Necessity being the mother of invention, expect an inventive wrinkle or two in Lincoln Center Festival 2008, which begins July 2 and continues for three weeks. Not that there aren't always expectations of theatrical innovation from this popular summer event, which showcases the latest‹and often the boldest‹work being done by performing arts companies around the world. But with major construction projects surrounding Lincoln Center's celebrated theaters and grounds, just figuring out how to stage the seven events comprising this year's festival demands the kind of improvisational skill normally reserved for the shows on stage.
"With all the work being done at Lincoln Center, there was a real space issue," says Nigel Redden, the Festival Director since 1998 and an obvious master of understatement.
Redden does allow himself to savor the extraordinary coup de theatre that solved the most daunting challenge of the Festival‹namely, where to stage Die Soldaten. Never mind the 40 singers, actors, and dancers in this production of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's iconic 20th-century opera, which originated in 2006 at the Ruhr Triennale in Germany, under its Artistic Director J‹rgen Flimm. Where, pray tell, does one seat the Bochumer Symphoniker, which consists of a 110-piece orchestra with a huge percussion complement?
The monumental production‹which incorporates film, taped music, amplification, and moving platforms mounted on railroad tracks to accommodate audience seating‹was staged in Germany in the former power plant of a steelworks factory. For its North American premiere, directed by David Pountney and conducted by Steven Sloane, the Festival brain trust decided to replicate the experience by installing the opera in the vast, vaulted expanse of the former Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory.
"This is a production that could not be realized in any other venue in New York," says Rebecca Robertson, President and CEO of the Armory. To Nigel Redden, the expansive setting gives more scope to both the opera's challenging atonal score and its vision of the brutalities of war.
"The Armory setting is spectacular in itself," Redden says. But it also brings out what he calls "the cinematic quality" of the libretto through such unorthodox staging devices as shrinking the stage to a 10-foot wide, 220-foot long platform catwalk, positioning the orchestra on both sides of the audience, and allowing the seated audience to literally follow the action by moving around the stage. "Somehow," he says, "on this long, narrow stage, in an environment that allows the opera to be looked at in a totally fresh way, scenes meld into one another, and the whole thing becomes riveting."
Putting any performing arts piece into an unexpected setting has a way of enhancing the event for the audience. The Rose Theater, Lincoln Center's sleek outpost at Columbus Circle, is sure to extend the theatergoing experience for anyone attending the shows scheduled to play there, from Homeland, the intimate "concert-poem" that Laurie Anderson recently created in response to tectonic shifts in America's cultural landscape, to William Forsythe's sweeping late-20th-century dance piece Impressing the Czar.
A near-legendary work of choreographic virtuosity, Impressing the Czar was originally created for the Frankfurt Ballet in 1988 and has not been seen locally for years. In the production, the entire history of Western civilization is dynamically invoked and celebrated‹and then drolly satirized‹through every conceivable variety of genre and style from classical ballet en pointe to break-dancing.
"This is quite possibly the largest dance piece we've done, and it demands a lot of space," Redden says. The Festival Director considers the work "a masterpiece" and enthusiastically points out that its elaborate theatrical effects are designed to display the full gamut of "unreserved, unabashed, absolutely pure, wonderful choreography."
A third major production anchoring this year's Festival‹and also scheduled to play the Rose Theater‹is the National Theatre of Scotland's multi-faceted version of The Bacchae. In this new treatment of the classic Greek drama by Euripides, director John Tiffany integrates elements of choreography and song directly into the ancient drama about the god Dionysius and the cult of female worshipers whose ecstatic rituals lead to bloody murder and unbridled mayhem.
Backed by an onstage instrumental trio, the traditional Greek chorus of cautionary elders is transformed into ten black gospel singers who function as Dionysus's hedonistic cult. And in a piece of casting sure to get attention from theatergoers, the irresistible androgynous god will be played by Alan Cumming.
"This is a play with long, long history," Nigel Redden points out, "but it has a very contemporary look here." And while it is not as overtly an anti-war piece as Die Soldaten, the Festival Director notes the strong "anti-authoritarian" theme that should make the production especially relevant for a modern audience."
With the works in this year's Festival shaping up as anti-war, anti-authority, and altogether unconventional, it seems entirely appropriate that Samuel Beckett, Ireland's poet of the existential void, would be represented. Designated "A Gate Beckett Season," this extraordinary theatrical event consists of three monologues‹Eh, Joe, I'll Go On, and First Love‹performed by Liam Neeson, Barry McGovern, and Ralph Fiennes. The tripartite piece, which originated at Dublin's Gate Theater under the direction of Atom Egoyan, Colm O'Braian, and Michael Colgan, plays at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College.
"Beckett conjures up an existential time of profound uneasiness," says Redden, reflecting on the playwright's pivotal place in "a time when there is no longer the certainty of a religious explanation for many people, or a material explanation for others."
For all Beckett's apparent pessimism, he notes, the fact that these plays exist to be performed gives them a transcendent purpose. "There is something wonderful about being in a room with other people when these stories unfold," Redden says. "Having an audience in the room is an affirmation that one is NOT alone."
Meanwhile, throughout the transformational work being done there, life and art still go on at Lincoln Center‹most reassuringly at Avery Fisher Hall, where two of the events in Festival 2008 are scheduled. For one night only (July 12), the Festival hosts a special concert created by Blur frontman Damon Albarn titled Damon Albarn and the Honest Jon's Revue, an eclectic mix of international artists including Hypnotic Brass, Lobi Traore, Simone White, and others‹all of whom have recorded for Albarn's Honest Jon label. Goran Bregovic, the Serbian-born Paris-based singer/composer who made his New York debut at the Festival two years ago with his raucous Wedding and Funeral Brass Band returns for two performances (July 9 & 10). For his latest Festival appearance, Bregovic and his 12-piece band will perform songs from his latest release, Alochol, along with material from two other projects: the gypsy opera Karmen with a Happy End and the album Tales and Songs from Weddings and Funerals.
Commenting on the diversity of the Festivals of this year and years past, Redden mused, "When I was young, art was Western art and all the rest was ethno-graphic folk art. That idea has shifted radically, to the point where, if there is a canon at all, it covers a much broader range."
Marilyn Stasio writes frequently about the arts.