Friday, February 14, 2014

800 Words: The ABC's of the Marriage of Figaro - Directing


“The degree of lightness or darkness is often initially dictated by the theme, but never to the extent that I would ever want the one totally to exclude the other.
There’s an old acting maxim, ‘When playing a miser, stress his generosity.’ The same is true of writing a play, or indeed of directing one. The darker the subject, the more light you must try to shed on the matter. And vice versa.
A few years back, when I was again directing at the Royal National Theatre, we did a hugely successful revival of Arthur Miller’s tragedy, A View from the Bridge. I think I’ve rarely laughed as much in a rehearsal room as I did during the early rehearsals, as we searched both for the light, the genuinely legitimate moments of laughter - we found lots - and for speed. Our version apparently ran about thirty minutes shorter than a recent New York production had done.
Conversely, when we came a few months later to my own ‘comedy’, A Small Family Business, the search was on for the darkness that lurked behind the cheery family exterior. (It’s actually a comedy about greed, blackmail, adultery, prostitution, organised crime, sexual deviation, murder and teenage death through drug addiction - though we never billed it as that!)
No play worth its salt says nothing at all. It would actually be very difficult to achieve this (though I’ve read some in my time that do come very close). We often dismiss our light comedies and farces as trivia with nothing to say. With the successful ones, this is generally untrue.”

- Alan Ayckbourn, The Crafty Art of Playmaking

So writeth Alan Ayckbourn, a condescended to writer of comedies if ever there was one. But since August Wilson died, he’s probably my candidate for best living playwright of ‘straight’ theater in the English language. Not that I’m at all qualified to judge, but he’s the only long-active playwright I can think of whose intelligence feels more made from human feeling than a passion for jigsaw puzzles. Whether it’s the violent and surreal boardgames of Americans like Mamet and Albee, or the intellectual teasers of Stoppard and Frayn, I’d be hard-pressed to find another living English-language playwright whose work can consistently move you rather than impress or disturb you. Neil Simon perhaps, but he’s so associated with the mawkish that maybe he’s too bound in our minds with high school accessibility for any of us to judge him fairly.

And yet, the truth is that Ayckbourn is just as jigsaw-puzzle-ish as the rest, and such is the reason that theater today is so impoverished compared to various types of film - in which the greatest talents can make far more money. He’s no genius sent from the heavens to give us divine art, he simply writes well-made plays as though taken from a schematic in a handbook in which you see all the gears of the plot turn precisely as they have to - every character reveals their motivation at precisely the right moment. And yet onto his Swiss watchmaker like mechanical precision is grafted all the vagaries of the human heart. The only problem is that you still see the gears turning, and his characters never quite jump off the stage in the manner which genius, true cosmic genius, should.

Nevertheless, what makes Ayckbourn so great, and he’s toweringly great, is not his skill, but his feeling. Many people like to say that you can always separate the art from the artist. I wish, oh god how I wish for my own sake, that that’s not true. But the type of human being an artist is thunders so loudly from the work that if you read them perceptively, you can garner virtually everything about the artists’ life - their passions, their moods, their compulsions, their religion, their fetishes, their loves and hates, their self-opinion, their opinion of others. Like any family member, friend, or lover, a great composer or writer or filmmaker or artist is someone in whose company you have to spend a lot of time, and the more time you spend, the better you know them. Warts and all, for such a relationship to be meaningful, you have to justify to yourself that this person’s quality is worth the investment of time.

Like any close relation, an artist has to sympathize with our faults without absolving us for them. If anything, the close people in our lives fill in the blanks and weaknesses which we ourselves have - and some of us have many. We let them into our lives so that they may complement (not compliment) us and make us more complete. And with their strengths, we gain admittance to doors of perception we’d never have without them, and they us. But if they share weaknesses that we do, or fear we do, we begin to find them grating, tiresome, and get queasy in their company. To be around them is to be reminded of what we dislike in ourselves, and that is a difficult matter.

