Civil war New England, the Industrial Tech Revolution is sweeping India and China today. Women's rights are coming to the forefront in these countries just as women's suffrage was a long battle in America in the late 19th century. 
  • So what if we were to confront these stereotypes with Lizzie as a "sacred cow" of India, a small and gentle woman willing to do anything to break free of oppressive social customs? Some images below illustrate how both the bovine and the beautiful can be intermixed, and are both worshipped and domesticated.




How can we lie these stories of American history down against the new global revolutions of the 21st century, just as Figaro's revolutionary France runs parallel to modern day American race and class relations? 

In so doing, we not only address problems that face every society around the world, but on a practical level, we also create a more pressing need to fill casts with singers of color and gender diversity, a department in which American opera is sorely lagging.

If only Reshma Shetty were a mezzo to play Lizzie!

In their examination of The Cradle Will Rock, Corinne Hayes and Alison Moritz independently looked for ways Blitzstein's "labor-opera" from the 1930s can embrace the protests of a more modern and diverse population. I look forward to seeing how today's directors create new worlds with both classic pieces and new works, stretching the bounds of the people, places, and ideas opera can reach.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Momento Mori: Elise Sandell on Barber & Menotti's Vanessa

Next in our collection of outstanding directors discussing the American repertoire, we look at Samuel Barber's Pulitzer Prize winning Vanessa, which he wrote with his life-long partner and collaborator, Gian Carlo Menotti, who penned the libretto.

Barber & Menotti
While Barber is known for creating such rich and evocative works such as Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and his heart-wrenching Adagio for Strings, Vanessa was mostly ignored after it's successful 1958 Met premiere (and Pulitzer win!) as being too neo-classical, since such writing was not the style en vogue at the time, and the Edwardian Gothic setting felt out of sync with theatre trends of the time.

The piece has most often been presented as a vehicle for a star soprano, beginning with Eleanor Steber in the premiere, and since then Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Lauren Flanigan have both been featured centerpieces of major revivals.

Finalist of the Opera America Director-Designer Showcase in 2008-2009 for her team's production concept for Einstein on the Beach, Elise Sandell made her mainstage directing debut at Tulsa Opera in 2007, and is regularly engaged on directing staffs of major companies all around the country. Here she contributes an intriguing case for a Vanessa that is much more than a sumptuous soprano vehicle.

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The words “opera” or “domestic drama” are far too narrow to define Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti’s Vanessa. It’s a ghost story, or maybe it’s a haunting. It’s a group of people haunted by their pasts, their futures, their relatives, their fears, each other.


Although the relationship between these works can be described as tenuous at best, I am inspired by Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales when I think of Vanessa. Menotti and Barber are rumored to have been stimulated by this collection of stories when composing this opera, although these specific characters and plot points appear nowhere in her work. Dinesen also provides us with an important point of view…that of a woman, for Isak Dinesen is the pen name of one Karen Blixen.

Danish author Karen Blixen, whose most famous works included Seven Gothic Tales, Out of Africa, and Babette's Feast.
Throughout Blixen’s stories are examples of transformation, an idea that holds well with Vanessa. A daughter turns into her mother, a niece into her aunt, a young stranger into a husband. Yet no one understands exactly what lies beneath the surface of these characters and their behavior. This wonder, this inexplicable voodoo, is at the heart of the magical realism that would drive my production.


Imagine a space that is a trap and a whole world all at once. The Baroness’s manor is a hall of mirrors, a magical space that transforms itself, the characters in it, even the audience point of view. While nostalgic and elegiac in terms of furniture and clothing, nothing will be fixed, and the action will play out like a memory play. (Whose memory are we watching with? Is it accurate?) Some of the furniture and other objects will be outsize, highlighting the slightly surreal behavior of these characters.



Video design will figure prominently into the production. The mirrors that haunt these characters will be mirrored video screens; they are the weather, the jardin d’hiver, thoughts inside the characters heads, even inside our own heads.

The handsome young stranger Anatol is transformed into a demon, then to his father, then to an angel. The Old Baroness is transformed into her desperate granddaughter, the skulls and other memento mori of which Blixen was so fond will appear. Lighting can transform a living hell for one character into a romantic fairy tale for another, as quickly as Barber’s music turns from turmoil to celebration.




Is this a story happening now in front of our eyes, or is it a story long past, being re-told by characters long dead? Do these characters have the power to make different choices? Did they ever? What am I really seeing? What is really true? What is identity, and how can the people who surround us influence or change it? 

The audience will leave with these and many other questions…more questions asked than answers given.

