Thursday, July 24, 2014

Francesca Zambello, part II

In part 1 of my interview with Francesca Zambello, we talked about running an opera company. In this part, we talk about specific productions and other topics.

Photo: Clair McAdams
There was a profile associated with your Covent Garden Carmen where you discussed how important it is to be period specific and give a good sense of the time. Yet that was the same year you did an updated Aida at Glimmerglass (2012).
I think with Carmen it's important to make clear that she is not only outside of society, but she's also an outsider within her own community. She's not just a Gypsy--she's even farther out. But she still has this magnetism. Not just sexually. Everyone is fascinated.

Aida is about racial conflict--not black and white, but about two nations against each other and within themselves.It's about civil conflict and warring nations. The King and Amonasro are heads of warring tribes.

I think we made people realize that Aida is really a story that is going on right now. Insurgence in Syria. Afghanistan. It's the same story, right? Somebody proclaims himself king and is king for a day, and then somebody else is king. It's not like there are free elections in any of these places.

Carmen is an enigmatic character. Enigmatic characters are the most difficult to portray, but the ones everyone is most interested in. Many times audiences find Micaela and Liu more sympathetic, but Turandot and Carmen are the enigmatic women. Difficult to penetrate.

And you wouldn't have an opera about Liu.
Everything has to come from character. Narrative has to come from character--character can't come from narrative. What's Liu's conflict? Liu just wants the guy. That's all she wants for the whole show. Turandot changes. Liu doesn't change.

What goes into the decision about updating or keeping the opera in the time?
Each production is different. You work with your designers and you determine what is the best world or environment to tell the story. I don't arbitrarily think, “Let's set that in the 20s!” I think that's silly. If it leads you in your discussion with the set and costume designer and choreographer to a place where you think that will serve the piece, that's your decision. 

It's no secret we're doing an updated Ariadne here. I was very inspired by the conflict of Ariande, which is basically high art vs. pop culture. That's a pretty contemporary question. And I also have always loved the fact that central New York has all these cities with names like Syracuse, Utica, Ithaca, so I thought why isn't Naxos here? The estate of "the richest man in Vienna” could be like any estate up here. It's not like I thought, oh, let's make it contemporary. I thought, it's so important today that people realize there are the patrons, and there are the other people, and how do we all mix together?

But I'm just as interested in a period piece. Butterfly is really very period. It's set partially in the American consulate, but still in Nagasaki at the turn of the century. I'm working on Candide for next year, and I'm setting it right in the middle of the Enlightenment. I don't think, "Let's update this piece." I think, "How can I best tell this story? What are the visual cues that will help the audience? How will the characters relate? Who is that character going to be?" For me it's all got to start with the people. Once you get the people right, you'll get the world right around them.

It doesn't have to be totally representational. We're doing Dialogues of the Carmelites this year in Washington, and of course I've set it totally period. The setting is abstract. It doesn't look like France at the end of the 18th century--it's just some spaces. But the clothing is very period.

Sometimes I teach classes, and young directors say to me, "I'm going to set it in ...." That might be an interesting idea, but first let's start where the composer wanted to set it. Let's understand that world, socially, politically, visually. And when you know those things, then you can find parallels in other worlds. For example, I was teaching a class in The Marriage of Figaro, and I asked them how many people really know about the French Revolution? How many people really understand what was going on? What is the droit du seigneur?  What was happening in art when Mozart wrote this piece? What was happening in Vienna? What was happening in Prague? Why was he traveling between those two places? If they can't answer these questions, I don't want to hear about their plan to set it on a tennis court. That's not informing the work. It's putting a frame around it, instead of getting the canvas out.

You're doing a Vivaldi opera next season. You presented a Lully opera in 2012. How do you balance the need to sell tickets with your responsibility to serve the art?
It's a difficult question. When you do an lesser-known opera you really have to streamline it. Get it out there, let people hear it, but you can't do huge productions of those works.  Producing a rarity like Bianca e Falliero today (she directed the US premiere of Rossini's redicovered opera in 1987—we'd discussed it earlier because I was in the chorus of that production) would be extremely difficult to justify economically, whereas something like Madama Butterfly will not only sell tickets but also be rented to other companies as a production. Opera companies can't do those shows unless they have a huge repertory, unless they're doing ten shows. 

You have a long list of honors and accolades. One of DC's most powerful women! One of the ten most powerful women in music! I hope you'll use your powers for good!

I feel a responsibility now to do that. One of the great things about running a company is that it's not just about me. It's about all of us. It's hard, but it's satisfying, because I'm passionate about it. I wouldn't be doing this if I wasn't passionate about it. I feel fortunate to be someone doing something I deeply love.

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