• Exclusive Interview with Thaddeus Strassberger, stage director

    Opera Lively has interviewed acclaimed American operatic stage director Thaddeus Strassberger. Brace yourselves, readers. This is a long interview, but worth every line of it. We believe it is one of the most interesting interviews with an operatic artist we have ever read - no, we are not being immodest and attributing the interest to Opera Lively's questions, but rather to Mr. Strassberger's answers.

    Be prepared to maybe change your views about Regietheater; to think in a more informed way about when to update opera; to reflect upon how we should be staging Verdi, and to enhance your understanding of what operatic stage direction entails.

    Mr. Strassberger gave us a true lesson on how to stage opera, not only walking us through every step of the creative process, but also introducing comments and concepts that are precious and rich in information. So doing, he demonstrated sophisticated knowledge of the field and true passion for the art form.

    Some of his views may be seen by certain readers as controversial, but he is very articulate and proposes strong argumentation in favor of his vision. We expect that this interview will generate an interesting debate, so feel free to use the 'comments' field at will.

    Our thanks to Mr. Strassberger's manager Mr. Albert Imperato and his associate Mr. Devon Estes, both from 21C Media Group, who made arrangements for the interview.

    All pictures were used with permission; credits are under the pictures.

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    Mr. Strassberger's official web site, with schedules:

    http://www.tstrassberger.com/

    By the way, Mr. Strassberger sent us the pictures that illustrate this article because they're not on his website, and he wanted to provide something new. But don't fail to consult his gallery there, because there are some really striking imagery!

    The Bard Summerscape Festival web site, with the announcement and tickets for the upcoming Le Roi Malgré Lui directed by Mr. Strassberger:

    http://fishercenter.bard.edu/summerscape/2012/

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    Mr. Strassberger's artistic biography:

    Thaddeus Strassber is a young American director who manages to straddle the sometimes very different worlds of European and US opera production seamlessly. Strassberger's productions are fresh and thoughtful, and he often presents us with modern parallels without being contrived,' writes Opera Now Magazine. His career as a director and scenic designer for opera in Europe and North America was launched when he was awarded the prestigious European Opera Prize in 2005 for his production of LA CENERENTOLA (Opera Ireland / Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden).

    Following the success of his production of Ambroise Thomas' HAMLET for the Washington National Opera conducted by Plácido Domingo and Patrick Fournillier, he returns to the Kennedy Center this season to direct and design the scenery for Verdi's NABUCCO, which is a co-production with the Minnesota Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia.

    In September 2012, he will debut with the Los Angles Opera with a new production of Verdi's rare and engaging I DUE FOSCARI, with Placido Domingo making his role debut as Francesco Foscari, and James Conlon conducting.

    His new productions of LE NOZZE DI FIGARO and THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA (Norwegian National Opera) were highly praised by both critics and the public and are scheduled for revivals in the coming seasons due to popular demand. His production of the rarely heard Rossini's LA GAZZETTA (Rossini in Wildbad Festival, Germany) garnered nominations for both Best Production and Best Direction from Opernwelt Magazine in 2008.

    Following his critically acclaimed new production of Meyerbeer’s grand opera LES HUGUENOTS at the Bard Summerscape – the first staged production in New York in nearly a century – he returned to create the first American staged production of Franz Schreker’s masterpiece DER FERNE KLANG in Summer 2010. He returns again in 2012 to direct the North American staged premiere of Chabrier's opera-comique LE ROI MALGRE LUI which is a co-production with Wexford Festival Opera in Ireland.

    Other highlights include LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST (Tiroler Landestheater, Innsbruck), AIDA (Lyric Opera of Kansas City), ORFEO ED EURIDICE and TURANDOT (Theater Augsburg), LA TRAVIATA and DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE (Arizona Opera), LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST (l'Opéra de Montréal), and ARIADNE AUF NAXOS (Wolftrap Opera).

    In addition to returning to the Norwegian National Opera, Strassberger's upcoming engagements include debuts with the Los Angeles Opera, Theater an der Wien (Vienna), Opera Company of Philadelphia, The Minnesota Opera, and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (London).

    Strassberger earned his degree in Engineering from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City and further studies were supported by a Fulbright Fellowship to complete the Corso di Specializzazione per Scenografi Realizzatori at Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 2001.

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    Mr. Strassberger with Katija Dragojevic - © Erik Berg for Norwegian National Opera

    Here is the complete and exclusive interview, conducted via Skype video call by Almaviva:

    REGIE

    OPERA LIVELY – Let’s start by talking about Regietheater. Is it here to stay (at least for a few decades)?

    THADDEUS STRASSBERGER - Before we get started I’m curious to set up the definition of what is Regietheater. Your first question is whether it is here to stay. What do you think Regietheater is?

    OL – I believe it is when the director has a concept that becomes equally or in some cases more important than the original piece. A director will impact his or her own vision of the piece on it and reinterpret it in an attempt to make it relevant and new, which can be done very successfully of course, but can also lead to some excesses.

    TS – Well, that’s interesting because you can’t produce an opera and put it on stage without interpreting it. Because an opera as we get it from Verdi, Puccini, and Mozart is just a collection of words and musical notation. But it is not music, it is not drama, it is not opera until we actually put all elements together and perform it live. So, there is going to be an interpretation no matter what you do. Yes, I think Regietheater will exist because we do have directors that are figuring out a way to take something that is not performable – which is a score, which is just a book that sits on a shelf, and create something theatrical that is alive in front of an audience. But it’s not necessary to think of this kind of ‘interpretation’ in destructive, disrespectful terms – quite the opposite actually. It’s easy to pick out a few productions that are tasteless and uninteresting for extreme criticism, but there are hundreds more every season that actually work.

    OL – Interesting. What do you think of the trend of absorbing into opera directors who come from theater or cinema? Is there validity to the complaint that some of them don’t value or like opera and may go too far in trying to create something new out of it?

    TS – I think we are really lucky these days that there are so many productions that are happening around the world; there are so many companies – big companies, regional companies, small companies – and we have access to them on YouTube and the Internet and it is so much easier to fly around and see everything. So we have this huge quantity of opera – more than any time previously. Yes, I think that there are a lot of choices that producers have to make when they are figuring out how to put the teams together. I live in London. I have noticed that it is quite popular here, for example at the English National Opera, to hire a lot of theater directors and cinema directors to direct operas.

    I think that it is hard to generalize whether people love opera or don’t love opera and what their background and experience is. I will say that directing opera is as much a craft as it is an art. It is something that has to be practiced over many years in order to really understand all the ins and outs of it and to be successful. I personally think that knowing how operas have worked in the past can help you successfully solve the problems in the present. I have found that directors brought in from other fields end up with rather old-fashioned looking productions -- I’m convinced that a deeper knowledge of opera is an asset to innovation, not a liability.

    OL – Hm. For instance, La Bohème became the base for a musical, Rent, right? So this is a radically new approach which uses La Bohème as the base for the concept, but does not pretend to be La Bohème. And then recently we saw a La Bohème that was also depicted as a lady dying of AIDS in a hospital; the ending got changed, and certainly the chronology of the events got changed with her death occurring at the beginning of the opera, but it was still called La Bohème. If a director wants to modify that much a piece including a new ending, shouldn’t it be fair to rather call it something else like its creative team did for Rent?

    TS – Well, La Bohème is an interesting case in point because Puccini and his librettists wrote the opera based on a book that already existed, and there were lots of complaints at the time that his work didn’t fully capture all of the richness and variety of the characters that were in the original story, and that he had modified beyond recognition what the original story was. And that it was a bit of a shame to call what he was doing La Bohème because he had reduced it down to this kind of very simplistic love story that only dealt with his own feelings and motivations about the piece and left the true richness behind on the page. So I think everything we’ve been doing is interpreting, we are not inventing anything new at any point, but we are constantly taking inspirations from works of art that already exist and turning them into something new.