So it is with intimacy, so it is with art. Some artists - Mozart, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Jean Renoir, Sondheim, perhaps a dozen or two others I can rattle off (make your own list obviously) - are so cosmically perceptive that we can never get to the bottom of them, even if they seem to know everything about us, and, tangentially, everything about everyone we’ve ever met. Like some people in our lives we're blessed to have, we can never tire of their company. But we can’t help wondering when they will tire of us, because while they seem to know us completely, we can never truly know them. They’re simply more perceptive, - they give everything to you and seem to need nothing in return. You’re forever grateful for it, but you always left wondering why it is the way it is. The understanding of all humanity seems at their fingertips, and we make up just a small speck of the humanity which lies within them.

But even if there’s no getting to the bottom, there is nevertheless the question of what is visible at the surface. Is Hamlet’s delay to murder Claudius due to inaction or circumstance? Is he mad or feigning madness? Does Hamlet really love Ophelia? Is Polonius a shrewd operator or an incompetent old fool? Did Gertrude know about Claudius’s plot? Is the Ghost really an apparition of Hamlet’s father, a demon from the beyond, or the collective madness of people in a decadent court?

Whether any production ever answers these questions, the questions remain in the text, perceivable to anyone who reads it closely enough (and you don’t have to read it particularly closely to find any of those). But whatever the answers, a director of Hamlet must ask one question before any other - what interpretation would be the most engrossing, entertaining, moving, provocative, and memorable interpretation for the audience. Picture the theater filled to the bursting, and then picture what would make them laugh most, cry most, squirm most, be most in awe. Is your perception of what that will be correct?

The answer is as close to 'certainly not' as human error can bring. Even if a director is talented, perceptive, humanly generous, knowledgeable, and persuasive, there will be an infinite void of possibilities he’ll never see in the play, hopefully a slightly smaller infinite void than his actors, but there is no guarantee of that either. But even if a stage is packed with recreative geniuses - Trevor Nunn directing Brando and Meryl Streep? - there is yet another infinite gulf between the director’s perception and the actors’. But it is a director’s job nevertheless to plunge headlong into all those voids and swim in every one.


What is a good director’s job?

Some, usually a director, would allege that a director is an autocrat, who thinks of the members of his cast as cattle - movable and audible props that go from one place to another as nothing more than a useful object within their brilliant conceptions, and enforce this conception as time goes on, by coercion if necessary.

Others, usually an actor, would allege that a good director is an enabler, who simply gives motivation and context so that the actors can better glisten on stage and enlighten the audience with their brilliant conceptions and personages.

A third, hopefully wiser archetype, would allege that a director has no set job. The closest analogy would probably be to a gardiner. A director’s job is to respond to the needs he sees at any given moment on stage to ensure the production’s growth. Of course the director has his conceptions and opinions, but he also lets his conception grow wherever he sees organic growth which diverges from his conception. But just as he gets out of the way when he sees quality growth, he has a responsibility to intervene when there is too little, and even when there is organic growth, he occasionally needs to prune the plants if they are obstructing other plants.

But a director is not dealing with plants, he’s dealing with human beings. If he sees something in a certain part of the production that can be improved, it is his responsibility to persuade them to adapt it as best he can the manner which he believes could show improvement, but he nevertheless may well never persuade them. If the actor, or musician, or technician, disagrees with him, then his job is to form another from the infinity of options that are satisfactory both to him and to them. A director’s job is neither to impose a conception nor to accept one, his job is to ensure one. Through ceaseless reading, ceaseless research, and… unfortunately, ceaseless challenging.   

This third model is infinitely more challenging model than the other two, because the second half of the director’s job is also to make sure that the various parts of the production work cooperate well together for the best possible result. And no matter how many times people say that creative tension is important to ensure a good result, it’s simply not true. The optimal result is achieved through people of different talents fusing together, united and working undisturbedly in a common goal. All happy productions are happy in the same way. All unhappy productions are unhappy in different ways.

The first model is perfect bluff, and relies on the insecurity and self-doubt of the director’s collaborators so he can undermine their self-confidence - there are no end of directorial demagogues who bully their way to the top of their profession. The second model is perfectly ass-kissing, and there are no end of directors who rise to the top simply by flattering the egos of their collaborators. It is perfectly possible to achieve a good result with either of these two models, but it’s much harder. The first model necessitates human beings surrendering parts of their individuality, the other necessitates collaborators willing to be so fully human that they compensate for the director’s limitations.

