Most of O'Brien's 2006-07 season up until now has been taken up with the staging of the three full-length plays that make up Tom Stoppard's trilogy about 19th-century Russian rebels, The Coast of Utopia. Once the final edition of that work was on its feet at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, the director crossed Lincoln Center Plaza to begin work on Il Trittico at the Metropolitan Opera. The new production of the triple-decker opera by Puccini—composed of the one-acts Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and, most famously, Gianni Schicchi — will mark O'Brien's debut at the nation's (the world's?) most important opera house. It will officially open on April 20. O'Brien talked to Playbill.com about his season of operatic theatre and theatrical opera.
Playbill.com: This is your first show at the Metropolitan Opera. Have there been any surprises in rehearsal?
Jack O'Brien: It's an extraordinary organization. In many aspects, it really is jaw-dropping what they do and how quickly they do it. They're just astonishing, how they're in tune with it and how they understand the rhythm of things, and understand how to support. And I've been given a great cast. They can all act and are willing to go there. The experiences [of The Coast of Utopia and Il Trittico] couldn't be more different, one from another, so that's fun for me. This isn't the steppes of Russia for four and a half months.
Playbill.com: Do you still check on Utopia?
JO: I [still] wander through [the Beaumont dressing rooms] at half hour and then I go my merry way. I haven't seen the Utopia shows since I left them. Tom Stoppard and Bob Crowley and I are all going to see a marathon on April 28.
Playbill.com: How did the Met job come about?
JO: I was called a year and a half ago about another opera. I shouldn't tell you what it was, because it didn't seem right for me. And I think they were astonished that I said I'd rather not.
Playbill.com: Nobody turns down the Met.
JO: Well, that's sort of right! They seemed a little dismayed. I simply said, "Look, I've waited a long time to make my debut at the Met and I would like to bring the best stuff I know how to do, rather than solve a problem with a production that's not right for me. And it turns out I was right because the piece became a big success without me, which I don't think it would have been with me. (Laughs.) Then they said, "Can we come back with another piece?" They said, "What about Il Trittico?" And I said, "In all fairness, I've never seen Suor Angelica. I didn't know it. I saw Gianni Schicchi in college. And I'd seen Il Tabarro, at, I think, the Met." I went home and studied them. And I told them, "If I were you, I would hire Luchino Visconti to do Tabarro, Robert Wilson should do Suor Angelica and Billy Wilder should do Schicchi. And I think you've just hired all three!' (Laughs) Playbill.com: In preparing for this, did you start going to the opera more?
JO: Yes, I did. I starting coming into the house. Also, I wanted to get a feel for the house. I saw the Madame Butterfly [directed by Anthony Minghella]. I don't care if I ever see that show again, it was so gorgeous. And I saw The Barber of Seville, because [director] Bartlett Sher is a very dear friend. But it wasn't easy. Because of the Utopia trilogy, I didn't have many free nights.
Playbill.com: Having seen the Butterfly and Barber, would you say that your production is going to fall in line with this new regime at the Met, the Peter Gelb era, with its new emphasis on acting?
JO: Yes, I think so. These are highly detailed productions that we're doing, with very articulate artists, who are both eager and available and wanting to dig as deep into the textual connotations as possible, while singing as best as they possibly can. It's really a thrilling experience for me, because you're getting the best of everything, aren't you?
Playbill.com: When it opens, where do you go from there?
JO: I haven't really thought about it. Because from last July to the 20th of April, I've virtually had no time to myself. I'm going to spend some time in Connecticut in my home. I'm thinking about popping over to Barcelona with a friend for a week. Then I'll start work on [the new Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman-Terrence McNally] Catch Me If You Can. That's the next big one. And we're casting Hairspray in London, so I'm a busy boy.
Playbill.com: Has the Met asked you to come back?
JO: I haven't got an offer in my hand, but we're talking about it. I would imagine we'll go on from here. The problem is I'm just not available all the time. I'm going to have to choose very carefully what I do and when I commit. I have to say, I've had a year of art, if you know what I mean, as opposed to commerce. I need now a year of commerce, instead of art! I've got to start paying these bills! (Laughs.)