    And whether you change the title of it or whether you change the orchestration of it or whether you change the text of it, the source material is always present, but hopefully you’re finding something completely new. Even if you see a big maybe so-called traditional production like John Copley’s at the Royal Opera House or Zeffirelli’s at the Met, I’m sure that there is always something new to be found in those productions as well. You are not just going to those to see something old and stale, but I think there is a real place for this kind of production in the world as well.

    But also if you look at Verdi, La Traviata, he took that from a book, but you read the book and it is such a fantastic way of telling the story that is completely lost in the opera; it is this kind of memory going back through the history in trying to figure out who Violetta Valéry was, as opposed to the opera that starts out telling the story from the beginning in a more traditional manner. There was lots of criticism of Verdi at the time that he destroyed the structure of the story and turned it into something overly dramatic and sexualized.

    OL – Yes, fair; but on the other hand he did follow more closely the play rather than the novel, right? The play does have the same timeline of the opera.

    TS – Yes, it does, but people said, ‘why don’t you just read the book instead of listening to all that screaming?’ There are a lot of contemporary accounts of people finding Verdi’s vocal writing to be rather upsetting to the ear!

    OL – OK, I guess you’d like a famous quote from Sir Noël Coward that goes in the same sense of what you are saying: “People are wrong when they say that the opera isn't what it used to be. It is what it used to be. That's what's wrong with it.”


    Turandot - © A. T. Schaefer for Theater Augsburg

    TS – Yes, fantastic! Opera is what it used to be. Every time you do it. What is tradition? It is a good question too, because I asked you ‘what is Regietheater?’ What is tradition? Tradition is essentially a recreation of a memory of the way you saw it last time. Or better yet, the way you think you saw it last time. There is this interesting research going on now about what memory is, how our brain stores ideas or images from the past. It is not just like a hard drive where every bit of information is there and you can find it. I was reading a book lately saying that every time you recall a memory it changes the memory because you are taking various pieces and you are reconstructing it in your brain. So that every time you think about something, you see in your brain that experience that you felt in the past; but in doing so you are actually changing that experience. That’s why I think that the idea of tradition is very dangerous, because there is no concrete way to know exactly what happened. You may have a photograph or a video or a newspaper critic review of what happened, but certainly it isn’t exactly what happened that evening at the opera house. So tradition, if you are trying to copy this thing that you feel you know from the past, then you are already in trouble because it is an impossible task.

    OL – Excellent answer! Now I have a question that is a little more provocative. One might hope that stage directors valued and understood the musical side of opera. What would you say about a singer’s complaint that some directors don’t acknowledge that a singer’s musicality and sensitivity can tell the story independently of direction concepts?

    TS – Again, it goes back to the fact that there are so many different directors. I’ve never walked into a room full of singers and conductor and chorus and somebody thought I don’t know what I’m talking about with the music. It’s the language that I use to communicate with my cast. We come from all over the world and we end up in a studio somewhere, and I do start with the music and text and how they interact. The thing is, singers deal with so many different directors and conductors in a given season; I only deal with one director, myself, in a season. I’m lucky to be able to work with so many different talented singers, but I find that generally they are hungry to be filled with new ideas.

    For example, specifically, I worked with Samuel Ramey two seasons ago directing Hamlet in the Washington National Opera. On the first day of rehearsal I was chatting with all the cast to get to know everybody and give my concept presentation about how the show was going to look and feel. I said, ‘well, you recorded this opera in a famous recording nearly twenty years ago, maybe you’ll give me a few ideas on how this whole thing goes.’ He said, ‘I know the music really well. I’m interested in you telling me dramatically how I can fit into the big picture.’ He is someone with decades of stage experience, who came into the first day of rehearsal completely eager to know what we were going to be creating as a group together.

    OL – Great! I have recently interviewed a singer who said “You can’t put the US and Western Europe on the same boat, because they are completely different. The productions that work in Western Europe will never work here in America, because they are too modern, they are too far away from the true story. That’s a result of thirty years of working of the Regie directors” -- we’d like to get your view on this, given that you have extensively directed on “both sides of the pond.”

    TS – It is interesting because like you said I’ve worked both in Europe and in the States. I’m kind of back and forth quite a bit, almost every other production, it seems sometimes. I even had the situation when I had the same co-production, the same exact production with the sets and the costumes, the physical part being presented in both places. The reaction can be… In America it’s usually “wow, this is sort of out there, really edgy, and really pushing the envelope!” And in Europe it’s the same production and it can be said ‘Ah, we have a classic, telling clearly the narrative, musically inspired story by Mr. Strassberger.’ You just can’t tell.

    For example, there was a Cenerentola that I did in Dublin and Wiesbaden; it was kind of beloved by the public in Germany because it was so old-fashioned, and it was very simple; the narrative was sort of clever, and it had lots of humor, and had aesthetic beauty to it. Then when I was trying to sell that same production as a rental in America, many regional companies turned me down, because they said ‘Oh, it’s way too avant-garde, you’re taking way too many liberties with the story, and our audience, when they see La Cenerentola, they want to see the real Cinderella story.’ (laughs) It was the same exact production but the mentality of the people running the theaters was completely different.

    OL – Do you adapt yourself to the taste of the public in that situation? When you know that your production will be given in America rather than in Europe, do you create it differently?

    TS – I think I try to do something that is true and honest to myself. Every time I direct a production there’s flexibility in how it’s done. It’s not a film that gets made once and then it gets projected in different cinemas around the world. Every time it’s performed there is going to be a chance to modify the internal ideas. For example, this I Due Foscari that I’m doing in LA, I’m sure will end up having a kind of different feeling to it in LA from in Spain or Vienna.

    One difference that I find between American and European productions is that the overall level of skepticism and cynicism is remarkably lower in America. I find the ‘shades of grey’ to be much more subtle in European thinking. There are theories that Europe lost its innocence after the Second World War, and that America is still a naive pre-teen in some way, trusting every ‘adult’ that came before.

    For example, I mistrust a lot of what characters in operas say, much the way I mistrust what I read in the newspaper or what somebody you chat with on an airplane says. Why is it that when an opera character comes onstage and says, ‘Your mother was an angel and died years ago’ as Rigoletto says to Gilda, or ‘I’ve loved you for a year’ as Alfredo says….these characters are proven elsewhere in the piece to be mendacious and unreliable, yet we have to take what they say at face value at other times in the opera? Is Azucena really telling the truth about the day she threw a baby into a fire???

    You hear people refer to Cio-Cio-San as being fifteen years old. – Well that’s what she says (quindici, netti netti…), but children sold into sexual slavery don’t always tell the truth! She could be twelve and be lying upwards to make Pinkerton more comfortable….or she could be eighteen and shaving a few years off to be more attractive to him if that’s what Goro has told her to do…Either way, she’s in a really stressful situation and can’t be considered a particularly reliable source! And I find a lot of people still don’t give 19th century composers the credence to have created dramatic irony or emotional juxtapositions --- the orchestration of the so-called ‘love duet’ at the end of the first act of Madama Butterfly could aptly be described as ‘underscoring for the felony rape of a minor’ – just because there are big swelling string figures doesn’t mean we have to accept it as commentary-free musical accompaniment!

    The idea that people in Mozart’s or Wagner’s or Puccini’s time were any less emotionally complex than we are today is not borne out by contemporary literature or other evidence that we have – I think the misunderstanding of multiple points of view like this can create an unwarranted hostile atmosphere for so-called Regietheater.

    THE DAY-TO-DAY WORK OF A STAGE DIRECTOR

    OL - Now let’s discuss stage direction in more detail. First we’ll address the process, and later we’ll talk about your own past and future productions. So, regarding the process, please assume that we are naive about it and want to learn from you the ropes of the trade, step by step, to better understand the role of a stage director. You are the first stage director that we are interviewing for Opera Lively, and many of our readers are curious about the job itself. Let’s start by your first contact with an opera, when you are asked to direct it, and go all the way to its rehearsals and presentation.