Learn more about Elise Sandell's work at www.elisesandell.com

Friday, October 31, 2014

State of the Art, and Art of the State: A Gender Bend in Alison Moritz's The Cradle Will Rock

Yesterday Corinne Hayes called us to action with an exciting look at The Cradle Will Rock. Today will look at a different way this explosive piece questions our notions of power and gender.

Director Alison Moritz is currently the Resident Assistant Director at Minnesota Opera. She has also served on the directing staffs at Wolf Trap Opera Company, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Atlanta Opera, and Chautauqua Opera.

Together with set designer Charles Murdock Lucas, costume designer Dina Perez and lighting designer Kyle Grant, Alison formed a team to look at this list of American operas. Here she discusses the collaboration.

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Almost immediately, our team discovered a mutual drive to engage with the world through art that speaks to our own political and social experiences, and we spent a lot of time considering each opera and its relevance today. We were struck by the timeliness of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, a work that felt uncannily apt given the context of this summer’s labor disputes at the Metropolitan Opera.

The Cradle Will Rock is structured as a series of flashbacks and vignettes, exposing the members of a so-called Liberty Committee in Steeltown, USA. One by one, we learn how the pillars of the community (including leaders of the church, newspaper, education, arts, and medicine) fell under the sway of Mr. Mister's empire, selling themselves for power and prestige and ultimately becoming part of a societal machine that treats the working class as disposable.

I won't go into the specifics of our production concept here, but there's one detail of our concept which I believe is germane to the discussion at hand this week at Opera Think Tank - Idea Power from Women


As a team, we wanted to bring The Cradle Will Rock into the 21st century. After some discussion, it became apparent that we could not imagine a millennial Liberty Committee without a single female member, so we decided to recast the role of Editor Daily as a woman. Casting a female Editor Daily requires very few changes to the existing text, but it creates a series of subtle but important realignments in the power dynamics of the opera. 


Is this casting in keeping with Marc Blitzstein’s original intent? I cannot say for certain. However, since both Mr. and Mrs. Mister threaten and bribe members of the Steeltown middle class for their own gain, I would assert that any implied misogyny in the original libretto is peripheral, a byproduct of Blitzstein’s era, and it should not distract from the larger questions at hand in the opera: Who do the people work for? Does the engine of labor serve the many, or just the one? Is the selling of one’s efforts ever honorable or respectable?

1920s flapper Louise Brooks in a man's suit
Over the past few decades, color-blind casting has slowly entered the mainstream for both opera and theatre. Costume designer Dina Perez’s renderings for our concept include singers from ethnically diverse backgrounds as members of the Liberty Committee in order to reflect the changing face of power today. However, since casting choices like this require no adjustments to Blitzstein’s original text and music, there is less pressure to justify them artistically, even though they are part of a charged debate about race and power in America.

And so, my question is this - as ideas regarding gender and sexuality become more and more fluid, how can the opera community continue to engage in this discussion onstage? 

I’m encouraged to see many newly commissioned works that address this topic - including the recent performances of As One at American Opera Projects, where mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and baritone Kelly Markgraf shared the role of a transgender protagonist.
 

Perhaps even more importantly, I’m inspired by the current wave of opera directors reexamining the standard repertoire in order to represent the world as they see it today. Through productions like these, we are making the case that opera - far from being a museum piece - can be truly state of the art.

Learn more about Alison Moritz's work at www.alisonmoritz.com

Thursday, October 30, 2014

You Can't Sit Still: Corinne Hayes rallies behind Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock

Among the many works of 20th century opera that Opera Think Tank researched for this series, one of the most fascinating and shocking was Marc Blizstein's The Cradle Will Rock


In a way, the piece is a social movement, inside of a musical, inside of a historical turning point in politics and theatre. Not only are the real events surrounding its opening night bizarre and convoluted, but the political kaleidoscope of capitalists, socialists, fascists, communists, freedom-fighters, union members, and New Deal government workers demonstrated in the piece and in real life is enough to draw a diagram of practically every political philosophy in existence. Tim Robbins dramatized the piece and the conflicted world in which it premiered in a star studded 1999 movie.

Blitzstein called it a "labor-opera" and it was revived in 1960 with full orchestra and opera singers by the New York City Opera. That same decade, it was revived on Broadway, though like most Broadway revivals since, only a lone piano accompanied the singing actors.

Composer Marc Blitzstein at the piano
It's not surprising that a lot of directors found this piece exciting to dream on, so we have two posts on the piece. 

The first is below, from director Corinne Hayes, an emerging talent whose work has been seen at Marble City Opera, Central City Opera, and Opera North among others, and she has served as Assistant Director at companies such as Wolf Trap Opera Company and Dallas Opera. 