But the third model is easily the most difficult, because its rewards are only honest rewards, and it can take a terrible psychic toll. For doing this, you could easily be thought either an autocrat or an enabler, because in a sense, you are both. Everything about the job of directing is an inherent contradiction, and one that no doubt takes a lifetime of experience to balance if one ever does.


There is something truly horrible about an artform with rules so codified that it can be reduced to teaching it in academies and textbooks. The walls have been built, the bars have been set, and all that awaits is the prisoners to come and lock themselves in their cells. And as a result, individuality can be crushed, and people who truly burn with creative desire have to find other, more flexible, cultural mediums through which they can express themselves, or else they’ll occupy their time repressing other people as they themselves were once repressed.

None of this is to say that modern conservatories killed classical music and drama, or that film school killed film, or that art school killed visual art. And yet, it can’t be denied, none of these forms have been anywhere near as popular to the public since academia took them over. Perhaps academia itself is a symptom of decay, an onanistic creative parasite that devours vitality and fitness with a false desire for understanding. Once an artform is so popular that it becomes an unassailable fact of life, it becomes the establishment. And the establishment has only one interest - remaining the establishment.

There is no set model for what art is - whether it’s theater, or music, or visual arts, or cinema, or food. Except perhaps through neuroscience, you cannot quantize quality in art, you can only qualitize quality. It is ultimately fruitless to say 'A is greater than B', because there is no objective way of proving it. There is no 'greater than' in art, there are only infinite 'types' of greatness. Even if Shakespeare and Chaucer created more words in the English language than any other writer and created character development as we now understand it, they would not be the best English writers because of it. If they remain the greatest writers in the English language, it’s because of how those words and characters they developed affect us. All you can say is ‘this is good/bad because...’ The closest to quantizing which art has is the concept of metaphor, which is the way our brain’s right side does mathematics. When we make comparisons in the ‘real’ (phenomenal) world, we say that ‘A is like B...’. But after you make such a syllogism, you have to say ‘A is like B because...’

Every time you try to reduce art to a formula, it will evade your grasp. Art is as disciplined an ‘art’ as any military campaign, and without some kind of order, it is meaningless. And yet, once an artistic order exists, it exists to be violently broken into as many pieces as possible; if only so it can be reassembled again in a completely different manner, and then broken again just as violently.

...The game continues….


This staging of Figaro will, hopefully, have breaks in the narrative, violence unsought in the libretto, music which is not part of Figaro’s score, and far more sex and raunch than is asked for. Is it avant-garde, or is it just intellectual bullshit? The truth is that I have no idea, but I came up with the best staging I knew how to do after loving this score for nearly twenty five years and reading nearly as many books.  

I’d like to think that I love traditional opera as much as anybody my age in the world. It has accompanied me through many great moments and gotten me through many more terrible ones. It got me up in the morning, and it sung me to sleep. But traditional opera is traditional opera, and if you’re going to go by traditional models of what opera is, you need to do it in traditional spaces, with a traditional orchestra, and traditional recitatives. There is no sense in preserving tradition if all the aspects for which tradition has been preserved are gone. If there is a huge stage and a refulgently large orchestra with weeks of 8-hour rehearsals to be performed for connoisseurs of the tradition, then there is hardly a more magnificent experience in the world. But if you do not have these aspects, and I might have thought differently had we preserved a few more traditional aspects, then you have make as complete a break with the past as you possibly can - lest you be compared to the greater tradition and inevitably be found wanting. If you’re going to do an untraditional presentation, then it has to be untraditional with capital UNs.

A staging of Figaro must have five levels to it:

1. Comic farce.
2. Tragic consideration of life’s frustrations and emptiness.
3. Political commentary.
4. Erotic Bodice-ripper.
5. Fairy Tale (this is an opera after all)

No matter what happens on the stage, and no matter how much any element dominates this opera at any given time, all five elements must appear on the stage simultaneously.

