“I’m so sorry, I got distracted,” Darko Tresnjak says mid-conversation, staring up at the stage from the 3,800-seat house at the Metropolitan Opera. No hard feelings: there’s copious organized frenzy on the other side of the proscenium as his production of Samson et Dalila, the Met’s season opener, prepares for its September 24 premiere.
Just before the Tony-winning director sat down to talk about his upcoming Met debut, he had gotten off the phone with the lighting team about a specific moment. Less than 15 minutes minutes later—while discussing his familiar team of designers—we watched as those changes were worked out on stage. “It’s a very good system, here,” he says.
That organization system at the Met (a much needed one, as repertory productions constantly travel on and off the main stage), is new to Tresnjak, but directing opera isn’t. This fall marks his 100th overall production, and by his calculation, a third have been opera (another third Shakespeare). “But lately,” he muses, “people start to refer to me as a Broadway director. I’ve had A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and Anastasia. But actually, I’ve done this a lot more than what I’m known for in New York.”
In the interview below, Tresnjak discusses returning to the art form in the grandest way possible, the common and uncommon ground between it and theatre, and what Gloria Swanson and rock-climbing have to do with Saint-Saëns’ biblical epic.
We’ve spoken to you in the past about your experiences on Broadway and at Hartford Stage, but not much about your history with opera. Are there elements from that side of your career that we’ve perhaps unknowingly seen in the work we now know you for?
There are things you can take that are the same for plays, musicals, and operas. But then there are things that are very very different. And people actually don't like that answer because everybody wants to think there is something exactly the same that you can carry over from each art form to the other. I think that's mostly human values: how you treat people and how you expect to be treated. Beyond that, I have a 98-member chorus that's on the clock. There’s 145 people in this, so it's very different from doing a chamber-sized musical like Gentleman's Guide. And a big difference is our first preview for this production is going to be our opening night. And all of New York—people who know opera, the most educated audience—is going to be watching.
Does the fact that opera singers are often more familiar with the material, having studied or performed it before, affect your approach?
These roles are fairly new to both [Elīna and Roberto], so they're very open minded. The thing that I would say, which is revisionist, is stage actors ask me about working with opera singers assuming there's a concession. But I think that more theatre students need to come and watch opera, because they're getting lazy. To fill this theatre unamplified? That's an achievement. The moment that somebody makes me feel like it's a concession working with opera singers, I’m like, “You should come and watch them, because what they do is an antidote to that bad film and television influence that's all over.” I wish the training programs would take their students to something like this to watch these people.
How have you found the process of working with these particular two leads: Elīna Garanča and Roberto Alagna?
Two years ago I was in my house in the woods in Connecticut. and I was listening to Elīna Garanča and dreaming and thinking it would be nice to work with her. I got the offer two days later and I asked, “Who's singing?” and Peter Gelb said Elīna Garanča, and then I lost all cool. To work with her and Roberto Alagna... I would be happy to cast them in any play. They should do Shakespeare. If they hadn't sung a note, that would still be thrilling.
What is it about Samson et Dalila that compelled you to want to tell this story?
I remember I was still in my early 20s, and I was blasting the music. I don't even remember what I was directing, but people ran into the rehearsal room like, “What are you doing?” Because it was so loud. And I was like, “Oh, I'm going to direct this someday.” It took more than 30 years, but I love it. A decadent biblical epic.
Plus, I think it's a very timely opera right now. Not just the conflict between two groups of people who hate each other—that's timeless. But the conflict within Samson is something we see every day in the media: the conflict between great spirituality and potentially destructive sexuality. That’s in the press everywhere.
How does that conflict inform your aesthetic for this production?
We started with this (scrolls through his iPhone’s Camera Roll). I saw this famous photo of Gloria Swanson behind the lace, and that inspired a lot of the design. The face behind the netting is both seductive and dangerous, so we looked for those ideas in architecture and in fashion. It’s something all three sets have in common; there's lattice work, transparency, netting. When it’s lit up, you can see the movement on the other side. What’s on the other side is sometimes seductive, it's sometimes dangerous.
We wanted to filter the ancient world through the lens of contemporary fashion and contemporary architecture, so the look that some ideas from the ancient world and how architects today are translating those ideas back and forth.
A few years ago I had, I guess, a good kind of a mid-life crisis, and started doing a lot of trapeze in my work. So basically that statue of the god at the end...it’s a rock-climbing god. I've tried it out. They won't let me go onto the top. I want to make it to the clavicle, but they worry about my safety too much.
Your last production here in New York [Off-Broadway’s This Ain’t No Disco] was a last-minute addition to your schedule. That’s not a common occurrence in opera; Peter Gelb called you two years ago about this. Is that extra time to research and prepare a blessing, or does it bring its own set of challenges?
Oh it's wonderful. I'll never knock it. My career has met my expectations quite a while ago. I'm not boasting, I'm just saying what's true. I don't feel the urge to work very much any more. And so over the next few years I'm just being very selective and being in the moment is going to matter more. I want to focus on very specific, very intellectually artistic projects. So having time to dream up something, having more time to re-calibrate things—that's the most pleasurable right now.
And is more opera part of that plan?
I'm doing a thrilling premiere here in a few years and we can't talk about just yet. I would like to do Elektra; that's my favorite opera. I assisted on it back in grad school, and I've always wanted to do my own production. And I think also given Gentleman's Guide, it's a challenge, it's really hard to do comic titles, opera buffe. But I'd really like to and apply some of those same set of skills. Shakespeare comedies and Mozart? There is no greater collaboration. Twelfth Night, Marriage of Figaro. It's wonderfully similar in just the humanity and compassion. And Shakespeare plays go from ridiculous to sublime. Think about Twelfth Night; the same is true of Mozart. You can go there, if the singers are willing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.