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"Well, you can’t climb down and you can’t sit still…"

Union Protests in Madison
Labor struggles are at the fore of hot button news stories throughout the country—Scott Walker’s adversarial approach to teachers’ unions, Occupy Wall Street’s outcry against corporate greed, and, closer to home for many of us, the recent labor disputes at the Metropolitan Opera. Agree or disagree, the human value of labor is constantly being called into question—a question that results in lockouts and Right to Work, or, with patience and goodwill, in compromise and a renewed sense of shared purpose.

Union Protests at the Met
The Cradle Will Rock sprang from a sweeping folio of reforms known as The New Deal—a mix of legislation and executive orders intended to put struggling Americans back to work following the stock market crash of 1929. From the pen of Marc Blitzstein, the eye of Orson Welles, and the pocketbook of the federal government, The Cradle Will Rock is aggressively pro-union, calling for the spectator to rally behind Larry Foreman and rise up against Mr. Mister (otherwise known as “The Man”). 

Nearing its 80th birthday, Cradle’s jazz-inflected tunes and unsentimental language resonate with a peculiar immediacy as the gulf between "them and us" grows ever wider.

A bit of backstory: Shortly before Cradle was scheduled to open on Broadway, the Works Progress Administration shut down the project. To avoid restrictions enacted by both the federal government and Actor’s Equity, Blitzstein and company opened the show with a single performer onstage—Blitzstein himself, serving as pianist and ersatz cast member—while the principal cast performed from seats throughout the house.

Read the original 1937 New York Times report here

Protest is theater. We perform our grievances, driven by a desire to give them voice. I am reminded of something I witnessed at an Occupy encampment in Washington, D.C.: during an un-amplified speech, the speaker’s words were repeated by the group, to ensure that all in attendance were able to hear. As the people’s microphone took hold, the speaker’s words gained a tangible power, one that energized the group of protestors and gave pause to the bystanders. 

Occupy Wall Street Protesters
I see The Cradle Will Rock as a rallying point, a means to both unify and amplify. Imagine Cradle on the steps of the Wisconsin state capitol, on the grass of Zuccotti Park, in the streets of Steeltown, USA. Broken into vignettes, the piece is inherently flexible in its presentation: archetypal characters play out episodes addressing corruption, prostitution (in its many guises), labor issues, laced through with a growing belief in the possibility of positive change.

Pull Cradle apart. Present Moll to the women's club and Editor Daily to the mainstream press. Pull it out of the theater, scatter the piece through the community, turn its songs into rallying cries.  

If nothing else, The Cradle Will Rock is art meant to work. No lights, no costumes, no opening night gala—just a group of people driven by a common vision, out to do nothing more than change the world.


Learn more about Corinne Hayes's work at www.corinnehayes.com

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Making Sense of Life: Andrea Dorf McGray on Bernstein's Candide

Next in our opera week of wonders we look at Leonard Bernstein's Candide, an operetta based on the novella by Voltaire. You can read the novella online, but particularly illuminating is the last chapter here, where the moral of the outlandish story reveals itself. 

Considering the challenge of adapting Voltaire and the beautiful simplicity of the libretto's poetry, it's interesting to note that the book was a decades-long work in progress begun by Lillian Hellman, after which Bernstein collaborated with director Harold Prince and new writers on the revival, including Dorothy Parker, Richard Wilbur (who wrote most of the lyrics, including those to "Glitter and Be Gay"), John LaTouche, James Agee, Stephen Sondheim, and many others, including Bernstein and his wife.


The first version, featuring Barbara Cook as Cunegonde, opened on Broadway in 1956 and Harold Prince revived the piece again on Broadway as late as 1997. If only more operas could find their path to the Great White Way over the course of four decades!

Our contributor for this piece is director Andrea Dorf McGray, who is based in the Washington, D.C. area and has done a great deal of work for Washington National Opera and Maryland Opera Studio.

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Having done a semi-staged production of basically the concert version of the show, there are a slew of themes, aspects and questions that continue to fascinate me about this opera. Here are a few.

1) The notion of the personal responsibility that each of us carries for our own lives and for our own little parts of the world. 

After all the dizzying ins and outs of the story, the round-the-world trip of exotic locations, unusual people and twists in the plot, the whole opera zeros in like a laser on the final two numbers, the reprise of “Universal Good,” followed by “Make our Garden Grow.” And its here that I believe we find the central question that the story asks: how do we make sense of life?