Furthermore, as a presentation, we are doing the first ever ‘traditional’ classic opera in Baltimore’s preeminent independent rock space. There are four elements which this staging must possess

1. The company has to present the opera in all its greatness to an audience who’s never heard it before and barely heard Mozart.
2. The opera must be rendered in such a way that removes the audience’s preconceived notions of opera’s inherent stuffiness.
3. The opera must appeal to knowledgeable opera goers who are coming to a small production, looking for new angles to a piece they already know well.
4. In order for the new opera goers to enjoy the production, they must think that we are flustering the oldies, even if we’re engaging them just as much.

This staging has to be so untraditional that If even the people who know it best are not thoroughly opened to new possibilities by it, then it has in some sense failed. And yet it has to be so traditional that a new audience emerges simultaneously with a reasonably complete understanding of the opera’s fundamentals. And yet the opposites are equally true. If there is too little respect for tradition, then the opera buffs will be offended. If there is too much respect for tradition, the opera novices will be bored.

I have done what I could to make a thoroughly traditional, untraditional staging. A staging that is, I think, completely grounded in reverence for Mozart; the greatest talent that has ever graced this earth, perhaps in any of the arts; but also completely grounded in disrespect. To do justice to an infinite gift requires at least a small suggestion of infinity. The audience has to be made aware not only of what happens, but also what doesn’t happen, what ‘could’ happen, and what ‘might’ happen. If opera wins people to its cause, then we (or perhaps I) get one attempt to make them aware of the infinite possibilities which opera has to offer.

How many times will I ever get to direct The Marriage of Figaro again?

Monday, February 10, 2014

800 Words: Notes from the Underground of a Facebook Troll


I am an angry man. I am a petty man. I am ornery, cantankerous, chronically depressed, generally disgusted with the state of the world, my life, my surroundings, and my disgust. No matter what image I manage to present to the world for a few hours at a time, it is for people like me that the word ‘saturnine’ was invented. I wish I found ‘loving’ easier than I do, but I cannot help that I look around me and see so many things worth hating.

I’ve managed to forget how glum I can be all too often in recent times because I’ve thankfully become the one thing I’ve always wanted to be: a workaholic. A workaholic, mind you, at things I probably don’t have a prayer in hell for being paid real money before I’m fifty. But if I have given a greater appearance of happiness as of late, it is fortunately because I’ve haven’t had a free moment to remember how miserable was the long slow slog to get to this point in my life when decades worth of crippling unhappiness has been easier to ignore. Most people have to work to overcome their sense of denial. But I’m overjoyed to see that I finally can exist in denial’s state, because finally, here seems to come another period in my life in which the pain is duller. I don’t feel like I’m ageing horribly fast anymore, I don’t feel like the steep decline of my physical health is inevitable, I no longer consider it a given that I will shake or twitch or hyperventilate uncontrollably for a portion of the day, I don’t usually feel like my life was always a lost cause, I no longer wake up every morning (or afternoon) cursing the day I was born, and I find it harder these days to believe that everything I touch turns to feces.

This, finally, is life as most people get to live it. May this minorly depressed, thoroughly average feeling adult life continue for another hundred years! But as it has been for those rare other periods of my life when depression has not defined every aspect of it, it is difficult, so very difficult, to live amongst the bubble of privilege (some privileged people would call it ‘white privilege’) and not be so utterly bitter at the minor happinesses which one sees belonging to everyone else - the happinesses so taken for granted because they’re so basic - that sense of belonging and feeling loved, which the fates have denied you for so many years which felt like so many centuries. A person like me sees such people everywhere he looks, and he spends years upon decades trying to convince himself that he too can feel like this, against all evidence to the contrary. Because if such a person could not hope against hope that better things will one day come his way, what would ever stop a person like him from extracting revenge against this world, in blood by the quart, for those seemingly small joys which were always denied only to him. And make no mistake, such thoughts will enter his mind again one day, probably sooner than he knows. Because how can a person not hate all those things he should love when he knows that such forces have contributed, however insignificantly, to bringing him to such a disgusting state? How can any truly unhappy person look at happiness and not think it deserves to be destroyed? Only one thing could stop such a hateful man from extracting his revenge on the world, and that is the omnipresent thought, and likelihood, that he would fail at revenge just as he failed at everything else.