    TS – Well, the very first step is when a company approaches you or you approach the company with the title of a piece. The most important thing is to not say yes to anything that you don’t have a visceral, emotional response to. That’s the easy part, to say ‘Yes, I’ll direct Nabucco’ or ‘I’ll do I Due Foscari.’ You have to go on a gut feeling, because you have a knowledge of the piece. I go to the opera all the time, I have a huge library of CDs and DVDs; I mean, I love the art form as a spectator, not just as a director. Then the real hard work begins.

    OL - How do you proceed? Do you start by listening to the music, or reading the libretto, or both? Do you read the literary source (if it exists)? Do you watch DVDs of previous productions (if they are available)?

    TS – The very first thing for me is a recording, with the piano vocal score in front of me. That’s kind of the blending together of the words and the music in one place. You can really start to see the composer’s hand and how they are treating the text setting, not by listening to it, but kind of seeing it on the page, how it’s broken up. And if there is a literary source behind it, whether it’s a novel or a play, that is certainly something that comes in very quickly. Now with the Internet it’s so lovely, you know, you can go on gutenberg.org, you can find all these historical texts, I found Byron’s play for Verdi’s I Due Foscari very quickly and was able to read not only that, but Google Scholar has so much information, and on jstor.org you can find doctoral theses, and everything right away that talks about these pieces that may be less famous.

    I would say that the one thing that I don’t look at is actual productions of the opera. If someone says ‘Direct Nabucco’ I would never go look at a DVD of another production of Nabucco or look at YouTube clips because I think that very quickly you can start to have your own creative freedom blocked in by the ideas, whether you want to or not.

    OL - What guides your approach? Is there some particular idea that is your style and that changes little from opera to opera, or do you think of what you’ll do with the upcoming production from a clean slate?

    TS – i would say that guiding my approach from the beginning, even if it’s a historical piece that has been around for centuries, is that I try to put myself in the time of composition. What was the world like in 1842 in which this opera was a brand new world premiere? What were the social mores? What was the musical language that was being presented at the same time? It is very interesting to see especially with early works of certain composers, if you think – when Donizetti and Bellini and Rossini were on the stage, and then Verdi comes and does Nabucco, that starts to set a context for what the opera would have sounded like at the time. What was its emotional impact?

    I don’t like to think of particularly old operas by looking back at history, especially with rare works, because it feels like you are performing an autopsy, and saying ‘Why isn’t this work done all the time? Why is it so rarely revived? What are the problems of the piece?’ I try to look at it the other way; sort of ‘What are the advantages of the piece? What are its strong points, and why do we make a case for it?’

    OL – Very good. What is next?

    TS – I work as my own set designer very often, so this is the first decision I have to make, whether I’m going to work with another designer, or whether I’m going to design it myself. And then who the costume and the lighting designer are going to be; it’s very important in the beginning for figuring out what the production is going to look like.

    I have a very strong visual sense that comes only after I had a conversation with my collaborators about what we want the piece to feel like. With the costume designer for example we start to talk about who the characters are, not about what they are wearing. Or with the set designer, whether it is myself or somebody else, I’m thinking about the emotional landscape of the story that we are going to tell.

    And then you start to pull together images and references and ideas for the visual representations of those ideas, but it has to start from the emotional standpoint, from the beginning.

    OL – Hm, very nice. So, how much leeway do you require, and how much artistic control you are typically given?

    TS – With the design?

    OL – Well, with the full concept. Let’s say, an opera house hires you to do Nabucco, do they go pretty much with what you want?

    TS – Well, it’s a process, because the very first thing is that you do a lot of research and you have a sketch and you go for an initial meeting where you present your ideas in a kind of rudimentary form to everybody to let them know about the direction you are heading in. You could be at that point in a situation where the company has sort of a veto power, saying ‘No, that’s not at all what we were thinking, don’t develop that idea further.’ I think that in theory this has happened, and I’ve heard of colleagues to whom it certainly happened; luckily for me I haven’t had that experience. I kind of know the company and I take into account the geography and who the people are who will be coming to the opera.

    For example, I feel a huge amount of loyalty to an audience to present a piece for the very first time in a real honest way. That Nabucco, it was the first time that it was done in Washington, DC, and I felt really strongly that I wanted it to be a touchstone Nabucco, that you could learn a lot about the piece, and not have it be with too many interpretations, not go away from what the piece fundamentally is to me. But that’s all relative, and of course you can’t make everybody happy.

    I feel a huge responsibility when I’m doing an opera for the very first time in a city, to make sure it is emotionally true to the story, but also respecting the narrative maybe a little more closely than I would feel obliged to with a piece that was much better known.

    OL – I see. Here comes the conductor. Tell us about the process (that we assume happens) of melting together two potentially different views of the work. Is this usually a source of conflict? If yes, how do you go about solving it? How do you find the line regarding artistic control of the entire project, in terms of how much terrain is given to the conductor versus the stage director? Has it happened to you that you’d walk away from a project because of not coming to terms with the conductor’s vision?

    TS – With the conductor, he or she absolutely is the person who controls the pacing and the timing of what you are doing on stage. In the ideal situation you are working together from the very first day in rehearsal to share ideas on the piece, and how to keep the pulse moving together in a cohesive way. I mean, there are plenty of arguments about how you see the direction of an individual page of music, or a whole number, or even the structure of a whole act or the arc. But that conversation is usually more of a conference; it’s not like he has an opinion and I have an opinion and we’ll never see eye-to-eye. It’s a process that has to be hard won through trying out different ideas.

    My mantra in rehearsal is that I give a clear road map to the singers every day when we begin - how I think some things should go - and then we start on that pathway; but then sometimes I say, ‘OK, let’s try something that is the complete opposite to see what that does for us’ and then maybe we find a third solution that is different. The same thing happens with the conductor. It is really important to me to work with the conductor and understand the arc of the piece. In some periods of opera there is the end of a number and the beginning of another number, and we have to keep the energy flowing from one to the other and not just make the evening feel like a CD that is in a lot of separate tracks, but to turn it into one organic whole.

    OL – Before we go forward in the process, let’s go back to set designing, because we kind of short circuited it from the fact that you’re often your own designer. But when you are not, when you work with someone else, how do you convey your visual ideas and vision to the set designer?

    TS – I use lots of images, I have a huge library, and for every production that I do I spend days at museums and bookstores. I live in New York and London both, and so there is a huge amount of visual resources available in both of these cities. You start putting together a collage of various ideas. It becomes your kind of Bible that you use to communicate with the whole visual team. That material I end up editing as we go through the process. It is something that I even bring with me into the presentations and then into the rehearsal room with the singers, to create this whole three-dimensional visual world that we can live in.

    It often involves traveling to the city or country where the opera is set. For example when I did Aida I ended up spending ten days going to Egypt and climbing inside the pyramids and imagining what it would be like to be suffocated in a tomb where the Queen was buried inside the Central Pyramid.


    Mr. Strassberger says: "Inside Cheop's pyramid imagining Radames and Aida suffocating. It was really like 40C in there!"

    I looked at lots of artifacts in the Cairo Museum of Antiquities and things like that. I just try to immerse myself in whatever kind of world we’ve decided the opera should live in. Not just to see what the objects look like, but to know what the atmosphere is like – the smells, the food, the energy, the look in people’s eyes as you walk down the street…

    OL – Do you use maquettes?


