It’s 1842. A lighthouse keeper and a romantic young woman embark on an arranged marriage at “edge of the reckoned world”, the lighthouse on Old Presque Isle, Michigan. Both have secretive, shame-filled histories – both allude to physical abuse, promiscuity, addiction; these ghosts are too much for their stormy romance, which culminates in tragedy as the Keeper locks his bride in the basement.
The Juilliard School, April 2016
Set Design: Grace Laubacher, Lighting Design: Anshuman Bhatia, Costume Design: 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.
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 portrayed come from that region as well.
Pacific Symphony, February 2017
Set/Grace Laubacher//Lights/Anshuman Bhatia//Choreography/John Todd//Costumes/Katie Wilson
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.
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.
LA FINTA GIARDINERA
The Juilliard School, November 2017
Set Designer/Grace Laubacher//Costume Designer/Amanda Seymour//Lighting Designer/Anshuman Bhatia
Finta takes place in a passionate world, where violence and comedy alternate outlandishly; genuine communication is thwarted as the characters pretend to love the wrong person in a garden as artificial as their chicanery. Grace Laubacher and I decided to root our production in the relationship of facade to depth, a relationship which (like the theatre itself) is a paradigm of the conflict between appearance and reality. We asked ourselves the question: how can a garden exist in unexpected dimensions?
The story of the false gardener speaks to those times in our lives where the protective structures we have built for ourselves break down, and we are forced to become beginners again. Much to our dismay, growth is not linear. Flowers do not stay where you plant them and weeds spring up, creating unexpected beauty. We go into the garden to be touched by the unpredictable. Mozart reminds us that a close brush with mother earth always involves wrestling with chaos.
The Juilliard School, 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.
A theatrical duet for soprano Laura Bohn and pianist Mila Henry. A fight to the death for authenticity and the end of over-mediated communication.
Photos by Jill Steinberg.
Taiwan National Symphony Orchestra, July 2016
Conductor/Shao-Cha Lu//Set design/Hui Chen//Projections/Ethan Wang//Lighting Design/Chun-Yu Lee
An epic concert staging of Verdi’s masterpiece with a Taiwanese supporting cast, a Greek Desdemona, Slovakian Otello and Russian Iago. A joyous collaboration and elemental exploration of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy.
Remembering that The Rape of Lucretia is a direct product of post-WWII Europe lends added poignancy to the deeper questions asked by the opera. What possible reason or meaning can we assign to human suffering? Is faith the antidote to atrocity? And how do we continue to live after the death of beauty? This piece was written two years before Waiting for Godot, another artistic response to living in a world that (it seemed) God had deserted. Lucretia was an experiment in form for Britten and Duncan, who framed a landmark of Roman history with a Christian sensibility and complicated it further by borrowing conventions from Greek tragedy. In Lucretia, it is theme of the cyclical nature of suffering and violence that unites these distinct storytelling and musical styles.
The cast, designers, Mark and I have grappled with the questions Lucretia asks and what you will see is the result of these conversations. In the 509 BC plot, rape emerges out of the culture of tyranny and violence. We found it interesting that each character, by listening to some combination of their own words, their gut or their conscience, could have prevented the rape but everyone chooses to stay silent. We drew a clear parallel to college "rape culture" and spent time reading and hearing first-hand accounts of such stories. We chose to place the Chorus squarely in 2015 and gave them a very personal reason for telling the story, for needing to bear witness to the rape. Faced with an event that defies their ability to pray it away, the Chorus cycles through guilt, self-incrimination and rage, identifying with both victim and perpetrator. By witnessing the violence, the Chorus comes up with a reason to live and a way to heal: by putting their faith in a higher power and practicing Christian love.
Charlottesville Opera, July 2017
Territory folk sing themselves into statehood as Laurie, a young woman, discovers the limits of her own desire. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical about the boundaries we create and the faith it takes to become someone.
A retooling of Barber set in Seville, Florida in the (19)90’s. Teen girl schemes with boy band dreamboat to break free of restrictive father-husband figure. We watch as a small business owner helps these two achieve their dreams.
THE CLASSICAL STYLE
An Opera (of Sorts)
The Ojai Festival, Cal Performances Berkeley, June 2014
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.
Bryant Park, Summer 2010
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?