The Conversation : Mary Zimmerman | Playbill

Opera Features The Conversation : Mary Zimmerman
The visionary theater director stages a new Lucia di Lammermoor to open next season. But, she tells the Metropolitan Opera's Matt Dobkin, it's the music that will be running the show.

Opera is often regarded as dramatically implausible. Is that fair?

The stories in opera are no more implausible than those of Shakespeare, or the Greeks, or any number of comedies, such as most of Molire.

What are the specific theatrical hurdles for a director staging opera?

In theater, in the director's negotiation with the actor, you are deciding, "How will this line be said? At what sort of pace, with what inflection, at what pitch and volume?" In opera these dynamics are already assigned by the music and modulated by the conductor. What is left can be told through the image, through the visual composition. How can the story be made clear and emotionally present? The singer is under the demands of the music. And where he or she moves at a certain moment can be, for them, a low priority. For the director, who's trying to create an image, that priority might feel paramount. The music is always running the show.

How is directing opera different from directing a straight play?

Well, in most of my work, I'm writing the script as well as directing. I am usually adapting some rather large text, and I have a process where I write the script, by myself, every night after rehearsal for the next day's rehearsal. The script and how it will be embodied are thought up at pretty much the same moment, and the script follows — or lags behind — design and casting. In opera, one submits to the score. The score is a given.

What is the single most important thing that needs to be done to make opera more theatrical?

Opera is plenty theatrical in its embrace of design and staging and all the tools current in the theater. But the one thing that would make it more real, more present, more emotionally true, is if the singers were actually in rehearsal together for the length of time actors in the theater are. In the theater, the actors get to know each other over a very intense four-week period: they rehearse together, socialize, play around, go out to lunch. They fall a bit in love with each other and the story they are acting. They begin to harmonize, as it were. All of this creates a great intimacy and trust that spills over on stage and is unconsciously felt and understood by the audience. With opera on the level of the Met, the singers are in such demand, and they are so familiar with the repertoire, they often settle for much less rehearsal time. In addition to the effort necessary to sing, they have this burden of having to pretend a history that is non-existent.

What's the best fusion of opera and theater you've seen?

I loved the Met's Cenerentola, with all these graceful, comedic, and great-looking singers. Yet I noticed when I laughed, people glared at me, as though being amused were out of place in an opera house.

Peter Gelb has said that there is no single aesthetic at the Met, that any approach to a production is acceptable as long as it comes out of the storytelling.

Look, the Met is gigantic and so whatever is done there will be unified by the fact that it has to fill this enormous space no matter what its approach. And the productions are unified by the brilliance of the orchestra and chorus as well. Beyond that, there should be everything, everything in the world there.

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