Improv at the Opera

Classic Arts Features   Improv at the Opera
Gary Halvorson, director of the Met's live HD transmissions, talks about his winning approach: a detailed playbook and a dose of improvisation.

A conversation with Gary Halvorson is a high-octane ride, with the lyricism and sweep that have become the director's calling cards. So dizzying are his directing credits — from the hit countdown show Solid Gold to Michael Tilson sitcoms like Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond to NBC's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade — he covers the terrain of several directors combined.

After finding acclaim and fortune in Hollywood, the classically trained pianist directed four operas for the Met's "Live in High Definition" debut season, seen in movie theaters around the world. He returns to kick off the Met's new HD series on December 15 with Rom_o et Juliette.

Shuttling between Los Angeles and Oahu, the director took a moment out of his travel schedule to tell the Met's Elena Park how he draws inspiration from everything from Olympic marathons to Anna Netrebko to Busby Berkeley.

You started out as a pianist. How did you end up as a director?

I saw Arthur Rubinstein playing piano on television. They weren't showing his face or his fingers at the right moment in the music! I got so frustrated that I wrote down the names of the producers in New York City and called them. I said, You guys are showing all the wrong things at all the wrong times! They offered me an internship. I was 20.

Is there a common approach you bring to your eclectic body of work?

I'm reporting an event. There are various styles to that. I'm not the stage director — [Il Trittico's] Jack O'Brien and [The Barber of Seville's] Bart Sher are. My job is to make the production clear. I take the point of view of the audience sitting in the movie theater seat. I take the approach that my mother in Minnesota is watching. If I think she will get it, then that's the approach I take. If she doesn't get it, I'm not communicating.

You're using new technology in the theater to give audiences unusual vantage points on the action.

One of the first things Peter Gelb and I discussed was bringing technology into the opera without disturbing the audience. We're breaking new ground — we are the first to put remote control dollies on the lip of the stage, which makes the movie audience feel like they're inside the action.

I first saw remote dollies in a race in the Olympics. I saw a camera that was running as fast as the runner, and then it cut to the camera's point of view while keeping speed. That's how I had the idea to use sports equipment for live performance.

My favorite thing last season was in The Barber of Seville, when a [steadicam] followed Bartolo and his sidekick from his dressing room onto the stage and into the action. It gives you more points of view on how theatrical productions are done.

How do you prepare for the shows?

It takes a couple of days to learn the score of the opera, then a couple of days to study the stage production and figure out where I want the cameras. With Rom_o et Juliette, there's a turntable, and we hope to have a camera directly above. It should look like a Busby Berkeley scene, with the way he shot those huge dance numbers! Then I sit down and work out the shooting script. We then have one rehearsal with camera — and then we go live!

How scripted is the camerawork? With I Puritani you had ten cameras to choose from.

It's a question of interpretation. Nothing's locked like it would be on a film set. I have to stay loose.

I script everything in detail because then I have it, and then I have the option not to follow it. It's like in rock and roll, where there's no script; it's all about following the rhythm.

The Puritani mad scene with Anna Netrebko was improvised. That's not a lazy way out; that's a creative choice. Sometimes you don't know what the singers are going to do. Deciding whether to follow the performance or stick to a pre-determined script can be a challenge. Is Netrebko really going to cross left there? I have to float with their moves. The goal of it all is that if the performer goes a certain way, I follow in spite of what the script might say.

Does it make you nervous to go off script?

It makes everyone nervous — me most of all! I thought it would be stronger to use "zone defense," like in sports — the cameras don't know when I'm going to cut to them. It's like improvising on the piano. I play it by the seat of the pants.

Gary Halvorson directs five of the Met's eight HD transmissions this season, beginning with Rom_o et Juliette on December 15 and ending with La Fille du régiment on April 26. For more information and theater locations, visit

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