2017 is a perfect time to present Aida, an opera about how national politics influence the choices individuals are forced to make in order to maintain their integrity. Studying the piece, I was struck by the way Verdi shifts between epic and personal modes; royal processionals give way to intensely private meditations on homeland, duty, justice and jealousy.
As I started to figure out how to stage the piece in the intimate Segerstrom Center, I thought about the scale of most Aidas I have seen. Grandiose Egyptian(esque) sets capture the epic part of the story, but the more impressive the space, the harder it is to zero in on the relationships between the characters. This particular production, with the Pacific Symphony on stage, felt like the perfect chance to explore the more personal nature of the piece. To evoke Egypt, which was commissioned and composed for the opening of the Cairo opera house, I knew we needed sand. The first image that came to my mind was a tiny panorama of Egypt’s most famous monuments. The idea of a sandbox onstage also evokes the idea that prejudice is borne in childhood.
Elemental, powerful, and gripping, Aida speaks to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. Anyone who has ever felt the personal and the political collide. Sometimes our greatest task in this world is to figure out how to share the sandbox.
The Juilliard School, April 2016
Set Designer/Grace Laubacher
Lighting Designer/Anshuman Bhatia
Costume Designer/Moria Clinton
Choreographer/Sean McKnight/Adam Cates
Photos by Richard Termine
A marriage of opposites, Die Zauberflöte doesn’t fit neatly inside any traditional boxes.
Vaudeville and spiritual quest, ethereal but familiar, populated with moms who are also queens and birds who are also men, spaces aglow with fires that instantaneously flood with water, Mozart’s Enlightenment masterpiece touches our hearts by presenting the panoply of human possibility.
In subject matter and form, the opera is about integrating these disparate parts into a whole. At the start of the piece, every character misses a part of her/himself, to varyingly comic degrees. The three ladies attempt to fill the gap with the unconscious Tamino, Papageno looks to the skies to find a catch, and Tamino’s love for Pamina makes her portrait vital. This sense of finding a double or a partner runs throughout the piece. For example, Sarastro has two doubles: the Queen of the Night and Monostatos. There are two suicide scenes. Two groups of people—Sarastro’s priests and the three Spirits—disseminate knowledge in two drastically different ways. The temple goers edify and moralize; the Spirits are playful, irreverent, and elusive.
I started with certain instincts about the piece, which I have loved since before I had the cognitive ability to know why I loved it. I knew I wanted it to be simple and elegant, in the same way as I hear the music. I also knew that I wanted the costumes to expose, rather than hide, the humanity of each character. I wanted to see the Queen and Sarastro struggle with their problems, to divest them of golden robes and mountainous headdresses. The designers and I took inspiration from the bird and planetary imagery in Joseph Cornell’s boxes, Joseph Campbell’s work on the hero’s journey, and Karl Jung’s alchemical images from Edward Edinger’s book Mystery of the Coniunctio. The space is loosely based on research about Masonic lodges in New England, and the natural elements we portray come from that region as well.
This particular Die Zauberflöte considers Pamina and Tamino to be two halves of a whole, enlightened person. At the beginning of the piece, a system of discrete opposites is breaking down; the first words of the opera are “help me!” Through their journey, our heroes become whole by individuating from their pasts and integrating all the different lessons they learn along the way. At the end, they find a new wholeness: in a sophisticated other, as in the case of Pamina and Tamino, or, more naively, by just looking in the mirror like Papageno and Papagena. Papagena echoes the birdcatcher's every desire, changing only a vowel here and there.
At polar opposites in the piece are the Queen of the Night and Sarastro, who serve as two examples of how to make your way in the world. Each has his/her virtues: Sarastro is hierarchical, rational, codified, and rigorous, the Queen of the Night is wild, passionate, and mysterious. For Pamina to truly grow, she has to borrow from both of her elders and integrate the type of female power that prizes intuition over rationality without dispensing with reason altogether. If she continued to color within the lines, she would never break into the final trial and lead the way through the elements.
