This month's presentation of Janšcek's The Cunning Little Vixen is the culmination of a dramatic Philharmonic season. Alan Gilbert, Doug Fitch, and Madeline Rogers chat about the theatricality of concertgoing and their production of this opera. Three-Sixty, available at nyphil.org/three-sixty, is a multi-platform feature with other avenues to understand this philosophy.
Mr. Gilbert made those comments during a brainstorming session with director and designer Doug Fitch back in April, as they wrapped up planning for this month's Philharmonic performances of Leo Janšcek's opera The Cunning Little Vixen (June 22 _25), an important early 20th-century work that's receiving its first production in New York in more than two decades. This is the culmination of a Philharmonic season highlighted by several concerts of remarkable theatricality, although none have been quite as dramatic as this. Like Magnus Lindberg's Kraft (which received its New York premiere in October 2010), whose orchestration included an eyepopping battery of unconventional percussive instruments picked up at a local junkyard, or In Seven Days, a collaboration between composer Thomas Ads and video artist Tal Rosner (also given its New York premiere, in January 2011), Vixen will be a wraparound experience that reflects the Music Director's deep commitment to "the connections among visual arts, theater, literature, and music."
At the center of the project is a great orchestra playing music that Alan Gilbert calls "lush and gorgeous," in an Avery Fisher Hall that will be magically transformed into a forest populated by a motley cast of humans and animals, including mosquitoes, a badger, an owl, and the title character whose name, Vixen, is synonymous with both womanly shrewdness and seduction.
The large cast comprises nearly three dozen adult and child singers plus a 40-voice chorus, and is headlined by soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian in the title role; baritone Alan Opie as the Forester; mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand as the Fox; mezzo-soprano Melissa Parks as both the Forester's Wife and the Owl; tenor Keith Jameson as the Schoolmaster and Mosquito; bass Wilbur Pauley as the Parson and Badger; and baritone Joshua Bloom as Harata, a poultry dealer. All of them except Ms. Parks, Mr. Pauley, and Mr. Bloom : who appeared last season in Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, also directed and designed by Mr. Fitch and conducted by Mr. Gilbert : are making their Philharmonic debuts, as are numerous other members of the large cast.
Because The Cunning Little Vixen, composed in 1922 _23, was inspired by a comic strip and draws musical inspiration from folklore, there is a misconception that it is a work for children. Despite many moments of lighthearted fun and an engaging, beautiful score, the opera's three acts are shot through with decidedly grown-up plot twists: roman tic longing and rejection; sexual exploitation, bondage, and murder; death, aging, and re gret for love lost. As Alan Gilbert explains: "Even though many of the characters are animals, Vixen really is profoundly about the human condition."
In such a work : whose setting is mythical and whose story line is less important than its underlying themes : the director is free to draw on a dizzying array of sources, an opportunity that Doug Fitch has enthusiastically embraced. In his earliest sketches he played with ideas ranging from Japanese kabuki and Picasso to Lord of the Flies, coming up with a production that evokes the world of a Mitteleuropean fairy tale through the face and body painting of African tribesmen. "I started with this book called Natural Fashion, with wonderful photographs of tribes of people somewhere near Ethiopia who don't really wear any clothes," he explained. "They paint their faces and bodies mostly, and wear elaborate headdresses created out of ordinary yet amazing things. I loved the way that this was such a combination between the animal world and the human world." He added: "I also read in the book that they can't see themselves because there aren't any mirrors, and the murky water doesn't create any refl ection, so the only way they see themselves is through the eyes of others : that is what the Vixen is thinking when she asks, 'Is it possible that I'm beautiful?' She's sort of going through that incredible self-discovery after she meets the Fox and falls in love."
Still, this is the New york Philharmonic, so Mr. Fitch, unlike the director of traditional opera, is also faced with the challenge of integrating 79 of the Orchestra's onstage musicians into the action. "One of the things I continue to enjoy very much," he said, "is having the Orchestra on the stage and having the music-making really be part of the production itself." His previous work with the Philharmonic provides some memorable examples. They include his 2005 production of Stravinsky's A Soldier's Tale in which the dramatic action, created in a tiny puppet theater, was projected over the musicians' heads; and last season's performances of Le Grand Macabre, which mingled musicians, soloists, puppets, and audience.
Mr. Fitch : who designed the costumes and, with G.W. Mercier, the sets : explains that his goal is always to elevate the aural aspect of concertgoing to something more all-encompassing: "When we did The Soldier's Tale," he said, "making a miniature theater next to those instruments felt very much like building a visual instrument. In the same way that a violin is a small object that makes a big sound, that small theater made a big image. And that felt like an interesting balance, to be doing something like that on stage, with an orchestra."
In Le Grand Macabre the musicians became part of the action, especially during one memorable melee: "When the Orchestra members started throwing paper at one of the characters and at each other, they broke down the perceived fourth wall of what people can do on a concert stage," said Mr. Fitch. "you're not supposed to interfere with people who are playing their instruments." That's a rule of concertgoing he loves to break in every way possible: "I think it's really essential, when we do these productions, to get the performers way out into the hall as much as possible because that fourth wall in the concert hall is a very, very prominent wall, which we don't really recognize because it's so severe."
With all his interest in visual elements, however, Doug Fitch is the perfect musicians' director because he believes fervently in the communicative power of music. "When I watch an orchestral performance I think about the extraordinary invention of it : each one of those instruments, and how much effort it takes to learn to play them. It's just a wonderful, fascinating, very visual world."
Which brings us back to what makes Vixen : or any opera : worthy of exploration by the New york Philharmonic. "The most important thing," says Alan Gilbert, "is to find pieces that are really driven in an important way by the orchestra, and The Cunning Little Vixen is certainly an opera in which the orchestra plays an incredibly important role. To hear the New york Philharmonic play this music is really exciting." Like the other colorfully theatrical works he has helmed since becoming Music Director, this production is part of his larger project : "to make connections and to bring disparate elements and cultural forces together. I think that's very important. To me that's a central feature of our artistic vision."
Madeline Rogers is a creative consultant to non-profit cultural institutions and former Director of Publications at the New York Philharmonic.