Last season the Met hosted directors Bartlett Sher and Jack O'Brien. And now, to kick off the 2007-08 line-up at Peter Gelb's newly theatre-artist-friendly Metropolitan Opera, Mary Zimmerman will stage a new production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, opening Sept. 24.
Zimmerman, a MacArthur Grant recipient who won a Tony Award for her direction of Metamorphoses on Broadway, has directed opera before. But she is best known for elliptical, abstract, design-heavy plays of her own making, often adapted from classic works of literature and the oeuvres and thoughts of famous artists. Among her credits are Journey to the West, The Secret In The Wings, The Odyssey, The Arabian Nights, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and Eleven Rooms of Proust. Donizetti's Scottish tale of vengeance and forbidden love is a rare occasion when Zimmerman will apply her vision to an extant work to which she has contributed not a comma. The loquacious director spoke to Playbill.com about the challenges she has faced in her Met debut.
Playbill.com: By now, the story of how you were reluctant to direct at the Metropolitan Opera has become lore. Why did you have to be convinced?
Mary Zimmerman: I think the first time I listened to Lucia di Lammermoor, I didn't know if it was the right opera for me. I actually have a good friend who is very opera savvy, and he said that maybe it wasn't for me because it doesn't have a moment of irony in it. But actually, I think it has enormous irony. It's very ironic that you sign a wedding contract and then exactly two bars later the person you were otherwise engaged to walks in the room. Since then, I've fallen completely in love with the opera. I think I'm always a little hesitant to go into opera a little bit. My main purview is the theatre. I write and adapt my own shows and I'm very happy doing that. And I was hesitant to commit two years in advance, although in opera terms that is very short. But I just didn't immediately want to do it. Then I came and saw it at the Met and when I watched it, I had very strong feeling about how I'd like to do it. And, hearing it live, the music was much more present to me. I thought, Yeah, I can do this, I have something to contribute to this. Plus, Peter Gelb is just kind of not resistible! He just keeps coming at you and he's really charming...
Playbill.com: In your theatre productions, the design element is a huge part of the concept. What can we expect with Lucia's design?
MZ: Well, it's all my same design team that I've worked with for years and years. One of our goals, being more of the theatre and not the opera world, we didn't really understand those moments where the curtain dropped at the end of a scene and then the lights halfway come up in the auditorium and you wait for five minutes while the scene is changed. In old-time theatre, I think that did happen, 100 years ago. But it doesn't happen anymore. We found that was not conducive to gathering momentum. One of our goals in the design is: that doesn't happen, that the scene can just be revealed through a series of portals. I feel the opera has a really propulsive forward motion. It's a very dense opera in terms of its action; every scene brings something very new; it has many dramatic scenes that have a certain urgency to it. So we made it so it doesn't stop except for intermission. The other thing is, a lot of the time in opera design, it seems to me, things are rather blindly devoted to an idea of realism. Or, way off in the other direction, you just throw everything out; the story doesn't matter, the situation doesn't matter, and it's all very symbolic and fragmented and non-narrative. We wanted to be halfway in between. We wanted to be a place and a time, but not necessarily be freighted with all the tropes of Scottishness that Lucia often is. Playbill.com: One of the hallmarks of Gelb's tenure has been an insistence on a higher level of acting. Being from the theatre, did you find that the opera singers were up to the challenges you were giving them?
MZ: I think they are. It's different in opera, than in theatre. The demands on their bodies and on their psyches are different, in terms of what has to occupy them on stage. They have to remain absolutely in sync with 60-70 other musicians and singers. They're less free to go nuts than an actor is. Everyone has to arrive at the beat at the same moment. The score has demands. What's challenging and fun is finding how to do what you have to do in terms of the demands of the score and their bodies, while still trying to find ways in which things don't revert to a lot of familiar choices in terms of gestures and position.
Playbill.com: Can you give me an example?
MZ: Well, yesterday we were working on the end of this contract-signing scene and all these singers sing full-out in rehearsal, which I hadn't experienced in other operas I had worked on. They all do it, all the time. It's fantastic. There's the part where it goes so fast, so loud, all of them so dramatically singing. They were on their positions on stage that I got them in, and I wanted a couple more moves to happen after that. But I just couldn't — the music was so stunning to me, I just couldn't enter [the action] to do anything. That told me: there's a reason they have to just plant themselves and just do this. Where we can find the motion at that point is in the chorus; they have an easier job at that moment. But those singers, they just buckle down and go! The focus is so intense. It's like they're inhabited. The music is bigger than any of us, and I felt that yesterday. I just felt pinned to the wall by it. I kept going back and saying, "OK, do that again, but we're going to interrupt you." "OK, we didn't interrupt you, but do it again, and we will this time." (Laughs.) We just couldn't wedge our way into the momentum of that music! It's like we just got entranced. So, there's a lesson every day.