This is the price which true depression extracts from a person blessed enough to house this mental cancer. All privileges feel like intractable burdens, all blessings unliftable curses. If he’s depressed enough, then all the potential psychoses known to man exist within him, and perhaps any of them require only a small kindle to light. All he can ever do against the darkness which has dictated terms for so sizeable a portion of his life is to keep his brain in a state as close to steel-trap vigilance as he could ever know how to maintain. And yet he knows that the fight against the steel trap might only strengthen the beast rather than contain it.

Such people in our generation take to the internet like fish to water, and as older potential psychos still take to libraries and movie theaters. The unceasing anonymity, the interaction without interaction, the reliance upon information rather than people, the chance for an identity completely unlike a real one. This is life as we, the afflicted, wish we could live it, and so we do our best to live in this two-dimensional shadow world. Let happy people have the sunshine, but we will dwell in the shadows on the caves.

(I bet you won't listen to the whole thing...)


In addition to newly becoming a workaholic, I am a graphomaniac. I write, and I write, and I write. Long blogposts, long emails, long facebook posts, long unfinished projects, long digressions within each of them, long, uncontrollable, verbal diarrhea, which nobody seems to want to read. I’m a true pedant who relishes every last detail of the things I look at with nearly autistic intensity, but I know myself too well to consider myself a profound thinker in any sense, I’m far too cartoonish and unbalanced for that, maybe even far too stupid. I don’t know if I’m capable of nuance, but if I am, then I love what I think nuance is, and there isn’t a single concept I’ve ever read about that can’t possibly do without a few paragraphs, a few more provisos, a few more quid-pro-quos; not a single idea that doesn’t seem too simple, too caricatured, too brazen in its assertions. The possibilities of infinity are within everything, and I seem to have a fixation on trying to capture every one of them within my own limited ability that is truly obsessive. I’m not a profound thinker, but I know the lack of profundity when I see it. And for reasons passing my understanding, I can’t let its lack pass uncorrected.

I seem to write long blogposts in this space the way some people eat breakfast. Hopefully they’re thoughtful, hopefully they hold something of interest to someone, and hopefully they offer those few kind souls patient enough to read them some reward for the effort I make them put in. But for the two-and-a-half years I’ve regularly written long blogposts, I’m lucky if I ever get a hundred readers for a single one of them, and for every hundred long posts, I’m lucky if I ever get five comments. I know that I set down my thoughts, such as they are, to a vacuum. They will either be read in the future, or they will not be read at all.

But on facebook, hoo boy, on facebook... All those people who couldn’t bother to give my thoughts the time of day when I do my feeble best to make them nuanced, complex, and three-dimensional on this webspace which has faithfully kept me sane for two-and-a-half years, suddenly become utterly committed to refuting or supporting what I have to say. All you have to do is make precisely the sort of sweeping declaration I do my best to avoid in this space, and the half the world is up in arms with offense, and the other half is ready to rush in to defend me, or at least further offend those who already took offense. And those friends who do neither inevitably comment that they read them with interest and not a little admiration that someone would speak their mind so heedless of the consequences. It would seem that the lack of nuance which facebook provides is the only weapon I have at my disposal to make people remotely aware that it might benefit them to read what I write.

Would that there were a single person on this space who displayed anything like the passion for what’s written here as they do for those two-dimensional, flatly provocative facebook posts. I often wonder how I'd write differently if I knew that a single person was as excited by the work I do on this space (and believe me, it’s work…) as people seem to be about the ‘debates’ I start on facebook. How many devoted readers would it take for me to feel as though I was writing what I want to write for someone other than myself?  