Our idea of Enlightenment is very different from Mozart’s Enlightenment, when it was revolutionary just to posit that a (educated white) man could attain an equal rational footing with God and King. In 2016, there’s room for female and male, for light and dark—there’s room to unify and embrace the contradictions that shape human experience, and there’s room for the messiness and emotion that those contradictions give way to.
I’ll close with one of my favorite conversations about the piece from our rehearsal process. A member of our cast pointed out, “What’s so bad about the Queen of the Night being banished to the night? That’s what she loves and that’s where she lives anyway. After all, she’s the Queen of it.” There is much more to say and yet, of all operas, Die Zauberflöte completely speaks for itself.
Otello at the Taiwan National Symphony Orchestra, July 2016
Photos by Yung-nine Wang王永年
THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA
Juilliard, February 2015
Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Set: Grace Laubacher
Lighting: Anshuman Bhatia
Costumes: Sydney Maresca
Choreography: Adam Cates
Juilliard, February 2014
Conductor: Matt Aucoin//Set Designer: Grace Laubacher//Lighting Designer: Anshuman Bhatia//Choreographer: Adam Cates
This was a chamber version of Onegin, for 9 singers and a twelve-piece orchestra. We cut the act 1 women’s chorus, much of the interstitial music, and combined the characters of Mme Larina and Filipyevna. Following Tchaikovsky’s lead, we became fascinated by Tatiana and the story through her eyes.
At the beginning of the piece, we are introduced to a childlike, unconscious Tatyana. In her perception, edges are blurry, objects are undifferentiated, and the world is open to her, full of possibility. Fiction is her reality and her secret imagination is colorful and obsessive. We found a visual analogy to her fluid, epic internal life: the way the painters of Pushkin’s period (1800-1850)– specifically Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, and Constable– used light in their landscapes and skyscapes. These paintings magnify, “Romanticize”, and externalize emotions that are intimate, internal and private.
Romantic painting continues to inform 21st century visual expression. On Instagram, we ‘filter’ photographs to make them emotionally evocative. We manipulate their light and color to render a situation more dramatic than it actually is. Teenage Tatyana filters her world– seeing in Onegin the mysterious glow of depth and passion, and in Olga and Lensky a vintage idyllic love. Our production is based on this idea of filtering, to allow you to feel the dreamy quality of her interior life.
When Tatyana is rejected by Onegin, her world starts to change. When we meet her again, in Act 2, her internal world has developed edges and become defined. She has made clear choices and set up distinct boundaries. Her chosen path would seem to make rejecting Onegin’s declaration of love easy. But unfortunately, Tatyana’s mature choice is even more painful because it’s permanent and limiting, as all grown-up choices are. At the end of Onegin¸ it is not a character we are left to mourn, but Tatyana’s youth.
Photos by: Richard Termine
IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA
Beginning of Ecco Ridente
THE CLASSICAL STYLE
An Opera (of Sorts) at The Ojai Festival and Cal Performances Berkeley (June 2014) and Carnegie Hall (December 2014.)
Music by Steven Stucky
Libretto by Jeremy Denk
2014 Ojai Music Festival - World Premiere of "The Classical Style: An Opera (Of Sorts)"
Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was born in 1876 to a German painter father, and Venetian mother, and despite spending most of his adult life in Germany, considered himself an Italian composer. At 19, he hyphenated his own last name, one suspects, due to that pride in his heritage. It is no surprise then, that his first successes as a composer were his musicalizations of the plays of Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793.) Goldoni, a Venetian and a great writer of the Italian commedia dell’arte, pioneered changes in the form. At the beginning of his career, all of the characters were masked and outlandish. By the end, none of the actors wore masks, and one couldn’t distinguish the stock commedia characters from the members of the bourgeoisie that Goldoni had created. Goldoni was fascinated with the minutiae of these people's lives, and explored their emotions with a prolific pen; Le Donne Curiose was written and performed in 1753 - a year after his similarly named but distinct Le Donne Gelose. Wolf-Ferrari’s rise in the Verismo movement cemented these thematic similarities. His operas were about the real life and emotions of a group of Italians. In Le Donne Curiose (1903), the commedia characters set the Venetian tone, but blend in with the bourgeois people (with their bourgeois concerns) that are at the center of Wolf-Ferrari’s opera.