    La Fanciulla del West - scale maquette for Tiroler Landestheater (Mr. Strassberger's own design and picture)

    TS – Yes, we use all the visual research in the beginning. As the designer I start sketching out on paper two-dimensional sketches of ideas, and then that turns into a scale maquette, which helps to work out the overall shapes and scale – it’s always important to keep in mind the human figure at this stage, and be especially mindful of the number of chorus and supers that you’ll have onstage...We take this smaller model to the presentation the first time, and then when we get the green light from the company, we go back and make a finished model, often on a larger scale with more detail worked out, to really clearly communicate to the workshops about the construction, right color and finishes and so on.

    OL - Choreographers, dancers… How do you get to the dynamic use of space while interacting with these professionals? Do you specifically request certain movements? How do you decide about the blocking, and the large movements such as the chorus entering and leaving, etc.?

    TS – Every opera is different in what it requires. I’m very physical in rehearsal, I move around, I roll around, I get up on stage with the singers. Some things require actual dance movement in them. I’ve never done an opera that has dance breaks in it where the choreography begins and the direction ends; everything is one visual language that goes one to the other. For example I’m using a choreographer this summer for the Chabrier piece [Editor’s note: Le Roi Malgré Lui at the Bard Summerscape]. She is going to help me because we have six dancers in the production and they are going to be integrated with the chorus to add an extra layer of movement possibilities. Going back to what Wagner calls ‘the complete work of art,’ opera does get to use dance and visual arts and music and architecture all combined together, and it is something I’m always keen to do.

    OL - And hey, here come those pesky singers (laughs). Are you given a say in the casting? Or do you typically need to work with the human material you’re given?

    TS – It’s different in every single theater. For example at Bard Summerscape where I’ve done Les Huguenots and Der ferne Klang, I worked together with maestro Leon Botstein and Susana Meyer, his associate there, and we really cast it together; it’s really open, to put together this group of people for these operas that aren’t often done. You don’t have a lot of points of reference for how to cast it. It’s not like you are doing La Bohème and you can maybe say, ‘Ah, she’s done three Bohèmes before so let’s put it together.’ Everybody is doing it from scratch, so I have a lot of say in there.

    Maybe in a bigger company in the States the casting is done years in advance by the artistic director or music director with specific people that they want in the piece for the lead roles. And then in the smaller roles it’s more open for input.

    In the German system it’s a repertory system with an ensemble, so you are often casting things within the ensemble, so you have a smaller pool of people and that limits who you have, but the advantage is that they are always there working together and they know each other very well.

    For me working with the singers is the most exciting thing because creating the operas in the planning stage is a very lonely art, you are just reading and writing and thinking and making the maquette. And you are only listening to music on a recording. But on the very first day of rehearsal you have the living breathing singers right there in front of you. It almost immediately comes to me in a sort of virtual reality what it is going to be like. But that’s it, we are very lucky now with the Internet that you can very often have a pretty good idea of the way singers look and move and sound before you meet them, which is really helpful because I can already have those ideas in my ear and in my eye before I get there.

    OL - Are most singers malleable to your concepts, or sometimes rebellious? You know, we hear stories about prima donna behaviors, singers walking out of productions… we don’t mean to ask questions about specific names, but can you tell us more about these hurdles?

    TS – I’ve never actually had any long-term resistance to my ideas. I think that people can sense when you have a deep passion and knowledge about what you are doing, and it is not just something that you picked up on the airplane on the way there. I think that the stories you hear about people walking out of productions and really not believing in it, it’s when they believe that their level of passion and knowledge and creativity and craft isn’t really being equaled or matched. Opera singers are creative artists that are used to looking at problems in many different ways. I find that the singers I’m working with today around the world are incredibly intelligent and able to see so many different possibilities in the piece.

    I just had the good fortune to work with Csilla Boross in the Nabucco singing Abigaille, and she sung it in six or seven different productions. Every day she would say ‘You are saying things about this piece that I never thought of’ and she said ‘It’s not a bad thing, it’s just that I’ve never… you’re seeing new things between the lines!’ Sometimes each day at the beginning she would say ‘I’m not sure of what to do with this new information’ and the next day she would come back and say ‘Ah ha, now I know what you are talking about.’ It’s opened up whole new worlds. So I think, that can actually be stimulating for the artist who may be turning up to do a role that they became famous for, and maybe they find it a bit laborious, to just do what they already know, but to have a real dialogue and discover something new is what we are all about. That’s what I’m trying to do with every opera.

    Another example is working with Anthony Dean Griffey – he is known around the world as the leading interpreter of Peter Grimes. I’ve spoken at length to him about ideas I have about the piece and he’s shared a lot of insight with me that can only come from singing dozens of performances of a role – and he feels that there is more to the character than he’s brought to the stage thus far. I’m dying to find the right theater for us to combine our ideas and see how they explode all over the stage!

    OL - How would you deal with singers who have different levels of acting abilities, in the same production? How assertive are you with acting advice and coaching?

    TS - You try to bring everybody into the world that you are conjuring. One problem with acting in opera is that there is so much emphasis and energy put into creating the sound that sometimes the importance of listening onstage is lost. I find that giving direction on how to listen to what is happening around you is often a more effective tactic than trying to change how a singer holds his body when making a sound. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a little trick – there was once a tenor who had a habit of gesticulating wildly with his left hand whilst singing coloratura. I asked the costume department to sew a big button to the inside of his trouser’s left pockets and told him that whenever he felt at a loss of what to do with his left hand, he’d better reach for the button – it gave him a sense of being grounded and it improved his whole performance.

    Rehearsal schedules are always too tight and sometimes I’ll have an assistant or a choreographer work with a singer individually to develop some new physical vocabulary that they can deploy during a scene. I give lots of ‘hooks’ both musically and textually to the whole cast so that their listening is just as keen as their singing and it seems to go a long way in creating viable characterizations.

    It’s a myth that opera singers aren’t talented actors in general --- finding a way to match the energy between the demands on them musically and dramatically is something we are always working towards.

    OL - When it is all done, do you seat back and relax and enjoy the show? Or are you very nervous and active all the way through the run until the last performance?

    TS – No, it’s interesting, because I only stay for the opening night. I’m not there for the subsequent performances, usually. Am I usually very nervous on the night of the performance? Only that everything that we’ve rehearsed actually happens. Because you are never nervous to think ‘Ah, we need something magical to occur.’ Because if you’ve done your work right and you have a really good team, all the parts are in place, you just don’t want anything to interrupt the flow of what you’ve already created, prior to the big night.

    I get a little bit nervous when I’m in another city and I know that there is a performance going on and I’m not there to share that with the performers. For me it’s really helpful to watch my own productions to learn not just what I’ve created, but to see if the performers have added anything new from our talks in rehearsal; I like to think of it as seeds that I’ve planted, and they later gave fruits. With every performance especially over weeks or months the performers are going to grow and mature in different ways. I regret that I can’t always see the final results of that.

    OL – Are revivals a little more nerve-wrecking because you are not there to control it all, again?

    TS – Revivals are interesting. I usually try to go back for at least part of the rehearsal process, because it can be really helpful for me. Often times, months after I’ve done a production, I have a new idea or something I could change to make it stronger or improve it. So it’s a great opportunity to insert those new ideas again and keep it fresh. It’s also fair for the audience if it’s in the same city, that they get to see little things changed.

    OL - Would you be willing to quote the opera companies you most like to work with, in terms of those that give you enough creative leeway and respect your concepts?

    TS – Working at Bard Summerscape for me now is really exciting, because the work is so free! There is very little expectation of someone who has seen a previous production, so you don’t spend a lot of energy kind of undoing an idea of what the tradition is. You get to direct these monumental works in a way that feels like world premieres. Like I said I have a big voice on how they are cast, on how we put the whole team together; it’s really satisfying to work in an environment in which the audience is coming to experience something fresh and new.