The fact that nobody seems to care about what I write not only drives me to a certain amount of despair for myself, it also makes me despair of other people’s capacity for thought as much as I despair of my own capacity. Everyone bemoans the state of internet discourse, wailing to anyone who will hear about how even the smartest publications have been reduced to clickbait. But the state of the discourse is the symptom, not the problem. The problem, my friends, is the proverbial you. Once a person adopts a life-philosophy that thinks in two dimensions rather than three, the entire world is divided into binary code. If you are a conservative, or a socialist, or a religious fundamentalist, or a scientism-ist, or a critical theory-ist, then you necessarily think yourself on the side of light, and all those who disagree with you are infidels are on the side of darkness. It therefore gives you license to act like a troll to all those people with whom you disagree. And there will always be people with whom you disagree.

And yet, why can’t I be more understanding of that? The proverbial ‘you’ includes me too. I have divided the world in half according to those who divide the world in half and those who don’t. I am, in point of fact, as loathsomely simple-minded as the people I troll. And just as, so they say, the Germans could never forgive the Jews for the Holocaust, I never seem able to forgive those who view the world in binary terms for making me one of them. I could, were I so inclined, lay blame with all sorts of elements - from the fact that I grew up with all manner of fundamentalisms being thrown at me from religion to politics to education, to the illnesses themselves which exacerbate my reactions to all manner of stimuli so viscerally, to the fact that I ‘merely’ post to my own ‘wall’ rather than to others’. But the fact remains that I wish it were not so more than I wish to excuse what I do. Fanaticism, fundamentalism, extremism and radicalism; these are all diseases of the same family. A person who was once depressed is more liable to succumb to depression, a formerly obese person to obesity, a former cancer patient to cancer. And once a person contracts a particular disease, they become far more at risk to attract the disease again. It is utterly naive to pretend that a person cannot be an anti-extremism extremist, or a fundamentalist of anti-fundamentalism. And yet, here I am. To see things well-roundedly, with all an object’s nuances within a person’s line of vision, is a truly extraordinary thing - perhaps you’d either have to be completely naive or touched with genius to do so in a world where you’re being asked to react to what you see and hear, billions of times every day. But nevertheless, it is the state toward which we should all aspire. And for those, like me, who are too stupid to know how; maybe, just maybe, we can make the way a little easier for those who can.

Monday, February 3, 2014

800 Words: The ABC's of The Marriage of Figaro - Back in the Theater


I’m not comfortable in the theater. I’m a shy, bookish man who loves music and eating well above company, and whose entire social life revolves around a continual performance art. I’m only comfortable if I’m the biggest ham in the room, and I don’t share stages particularly well. I have always preferred the company of instrumentalists - they’re generally like me, ugly and negligible, the last person in a room to be noticed unless we draw attention to ourselves, spectacular failures in love and avoiding of hard work in everything except the things we love too much to work hard at other things. There are few rewards for most instrumentalists except for the art which comes in being one. Unlike actors, singers, dancers, our art is not our persons, and our persons generally appear less well-kept than theirs, but rather in how we can apply our persons to appendages which are not born as part of us.

I remember when I was the conductor for Voices of Washington. During the drives to rehearsal, I used to have to coach myself into leadership and out of a panic attack, spending hours in advance working up the nerve to impose some semblance of my will on singers, who are the last kinds of people who want to be told what to do. I spent a year of my life in a state of terror (hardly the first), trying as best I could to convince myself that I was fighting a battle that could ever be won. I was dissatisfied, utterly dissatisfied, with the state of the music I love, and I remain so. I wanted to start an artistic organization built on lines completely different than any organization of which I knew anything about, built on lines that would no longer keep a person like me - learning disabled and uncredentialed - out of its ranks so successfully. Given the scope of my ambition, the task was so inhumanly difficult that to have succeeded at it in my mind meant that I would have automatically become the one thing I ever desired to be in my life - a great artist. And I was prepared to sacrifice anything to make it happen - my money, my physical and mental health, my friendships, my integrity. I learned all sorts of terrible things in that year, about other people and about myself.

