Opera's Next Wave
Director THADDEUS STRASSBERGER
Few young stage directors in opera have demonstrated an intellectual drive to match Thaddeus Strassberger's. He wanted to work in opera from the time he was a child. ("It's been a long, slow burn," he says.) He began as a set and costume designer. At the Accademia Teatro alla Scala in 2001, the centenary of Verdi's death, he began to make the transition to director. "There was so much seriousness about what was going onstage," he recalls. "I got to see so many productions of Verdi, and Muti was conducting them. I no longer felt like an outsider, interloping in this European art form."
At thirty-six, Strassberger has built an enviable resumé, staging works as diverse as Les Huguenots at Bard SummerScape, Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at Norwegian National Opera and Rossini's La Gazzetta at the Wildbad Festival. Currently his production of Chabrier's opéra comique The King in Spite of Himself is playing at Bard SummerScape. Next month, he opens his new production of the Verdi rarity I Due Foscari at Los Angeles Opera.
Strassberger's starting point as a director is making sure that there's a real reason to put the opera on stage. "I think in these days of cultural budgets being slashed that we can't just take it for granted that it's just going to be there." When we spoke, Strassberger was preparing to stage Nabucco for Washington National Opera. "When they approached me about doing it, I had to think about it for a minute — to ask, 'What is the purpose of it?' What I ultimately came up with is that politics and culture are in dialogue with each other, and the idea that the opera is being done at Washington National Opera's Kennedy Center, the center of politics and culture in this war between what's important in the world and what's extraneous. I thought, that's a good dialogue to have in this conversation. In Nabucco, every decision about the piece is fundamentally trying to answer that question."
Strassberger believes that opera is the true fabulous invalid. "Strauss and Hofmannsthal, Verdi and Solera — even going back to da Ponte and Mozart — you feel as if everyone is in this constant state of gloom and doom: the theaters are shutting down next year, the quality isn't what it was, we don't have the voices we used to have. When Verdi presented the score of Nabucco to Bartolomeo Merelli, they said,'There's no budget.' Verdi said, 'I've got Strepponi and the whole cast,' and they said, 'You'll have to use sets from the warehouse,' and Verdi said,'That's all right. Let's get it onstage.' That's no different from an American company saying you have to rub two sticks together to get the production on because our NEA budget got cut this year."
Strassberger is a little more worried about audiences being able to take on the immersive experience of opera. "The last bastion of the opera house is to give yourself over tosomething that is not participatory, particularly. You don't get to click anything to choose the ending. I wonder if that is something people will become less accustomed to doing."
Brian Kellow / Opera News
The production, directed by Thaddeus Strassberger and designed by Erhard Rom, skirted the subversive undertones of the scenario—one senses an allegory of capitalism run amok—but offered thrilling images, including a fire suitable for “Götterdämmerung.” The inventive young Strassberger deserves a shot at the Met, which has all but exhausted its supply of Tony-winning directors who know little about opera.
Alex Ross / The New Yorker
The story and the music of “The Wreckers” are full-on blood and guts, and Thaddeus Strassberger’s production made certain that there was no mistake about their intentions.
Erhard Rom’s set, a beach packed with towering piles of crates, presumably representing many years’ worth of spoils, made movement precarious, but Mr. Strassberger’s direction kept the energy high and the villagers in a permanent state of fury and exaltation. Even the muscular Act I prelude was staged as an orgy of pillage and murder, and the act’s choral finale—an enthusiastic expectation of more of the same—had the look of Broadway’s “Les Mis.” Kaye Voyce’s period costumes were properly bedraggled, and the lighting by JAX Messenger was alternately creepy and drenched in red.
Heidi Walesen / The Wall Street Journal
Royal Opera House / Covent Garden London
In a spare modern set encompassing a bar as well as Alex’s flat as designed by Madeline Boyd, Thaddeus Strassberger’s production kept the narrative line firmly in sight and helped the four participants achieve neat and credible characterizations. Matt Haskins supplied the powerfully atmospheric lighting.
George Hall / Opera News
L'opera de Montreal
For the gold standard in staging, we need look no further than Thaddeus Strassberger. In the last couple of years, Minnesota Opera, Philadelphia Opera and Washington National Opera have put on his production to critical acclaim. In the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier in Montréal on Thursday, I understood why.