Using fantastic imagery to illustrate moral narratives: Hieronymus Bosch's Hell
In the reprise of the “Universal Good” music, the text changes from its previous poetry to the following: 

“Life is neither good, nor bad. Life is life, and all we know.
Good and bad, and joy and woe, are woven fine, are woven fine.” 

And in “Make our Garden Grow,” Candide sings, 

“And let us try, before we die, to make some sense of life. We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good. We’ll do the best we know. We’ll build our house and chop our wood, and make our garden grow.”

What I find in these pieces of text, and in the soul-stirring music to which they are set, is a call to believe that though life is far from perfect, and indeed often contains horrid, beyond awful things, we do have a purpose here. It is to join together (“come and be my wife”), to work the daily tasks of life (“build our house, chop our wood”), and in so doing to create our own gardens of Eden (“make our garden grow”). 

Paradise is not out there to be found; it must be grown right here, in each of our corners of the land. We are the ones responsible for the planting, the nurturing, the reaping, and the re-sowing; we are the ones responsible for the present and future hope and happiness of ourselves and our communities.

2) The hero’s journey. 

Candide’s world shatters over and over again throughout the story. With his faith in Optimism so strongly intact at the beginning, he is able to rally a few times. As the story plays out, however, that faith begins to shake, and he starts to rely more on his wits, his friends, and the sustaining strength that his love for Cunegonde provides. But it is in “Nothing More Than This” that Candide hits bottom; he realizes that this ideal woman that he has carried in his heart, this dream that kept him going through all manner of hell, this “angel face with flaxen hair,” is just a money-grubbing, shallow person.

Material Girls: Cunegonde portrayed, from left, by Kristin Chenowith, Marnie Breckenridge, and Anna Christy

Candide had confidently centered the meaning of his life on the love he felt for Cunegonde, a woman, it turns out, whose real core he did not know. At the end of his journey, he shifts to searching for the meaning of life by engaging in the small, daily tasks of life – chopping wood, baking bread, growing food, building shelter. 

There is something quite spiritual in this shift, in the recognition that the meaning of life is not a static answer to be found, but rather it’s a dynamic act with which we must engage.

Two writers that I would like to saturate myself in further when considering a full production of Candide are Wendell Berry and Anne Lamott

Wendell Berry in his world

I imagine that what these two authors have to say about the little things in life, and how the little things actively create the ever-changing big picture of life, would be very useful in thinking more deeply about the story and about Candide’s journey.

3) The comedy and tragedy of this opera turn on a dime. 

It’s one of the most amazing and beautiful aspects of the piece, and it makes me think of the Harold Clurman quote:  

“The truth is like castor oil. It’s difficult to take and hard to swallow, so we get them to laugh and while their mouths are open, we pour a little in.”

Finding the right spin so that the two sides of the one coin that is life – the comedy and the tragedy – are examined, belly-laughed over, cried tears over, and ultimately lifted up – is the great joy of rehearsing and producing this opera. 

Learn more about Andrea Dorf McGray's work at www.andreadorf.com

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Collage of Cultures in Four Saints, by Andrea Andresakis

In our last post we learned about a glamorous and dissonant production of Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts, brought to us by director Mary Birnbaum. Here we look at this work, sometimes called the "great-great-grandparent of performance art" through a very different lens.

Andrea Andresakis is a native New Yorker, and after a successful career as a dancer (dancing in everything from the original Fame to Zefferelli's Turandot), she now spends her time as a director and choreographer for opera, theatre, musicals, and dance works.

Here, Andrea breaks down the many ways in which Four Saints intrigues her as a director.

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Four Saints in Three Acts intrigues me for several reasons:

The opera has been described as ritualistic, but not religious. Having experienced diverse cultures from over thirty countries, I would be very interested in drawing upon these cultures for my dream production.

I would incorporate practices from Europe (as the libretto takes place in Spain) and the US (as the composer was a Southern Baptist) as well as South America, Japan and India (where I have lived and worked).

Wishes left on a Muslim dargah shrine
Taking a world view would illustrate how many basic components are shared. Icons, relics, holy water, bells, gongs, candles, fire, halos and angels are used in religions from Christianity to Hinduism. In India, I was surprised to see cupids carved on 6th century portraits of Hindi gods. By abstracting the common physical components of various religious rituals, I would hope to make the opera accessible to people from all cultures and lifestyles.

St. Ignatius of Loyola
St. Teresa of Avila
Adding to the cultural mish-mash is the fact that the original cast of Four Saints in Three Acts, which takes place in Spain, was black. Thomson said the African-American cast really “got it”, which made sense considering the score was written from Thomson’s Baptist background.

