"In all classical plays‹Shakespeare, too‹you have to honor the original, but see it through your own consciousness," says director Michael Kahn, and that philosophy makes him particularly well-suited to stage Mark Adamo's new opera, Lysistrata, or the Nude Goddess. After all, Adamo's stage directions specify that "the place is Ancient Greece; the time is now," and he's penned a spirited reinvention of a comedy that's two and a half millennia old.
Kahn signed onto the project after Adamo contacted him and asked him to read the libretto. "I just laughed out loud, and said, 'I could probably do this libretto as a play,'" remembers Kahn, who has staged world premieres by contemporary playwrights such as Edward Albee and Lanford Wilson. "In a way, it's an improvement on the original, because it's witty and compact and yet has strong serious overtones. Then when I heard the music, I really admired it."
Reached by phone at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, where he's been artistic director since 1986, Kahn was preparing a new production of Alfred de Musset's Lorenzaccio. Never heard of it? Don't be ashamed: although the title role was a staple of Sarah Bernhardt's repertoire, and although Musset was one of George Sand's most famous conquests before she met Chopin, his play is seldom performed anymore, even in France. Kahn sounded almost gleeful as he reported that he'd been unable to find any trace of Lorenzaccio in the annals of American theater.
That's typical of the relish Kahn takes in the challenges of old plays, and his productions are notoriously inventive, even playful‹witness his Merry Wives of Windsor, in which the role of Falstaff was played for the first time in recorded history by a woman (the sublime Pat Carroll) in a professional production. In the 1970s, his landmark revival of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof pumped all the sex back into a play that time (and Hollywood) had neutered; memories of Elizabeth Ashley's combustible Maggie still send veteran theatergoers to seek cold showers.
Kahn hasn't directed much opera‹when has he had time? Besides his work at the Shakespeare Theatre, he's Richard Rodgers Director of the Drama Division at Juilliard, and recently he launched a classical-acting program at George Washington University. But his forays in opera have been successful (Houston Grand Opera audiences have enjoyed his Carmen as well as his Tony-nominated revival of the musical Show Boat), and he's glad to get back to the opera house.
"Singers are tremendously eager‹pleased‹when a theater director arrives," he says. "They feel that they're going to get some perhaps extra dramatic values or experience from someone who works with actors. I've always found it fun to work with singers, and I love having music in the rehearsal rooms. I miss it sometimes when I'm doing plays."
Kahn comes to Lysistrata with one particularly impressive theatrical credit, which he insists is irrelevant to Adamo's Lysistrata. In 2001, he directed Nicholas Rudall's The Oedipus Plays, an adaptation of Sophocles' Theban trilogy, performed by an African American cast of 35. And that production has given him a head start on addressing the ways Greek drama does and doesn't translate to modern American audiences.
Take the music, which was as essential to Greek drama as it is to our operas. The Greek chorus really sang, and that's something that often stymies contemporary stage directors. A Greek chorus that merely chants isn't inherently compelling, and while they're chanting, lead characters are waiting to deliver their aria-length speeches.
Kahn and Rudall answered the musical question immediately, with abundant singing and dancing, and a musical ensemble onstage. At its premiere in Washington in 2001, The Oedipus Plays elicited powerful emotional reactions, not least from the Greek ambassador, who told Kahn that he needed to take his show on the road‹to Greece.
In short order, Kahn's cast was performing Oedipus at Sophocles' own theater, at the foot of the Acropolis, in Athens. The show was "hugely, warmly received," he says. "It made them think about their plays in a new way and was very exciting. It was an American view of a classical-Greek drama, and as such was greatly appreciated in Greece."
In addition to Oedipus, Kahn has directed an adaptation of Euripides' Elektra and Orestes in New York. Nevertheless, he maintains, "One has to see [Adamo's Lysistrata] as a wonderful modern American opera, based on a pretty famous and still relevant Greek story. Certainly that's how I'm doing it!" he adds with a laugh.
In Adamo's opera, Kahn says, "there is no 'chorus,' there are just the men and women of Sparta and Athens, and in some way they are all principals, in the size of this particular cast. There's choral writing, but there isn't‹as there are in Greek dramas‹the leads and then the chorus, the leads and then the chorus. In a sense this is a drama in which all of it is of one piece. We're not trying to be terribly Greek.
"I have a great love of Greek drama," he continues, "but I'd never done a Greek comedy before, so this is fun to do. What I like about Lysistrata is, of course, its comic aspects, but also that the issue of war is serious in the play. And while it's a great, sort of boisterous comedy, in which sex is used as a weapon‹or the lack of sex is used as a weapon‹it's still about trying to end a war."
Clearly, Kahn is looking forward to the production. "I hope it's fun," he says. "Lysistrata is famous for being a bawdy piece, and there needs to be a good, healthy, amused version of bawdiness. I don't think it's going to be offensive. If it is, people shouldn't go to see a Greek comedy about sex. It is what it is. Make love, not war‹or don't make war‹that's actually what it's about."
And that's a story that needs no updating. "It's too bad it's topical." Kahn says. "It's too bad that a play like Lysistrata is continually relevant in the world."