A Chat With: Les Huguenots Director Thaddeus Strassberger

Classic Arts Features   A Chat With: Les Huguenots Director Thaddeus Strassberger
Continuing in its tradition of treating opera fans to the rarest of works, Bard SummerScape is producing one of music history's most challenging pieces: Giacomo Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots (thru Aug. 7). Strassberger talks about the opera and his work on this staging.


The 1836 masterpiece opened on July 31 for four performances. Leon Botstein conducts soloists, the Bard Festival Chorus, and the American Symphony Orchestra in Bard's Sosnoff Theater.

The grandly scaled opera _ to be staged almost entirely intact _ addresses religious extremism in an enhanced historical setting, and is produced within the framework of "Wagner and His World," which is the focus of the 20th annual Bard Music Festival.

The artistic team for Les Huguenots combines the talents of American director Thaddeus Strassberger with those of Spanish designer, photographer, and filmmaker Eugenio Recuenco, with Mattie Ullrich's costumes and Aaron Black's lighting. The cast features Erin Morley as Marguerite de Valois; Alexandra Deshorties as Valentine; Marie Lenormand as Urbain; Michael Spyres as Raoul; Andrew Schroeder as Nevers; Peter Volpe as Marcel; and John Marcus Bindel as Saint-Bris.


This year's director, Thaddeus Strassberger _ who confesses having a lifelong interest in opera since his first encounter with it as a small child _ found time to answer some questions about the challenges of staging Les Huguenots, considered by many to be all but unproduceable.

Q: What are some of the things about your production of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots (including your collaboration with Eugenio Recuenco and the rest of your team) that you feel will surprise the audience?

TS: The piece works on so many levels _ on one hand, it's undeniably a singers' showcase. It's nicknamed the "Night of the Seven Stars" for a good reason! But the dramatic arc of the opera is carefully thought out by Meyerbeer as well. First, he pulls you in with a boisterous choral tableau to set the mood, then he gives you an intimate ballad for the tenor _ you can't imagine a better contrast. Then he intersperses recitative (dialog set to music) to make sure we keep up with the unfolding drama. It's strangely seductive in that way _ one leading character hardly sings at all until even the Fourth Act, so it leads to a thrilling climax because the tension is so built up! We've worked to structure the set, costumes, and staging to follow this contour as well. New elements and surprises keep unfolding, so the careful listener and viewer are rewarded along the way with new discoveries.

Q: If Huguenots is the largest-scale opera you've produced to date, what other operas have helped you deal with the grandiosity of this project?

TS: I think every production you've created in the past adds to your experience, and you can't help but be influenced by them. I've directed Aida and Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet, both with choruses about this size and with similarly "weighty" material. Parsifal and Peter Grimes were good training as well for dealing with choruses as a critical "main character" in the drama. But Les Huguenots isn't always "huge" _ there are many intimate scenes with just one or two singers that pull you right in as well. What's made this production unique is that every single idea had to be invented from scratch _ with more standard repertory, there's always some sort of dialog with tradition, performance practice, and audience expectations. Every single person in this production is making a "role debut," from myself to the principals' roles, to the chorus, the conductor, orchestra, and crew. It's incredibly liberating to approach it fresh, but it's also daunting in the sheer number of decisions that must be made each day!

Q: You are a designer as well as a director; can you explain how that helps you work with a designer/photographer like Eugenio Recuenco (who's also very involved in mise-en-scne) without "getting in his way"?

TS: I've never really seen a distinction in many ways between the work of a designer and director, so I think working with Eugenio has been quite natural. His background is in creating static images that have a clear and concise story contained in single frame, and my productions are often quite kinetic. In this case, he kept me aware of the weight and scale of the piece as we went along, and kept me on my toes.

Similarly with costume designer Mattie Ullrich, a long-time collaborator of mine, our interaction was energized by the presence of a new voice. The shorthand that comes from our close collaboration needs to be challenged from time to time as well. Lighting of course plays a key role in both opera and photography, and Aaron Black has been really instrumental in harmonizing the various aesthetics into a dramatic framework that is both beautiful and narrative. In other words, I think we all "get in each others' way" but I wouldn't have it any other way!


Since its inception in 2003, with the opening of its new Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard SummerScape has presented a remarkable array of seldom-produced operas: Blitzstein's Regina; Janšcek's Osud; Shostakovich's The Nose; Schumann's Genoveva; Szymanowski's King Roger; and Zemlinsky's Florentine Tragedy and The Dwarf.

For complete programs, tickets and further information for all SummerScape events call the Fisher Center box office at 845-758-7900 or visit www.fishercenter.bard.edu

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