That's not surprising — they've worked there before, Sher on The Light in the Piazza and O'Brien on Henry IV , among other projects. What is surprising is what building they'll be toiling in: not the Vivian Beaumont (though, actually, O'Brien will be employed there as well, staging Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia), but at the Metropolitan Opera. Sher will shepherd a new production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia and O'Brien will pilot Il trittico [the trilogy of Il tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi] by Puccini.
They're only two of the many talents from the theater world whom the Met's new general manager, Peter Gelb, has coaxed into the heretofore staid and steady world of New York's largest opera house. Also expected to collect a paycheck from the Met in coming seasons: directors Mary Zimmerman, Richard Eyre and Nicholas Hytner; actresses Kristin Chenoweth and Audra McDonald; choreographer Mark Morris; and, as part of joint commissioning venture between the Met and Lincoln Center Theater, composers Adam Guettel, Jeanine Tesori, Michael John LaChiusa and playwrights Tony Kushner and John Guare.
At this rate, the Metropolitan Opera may be considered a Tony Award-eligible Broadway house in a few years. Playbill.com recently asked Gelb about his passion for the theater and its artists.
Playbill.com: I'd like to ask you about the various theatrical talents who will be working at the Met over the next few seasons.
Peter Gelb: I just left one downstairs: Jack O'Brien. He's here to get a head start on the lighting. We have the set of Il tabarro, which is the first of the three one-acts in Il trittico, on the stage right now.
Playbill.com: Was O'Brien's hiring your doing?
PG: No. It was completely in place. My doing was simply to go along with it. [Laughs]
Playbill.com: And the hiring of Bartlett Sher for the new production of Il barbiere di Siviglia?
PG: That was my doing. There was not a director attached to that opera, and I engaged Bart and his design crew.
Playbill.com: What made you think of Bartlett Sher?
PG: I was so impressed with what he accomplished with The Light in the Piazza, which is operatic. Its composer, Adam Guettel, in fact, is one of the composers on our list of artists who are going to be writing new work for the Met and Lincoln Center Theater in the joint composing initiative that we've announced.
I thought Bart would be an interesting choice to direct an opera at the Met. He has a very strong musical and theatrical sensibility. He's adopted an approach that is very influenced by earlier works of [opera directors] Giorgio Strehler and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.
Like any gifted director who we bring here, his instructions from me were that he was not to be limited by any particular perceived Met aesthetic. I feel it doesn't do any good to have a brilliantly talented director and then saddle him or her with rules and regulations. In fact, Bart's freedom of thinking resulted in his coming up with a design that will, for the first time in the history of the Met, break the space between the edge of the stage and the audience. He's created a passage on which the performers will traverse on either side of the pit, and there's a section that joins these two planks downstage of the pit.
Playbill.com: You've been very vocal in your intent to bring in these theater talents.
PG: It's essential that the theatrical experience be elevated to the level of this great music. Puccini's Trittico or Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia have music and storylines that have stood the test of time. But theatrical techniques and sensibilities change. It's essential, in order to elevate the theatricality of our operas to the high musical standards that are already there, that we bring in the world's great directors. Many of them are theater directors who occasionally dabble in opera. Some are opera directors who branch off into theater.
Playbill.com: Do you hope the presence of these artists will attract the attention of theatergoers and get them to go to the Met?
PG: Certainly. Some of the more exciting directors who are coming here include Mary Zimmerman — she's going to direct the production that's going to open next season, a new production of Lucia de Lammermoor — and Robert Lepage, [who] will be directing our new Ring cycle.
Playbill.com: Was it difficult to convince Mary Zimmerman to come work at the Met?
PG: It took me many e-mails and phone calls to get her attention. But when she finally came to the Met after months of wooing her, she fell in love with the theater instantaneously.
Playbill.com: Has she given you any indication what sort of Lucia she will do?
PG: We've seen the early models. It looks very beautiful. One of her great strengths is her storytelling. It's one of the reasons to have great directors here. Opera is an art form that requires great storytelling.
Playbill.com: Will George C. Wolfe be directing Tosca, as has been mentioned?
PG: George Wolfe, I hope, will be directing something here. We're talking about possible future productions. Tosca is not something he'll be doing.
Playbill.com: Since the composing initiative with Lincoln Center was announced, you mentioned that Rufus Wainwright had already come in with some compositions. Have you heard any more new music from the commissioned songwriters?
PG: No, but since then, John Guare and Wynton Marsalis have agreed to work together. Wynton was very eager to meet John Guare and [Lincoln Center Theater artistic director] Andr_ Bishop, and I organized the meeting.
Playbill.com: We've been talking about directors and composers. What about singers? I know that you have hired Kristin Chenoweth to sing The Ghosts of Versailles. Will we see any other acting talents on the Met stage?
PG: We're hoping that Audra McDonald will sing with Doctor Atomic [by John Adams] when that comes to the Met in the fall of '08. But that's under discussion. She would play the wife of Robert Oppenheimer; John Adams and she are talking about this. The part was originally written as a mezzo, but Audra is a soprano, so John would rewrite it for her. Both he and director Peter Sellars are very eager to see if she could be involved.