Goldoni, like many great playwrights, was a radical and championed social equality through comedy– his servants are always craftier than their masters, the women often smarter than the men they took up with. The fundamental story of Le Donne Curiose is as old as Adam and Eve. Women get curious about their loved ones' lives, and in the process, destroy something (and some might argue, begin to build something much greater -- certainly more real.) The designers and I resisted relegating this piece to the past, intent on making the male-female relationships real and not giving into potential over-the-top silliness of the characters. Our Venetian Men’s Club is contemporary and very alive—just check the Man Cave aisle of your local supermarket.
The other strain of the piece that captivated us was the unlimited capability of the human imagination. Each idea the women come up with for what the men could possibly be doing is more ridiculous than the last – gambling, whoring, searching for the philosopher’s stone? That made Grace Laubacher, the set designer, and I wonder about the possibilities of occlusion and perspective. What if we put the audience in the position of the Donne--- always trying to discover what lies behind, underneath, and at the heart of the issue.
Beatrice tries to shake the truth out of Eleonora. Are the men doing Alchemy?
Columbina "accidentally" spills coffee on Ottavio's jacket. On SL we see the action under a magnifying glass.
Pantalone yells at Arlecchino.
Florindo stands outside of Rosaura's window.
Pantalone and Arlecchino admire the gondolas in "blessed Venezia".
The Donne spy on the Men's club dinner from the skylight on the roof.
Rosaura apologizes to Florindo. Columbina seduces Arlecchino, and Pantalone bemoans the women's admission to the club.
BABY NO MORE TIMES
Written & Developed by MARY BIRNBAUM, MELISSA LUSK & CAROLINE V. MCGRAW
Female pop sensation BABYNOMORETIMES returns to NYC for a sold-out concert to celebrate their latest album skyrocketing to #1 on the charts. Join them for an evening of sexy, raucous girl power as the divas fill the 90's pop formula with the real stuff in American women's hearts and minds (pay inequality, body shame, the blessing of the vibrator). Bring your best friends and your best whistle-tone; this show will make you twerk and think.
Digging into the outlandish, passionate, violently comic world of La Finta Giardiniera is an undertaking. Finta, Mozart’s fourth operatic effort (at age 18), is his first real struggle with darker themes – obsessive love, jealousy and madness. In tackling this dramaturgical challenge we tried not to be led up garden path, seduced by the darkness in the backstory. Instead we were inspired by the levity and effervescence of Mozart’s music, the tunes that made Finta a big success when it was first produced.
In the dizzying fluctuations of narrative, one thing is clear – everyone wants something he or she can’t have. Frustrations run throughout, thwarting communication; none of the characters say what they mean, and when they attempt to, they renege almost immediately. Only Arminda is unabashedly herself – Sandrina and Nardo are incognito, the Podesta is having an affair with Serpetta while professing his love for Sandrina, Serpetta leads Nardo on when she actually lusts after the Podesta. Ramiro and the Count are all over the place – hot one minute, cold the next –though supposedly in love.
In cultivating the world of Finta, the ingenious set designer Grace Laubacher and I decided to root our production in the relationship of appearance to reality, facade (2 dimensional) to depth (3 dimensional.) We asked ourselves the question: how can a garden exist in more dimensions than the obvious? Hence, a hanging garden served as a canopy for the action. The doubling of parts underline these dueling concepts. When the emotion runs deeper, multiple facets of the character appear through our literal use of multiple faces. To weed out confusion, we asked brilliant playwright christopher oscar peña to write two spoken scenes in English. His additions flesh out characters and provide more backstory.