But who was I to change the way things are done in music? A nothing, a graduate of a third-rate music school, whom everybody seemed to agree had long since flushed his first-rate talent down the toilet. A singer, like an actor or a dancer, is a talent vulnerable as an egg. There are so many ways to crack the shell before its time, so many ways to screw it up once you start cooking, so many ways to serve it that make the diner sick. But how could I protect all of those eggs when I was clearly no less vulnerable than any of them? In truth, the project was over from the fevered moment of its conception during a period around which I usually had less than a hundred dollars to my name. I hated nearly every minute of the experience that followed, I hated the terror I felt that another singer would melt down, or drop out, and I especially the insincerity of harassing singers into joining, knowing that my clear desperation for more members would probably annoy them and ruin any good will that might eventually lead them to join during a period when I was less desperate. For a long time afterward, the experience killed my ambition. And I was all too content to be the idiot son, (barely) working in a family business for which I have no interest. In its wake, this blog was born.

The organization shut down over three years ago, such a joke that nobody even heard from it. It was supposed to be a worldwide phenomenon and it’s ‘greatest’ triumph got about 6,000 youtube views. Much has happened since then. By all appearances, I’ve become more successful, and if such a thing matters, I’m certainly much closer to happiness. But now comes the acid test.

There’s no ignoring it. I’m back in the arena. I’m playing regularly in two bands, I’ve been conducting a chorus for nearly five years which I’ve become ambitious to make into a celebrated institution, at some point, I’m about to start seriously composing again, and most intimidatingly, I’m directing my first opera, and it’s the greatest of them all.

I know that I’m a different person now, because I have no idea what the singers really think of me, and truth be told, I don’t really care. Don't get me wrong, I hope they respect me, and I certainly would like to be hired again. Even if I never direct for the stage again, I’ll have directed the one stage play I’ve always wanted to stage above all others. However small the audience, some people will finally see a few of the thoughts on the one subject which has most obsessed me since I was a kid - how should the great works be interpreted?


There is no recreative work of art, not by Beethoven, not by The Beatles, not by Stephen Sondheim, not by Chekhov, not by Shakespeare himself, which it should be a greater pleasure to interpret than this one. It took Shakespeare his entire career to arrive at the Mozartian transcendence - the forgiveness which you find in The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, and yet by the time Shakespeare arrived at it, his greatest gifts were depleted. Few people would argue that Leontes or Prospero are as interesting as Hamlet or Lear. Shakespeare’s greatest gifts were for the portrayal of the dissolution - to the Bard, most friendship is fleeting, most love mere folly. Shakespeare is at his most powerful when he argues that there is no true hope for love, for friendship, for family, for ambition. To Shakespeare, all hopes seem to arrive at nothing. One could argue that his entire career was a process of disillusionment, first he lost his ability to care about pressing political concerns, then he lost his belief that comedy could distract us from suffering, then he lost his belief that human motivations could be explained. Finally, he arrived at one final belief on which he ended his career as the Playwright of the Ages, and that belief was the transcendent Forgiveness which says that no matter what our sins, we might, with a surfeit of seemingly superhuman effort of understanding, arrive at an understanding which gives a charitable meaning to our lives, even if it’s too late to improve them. Mozart started his career as Opera Composer of the Ages with exactly that belief, manifest in seven transcendent works, and did not live long enough to lose this belief. All of the great characters in Mozart’s gallery, as plentiful as any sampling from Shakespeare's greatest plays, show that Mozart could arrive at the divine transcendence of Shakespeare’s final conclusions, and do so without stinting on character development in a manner Shakespeare relinquished so that he could arrive there. Mozart was able to do so because he believed in all those things Shakespeare clearly did not - institutions, marriage, family, friendship, ambition. Was he right to believe so? Who knows, but it spurred him to be the only artist of the theater whose achievement and depth perhaps surpasses the Bard himself. And as a result, Mozart's greatest works are all simultaneously as political, comic, and psychologically insightful as Shakespeare's were in periods when he preferred one quality to the others.

The Marriage of Figaro is pure happiness - a happy work not because it’s uniformly happy, but because the happiness is earned by so much suffering. In the newer sense, it has comedy in spades, but in the older sense of comedy, in the sense of a fraught journey that ends happily, there is no purer one than this.

But there is no such thing as a happy ending. Happiness is real, but endings are not. If we can conceive of the infinite, then infinity exists. And the infinity of Figaro lies in that the happiness of its ending can become sadness or horror just a few minutes after the Count’s apology.

