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By Allan Ulrich
Skimpy rehearsal periods, wretched studios, lousy music tapes, dancer injuries. You think choreographers have problems now? Ha! Those traditional vexations pale in comparison to the challenge of confronting the ego of a genuine opera diva. Yet dancemakers are taking the plunge and besieging the world’s opera stages. In some of the most prestigious opera houses, they are running the show.
Choreographers have participated, sometimes peripherally and often anonymously, in the production of opera since its beginnings in 16th-century Italy. From the age of Monteverdi, dance has been an integral element in opera. The French even gave dancemakers the opéra-ballet, a hybrid genre that enlisted ballerina legends like Sallé and Camargo.
When Mark Morris directs a new production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at the Metropolitan Opera this May, it will herald a milestone. This will be the first time in more than 50 years that a famous dancemaker has directed an opera at the Met (the last was George Balanchine, who staged his friend Igor Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress in 1953). Similar projects are happening this season in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Paris, and Berlin. Directing opera is the newest frontier for adventurous choreographers.
Opera companies in the United States have always welcomed them—in limited amounts. Today, when the plot requires a dance, the Met commissions it from the best and the brightest. Doug Varone’s ultimately topless “Dance of the Seven Veils” for Strauss’ Salome three years ago and Christopher Wheeldon’s “Dance of the Hours” for La Gioconda last fall have attracted favorable notice.
But to evolve from hired hand to boss marks a major step for a dancemaker. The surprise is who is doing it. For the intensely musical Morris, opera seems a natural, evolutionary step. But it has also attracted such varied artists as brainy postmodernist Trisha Brown, text-driven dance theater veteran Joe Goode, and Vincent Paterson, whose background includes dances for Broadway (Kiss of the Spider Woman), movies (Dancer in the Dark, Closer), Michael Jackson music videos, and Madonna tours. If each of these choreographers has arrived at opera through a different route, their goals remain similar: to lavish everything they know about movement on an art form in which posturing and immobility have become routine. Moreover, choreographers are finding that no opera diva can resist enlightened, compassionate stagecraft. The director is there to make them look good.
Paterson, who steered the Los Angeles Opera’s production of Massenet’s Manon last September, came to the project because of his previous collaboration with the charismatic Russian soprano Anna Netrebko. Hired to direct her in a DVD album of classical music videos—which became a bestseller—he quickly gained her confidence. Then, when company director Placído Domingo approached him to direct Netrebko’s debut as one of opera’s most appealing material girls, he jumped at the opportunity.
At the time, opera meant little more to Paterson than the names Callas and Pavarotti. To address this gap, he spent almost three years researching the work, attending more than 30 operas, and apprenticing himself to another director. He had heard “nothing but horror stories” about opera. But once rehearsals were underway, he soon realized that directing it was an extension of everything he had done previously in his career.
“I have always been grounded in narrative, and I have always talked to dancers as if they were actors,” Paterson says, during a break from rehearsals. “Even when doing music videos, I talk to them about subtext, about where the movement comes from, whether its purpose is narrative or abstract.” Paterson has found that the experience of this Manon has enriched the possibilities for his own choreography. “I’ve acquired an understanding of the most explicit yet natural way to move on a stage,” he says. “My aim is to make it so naturalistic and flowing that singers won’t feel like they’re in an opera.” Paterson will restage Manon for the Berlin State Opera in April.
Innovation, he feels, is still possible in the opera world—in contrast to his experience in New York after his Tony nomination for Spider Woman: “I was enticed by that saying, ‘Broadway needs new blood.’ When it came to the reality, they wanted the same old blood.”
Gaining the trust of opera singers is one of a director’s major hurdles. “I like people to feel safe with me,” says Joe Goode. He was seduced into working for the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program by its director, Sheri Greenawald. She offered him the opportunity to mount Conrad Susa’s Transformations in the intimate Cowell Theater. This is a music-theater work that places Anne Sexton’s rhymed fairy tales in a contemporary context—in this case a suburban backyard.
On the surface, this was a bizarre match-up. Goode has always devised his own texts for the Joe Goode Performance Group (see “Twenty Goode Years,” June 2006); and, in the past, he has complained about dance’s dependence on music. There’s also no place for dance in Transformations.