The Baptist church developed in Trinidad as a mixture of European Christianity with African beliefs. Another combination of Spanish Catholicism and African beliefs exists in Brazil in the form of Candomble. It also takes shape in some startling images, like the site of a prosthetic leg hanging from the ceiling of a gilded Cathedral.

Prosthetic body parts in a Brazilian cathedral
Balancing serious qualities such as piety and discipline with humor is crucial in Four Saints; and who doesn’t love a prosthetic limb joke, a la Monty Python?

Another source of humor is spoofing musical theatre conventions. The opening of Four Saints reminds me of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The picnic scene reminds me of the Act Two opening of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. The saints sitting around in heaven remind me of both Princess Ida and of Carousel. Combining musical theatre aesthetic with colorful religious festivities, my sets and costumes would reflect the sense of lightness and fun which Thomson stresses is so important.

As a choreographer, I would relish the opportunities for movement, dance and rhythm that the opera has to offer. A former ballerina, I often compared the discipline and daily ritual of our lifestyle to that of a nun. The similarity between the monastic life and that of an artist was exactly what Thomson was trying to express in Four Saints:

“I saw in the religious, a parallel to the life we were leading, trying to learn the terrible disciplines of truth and spontaneity of channeling skills without the loss of inspiration. The daily life of saints could be, as regards to their work and their preparation of it, a model to ours.”

This pertains to all creative endeavors. He also said his that his intention was “evoking the inner gaiety and the strength of lives consecrated to a non-materialistic end." Realizing this core theme would be the focus of my production.

Sisters at the Taj Mahal
Learn more about Andrea Andresakis's work at www.andresakis.com

A Church of Art: Mary Birnbaum's rebellious Four Saints in Three Acts

There's hardly any piece in the operatic repertoire as enigmatic as Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts. You can read Gertrude Stein's libretto here, but you might need a stiff drink. 

The writing has been called "verbal nonsense" or merely that Stein was more interested in the sounds of words than what they meant. Thomson's score is a collage of non-operatic American styles - hymns, marching band, parlor tunes - and he described the piece himself as "virtually a complete summary of my Protestant childhood in Missouri." His musical life was indeed colorful, and in by the age of sixteen he could be found accompanying silent films on the piano and Baptist choirs on the organ in the same week.

It may be interesting to note that it originally featured an all-black cast (who apparently had the clear diction Stein desired), and premiered in 1934, the same year as Cole Porter's Anything Goes!
An image from Thomson's original production

We are lucky to have two very different artists weigh in on how to approach this challenging work. The first is Mary Birnbaum, who directs both theatre and opera and also serves as the Associate Director of the Artist Diploma in Opera Studies Program at Juilliard. 

Our next post will feature the writing of Andrea Andresakis, who takes a very different approach, but no less interesting. 

Mary worked with a team of designers to dream up these great ideas:

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We searched for a way to present the show that would be as dissonant in a contemporary context as the original staging was in its own time. In trying to rebel against Stein and Thompson, we wound up using what they were rebelling against: the American theater of the 1930s: representational, beautiful and divorced from the audience. Our production of Four Saints in Three Acts will slam the theatrical conventions of the 1930s -- Follies divas, historical tableaux vivant and religious pageantry -- up against the efforts of Stein and Thompson, turning their rebellion on its head and creating a new, exciting dissonance.

On stage is a proscenium theater wherein the scenes from the lives of the saints are playfully depicted, replete with charming historical inaccuracies. This is a church of art, where chorus girls and boys portray saints and collaborate with stagehands to create a show and inspire the suspension of disbelief; theatrical magic stands in for divinity. As Stein and Thompson point out, saints and artists have a lot in common: both try to share their visions and encounter problems when others doubt their convictions. Both feel out of sync with the conventions of their time yet attempt to connect with a type of timeless truth. 

There's even an onstage audience for the play, an elderly couple (the Commère and Compère) who are constantly trying to make sense out of the nonsense in front of them, rifling through their programs to try to find out what scene they’re watching. We watch the Commère and Compère watch a play, but also we are aligned with them, delighted to find that we share their perplexed, outsider reactions from time to time.

The staging begins as a tightly ordered machine, highly choreographed and representational. The ensemble saints earnestly replay St. Teresa’s life in Avila, avoiding camp but occasionally stumbling into the ridiculous. Gradually, however, the rules and norms of the 1930s theater stop working, and the abstract starts to take over in an unexpectedly beautiful way. As scenes progress, no set piece is ever struck, the vines of the garden become bedecked with stars. The established order is so confused that audience and artists alike are forced to join Stein and Thompson in their celebration of the essential illogical nature of art, life and God. 


