• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Francesca Zambello

    [Opera Lively interview # 109] On the occasion of the 2013 Glimmerglass Festival, Opera Lively has interviewed in person the gifted American stage director, and Glimmerglass Artistic and General Director Ms. Francesca Zambello, focusing on the company and how she put together the current festival, as well as on her production of The Flying Dutchmanand other aspects of her illustrious career. We touched a bit on her tenure at Washington National Opera as well since she also accumulates the function of Artistic Director of that company.

    The 2013 festival is almost over but still happening with performances through this coming weekend. Schedule and tickects can be found at this website: http://glimmerglass.org/

    He have already published our reviews of two of the festival operas [here] and [here], and interviews with a singer - soprano Melody Moore (Senta) [here] and Christian Räth [here] who stage directed King for a Day. Two more interviews that belong to this coverage are still under transcription and will appear shortly: soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson (Marchesa del Poggio), and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny (The Dutchman). Stay tuned for these. Meanwhile, let's enjoy Ms. Zambello's informative interview.


    Born in - New York City, 1956
    Background - Italian-American (mother Jean Sincere, father Charles Zambello, both actors)
    Languages spoken - English, French, Italian, German, and Russian
    Education - Moscow University, Colgate University
    US Directorial Debut - Houston Grand Opera, Fidelio, 1984
    European debut - La Fenice, Venice, Italy, Beatrice di Tenda, 1987
    Productions currently on stage - The Flying Dutchman, and Little Match Girl Passion, Glimmerglass Festival - click [here] for info and tickets
    Next Productions - The Force of Destiny, from October 12, and The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me, from December 14, both at Washington National Opera; click [here] and [here] for tickets

    Francesca Zambello is the Artistic Director of Washington National Opera. Previously she has served as its Artistic Advisor. Since September 2010 she has also been the Artistic and General Director of The Glimmerglass Festival in upstate New York. She has directed many WNO productions, including Of Mice and Men (debut in 2001), Fidelio (2003), Die Walküre (2003 and 2007), Billy Budd (2004), Porgy and Bess (2005 and 2010), Das Rheingold (2006), Siegfried (2009), Salome (2010), and Show Boat (2013).

    © Claire McAdams

    An internationally recognized director of opera and theater, Zambello's work has been seen at the Metropolitan Opera, Teatro alla Scala, the Bolshoi, Royal Opera House, Munich State Opera, Paris Opera, New York City Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, and English National Opera. She has staged plays and musicals on Broadway, at the Royal National Theatre, BAM, the Guthrie Theater, Vienna's Raimund Theater, the Bregenz Festival, Sydney Festival, Disneyland, Berlin's Theater des Westens, and at the Kennedy Center.

    She began her career as the Artistic Director of the Skylight Opera Theatre and as an assistant director to the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. She has been a guest lecturer at Harvard, Juilliard, and Yale. An American who grew up in Europe, she speaks French, Italian, German, and Russian. She is a graduate of Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.

    She recently developed and directed the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis' Heart of a Soldier for San Francisco Opera, where she served as Artistic Advisor from 2006-2011, and staged there a full The Ring of the Nibelung cycle, which is coming to the WNO in 2015. Her acclaimed production of Show Boat opened at Lyric Opera of Chicago in February 2012 and will at WNO on May 4, 2013. Other recent directing highlights include a new production of La traviata for Opera on Sydney Harbor in March 2012, a new production of Aida at the Glimmerglass Festival in July 2012, and a new The Flying Dutchman currently at Glimmerglass.

    She has been awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government for her contribution to French culture, and the Russian Federation's medal for Service to Culture. Her theatrical honors include three Olivier Awards, two Evening Standard Awards, two French Grand Prix des Critiques, Helpmann Award, Green Room Award, Palme d'Or in Germany, and the Golden Mask in Russia.


    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Francesca Zambello

    © Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization.