Arminda tells the Count Belfiore the terms of her marriage contract.
Everyone is reunited with their exes, and confused!
Count Belfiore is surrounded by two Sandrinas!
Sandrina confronts her fear in the forest, and ends up reunited with the Count.
Ramiro confronts Arminda. "I want you!"
The morning after. Played by 4 performers - 2 playing the upper bodies, and 2 playing the feet. A duet a quatre.
SCHOOLED (or m. moliere's the learned ladies)
February 2009 @ different apartments around NYC
This February, SCHOOLED gets right to the heart of Moliere's "The Learned Ladies" by inviting a small audience into a chic New York apartment over Valentine's Day weekend. Inspired by the early films of Brigitte Bardot, French pop music of the 1960s and Parisian Salon culture, SCHOOLED will be plop art: created entirely in a rehearsal room and 'plopped' in a different apartment for each performance. Equal parts voyeuristic salon party and hilarious satire, SCHOOLED is the story of a family's struggle to save themselves, and their home, from their warring ideals.
Founded in fall 2008, art.party.theater.company strives to create accessible, generous, physical performance with a methodology based on community building, spatial sensitivity, and irreverence.
SCHOOLED/Duchess in the Dark
Summer 2010 @ Bryant Park
From NY Daily News:
A mysterious 8-by-8-foot shiny box is coming to Bryant Park next week - and a star may be inside.
The folks at art.party.theater.company are betting New Yorkers will line up to meet a secret celebrity inside the Mylar-covered "Starbox" on the park's fountain terrace, starting Friday.
"We invite lots of speculation about who the celebrity will be," said Artistic Director Mary Birnbaum, hinting, "It's someone probably everybody knows and someone that probably everyone likes."
Birnbaum and her cohorts hope to create a celeb-crazed stampede - about 30 performers will play scripted agents, personal assistants and star-struck fans to build the hype. There will be a red carpet. And velvet ropes.
While organizers promise there will be a real celeb inside the box, they won't guarantee which list the star is on: A, B, C, D or even Z.
Could it be Beyoncé? Justin Bieber? Or someone less, um, current, like Scott Baio? Those behind the box already are building buzz, tweeting with tongue in cheek.
"Awesome! I heard that @bryantparknyc is hosting #starbox July 2-3/30 and August 6/13! I saw it in Sydney last year and met Hugh Jackman!"
And: "woke up late. but i hear that lindsay has requested only blue pretzel m&m's for her stay inside #starbox."
The performance is about hope as much as it is about hype, say members of the troupe, who also invaded Bryant Park last summer to play croquet in bright white outfits and quote the park's poet namesake, William Cullen Bryant.
And even if it is all smoke and mirrors, organizers have devised a way to keep people coming to the Starbox, which will be open from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. every Friday through Aug. 13.
Beginning July 23, the "starbox" will be inhabited by a secret celebrity, and visitors are invited to come take a peek at who's inside.
Artistic Director Mary Birnbaum said, "We invite lots of speculation about who the celebrity will be. It's someone probably everybody knows and someone that probably everyone likes."
Birnbaum would not comment on exactly how big a star the box dweller will be.
Before guests enter the box, they'll be required to sign a non-disclosure release.
From NY Mag:
If the performance troupe art.party.theater.company is to be believed, an eight-by-eight-foot box will show up in Bryant Park this Friday, and in that box will be a famous person. This famous person will sit in the box from between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m., on every Friday from July 23 to August 13, and will be viewable to all those who show up and are willing to sign a nondisclosure form. As we see it, inside the box will either be: (a) an individual who is technically famous but in no way fulfills the layperson's understanding of the word celebrity, (b) the punch line to a potentially amusing/terrible joke, or (c) David Blaine (please don't be David Blaine). Okay, care to guess which "celebrity" may in fact be in the box?