Even the strict boundary between actor and audience dissolves; the Commère and Compère ecstatically find themselves on the stage and some of the showgirls wind up in the actual opera house. The houselights come up to reveal humanity everywhere. We concede that things can both be and not be, that the divine both is and is not a “fact".

The prologue of the piece is played downstage of a drop that shows the outside of the theater on stage left and the stage door on stage right. As we are told, to orchestral oom-pah-pahs, what's going to happen, we see a continual stream of bundled up chorus girls enter the stage door in time for half hour call and then fancy fur-clad audience members enter the theater. 

Finally, the Marquee lights up, reading "FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS" and the performance is ready to begin, the drop flies away and we are looking at the house of the theater, where the Commère and Compère have bustled to their seats in a convenient balcony, opera glasses in hand and sucking on sugar free candy. As they wait for the houselights to dim, they read each other the cast list aloud, "saint... saint... saint..." trying to keep track of "who's who". At the end of the prologue, the curtain inside the smaller proscenium opens on the steps of Avila Cathedral, and the real show begins. 
Learn more about Mary Birnbaum's work at www.marybirnbaum.com

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Very Grateful: The Opening of Klinghoffer

In the midst of our online forum on American works for National Opera Week, we couldn't ignore the extraordinary opening of John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer last Monday. So here are some thoughts.

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I knew I couldn't miss Klinghoffer's opening night at the Met. Even if I don't agree with the protests, I can't help the thrill of any work of art creating a vehement discussion in the headlines. I managed to arrive to my cozy balcony box after making it past the barricades and protesters without much altercation...

Upon seeing the barricades along Columbus Avenue, I asked a very senior-looking police officer:

"Excuse me, how do I get into the Met?"

"For what?" he flips back.

"For the...opera...?" (perhaps he was unaware that there was an actual performance going on behind the metal fences?)

Finally another officer overheard and directed me to the stairs on the 65th street side, where I was greeted by this festive welcoming committee:


I was rather disappointed that the protesters were not allowed onto the plaza itself - do they not have a right to assemble in a public plaza? But then because they were mostly on Columbus Avenue, and unshielded by the reverent buildings of Lincoln Center, you could hear their noise all across Broadway. So perhaps more people heard about what was going on than if they'd been allowed front and center.

Anyway, it was an amazing evening nevertheless, and leave it to The New Yorker and Mr. Alex Ross to give a succinct and sensitive response to the events. I found the column's illustration by Tomer Hanuka less insightful than Mr. Rose's prose, however, as the dancer/actor playing the assailant Omar, Jesse Kovarsky, was not scary or brawny. He was indeed a tiny dancer, not much taller than five feet and the body of a teenage boy, costumed simply, in a red T-shirt and blue pants. His form slowly attacking Mr. Klinghoffer was so frightening precisely because the evil was so small, so young, and clearly so impressionable. It makes the deed even more horrific. The evil is clearly much greater and more insidious than a single deranged murderer.

Alan Opie, as Leon Klinghoffer, and Jesse Kovarsky, as the terrorist Omar, on board the Achille Lauro, in John Adams’s opera. Illustration by Tomer Hanuka.

However, the illustration is accurate in the staging - in Tom Robbins's production, the murder is committed onstage, as opposed to the the score's indication of simply an offstage gunshot, an indication that most past productions have followed, to my knowledge.

From my seat in a house left balcony box, the scene was terrifying and mesmerizing: this tiny young man, goaded and haunted by the voice of his mother to serve his homeland with violence, slowly and cowardly creeping up behind a noble and brave elderly hostage, pointing his gun through the man's back and straight at the audience; gold light from behind him spilling, flowing in a treacherous force forward, so the entire house of onlookers was ablaze in this bright hate. The music twists and wrenches and roars.

And then the gunshot. And nothing. Some red. A man slumped in his chair.

The sombre, anti-climactic silence of death. I was left staring at the extra dancers, dressed as white crew members, unlocking the manual brakes of his wheelchair as they took it offstage.

Why do we need works of art that depict such terrible murders? Such insurmountable sins of humanity? Because a piece like John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer reminds me that a tiny bit of hate can do a world of hurt. Just like the anti-semitism that led to the Holocaust, or the animosity that led to gunshots in Ferguson: it starts in small forms, in small packages, and is dismissed. Until there are gunshots.

The piece also reminds me how culture and behavior is passed through generations: the British woman behaves as a hostage just how she did during WWII; the anger of the Palestinians is passed along each generation. When each generation has known the same feelings and the same behavior, they forget any other way of living.