It’s not that Strassberger’s production necessarily requires a huge budget – it doesn’t have triple-decker mobile platforms on rollers or staircases that reach far into the fly tower – but it shows an uncanny mastery of dramatic elements. Its attention to detail in the period costumes, innovative use of spatial illusion, and well-conceived furniture and props create a totality that is at once ornate and striking. Colourful backdrops painted with a superb sense of perspective create depth in the scenery; the destruction of the Baal icon is marked by a mild explosion that jolts the audience. Deployment of colour separates the oppressor from the oppressed, and lighting changes effectively accentuate changes in mood.
Alan Yu / Bachtrack
Strassberger's cohesive vision for this production, which included incest, molestation and bloody onstage violence, was searingly powerful, marrying the setting to the Russian language in a manner that seemed entirely appropriate.
Eric Meyers / Opera News
Inside the Avant-Garde: Thaddeus Strassberger
“I always prefer to search for something within the piecethat I have yet to discover rather than simply illustrate what I already knowabout the opera,” Thaddeus Strassberger explains. The 34-year old director, whoat press time is currently mounting a new production of Le nozze di Figaro (setin 1790s Seville but colored by his previous directorial concept of settingthis Mozart masterwork in modern-day Iraq; see sidebar “Finding ‘Figaro’” onopposite page) for the Norwegian National Opera, is fast becoming a directorsingers can expect to see in the press and in the audition room with increasingfrequency.
Call it avant-garde, call it experimental, call itRegietheater—the concept of concepts is not new. However, the restaging,resetting and, at times, even recasting or replotting of operas has becomeincreasingly common (to the point of being commonplace) in Europe—and, thanksespecially to the new reign of general managers and artistic directors at LincolnCenter, it is catching on in the United States. With Peter Gelb at the helm ofthe Metropolitan Opera, the past season alone has been fraught with both highsand lows—from Mary Zimmerman’s La sonnambula and Luc Bondy’s Tosca, bothheavily booed on their opening nights, to runaway successes in PatriceChéreau’s haunting From the House of the Dead and Bartlett Sher’s inventive Ilbarbiere di Siviglia. Across the plaza, director Christopher Alden revamped DonGiovanni at New York City Opera in a myriad of ways, continuing the company’slonger-standing tradition of innovative, provocative stagings.
Strassberger fits into this mix as a director who expandsavant-garde opera’s horizons past the U.S.’s major opera cities (New York,Chicago, San Francisco). Arizona Opera (and subsequently Utah and MadisonOperas) staged his Die Zauberflöte—set in Egypt in the early 1800s as Napoleonand his troops first set sight on Alexandria and Cairo, a meditation on theenlightenment values of Mozart’s singspiel—to resounding acclaim.“Strassberger’s The Magic Flute wrings every ounce of humor from Mozart’sintention while never forgetting that the storyline revolves around the battleof good versus evil and the ideal that enlightenment brings internal peace,”wrote the Arizona Daily Star.
Though also well received (“Happily, the approach works,”wrote Wes Blomster of the Daily Camera, “for—stripped of opulent trappings—thehumanity [or, in most cases, the inhumanity] of Verdi’s characters is laidbare.”), Strassberger’s Rigoletto for Opera Colorado proved to be morecontroversial in its interpretation. “Rigoletto’s original creation in Venicewas rife with troubles,” Strassberger explains. “The censors thought thematerial was inappropriate for the operatic stage. Verdi disagreed and pushedhard to get his ‘ugly’ vision realized. I felt a passionate duty to followVerdi’s gut instinct rather than gloss over his intentions for the opera.”
This de-glossing process included the Duke singing “La donnaè mobile” surrounded by prostitutes (and singing “Ella mi fu rapita!” flankedby his wife and children), Rigoletto strangling the Duke’s young son, and Gildadying by a dumpster. Yet, Strassberger maintains that these directorial choicesare not made to provoke audiences, but rather to expose the cracks in each ofthe characters.