    I really like working in the Norwegian National Theater right now in Oslo. I’ve done two productions there and I’m going there for another Don Giovanni. They have amazing technical capabilities in their theater and a perfect combination between ensemble casting for some of the roles, and really fine international artists for a lot of the principal roles. You feel like you have enough time in rehearsal. You have a lot of time with the orchestra, you have a lot of time with the lighting, you have a lot of time in the studio, so you are never feeling rushed to get exactly what you want on stage.

    LIGHTING

    OL - We let out above a very interesting aspect of an opera production, lighting. Since I’m particularly fond of the use of lighting, I made of it a separate question. I recently bumped into this quote on a blog for Wagnerians: “Adolphe Appia was a visionary Swiss theatre theorist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His ideas of stage space defined by light rather than by painted sets had a profound influence on other early 20th century practitioners. He was also an adherent of the view espoused by Richard Wagner that a stage production should display a comprehensive artistic unity linking actor to text, costume, action and setting. He rejected the two-dimensional painted scene in favor of a three-dimensional setting in which a three-dimensional actor properly belongs. This required plasticity of space, and Appia advocated light as the source of that expressive and changing quality on the stage. As mood changes, so should space and light change. Light for Appia was thus the counterpart to music for Wagner: An infinitely pliant interpretation of the dramatic action being portrayed on the stage by the actor.” Your comments on this, please. [Reference: http://thewagnerblog.com/2011/11/lep...appias-appia/]

    TS – I actually studied lighting design at the very very beginning, going back into my school days. I thought I wanted to be a lighting designer, and I worked as an assistant lighting designer for several years, and I feel a particular affinity for the art and the craft of lighting. The technology changes all the time but ultimately we are using the tools to create an emotional landscape. I think it is really useful on the stage. The audience today is used to looking at a movie screen or a television screen or a stage, but they are very different. We don’t have the idea of a close-up and we can never reframe the action with the camera, but we can use lighting to focus the audience’s attention in some surprising ways, sometimes.

    Everybody thinks of lighting in terms of what you see on stage, but it is also about what you delete. I think it is really interesting how you can use lighting to cancel out a lot of elements on stage and take away their power. It is not just about illuminating the people and the things that you want to see.

    I might disagree a little with Adolphe Appia. I don’t necessarily think that a three-dimensional setting is more powerful than a two-dimensional setting. I think that on stage the element of surprise and novelty can go a long way towards opening up an audience’s expectation. So for example I’m sure that in his time when he was only seeing two-dimensional painted scenery, that the idea of moving to something more three-dimensional and real and plastic and sculptural felt revolutionary and exciting, whereas I find now with my designs that using some two-dimensional trompe-l’oeil painting effects often times is equally exciting and novel to audiences today. So, it’s about having an expectation and setting up an expectation, and then breaking it, in a theatrical way that I find interesting.


    Nabucco - Scale maquette for Washington National Opera (Mr. Strassberger's own design and picture) - use of trompe-l'oeil

    But lighting is like music in that it has qualities of rhythm and tempo, because it moves through time. They are not just snapshots of a single look, but it is about how we arrive at certain moments. I’m always working very closely to the lighting designer with various lighting effects, and often times the timing isn’t about where the idea begins to change from one look to another look, but about where that idea lands or where it finishes. It’s much the same work that a conductor does together with the staging, in order to create an overall arc that helps inform the audience about the emotional qualities of the narrative.

    OL – Wow, excellent answer!

    HIS UPCOMING PRODUCTIONS


    OL - OK, so, now, let’s talk about your productions. First, the upcoming ones. I’m especially curious about Le Roi Malgré Lui which you’ll be directing shortly at the Bard Summerscape in New York, and at the Wexford Festival. Please tell us about your concept for this piece.

    TS – The concept for the piece is… You know, I was talking about it with Maestro Botstein and he said, ‘We have to be careful not to turn this whole opera into one big Polish joke.’ Because you have the French and the Polish constantly at odds with each other, and the French are constantly using the idea of the Polish nation and the Polish people as the butt of their joke. But the irony of the whole situation is that the joke is actually on the French people every single time. The satire is playing up the ineptitude of these politicians or the royalty of the time, who are invading other countries and thinking that they are bringing their values of liberty with enlightenment, and all these other wonderful things that America and Western Europe are seemingly trying to export everywhere else in the world, and it’s coming back quite unsuccessfully upon them. So we are trying to play up on the comedy of everybody taking themselves incredibly seriously and having it all fail miserably around them. The concept is a quite light-hearted take on a very serious issue of exporting values and ideas and trying to graft them onto another culture. Sometimes humor cuts even closer to the bone than does tragedy!

    HOW TO STAGE VERDI

    OL - Next, I Due Foscari, and you’ve just did Nabucco in Washington DC, and you’ll be doing it again in Minneapolis. Early Verdi then, and we’re getting close to the great man’s bicentennial in 2013. It looks like your very first production was also a Verdi, Rigoletto in 2005. What have we (meaning not only you, but the opera field at large) learned from staging Verdi for all these years? Please tell us how you go about staging his works.


    TS – You are right, Rigoletto was one of the very first stage operas that I directed and so far, so good; I’ve got a pretty good track record. I’ve done La Traviata in Arizona, Nabucco recently, I Due Foscari is going now all over the world. I think Verdi is really fascinating. For me as a director it is really interesting, because the perception of Verdi and what I think is the reality of Verdi are two very different things. So when I start out on the first day of rehearsal, or interacting with an audience, I feel like I’ve got a lot of work to do to show people what I really fundamentally believe is the heart of the man who created these operas and not this tradition that I was talking about before.

    I’ll just give you an example. I did a production of La Traviata three or four years ago, and afterwards I got an email – somebody in the public who found me in the Internet and wrote a really long email telling me how completely out of control I was in my production, and how it was inappropriate because in the last act I emphasized how much she was bleeding, she was coughing, and how sick she was. He said, ‘We all know she is dying of tuberculosis, we don’t need directors like you to emphasize in a grotesque and disgusting way this much blood.

    And I was thinking, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting, because this man is so angry about this, but I thought that I made it sort of very clean. My feeling was that I was not really showing graphically enough the disease and its effects on her. I thought, ‘How can our perceptions be so different?’ Then I thought, ‘Let me go back and look.’ So I went through the production, I had my score in front of me, and I counted it up, how many times she was coughing or there was blood, or some kind of mess. I think it was like twelve times that there was some blood. Well the act is about half an hour long, it doesn’t seem very much for someone who is about to die. And then I went back and I looked at the novel.

    OL – Yes, the novel is very graphic in that description.

    TS – Yes, and I just looked it up with the power of the computer, and counted quite quickly how many references there were to coughing and blood and disease – and it was well over 150 references to her body breaking down and bleeding on her. And so I just wrote back to this man and I said, ‘I don’t know where you are getting your information, but I cut it down to ten percent of what the source material is.”

    OL – (laughs)

    TS – ‘So if you don’t like the idea that she is coughing and dying in blood then maybe you just don’t like the story and you should maybe stay home and watch a Disney movie or something, I don’t know!’

    I read something recently, I was in Busseto near his hometown and there is a museum there with a lot of his letters and documents from his life. There is a quote from him there that I read in one of his letters that people were complaining about – you know, ‘Maestro Verdi is not writing music, people are just shrieking and screaming and using their chest voice all the time and it is just ugly, why can’t we have beautiful singing on the opera stage?’ And he said, ‘I’m not interested in beautiful singing on the opera stage, I’m interested in human emotion.’ I’m paraphrasing. But what I think he meant was that he was looking for something beautiful, sublime, that went deeper into the human experience than contemporary aesthetics allowed for, which is similar to the goals of Regietheater in many ways.