I also must give this piece credit not only for it's beautiful and poignant ending, sung gorgeously by Michaela Martens, but its specific portrayal of Marilyn Klinghoffer as a no-nonsense, wise, beautiful, brave, simple, sensitive, strong woman. And one who is a low mezzo, a fach usually relegated to witches and crones. I can't think of any character in the operatic repertoire quite like Marilyn Klinghoffer, and just for that, Alice Goodman and John Adams deserve an ovation.

Quite surprisingly, the Klinghoffer's daughters Lisa and Ilsa do not share in the celebration of this heroic portrayal of their parents. In their message printed in the Met program (graciously appearing along its center page with the staple seam), they disparage the opera completely, saying,

"[Adams's opera] offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew. It rationalizes, romanticizes, and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father...and sullies the memory of a fine, principled, sweet man..."

I read this after seeing the piece on Monday night, and am left bewildered. Not only did I not feel that any action of the story was legitimized, but all the kind words the daughters wrote about their father were things I understood from watching his character on stage. Again, the creators deserve praise for this.

Above all, I know that without this opera, the name Mr. Leon Klinghoffer would mean nothing to me, nor to the large majority of Met audiences. We would not know what he believed in, nor how he died. Great art tells stories that must be told.

At the opening night reception, John Adams remarked that he was merely a vessel through which the piece passed through, and the opera's artists made real. He was grateful. So should we be.

Sea Fog and Shadow Sister - Sarah Meyers imagines an oppressive Lizzie Borden

Welcome to National Opera Week and the hundreds of events occurring nationwide. As we begin our collection of posts from women opera directors on American works, we aim to create a fascinating collage of some of the medium's finest thinkers, and a window into a few of the greatest operatic works from the 20th century.

Tweet @operathink and #operaweek, and JOIN this blog to share the news!
A portrait of the enigmatic Lizzie, by Tiago Finato

We begin with a great story for Hallow's Eve - Jack Beeson's Lizzie Borden. You can watch the original New York City Opera production here, directed by Rhoda Levine

Our first contributing artist is stage director Sarah Meyers, a staff director at the Metropolitan Opera in New York since 2006, who is also finishing a doctorate at Columbia. Here she tells a great story about our dear old Lizzie.

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Sea Fog and Shadow Sister
A meditation on space in Lizzie Borden 
by Sarah Meyers

Lizzie Borden is an exploration of evil, but that evil is not Lizzie’s alone. Rather the opera explores the corrosive, oppressive, persistent evil of the Borden household, of a family turned inside out by repression, secrets, and betrayal. Darkness permeates their world, and oozes into life through cruelty after petty cruelty.

Much like a Shakespearean play, the opera transfers the psychological agitation and turmoil onto the environment. The spirit of dead mother Evangeline hangs on to the house – first literally, in the portrait upon the wall, then figuratively, as Lizzie becomes a double of her mother. The house watches, shadows pursue, the fog rolls in malevolent and heavy from the sea. The garden is rife with pests and bugs. 


Hatred and resentment have made the space itself sick, and sickening. The walls – Lizzie repeats, over and over again – the walls.  It reminds me of a gothic fiction story I read many years ago, The Yellow Wallpaper, in which the winding patterns of vines in a woman’s bedroom drive her mad. But is it her insanity that in fact transforms the space, or does the room really have its own dark intentions? That story, like Lizzie Borden, suggests the possibility that both are true. As madness develops, yes, it transforms the space around us. But perhaps more frightening is the idea that space itself can become sinister, and that the inanimate – charged perhaps by our own hatred and fear – can come to life with its own dark purpose. The haunted house.

I’m currently at work on a dissertation at Columbia about exactly this type of space in contemporary performance – spaces which defy logic, which articulate a very specific form of anxiety. I’ve been studying how theatrical performance can get under our skin and inhabit our subconscious. So naturally, I would love to direct Lizzie Borden. It would be an ideal opportunity to explore the terrifying potential of theatrical space. Without doing a full design process, it is of course hard to say what that would entail, but I know what the key elements would be. 

The house would have to be dangerous. Edges like blades, dark corners, angles. The fog – perhaps we could find a way to control its movement to make it interactive. I’d love for it to literally lick at Lizzie when she stands by the window. And perhaps most important, the use of light and dark. The shadows of the opera intrigue me – I’d love to literally bring those shadows to life, to give them increasing autonomy as Lizzie hurtles towards her murderous acts. In the end, only the shadows keep her company…
Learn more about Sarah Meyers's work at www.sarahinameyers.com

Sunday, October 12, 2014

National Opera Week Features Opera Think Tank: Idea Power from Women

We at OPERA THINK TANK have been very busy connecting with dozens of outstanding women opera directors at every level, all over the world, and the enthusiasm for an online forum to connect and converse has been overwhelming. 