    Credits - Questions by three staf members and one general member at Opera Lively; Photos of the Glimmerglass campus and theaters are credited to Opera Lively; Ms. Zambello's pictures and production pictures are credited under the image, authorized use or fair promotional use.

    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively – Thank you for doing this, Ms. Zambello; I’m a great admirer of our work. Let’s start by talking about your ideas for the Glimmerglass Festival, which you joined as the Artistic and General Director in September of 2010, in time to plan for the 2011 season. What has been your focus for each edition of the festival that you have directed, so far?

    Francesca Zambello – My focus for each season was to experience, through our core repertory, different ways of thinking about the world, politics, and the human condition. In 2011, the main arc was the exploration of strong female protagonists. In 2012 it was social change. This season, we are celebrating the American Romantics.

    OL – Is it important to have a concept that guides the festival?

    FZ – It is. We don’t need to be the slaves of the concept, but the experience is richer if there is a greater take away. So, we put on stage operas, musicals, and concerts, and we discuss the issues and ideas embedded in these works, in our “Meet me at the Pavillion” programs.

    OL – How are you highlighting the American Romantics, this season?

    FZ – Given the bicentenaries of Wagner and Verdi, we are honoring all the Romantics, not just the Americans, but I wanted our audience to see that we are part of a bigger historical and cultural movement, so we partnered with the Fenimore Art Museum in town, which is presenting a major exhibition of American Romantic painters, a majority from the Hudson River School. These painting reflect three typical American themes of the 19th century: discovery, exploration, and settlement, as well as the pastoral landscapes where people and nature coexist in harmony. The literature of idealism and Romanticism finds a voice in our collaborative literary series at Hyde Hall, in nearby Glimmerglass State Park, featuring writers like James Fenimore Cooper who of course came from Cooperstown, and also Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Emily Dickinson.

    OL – How did you pick your music for this Romantic-themed festival?

    FZ – When you look to the Romantic era in music, two of the pillars are Verdi and Wagner. They revolutionized opera as music theater – with Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk and Verdi’s real and dramatically credible stories. I wanted to present two of their earlier operas, written almost at the same time. Then, I added the musical Camelot which makes reference to a place of idyllic happiness. The Arthurian legend is within the concept of Idealism and Romanticism. Our fully staged double bill called Passions examines the Transcendental Movement which is in many ways in sync with the core philosophy for the individual in the Romantic Movement, even though it contains older music like Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. The other piece is contemporary, David Lang’s The little match girl passion, but it borrows the form of Bach’s St. Matthews Passion. The piece was revised to showcase the talent of our Glimmerglass Children’s Chorus with 24 local children.

    OL – Why were you attracted to this theme, here at Glimmerglass?

    FZ – I was first attracted to this region thanks to its idyllic ways. Culture and nature reside very harmoniously here, in this setting.

    I have been long drawn to the art, literature, and music of the Romantic period. The movement places emphasis on feelings such as self-examination, awe, the importance of the individual, often experienced through the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque qualities. It all came together in our festival.

    OL – Nice! Tell us a bit about the history of the company.

    FZ – Its first season was in the summer of 1975, with four performances of La Bohème in a high school auditorium in Cooperstown. This beautiful Alice Busch Opera Theater opened in 1987. The name of the company comes from the surface of the Otsego Lake, the “Glimmerglass” of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. Our theater was the first one built specifically for opera since the new Met opened in 1966.

    Productions have been presented in repertory since 1990. At first the company did only opera and was called Glimmerglass Opera, then there was a musical added in 2008. Since 2011 we’ve been presenting three operas and one musical each July and August and we changed the name to Glimmerglass Festival as we broadened the offers. Now we offer more than 40 performances, each summer, and we sold 33,000 tickets in 2012.

    © Claire McAdams

    OL – How much does it cost to get this all done?

    FZ – Our operating budget is of about $6 million.

    OL – Where does the audience come from?