    So the idea is always, like you said with Noël Coward, that people think that the past is beautiful and clean and easy, but Verdi was working very hard to create some really horrendous new groundbreaking ideas on stage, and so if there is any reason or fundamental 'raison d’être' for Regietheater, for me it means trying to recreate that feeling that the composers initially had around the piece. It’s not trying to impose something new, but it is actually trying to take away these kinds of layers of beauty and admiration that were layered on a piece over the years, and come back to the hardcore quality that was there from the beginning.

    OL – Wow, I think now I understand a lot better your take on this.

    OLD VERSUS MODERN OPERAS AND UPDATING

    OL - Now, let’s contrast and compare two of your previous productions in terms of their different timeline. You did Orfeo ed Euridice from 1762, versus The Rape of Lucretia from 1946. These two operas were composed almost 200 years apart. What can you tell us about the differences when directing works that hail from so far back, versus modern ones?



    The Rape of Lucretia - © Erik Berg for Norwegian National Opera

    TS – It’s interesting, you mention Orfeo ed Euridice and The Rape of Lucretia, they are very interesting pieces because they are very small with these very intimate characters between them, but I would say that both of the operas are trying to explore the same themes – love and loss, and how do you bridge this seemingly impossible gap that we have between two human beings. I would say that my approach to directing them is ultimately very similar – that you are trying to understand how two souls can love each other so much and feel such an intimacy, and yet reconcile that with a distance that is absolutely unbridgeable. So whether we are looking at something from the late 18th century or the 20th century, the human problems are very, very similar, which is why I think we can update an opera or we can move something around to a different time period and reveal two different superficial aspects to it, but not necessarily fundamentally change the emotional quality.

    OL - You have updated Hamlet to a 20th century setting. When and why do you feel an opera needs to be updated?

    TS – Often times when I move something from its original setting, it is just a shortcut to connect with the audience in a faster way. Because even though you think an opera is long, it is only about three hours that you are in the opera house. So whatever tricks or visual clues that you can give to connect with an audience very quickly about the emotional quality of the narrative that you are exploring, you save yourself time and energy.


    Hamlet - © Karin Cooper for Washington National Opera

    So with Hamlet for example, by moving it to the 20th century, if I had left it in the medieval Denmark, it would have taken a very long time and it would have been a lot of work to explain the politics of one king taking over for another king, and what this sort of regime change meant politically for not only the Royal Court but for the people outside, whereas but by moving it to this Iron Curtain world, I was able very quickly, from the moment the curtain went up, to have an emotional reaction to the politics being explored on stage, and I didn’t have to waste the next twenty minutes trying to explain something to you, because you just got it with an emotional impact. I just think that it is a shorthand that works. There is a vocal faction that always seems to cry, ‘Let the music do the work’ but in order to do that, you’d have to have a darkened, empty stage, which defeats the purpose of mounting a production – that’s what CDs and the concert hall are for! But these composers wanted visuals to accompany their music, reinforcing the myriad powers of the music, not just an innocuous background.

    You constantly have to adjust that shorthand. You can’t just say, ‘Ah ha, every opera that I’m going to do I’m going to set in the 1960’s Eastern Europe.’ That’s not going to work; you have to find the right symbols to quickly communicate your ideas with an immediacy for the audience that I think ultimately is most rewarding.

    And in every production I create, inevitably there are moments of ‘pure singing’ where the action, and setting, and physical elements of the production dissolve away and we are left with a vocal expression that is detached and universal and deeply soulful.

    OL – So, when not to update, then?

    TS – There are lots of things that I don’t update. I Due Foscari for example, it’s real people in a real place, in Venice in the 15th century. We may not be absolutely slavishly recreating every costume that you see in the paintings from that period. As a matter of fact what the aesthetic of it is going to be is absolutely not the aesthetic you might imagine from a painting of the period, of a [Editor’s note: Giovanni] Bellini or a Carpaccio, but the emotional quality of that time frame is pertinent to the piece, so there is no reason to move it.

    This is something else I’m thinking, about time periods in operas. It is that they are often, going back to Verdi, completely arbitrary even from the beginning. If you look at Rigoletto for example, he chose three or four different times and locations that it could have been set in, until the censors finally said, ‘OK, you can set it in that century in Mantova and we will allow that to happen.’

    Traviata is another one that he wanted to set in the contemporary time in the 1850’s, and yet the premiere was moved to some sixty or seventy years before. Time periods or eras don’t always have the same set of charged meaning. Sometimes, updating is simply breaking an audience’s expectation, visually, and it can lead to more openness and more understanding of something about the characters…

    OL – Un Ballo in Maschera had to change location.

    TS – Yes, moving it to Boston away from Sweden. And you go back and Verdi was so angry about the involvement of the politicians and censors affecting the dramatic quality of his work! He wasn’t so excited about the time period it was set in or the place, but rather, he was thinking of the political meaning itself, of this act of setting the opera in that time and place. Verdi did not want La Traviata set in 1853 because he thought 1853 had the most beautiful dresses and hairstyles; he wanted it set in a modern context that felt uncomfortably real, and wanted the audience in the auditorium to be wearing the same kinds of costumes that the artists on stage were wearing. So that presents a problem for modern directors today – how do you get that sense of immediacy – because if you read a letter in which Verdi said ‘I want to set this in 1853’ and you today set the scene in 1853 you’ve already made a huge mistake, just as Verdi was presumably unhappy with everyone in 18th century costume.

    OL – Yes, Verdi said he wanted La Traviata to be ‘un sogetto d’atualità’ [Editor’s note – a current topic] because he was upset at the treatment his wife Giuseppina Strepponi was receiving from the mores of the time, and he wanted people to feel the impact that in his current time, women with checkered past could be good people. This was something that was happening in his then current personal life. Absolutely, I think that La Traviata is one that must be updated, because that’s what Verdi wanted.

    TS – And for I Due Foscari he originally wanted it produced in Venice because it’s a story about the corruption of power in Venice. The fact that it was ultimately done in Rome was a bit of a defeat for him because it didn’t have the emotional political power that it would have had as a critique of the local government by moving it to a different time and place.

    NEW AND CONTEMPORARY WORKS

    OL - You haven’t yet directed a world premiere. You did direct a contemporary opera (you’ve staged the Badisches Staatstheater's production of Michael Nyman’s 2003 opera Man and Boy: Dada in Prague) but only one, while you’ve done numerous operas from the traditional repertory. Any thoughts on this? Is it just a matter of opportunity, or of interest?

    TS – You said it exactly, it’s just a matter of opportunity. I’m certainly interested in doing new works. It’s just that there are so few new productions that are done today… I’ve been offered things, but often in new productions with world premieres, the funding for them comes through quite late, especially when it is a smaller downtown organization – places I’d love to work in, but they work in a much shorter time frame. I’ve been asked to do things that you have to prepare and open in maybe three or four months’ time, and my calendar is already booked up by then. So the opportunities I’ve had, I’ve been disappointed to not have a hand in them.

    I mentioned before Anthony Dean Griffey, who has created a number of new roles, and worked with the composers very closely – he’s told me many times that the composer has said ‘I notated it as I did as an indication of what I want, but I want to hear you sing it!’ It kind of confirms my suspicions that composers are interested in figuring out how to bring out the best in the performer, how to bring out the best in the drama, and it tells us of their flexibility and their lack of rigor about what’s written on the page. They are constantly trying to adjust and adapt things to make them most successful. And it makes me realize how much flexibility we need to keep in our minds when we are looking at these masterworks from the past - how flexibly we need to look at the road map, the guide that is the score, but it is not something that is one hundred percent prescriptive and limiting, but it should be the springboard for amazing things.