Save The Cunning Little Vixen, no work of opera in my experience has this infinite amplitude - so much joy, so much suffering, so much fun, so much horror, so much depth swimming beneath such a seemingly superficial surface that still, 225 years later, people dismiss Figaro as the lightweight comedy it’s clearly not.

(The Cunning Little Vixen - Figaro’s one rival? Its one superior?)


(What my cast might think of me…)

This has become a completely different Figaro from the one I hoped I’d create when I began. It’s darker, raunchier, comedically broader, but also more nuanced and personal. An extreme confluence of coincidences have led me to a production of my favorite work of art on which I impose myself on this work I love more than all others in a manner I never meant to. My interpretive hands will be all over this production - there will be narrations written by me over music I selected, line after line interpreted in manners that would shock anyone who knew the work well. Long before I was involved in this production, the producer clearly wanted a ‘hands-on’ director. For financial reasons, more than an hour of music’s been cut, and what’s left is being played in the pit by a piano with a string quartet. It’s replaced with narrations to fill the gaps which the director has to write. I argued, at length, to leave every note in which we possible could, including the ones which are normally unplayed and unsung. I was overruled, and the result is that I’m waiting for the day that I’ll be accused by somebody, whether a singer or a critic or a family member, of obscuring Mozart for my own ego.

But now that the dimensions of the production have changed so completely from the ‘traditional’ ones I love so much, I’ve become something of a detective, obsessed by the thought that every line, every potential implication, the entire universe of Figaro, needs to be teased out of the text and music as best I ever can, because if it isn’t, I may never again get the chance to get it in. I worry, and yet I’m also excited, by how much this is turning into ‘my’ Figaro.

I’ve become a theatrical ‘regie’ against my own instincts. I usually hate theatrical interventions on opera - not usually because I disagree, but because I find them distractions. Opera has, for the most part, always existed in a theater of the mind - occupied by thoughts conscious and unconscious. All the potential meanings which make opera an absorbing experience always existed within the mind of the listener, but today’s director’s job is to bring out what was already there.

The music of opera means less to today’s audiences than it once did, and the end result is that opera simply isn’t as good as it once was. It has become the dual property of a dessicated intellectual set which insists that music purely of the head can capture the heart, and a particularly affluent conservative set which wants to see opera mean precisely what it did a hundred years ago. Both of them have corrupted the artform, and the result is that there is no living opera composer of note short of John Adams and Philip Glass who can consistently capture even a portion of note from the opera-going public (and their portion is still quite small). Opera as it once existed in another era has long since been replaced by the cinema, whose stars are as important to our day’s public imagination as opera stars and theater actors used to be, and whose greatest directors are worshipped as the world once worshipped composers. It used to be that the Broadway Musical offered a connection to the precious communicable past, but even Broadway is a hollow shell of its former self - lumbering through megaproductions and adaptations of movies while original work by true artists lies unproduced and unencouraged. Even the truly artistic side of Broadway cannot be what it was, how can it be when the larger public insists on a purely commercial product?

But even Broadway has a health which the opera world couldn’t achieve with a year’s worth of wheezing. Forget the young up-and-comers who are still learning, however wonderful and promising they are - even the greatest singers of today cannot express nearly as much to as many people as they once did. All the revelatory immediacy of truly new music, with all its brutally violent emotions, used to exist within the opera listeners unconscious and grip them just as much, if not even moreso, than the most popular music of today. But today’s classical music only captures a pathetically miniscule portion of the world’s audience, and therefore far littler of it can express with the same universality, because its creators do not have a large audience on which to practice. The world of ‘opera’ no longer exists - even if this music never was the world’s lingua franca, it was once far closer. And was, necessarily therefore, better music-making.

So in order to sell these operas to new audiences, these conscious and unconscious meanings have to be explained. Against every nostalgic fibre of my being, I have to concede that the world has moved on from opera as I understand it. Even a work as great and universal as The Marriage of Figaro, as great a work of art as the world has yet produced, cannot speak for itself any longer. In a world that no longer immediately hears Mozart’s beauty and greatness, the greatness has to be brought out for the whole world to see, or else no one will have any reason to listen anymore.