    FZ – About 70% of our audience comes from New York State, with 12% coming from New York City, and 50% coming from a two-hour radius of Cooperstown.

    OL – What does it take, in terms of human resources, to run the festival?

    FZ – We have a year-round staff of 20 people; then we get some 90 seasonal production staff and some 25 seasonal administration and operations staff, helped by 50 interns. We have about 50 guest artists and 40 young artists. Then, you need all sorts of other human resources, like 15 parkers, 25 concessions employees… Our orchestra has almost 50 musicians. We get visiting Master Teachers and Coaches, conductors, assistant conductors… not to forget the volunteers, who are more than 200 guild members and 180 ushers. We have to house some 240 individuals – we lease 65 properties and own 6 more.

    OL – Wow! It’s a big operation. Tell me more about the Young Artist Program.

    FZ – It was founded in 1988 and it brings singers in the first stages of their careers. Each year we have about 1,100 applicants. The focus is on education through performance. They cover roles and perform roles, and receive musical coaching, attend classes in diction and acting, and are given instruction in audition techniques, role preparation, and the business side of managing a career.

    OL – Now, let’s talk more precisely about the operatic aspects, and your role as stage director. First, this production of The Flying Dutchman. You made the entire action to be concentrated on Daland’s ship, and the ropes seem to acquire a symbolic weight. Please tell me about your concept for the production.

    FZ – You are a psychiatrist, you certainly must know that teenage girls are obsessed. They have a fascination with Gothic, and suicide is unfortunately a sad part of many teenagers’ lives, I think, and that’s where my point of departure was. Wagner of course wrote that she is obsessed with the Dutchman, but I wanted to have it as a question: is this in Senta’s mind? Is it always happening on the boat of her father? What is that obsession?

    © Karli Cadel / Glimmerglass Festival 2013

    The ropes are many things. Of course, on the surface they are the ship, but they are also weaving; spinning, they are phallic, and eventually of course they are what she kills herself with. I just wanted a true line that was something you could see with a teenager today, even if we set the piece in something historical; the costumes are suggestive of the 19th century. But that was my reason, to make her a teenager like the ones we see today. That’s the tragedy of a lot of youth. Look at things like Twilight, Interview with the Vampire, all of that is this same story.

    OL -Melody Moore [this production’s Senta] in her interview with us told me that you direct opera with an eye for what members of the audience who haven’t been thoroughly exposed to opera are seeing or experiencing. If you agree with this characterization, please elaborate.

    FZ – Yes, here and in a lot of places, it is our job to not obscure the story, but to make it as clear as possible. That may mean that we are interpreting the story in a certain way, but it’s got to be clear for the public.

    OL - Senta in your production hangs herself instead of drowning herself at sea. We talked about the symbolism of the ropes, but was there any other particular reason for your choice of how to stage the ending?

    FZ – It has to be clear that she is saving the Dutchman. Her action is about him. He tells her, “don’t come with me.” She makes a decision to die with him. I wanted to make it clear that she is dead, and her death-fantasy, her death-wish is that she is reunited with him. That’s why I had the double Senta and the Dutchman going up together on a ship. There is a lot about Daland, her father, and the Dutchman. Does she have father envy? What is going on? It’s all part of it.

    OL - You have directed for both operas and musicals (Showboat, for example). How are these different in your experience? Are there things which are easier to do in operas than in musicals, or vice versa?

    FZ – It’s funny, because in some ways it is similar. Your job as a director is to tell the story, number one; then, create the characters, use the material, be faithful to the material. Sometimes the stories are clearer in musicals than in operas. The way that you work with actors is different than it is with opera singers. It’s a different vocabulary, but the process is still the same – you’re rehearsing. You are in a room all day, figuring out the characters and the story. In that way, it’s connected. But the type of work is different because actors and opera singers are different, although opera singers are actors also, and sometimes actors are very good singers.

    OL – Maybe opera singers have a different mindset already, because of the music? Do they resist more when you give them stage directions?