    Many traditional productions of La Traviata leave out the second verse of ‘Addio del passato’ and Germont’s second act cabaletta….why is this OK, but you’d be raked over the coals for not playing the prelude? I withdrew from a production of The Magic Flute because the company wanted to have three young women sing the Knaben. Mozart wrote it for the sound of prepubescent boys for a specific reason that goes beyond the pitches – it’s an idea and a quality of male innocence. Why not switch the voices of the Queen and Sarastro then? I’m not advocating wholesale re-writing of masterworks – it’s just that you have to recognize the limitations of what can be notated on a page – the value of a quarter-note may be fairly absolute, but the quality of an ‘andantino’ or an ‘allegro ma non troppo’ is open to a lot more interpretation. And stage directions that come printed in a 19th century score were often not even written by the composer or librettist, but rather by a copyist or an assistant who simply noted what someone did in a rehearsal – and we all know that what happens once within the heavy constraints of the preparation of a world premiere isn’t necessarily the Holy Scripture!

    In Rossini and Meyerbeer for example, there are pages and pages of recitatives that describe stage action that can easily be seen today – you don’t have to tell people ‘I am hiding behind a column in the shadows’ because you can just do it! If they had had the lighting and scenic capabilities then that we have now, I’m sure they would have cut some of that information! Surtitles, when well written and cued, aid so much in comprehension as well, that where there are sometime redundancies written in to scores not for musical reasons but for sheer comprehension, these are better excised to keep the drama as taut as possible.

    OL – So if you have to deal with a conductor’s vision when doing works from the past, when doing contemporary work you have to deal with a composer’s vision. This might indicate that that person would want even more artistic control, right? Would your job be hindered for having to follow the lead of a contemporary composer?

    TS – I think it’s just a matter of communication. The way we communicate is through images, words, and musical ideas. You just have to keep talking to each other, keep communicating in a way that you keep the emotional core of the ideas intact. I think if you are going to choose to work on a world premiere you have to fundamentally agree in the beginning, because it is not fair to either the director or the composer to try to diminish a work at its first outing. Everybody should be working to multiply it, and then once it’s been given birth into the world it can be released to everybody else to have their way with it.

    OL – (laughs) Nice!

    HIS FAVORITE PRODUCTIONS

    OL - More than twenty-five productions under your belt and you’re still very young, impressive! Can you tell us about a couple of your favorites so far, describe your concept for them, and tell us how well they came out?


    TS – It is hard to think of my favorite productions (pauses). My favorite productions are the ones where I feel like the audience is going away fundamentally understanding something about themselves in the end. I can tell you an example. When I did The Rape of Lucretia in Oslo, at the opening night, at the end of the performance when the lights went down, there was just a really long silence and a very uncomfortable feeling of tears and sobbing. It was quite emotional. People were reluctant to applaud the performance. I think that people in the audience had fundamentally rethought something about how they think the human psyche works. And that for me was extremely satisfying. The ideas of Benjamin Britten right after the war, and the effects of violence and war on how people interact with each other, I felt that they had some real resonance that may live beyond the few hours that we had in the opera house.

    I felt in similar ways with the Der ferne Klang at Bard Summerscape, that people really had to analyze what it takes away from an artist to create the things that they have to give to the world, and how art can be something that in its creation is also destructive, and that we have to honor the dichotomy in that. I felt that the audience somehow understood that art in opera wasn’t just about entertainment, wasn’t just about consuming something in the way you may buy something at the store, but the consuming of the culture makes us aware of its cost for the people who are creating it. That is kind of a mature understanding about interacting with the world, that you can’t just ‘take–take-take’, but that there are human costs associated with that. This is the kind of the sublime melancholic way of the world. I felt that that theme was really deeply explored at Bard, which made me very satisfied.

    OL - Finally, let’s end by addressing a more human side.

    THADDEUS STRASSBERGER THE PERSON

    OL - An American engineer learning opera directing at La Scala – how did this transition happen, and how did you go about finding your opera calling?


    TS – Yes, ever since I was a kid, my parents took me to the theater, and I always wanted to create theater. I didn’t want to be an actor, I didn’t want to be a singer, I wanted to create the whole thing. You know, as a child you don’t know what is a director, what is a designer, what is a composer, you just think that there must be somebody or something that is making all of that happen.

    So I started it out almost like a medieval apprenticeship, where I went through years of working backstage with different departments, with the lighting and the costumes and the props, and being on stage sometimes as a super, and spending so much time with theater and musical theater, opera, and also as an audience member. Somehow I can’t wake up in the morning without thinking about the world through the prism of opera.

    The reason I studied engineering and I went to the Cooper Union [Editor’s note: The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a very selective and prestigious college in the East Village in New York City] was primarily because it is a tuition-free school and I was able to be in New York City for four years without paying for it and I was able to spend a lot of time not only at the Metropolitan Opera and at Lincoln Center, but at all of the other theaters and the cultural offerings that New York City had, including the museums. As a university student you can go to so many museums for free!

    The engineering part of it probably gave me some inkling for business. You know, it’s show business, it’s not just a hobby, you are dealing with the actual contracts and intellectual property and the payments and budgets in all the different currencies and everything. I think I have an analytical mind that was brought together through the engineering education. But most importantly it was being around really intelligent people who were interested in solving problems. Everybody thinks of engineering as being a technical field, but it is actually quite a creative field, because it is taking a series of technical problems and using – and even inventing – various tools to solve them. I think I was really blessed to spend a really rich university experience not studying operatic traditions or how scenery used to be designed – by definition when you study something you are studying what your professors did, what your teachers did before you – but the idea that I would spend time exploring everything else and learning languages and opening my mind to all possibilities was really, really helpful.

    OL - What would you tell us about the person Thaddeus Strassberger, beyond the opera director?

    TS – I love being an opera director because what I’m putting on stage is a distillation of life and all of its various problems, good sides, and bad sides. I travel a lot; it’s a passion I have to travel around the world, I try to go somewhere else every month, it seems, not just for opera but for fun. I’m constantly absorbing the human experience and figuring out a way to distill that and reinterpret it on stage. I would say that you can take the opera director out of the opera house but you can’t really take the opera out of the opera director. It constantly informs my whole way of life and being. I can’t imagine waking up one day and not being able to create all the things that we create and have the collaborations we have with all our colleagues and the audiences who choose for better or worse to come see the productions.

    OL – Tell us a little bit about your personality.

    TS – You probably should ask my colleagues about my personality. They have a much better view on it than I do. You know, as an opera director you are constantly giving out information and analyzing the personalities of the characters both onstage and off, that you don’t spend a lot of time looking in. I think the singers in rehearsals spend a lot more time looking at you than you end up looking at yourself.

    OL – Very good. Well, this was a formidable interview. I think our readers will love it.

    TS – You know, I speak from my heart. I want to make sure that what is out there reflects who I am and my love and my passion for opera. There are a lot of heavy things out there about my productions and other people’s productions; you just want to make sure that the criticism that inevitably comes, criticizes or respects who you are and the passion you have invested in the art form.

    OL – Thank you so much, it was really entertaining, I loved it. One hour and ten minutes!

    TS – Oh no, sorry, I speak too much!

    OL – No, it was great that you gave us this much, thank you. I’ll see if I can make it up there to the Bard Summerscape, I’d love to see your Le Roi Malgré Lui.

    TS – I hope you make it too, I’d love to meet you. Thank you.


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    Comments 7 Comments
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Interesting (and long, indeed) interview. While I don't agree with all Mr. Strassberger is saying here, there's no denying his passion and his love for Opera.

      I've never watched any of his productions, either on stage or DVD, but I will make a note of try and find one. I would be especially interested in Der Ferne Klang.
    1. Aksel's Avatar
      Aksel -
      Fascinating interview. Unlike Schigolch, I do agree with much of what Mr. Strassberger is saying here. Very much looking forward to seeing his Lucretia in Oslo next season. And the future Don Giovanni sounds most interesting indeed. I wonder if they are having him back for a Cosí as well, to complete the set.
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      Schigolch, What is it that you don't agree with? I think this interview can spark a healthy and interesting debate, and I don't think Mr. Strassberger would shy away from defending his thoughts; I can try to interest him in responding.

