Perspectives: Board of Directors

Classic Arts Features   Perspectives: Board of Directors
The Met questioned a trio of acclaimed theater figures on directing opera, singers as actors, and how to make opera more theatrical. Their differences of opinion may surprise you.

Jack O'Brien
Two-time Tony winner who has directed everything from Shakespeare to opera to Tom Stoppard to Hairspray. Staging of Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia for Lincoln Center Theater opens this month. New Met production of Puccini's Il Trittico premieres April 20.

Opera is notoriously difficult and hardest on the singers, who must concentrate on technicalities no actor is concerned about — "Does my voice literally 'work' today?" So often, sacrificing as much as possible to the composer's sound, the drama has suffered and, frankly, gets short shrift. But the new generation of singers, coming out of extensive dramatic training as well as vocal preparation, seems more ready to shoulder these responsibilities, and in most opera houses, nuance of performance is the rule, not the exception ... I'm looking for the heart of the drama, the element that makes me personally respond to one work as opposed to another. I inevitably become turned on by the story and the characters, and this wouldn't matter if they were mute and dancing only — it's the passion of storytelling that hooks me every time.

Julie Taymor
Work of Broadway's Lion King director is acclaimed for visual excitement and innovative use of puppetry. Film director of Titus and Frida. Abridged holiday version of her hit production of Mozart's Die Zauberfl‹te premieres at the Met December 29 (full-length production also runs into January).

I don't think straight plays have more realism than operas. Nobody sits there talking for two hours in one living room. Opera has always meant total theater work. I think it's the greatest of all theatrical arts because of its scale — because it explores both the exterior and the interior world of a character and of a story ... People think you get the director in, they create the sets with the set designer, and they've done their work with a few bits of blocking. But it's the whole mise-en-scne. It's how the singer uses his body to express the music ... I always start with the music. The information, the clues, your touch as a director comes directly from the music ... Keeping a production at a high level is very difficult, because productions get remounted with different singers and directors, and often the creator of that production isn't available to recreate it. So it's a very tricky thing to do. A director's work is all in nuance.

Nicholas Hytner
English director who recently staged Tony Award-winning production of Alan Bennett's The History Boys. Shows seen on Broadway: Sweet Smell of Success, Carousel, and Miss Saigon, among others. Director of London's National Theatre.

Every dramatic form operates according to conventions that are at a distance from reality. We see movies as a reflection of the world, but we don't actually see the world as an orderly juxtaposition of wide shot, close-up, over-the-shoulder, etc. The problem for opera is that its conventions haven't been refreshed by a constantly evolving repertoire ... To be blunt, it shouldn't be the directors who shoulder the burden. It should be the writers. There is too much focus in opera on interpretation, in the pit and on the stage ... What makes an actor truthful is much harder for a singer to encompass. It's more or less impossible to be immersed in the world on stage and at the same time be responsive to a conductor. Super-controlled musical performance generally comes at the expense of dramatic spontaneity ... Opera is quite theatrical enough already. We should all calm down probably.

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