    FZ – No, nowadays opera singers are very flexible. They want to be theatrical. I don’t know any opera singer now – I haven’t worked with any – who says “this is how I do it.” In the beginning of my career, people said it more often.

    OL – Yes, there’s been a shift towards more flexible acting.

    FZ – Yes.

    OL - Glimmerglass is committed to featuring one grand American musical every season. I’ll adopt the Devil’s Advocate stance for this question. One might say that Broadway is doing very well, thank you. Why are opera companies and opera festivals often featuring musicals, instead, for example, of focusing on American new opera? I know you’re doing both next season, but why do you really need to include a musical? One argument I saw you taking was that it broadens the audience. However Glimmerglass has pretty much sold out performances if I can gauge by the ones I’ve attended; is there really a need for including musicals?

    FZ – Well, you didn’t come in July, when there were nights when it was empty. I need to sell more tickets in July. I tell people, “if you want good seats, come in July. You can get ticket deals, and it is cheaper.” August, it sells very well. Tell everybody to come in July, please.

    OL – All right. But do you really feel that there is a need to expand into this repertory?

    FZ – Absolutely. First of all, I think that musicals are our own American opera. They are not operas, but they are the equivalent art form that we invented. We made musicals. Italians made opera. Germans made operetta and Singspiel. The English made Gilbert and Sullivan. We made musicals. Every American opera singer – and we use 99% of American artists, here – when they were in school, the first music that they knew came from musicals, or church music. I want to see them in musicals, and they want to perform in musicals.

    OL - As director of Glimmerglass and now as Artistic Director of the Washington National Opera, will you be engaging in any joint activities between these two entities?

    FZ – Yes. Some of our young artists here will be coming to our young artist program in Washington DC, and then they will come back here in leading roles. Some productions will start here and go to Washington.

    OL - What are your plans for the future of WNO? Again, the Devil’s Advocate might argue that WNO in the past has lagged behind other major national companies. I for one would love to see a strong renaissance (it’s at drive distance from where I live).

    FZ – Me too. My plan is to have more American performers, conductors, designers, composers over there: more American stars. I want more operas about a political connection, and more world premieres. I’m doing a lot of short operas premieres. I also want more operas in English, and productions that have a political feeling.

    OL – So I gather that you are trying to make the quintessential American opera company, in our nation’s capital. Is that what you are trying to accomplish?

    FZ – Yes, exactly.

    OL - You did a Ring for San Francisco in co-production with the WNO but the latter ended up not putting it on. A Ring can almost break the bank with LA's coming in at $32 million and the Met's north of $20 million. Any plans to revisit this, in the future?

    FZ – Yes, we’ve announced it for April and May of 2016.

    OL – Oh, OK, I missed that.

    FZ – That’s OK, you don’t need to read everything. We’ll have three cycles.

    OL - Let’s talk about your SF Ring. I understand you focused on American history. Would you tell us more about your concept?

    © San Francisco Opera (2011) Cory Weaver

    FZ – Well, myth, more than history. History to some degree, but more specifically I focused a lot on American myth and American imagery, because I wanted it to be more familiar to our audiences.

    OL - What is involved in this massive undertaking of directing the full Ring?

    FZ – Endless rehearsal, and I mean, endless; non-stop, for ten weeks.

    OL -It seems like a pity that your San Fran Ring isn’t out on DVD. I’m no expert on the DVD market although we have interviewed some videographers in the past like François Roussillon. But I’d risk the guess that the Ring has such a worldwide following that the public is always hungry for seeing another DVD version. Have you thought of it, and what is involved in the decision of doing it versus skipping the filming of it?

    FZ – I know François Roussillon. He was the producer of some things I directed. He is a nice guy. But it’s just too expensive to produce the DVD, because of the unions.

    OL – Will the revival in Washington DC be filmed for DVD?