So what changed his mind?
“I’m a big Sexton fan. I love the language,” says Goode. “Yes, the music is difficult. I realized that the way to do it was to animate it, to let it be a bit of a cartoon, to let it shimmer on the surface.” About the young singers, he says, “I was nervous. What were these divas like?” recalls the choreographer. “Are they going to stand in one spot and just sing?”
He was pleasantly surprised. “Opera singers train differently these days,” he says. “They come to rehearsals knowing they have to act and be part of the director’s vision. A few of them were terrified, but as soon as we based their contributions in character, we could work together.”
For Goode, opera and dance are a good match. “My work is all about the interior life. That’s what opera is about, too. I’ve never felt such freedom before.” Opera, he believes, may even be where dance-theater is headed. “For the past 10 years, dancemakers have been reinventing themselves according to their own rules,” says Goode. “We’ve been allowed to be interdisciplinary, to bring in other elements. This permission has got us into some interesting territory. Opera, in many ways, is the ultimate interdisciplinary form. We choreographers have been in training for this.”
Trisha Brown made the dances “and a lot of other stuff” for a production of Carmen staged by Italian film director Lina Wertmüller in the 1980s. “I was stimulated by the surrounds of song and the enormous décor,” she says. When, in 1998, the Monnaie Opera in Brussels invited her to direct Monteverdi’s 1607 Orfeo, Brown steeped herself in the music and history of the score. Yet as a choreographer who inclines to abstraction, she harbored doubts. She turned to her friend artist Robert Rauschenberg for advice.
“I said to Bob, ‘There’s a narrative here. How will I handle it?’ He answered, ‘Trisha, don’t be afraid of a hug or two.’ ”
But there were problems with the singers. “They were, at first, reluctant to do what I wanted,” recalls Brown. “But when they realized how deep was my knowledge of the music, I had their respect. I remember I wanted the singers to roll down a rake. At first, they resisted. I had my company teach them very carefully and they got really involved with it.”
Since then, Brown has collaborated with the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino. Her production of his Luci mie traditrici (an account of the homicidal 17th-century composer Carlo Gesualdo) led to her directing the world premiere of his Da gelo a gelo last year in Germany. Subtitled, “100 scenes and 65 poems after Izumi Shikibu’s diary,” the work is about an 11th-century Japanese poet and her relationship with a prince.
“It’s a love story, and a cyclical work,” says Brown. “At first, it was a mystery to me. When I realized what Sciarrino was doing, writing 100 scenes of contrasting lengths (some run only three or four seconds), I could see a structure. Because the dramatic impact is in the music, I didn’t have to be literal in my direction.” Da gelo a gelo will be repeated in May and June at the Paris Opéra’s Palais Garnier.
With Rameau’s Platée, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and last year’s production of the latter’s King Arthur under his belt, Morris is the veteran opera director of the group. He staged Gluck’s Orfeo in a touring version in the mid-’90s and made the dances for an even earlier production. His first directing job was a Marriage of Figaro, undertaken in the early ’90s when the Mark Morris Dance Group was in residence in Brussels.
Morris recalls falling in love with opera when he was a teenager in Seattle. His interest lies solely with the score, rather than with the ambiance of opera. He spurns “queer opera heroine worship” and he pokes fun at the typical Met production with “all those staircases.” Morris notes that singers’ egos have never presented a hurdle—and he has worked with some of the best of his generation. “All performing artists,” he says, “have different ways of validating their self-esteem.”
The problems in working with singers are more technical. “Dancers function with rhythm. Singers have trouble with it; they become so self-conscious on the stage that their rhythm goes away. You have to train them to walk on the beat,” says Morris. “So, I focus on physical tempo and breathing. I have found that, with most of the mammals I work with, if they breathe, they can relax.”
The seamless integration of singers and dancers achieved by Morris in King Arthur suggests that he has already intuited the secret of directing opera: “I simply respond to the crashing emotional stuff that happens in the music.”
Allan Ulrich is a senior advising editor of Dance Magazine, an operaphile, and contributor to many publications in the U.S. and abroad.