      I did make the following arguments to him by email; he said he'll respond:

      "You may have actually changed my mind about Regietheater - with some reservations. I was a bit shocked with what you said about the flexibility in the score when you work with contemporary composers, and the fact that we should feel the same way about the masterworks of the past. I think I have a reverential relationship with those works, and I'm struggling to try to be open to your view (like I said, you did influence my own view with your argumentation - maybe permanently).

      But see, for instance, how Verdi proceeded in the Overture to La Traviata. He went for the same timeline of the novel. He opens with the sad music that surrounds Violetta's death and proceeds in reverse in terms of leitmotifs. He was fully aware of the two timelines of the Alexandre Dumas fils' novel versus his play, and I believe that his decision to pick (together with Piave who pretty much always did what Verdi wanted) the timeline of the play was a matter of necessity.

      It is very hard to narrate an opera in flashback - the same problem encountered by Berlioz with Les Troyens, given that the facts of the Fall of Troy in Virgil are narrated in flashback by Aeneas, much later, in Book II of the Aeneid. Berlioz's brilliant solution was to greatly expand Cassandra's role (a few lines in Virgil) to make of her the narrator of the initial events, in real time, and traditional progression.

      So, I believe that an effective opera libretto - given the need to condense (since the sung line takes longer to issue than the spoken line)- will have to adopt certain compromises. Verdi, however, compensates for it with musical elements. So does Berlioz. He makes several *musical* references forward and backward between the first part (Acts I and II) and the second part (Acts III, IV, and V) of Les Troyens, and recovers *in the music* some of the poetic impact of the fragmented narrative flow in Virgil. He also manipulates the timeline extensively (for example, bringing a much later dialogue between Dido and Anna to an earlier time, with several dramatic consequences) to establish symbolic unity and symmetries. Flashbacks in opera are tough although not impossible (after the dream sequence in Die Tote Stadt, everything is possible).

      So, for me, both La Traviata and Les Troyens are very tightly calculated. Your engineering analytical mind will certainly appreciate this type of precision. So I'm still having trouble accepting your idea of flexibility in the score. This is why I can relate to Piotr Beczala's position that the music can also tell the story. I think the better the opera is, the more precise the score. These works are monumental constructions - this is why I felt so shocked with your position. I mean, in a good way (not like the man who bashed you for the blood in La Traviata); in a respectful intellectual debate kind of way.

      Anyway, this is why modified endings usually disturb me. Not always, of course. Sometimes the composer himself does it, multiple times (e.g. La Rondine). But if someone changes the ending of my beloved ultra-precise Traviata, I'll be upset. But don't read me wrong, I'm no traditionalist per se. For example, I profoundly love contemporary opera. Well, I love all 413 years of opera. But I do have some reverence for certain well-crafted works.

      I don't know Thomas' Hamlet as well. I've seen it, of course, and own a copy, but I haven't looked at it as attentively. So my question is - couldn't the music convey what needs to be represented in the first 20 minutes, even without the update? Well, it is true that Thomas is not Verdi and is not Berlioz, so, I don't know. I'd have to listen to it again.

      But again, when I said in the interview "oh wow, now I get your position" it was because your argumentation finally got to me - I was silently disagreeing with you in the beginning of the interview, and very much coming to an agreement at the end - a tribute to your excellent power of persuasion.

      Anyway, this was all very entertaining and stimulating."
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Well, you know, opera is an art form that gets together music, poetry, drama,... But, to keep it simple, let's say we need a score, a libretto, singers, instrumentalists (including, in most cases, a conductor) and staging. We need all this to recreate the magic of live opera, in a theater; this is the best way to experience opera.

      Now, that doesn't mean that *all* of those elements are equally important. They aren't. This is very simple to understand and agree upon, at least for pragmatic people. There are concert performances (I just watched one a few days ago, of Rienzi, and enjoyed it a lot), there are CDs, there are tickets sold with no line of sight to the stage (in traditional U-shaped houses)... Now imagine if we were to watch a staging with no music, and opera houses would sell a ticket with no hearing... Impossible, right?

      So, what we get from Verdi, Puccini, and Mozart is much more than a collection of words and musical notation; it is the essence of Opera, while staging is just a very important element, but *not essential*. The music does carry the story.

      And when the staging goes with the story the music is telling; everything is fine. I'm one for updating operas, for instance. I do think moving Hamlet out of medieval Denmark would be the right thing to do nine times out of ten.

      But when there is a divorce between the score and what's happening on the stage (and just by reading Mr. Strassberger thoughts, my guess is this won't be the case on his stagings), I think this is detrimental to the piece and is like "cheating" on the audience.
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      You said: “and just by reading Mr. Strassberger thoughts, my guess is this won't be the case on his stagings.” Yes, this is what it looks like, since he seems to profoundly love and understand the art form; starts his preparation by listening to recordings and looking at the piano vocal score, etc., unlike directors who come from other media and may not have the profound relationship with opera that Mr. Strassberger demonstrates.
    1. THS's Avatar
      THS -
      [Almaviva's note: this is Thaddeus Strassberger’s own response]

      One thing that I've never understood is why some opera goers seem to believe that there is a 'right way' to stage an opera...I'm not sure where the scripture is supposed to be found about the way to emotionally phrase a scene visually. The score gives a good indication for a lot of musical ideas, but the emotional ones are always open to exploration. The perception that there is a rigorous connection between a musical idea and a visual one seems to create agita when it is broken. But just as a movie version of a book will always visualise things differently than the reader might have imagined, so will a staging always be different from the 'movie in your mind' that comes when watching it. Those images are formed by one's own experience which, being personal, is going to be limited. The theatre allows one to 'travel' to other places, and emotions, that might not have been anticipated. It reminds me a of the old anecdote about an Englishman telling a Roman waiter that there's a problem with the way the kitchen has prepared a plate of pasta...
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      In fact, there are *many* ways to stage an opera.... unfortunately, not of all of them are really successful. There are good stagings and bad stagings, as well as there is good singing and bad singing.

      About the point at hand, what we watch sometimes in the theater is the stage director’s own personal vision that, being personal, is going also to be limited. The problem is when this personal vision of the stage director is in flagrant contradiction with the score and the libretto.

      Let's use an example, Die Tote Stadt, by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (the libretto is also by Korngold, and his father, Julius). At the end of the opera, Paul, the protagonist, awakes from a nightmare, and can finally accept that his wife is dead, and he needs to start a new life. Well, many times the stage director feels this is not the right way to present the story, and Paul just goes crazy or commits suicide. Well, this could be a *personal* vision, after all. Regrettably, this is not what's written either in the score (we are hearing in the orchestra the 'Return to Life' motif, as well as a reprise of the love duet in the first act), or in the libretto. So, the audience is watching a divorce between the text, the music and the staging (the *visual* scene), and they have a right to feel cheated.

      Opera is not spoken theater. In the words of a contemporary composer, Mark Adamo, "dressing Leporello in Beau Brummels rather than breeches isn’t the same as deeply understanding how characters are expressed in music and text, guiding a cast to realize those characters, and designing stage pictures and patterns that arise from, not merely frame, those characters’ interplay. This is a more thankless job in opera than in the spoken theater, because the opera composer is really the director. He’s made so many non-negotiable choices about the pacing, interpretation, and emotional temperature of any given scene that there’s less room for a director to make the decisions that really color the performance of a play. This, however, is not Mozart’s problem. Want more interpretive room? Direct plays: they’re more flexible documents. Plan to direct opera? First admit that the score (at least from the 18th century onward) has done much of your work."

      The reference is Mark Adamo's own blog and official web site:

      http://www.markadamo.com/writings/directors/

      This is, in its turn, a text that Mark Adamo wrote in 2001 for andante.com.


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