    FZ – I doubt it. It’s too expensive. People don’t want to spend that money. It’s a lot of money, so the public will have to just come and see it.

    OL - You are known for directing some of opera's great large-scale epics (Wagner's Ring, Berlioz's Les Troyens, Prokofiev's War and Peace). What are the most important requirements for a director working on this scale?

    FZ – Patience! [laughs] No, you have to have a clear sense of how to marshal everyone. The Ring is long but each scene is not big. The Trojans and War and Peace are big; there are a lot of people. Most Ring scenes have two or three people, except for Götterdämmerung, while Les Troyens has huge chorus scenes.

    © Marti Sohl / Metropolitan Opera

    Those big operas, you really have to plan what you are going to do, how you are going to do it, and how it is going to look like, very specifically. It can change in rehearsal, but you need to have a plan. You need to know what to do when you have four hundred people like in War and Peace. It’s a lot of people, you have to be clear about what everybody is doing, so I map it all out. Now, I like doing these pieces like the Dutchman, which are smaller. It’s fun to do a big opera in a small situation like this; you really get at the relationships.

    OL – Many of your productions are visually striking.

    FZ – Good, thanks.

    OL – Do you plan for this yourself, or do you rely more on your set designers?

    FZ – I work with designers, but I usually have a clear idea of what I want to do, and how I want to do it. It’s important to have a clear approach.

    OL - Your 2000 production of Prokofiev's War and Peace, the first time the work was ever staged at the Opéra National de Paris, drew boos during the final dress rehearsal for its unflattering portrayal of Napoleon. Though you described the reaction as just "a joke," did you find yourself considering possible French audience responses as you staged this piece?

    © Opéra de Paris 2000 Ken Howard

    FZ – No! It was written by a Russian; of course he made Napoleon not a nice person! Yes, I forgot about that, oh God. You know, [sighs] the French are very nationalistic. So are the Russians. So are the Americans, but I think we have a little more openness. Prokofiev made Napolean a caricature, in the piece.

    OL – What is your opinion of Regietheater?

    FZ – If it is good, it is good. If it is bad, it is bad. You can’t say “yes” or “no” to anything. I try to do Regietheater where we are really focused on the people. The people are the most important thing, for me.

    OL -Let’s talk about your ROH Carmen. That production really has legs. In my opinion it is one of the two best Carmens on video ever (together with Domingo’s and Migenes’). Maybe the very best.

    FZ – Thank you! Thank you!

    OL - The stars really aligned with some great performances by the principals. What do you think is the reason why this atmospheric performance really captured audiences' imaginations?

    FZ – Everyone thinks they know Carmen. Everyone wants to be Carmen, or Don Giovanni. You have to create the character so that the audience wants to go on her journey. That is what I worked on with Anna Catarina Antonacci and Jonas Kaufmann. It was their debut in these roles. You can’t play the stereotype. You have to play the need - her need for freedom. “If it comes, it comes” – that’s not the character. The character has an obsession, and a drive. It’s the same with Senta. Every character has one central need. Figaro needs to marry Susanna. Rosina needs to make her husband prove that he can be faithful. The count needs to get in bed with Susanna. That’s what I start with, in any show –what is it that everybody needs? You are a shrink, you know this. It’s primal, right? What is the primal instinct of the character? You have to understand that, before you can do anything.

    OL - Please describe your creative process. How does an idea start to germinate? Do you start from listening to the music, reading the libretto, testing a number of different ideas?

    FZ – Everything. I read the source material, the libretto, I listen to the music, and I do it all at the same time, over a long period of time, like six months. I don’t do it in a day. It takes a long time to absorb something. I ask myself what is the story I’m telling. What must we have, visually, to tell the story? Butterfly? We need a knife. What is the most important prop? We don’t need a telescope but we do need a knife. You figure out what you really need, and then you build it up from there.

    OL - How involved do you get in the process of selecting principal singers? Now that you are directing this festival and the Washington DC company, you must have a much bigger say, but how about before?