We eagerly await celebrating so much of this talent and insight at our online forum during Opera America's National Opera Week

If you're interested in being a part of this online forum, please hit the blue JOIN THIS SITE button to follow this blog. 

If you're a professional woman opera director and have not yet received an invitation to post, please email us at operathinktank@gmail.com.

We will be discussing the list below of American operas. What interests you about these pieces? What are the challenges? What would help them gain more momentum as part of the world's opera repertoire? Many artists will be posting about specific titles, and their ideas or questions about the work.

We are collecting content now and will be posting daily during National Opera Week, October 24th through November 2nd. Positive comments, questions, and conversations are encouraged.


The operas we will use as conversation points are listed below. This list was generated by Opera America as part of the Director Designer Showcase of this past fall, though this online forum will have nothing to do with that program, and its deadline has passed. The list serves simply as a conversation starter, however some artists may have submitted a showcase application and may choose to share their team's work. 


A Streetcar Named Desire (Previn/Littell)
Candide (Bernstein/Wilbur)
Four Saints in Three Acts (Thompson/Stein)
Glory Denied (Cipullo)
Il Postino (Catán)
Lizzie Borden (Beeson/Elmslie)
Of Mice and Men (Floyd)
The Cradle Will Rock (Blitzstein)
Three Decembers (Heggie/Scheer)
Vanessa (Barber/Menotti)


We're looking forward to some fascinating insights and conversations!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Opera Think Tank 2.0

We're back! And wow, what a different world we have now. New York City Opera is gone, San Diego Opera barely survived shuttering, and the Met just mud-slung its way through some interminable union negotiations. Some say we're dragging behind in every way, if you read the comments here. Meanwhile there is a growing number of young leaders in opera and new work being made everywhere you look.

In the eight years I've been in NYC, however, it seems like opportunities have dwindled for singers to actually develop and perform here in the city. Meanwhile I find myself in amazing theatre spaces set up by actors and comedians - artists who work at their craft to a point that they can perform any where, any time - places like the PIT and Magnet and spaces that not only have a great theatre spaces, but great bars where people can hang out and have a good time on a Friday night. Why don't these spaces exist for opera?


The PIT, or People's Improv Theatre, has great spaces for performing and hanging out


There was recently a great article picking apart the many ways that the Met makes going to the theatre unnecessarily cumbersome and difficult. It's a theatre house stuck in a century-old tradition of entertainment. But hey, let's not pick on the Met - they are the nation's largest performing arts organization. I just wish there was more middle ground, especially in New York, where you might trip over a singer, a director, or a designer every three feet.

So I decided to do something about it and launched OPERA THINK TANK this summer. We've only just begun, but we have a packed schedule for the fall in an amazing new theatre space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.


The stunning staff of Triskelion in front of their new free-standing theatre building!


So here's how it all works, at least for now:

OPERA THINK TANK's goal is to get an ensemble of singers making theatre together on a regular basis, creating regular performance opportunities that singers can join whenever they are available.

Led by director/choreographer Heidi Lauren Duke and guest coach/conductor Carmine Aufiero, the THINK TANK also includes includes guest coaches, directors, and designers.


The flexible session schedule includes private coaching, ensemble work on skills and dramaturgy, and public presentations. No new music to learn - all a singer needs to prepare is her current rep - either her 5 audition arias or other arias/duets that a singer wants to brush up or get in front of an audience. We will use principals of improv comedy, theatre composition, and reinterpreting the classics to create a vocabulary and process we can use again and again to create engaging opera theatre.

Throughout the 2014-15 season, singers may join ongoing weekly sessions whenever they are available. Performances will be monthly and will be cast from new singers that have attended at least 3 sessions total, and singers who are already part of the roster but have attended at least one session in the current month.


So experienced singers could work with us a bit, then leave town, come back for two weeks (or six months), and perform in quality shows in NYC with limited rehearsal time. Younger or less experienced artists can come every week and continuously work on their skills and craft, performing as they wish. Meanwhile singers can invite their friends and fans to see them perform in a gorgeous space in a fun neighborhood with amazing views of Manhattan.


Sunset earlier this year at East River Park, an easy walk from Triskelion


So save the dates for our Saturday night fall shows - come have dinner before at Adelina's, Jimmy's, Calexico, or just come wander around this booming neighborhood:

Saturdays at 10pm

October 18th, November 15th, and December 13th

Triskelion Arts, 106 Calyer Street, Williamsburg / Greenpoint, Brooklyn

And donate here to Triskelion's valiant efforts to provide a home for so many artists!