“One source of inspiration for my production of Rigolettowas the way each mistake that is made by a character affects not onlythemselves but those around them who, in turn, ‘infect’ others with their poison,”Strassberger continues. “By illustrating as many of these family relationshipsas possible onstage, you could literally see the corrosive nature ofRigoletto’s ceaseless vitriol eating away at several generations. Not only didthe Duke discuss his infidelities at the breakfast table with his wife, his twoyoung children also silently witnessed. Maddalena likewise has a child—withSparafucile or someone else?—whom she nurses shortly after killing Gilda. Thebaby literally drinks the milk of her murderous mother. Monterone’s daughterwas disgraced and disowned by being tricked into sodomy with her father for thesake of a cruel joke, and Giovanna—here played as Gilda’s mother—is destroyedby the loss of the only glimmer of joy in her life.”
So is there a difference when directing a rep standard likeRigoletto or Die Zauberflöte? Certainly, as I bring up to Strassberger, thechances of an audience member having seen either of these works in the past isgreater than their chances of having seen Rossini’s La gazzetta or Meyerbeer’sLes Huguenots (both of which he’s directed, in Bad Wildbad andAnnandale-on-Hudson, respectively).
“As much as my critics might cringe to acknowledge,”Strassberger responds, “I am very well versed in opera and production history,and must work very hard to make sure my approach to each new production is asfresh as the work requires and doesn’t suffer from mindless reproduction of animage or schema I’ve seen before.”
The conversation turns to Les Huguenots, Strassberger’srecent work with the Bard SummerScape Festival (a work, in the interest of fulldisclosure, that this author worked on as a supertitles operator). The workreceived praise and criticism—but fervent reactions from both sides. Protestantcharacters spent the first intermission picnicking in the house, saying thePater Noster prior to the start of the third act and dodging audience memberswho were reminded by the act that, though they may have paid for their tickets,they don’t own their seat or the space they occupy for four hours.
Though possibly the most revolutionary aspect was to leavethe work set in 1572. “Les Huguenots is an opera about an established societythat conflates religion and government which is confronted by simplistic,uneducated, fundamentalist foreign immigrants. It didn’t require any updatingto make the modern political allegory very clear,” says Strassberger. “As amatter of fact, my team and I decided that by updating the production, we wouldhave diminished our intended effect. It seemed much more powerful to let theaudience contemplate how little has changed since the sixteenth century.”
Production values such as these are on par with many of theworks that remain newsworthy for their controversy. As publicist Amanda Ameernoted, “Everyone hates the Met’s new production of Tosca so much they can’tstop talking about it.” Though some directors appear dismissive towards thereactions, Strassberger welcomes everything from bravos to hate mail. “I thinkthe audience should react to what we have created!” he says. “Booing, cheering,storming out during the first act, receiving letters detailing the writer’slikes and dislikes of an idea of mine—I’ve experienced them all. My favorite byfar, however, is the post-production talk-back. I think it’s important that theaudience knows that it’s a human being behind all these ideas, not somefaceless ‘they’ or ‘them’! And the same goes for me. Even when there are strongdisagreements between us, the dialogue always proves lively and informative.
“It’s not a bad marketing device, either—I’ve hadconversations with patrons who disliked a production whom I’ve convinced tocome back and watch again with new eyes. It must be awful trying to watch aproduction while you have a mental movie playing in your mind at the same timeof some other production.”
Clearly, with Strassberger it’s not about the reactionitself but that there was a reaction at all—and what directors do with thatreaction is equally important. Though, he does wonder at the upturn in booing.“I suspect, however, [that it] manifests less a shift of the ‘product vs.experience’ balance and is more likely a superficial imitation of Europeanbehavior, like sipping Perrier in the 1980s.”
Working on either side of the divide between European andAmerican audiences has put the drive behind Strassberger’s art intoperspective. “In my observation, American audiences differ from European onesin a fundamental way—they think of what happens onstage [as] a ‘product,’ notan ‘experience,’” he explains. “Buying products—shoes, cell phones, cars,houses—[is] a way to externally project who we want to be to the world and isexpressive in nature. Experiencing, however, is about absorbing andinternalizing and about feeling and reacting emotionally.” This observationspurs the question asked by many: should the director be accountable to theaudience or the composer?
The answer, of course, is not so clear cut. “We try to makeconnections between the audience and the composer. There’s no such thing as‘page to stage’ without a whole team of director, conductor, singers,designers, etc., giving the ideas form, time, and context.”
He pauses and then adds, “I spend a lot more time with thecomposer than I do any single audience, however. So if I had to pick sides . .. ”
Olivia Giovetti / Classical Singer Magazine