    FZ – I pick them all, now. And in a lot of places that I worked before, I got to pick them all, as well.

    OL - Do you find yourself doing anything different when you know that a production will be released on DVD such as your Carmen and your Cherevichki?

    FZ – No, no. I mean, the TV camera is going to do what it is going to do. People know it is a performance. You can’t direct it like you are directing a film.

    OL -How did you get to love opera, growing up? Does it have to do with your Italian-American background?

    FZ – Yes, it does. My mother loved it, and she brought me to the theater with her. I fell in love with opera. I fell in love with the trio from Così.

    OL - What are some of your extra-operatic interests?

    FZ – Outside of opera, I love nature, so I love hiking, kayaking, doing outdoor activities – skying, snowshoeing, tennis… that’s it.

    OL -How do you describe your take on life?

    FZ – I feel pretty lucky. I’m very happy; I’m married. My wife went to Duke, she is an attorney. I think you have to have an outside life to be an artist. Some people who are artists think they have to suffer all the time. I don’t want to suffer. I mean, I want to suffer, thinking, but I don’t want to be in pain about work. I want to enjoy it. I love what I do.

    OL – What about your personality?

    FZ – I’m pretty outgoing, because I love what I do, so I try to convey it to people. I proselytize about it.

    OL – Anything you want to add?

    FZ – Just that I look forward to seeing your site. Thank you, it was nice talking to you.

    OL – Thank you!


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    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      Francesca sent to Glimmerglass patrons some explanations for questions she was frequently asked:

      1) Why the decision to do Verdi's Un giorno di regno in English?

      During Verdi's lifetime, he never had any expectation that his works would be performed in anything BUT the language of the audience, whether Italian, French, German, English, Danish, Croatian or Russian. In a 1894 letter to the director of the Paris Opéra, Verdi wrote that he was "shocked" at the decision to perform Otello in Italian and urged M. Gailhard to perform in a French translation instead. In our modern age, technology allows us to present works in the original language with titles. This works fairly well for dramas whose action unfold at a more leisurely rate, especially when opera lovers are deeply familiar with certain phrases in certain languages (Dutchman's "Die frist ist um" or Butterfly's “Un bel di, vedremo”). While we will continue to use the standard 20-21st-century practice of original language with titles for most works, for a comedy like King for a Day I believe we served the piece better by presenting it in English for an English-speaking audience, just as Verdi would have done.

      2) Why the intermission in Dutchman in the middle of Act Two?

      Intermissions are a practical concern as much as an artistic one. Wagner initially envisioned NO intermissions for The Flying Dutchman. When they were added, a second practical consideration was at play: the audience expectation of several different massive sets. Since our production did not need to come to a stop for two major scene changes, I had the freedom to choose a different break. Many people found this break quite startling, which was the intended effect; Dutchman is, after all, a suspenseful story. As an added bonus, everyone arrived home sooner.

      3) Why did we do The Little Match Girl Passion ?

      As the leader of the only summer opera company in a very large area, I have a responsibility to present a wide range of works. I don't love every style of opera equally, and I don't necessarily expect that each of you will either. I do hope, however, that each season will have SOMETHING for everyone, whether you're a fan of Monteverdi or minimalism. I also hope everyone will take advantage of the opportunity to experience something new. Who knows, maybe you will discover a new passion!

      4) Why is there no baroque next season?

      There will be an American premiere of a baroque piece in 2015. Next summer join us for one of our bel canto or baroque concerts. Details will be released later this year.

      5) Is the Dutchman's tattoo real, and what does it mean?

      No, the tattoo is not real. It is hand-painted onto Ryan McKinny's chest before each performance by a member of our hair and makeup team. It takes about 30-40 minutes to paint on this alcohol-based temporary tattoo. The tattoo was designed specifically for the Dutchman's look by our costume designer Erik Teague, and, appropriately, means "damned."

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