What’s the main difference between opera and theatre? The answer, in formal terms, is easy: One is music-based, the other text-based. Plays have actors, operas singers. There’s also a contrast of scale and logistics: A play doesn’t need an orchestra or conductor, a chorus or an army of supernumeraries. Theatre spaces are often smaller because of this, more amorphous and malleable, whereas the opera “house” is a house for a reason. Obviously these contrasts are a bit less sharp when it comes to musical theatre vs. opera—but even the Gershwin Theatre, largest of all Broadway houses and the longtime home of Wicked, is about half the size of the Metropolitan Opera.
On-paper contrasts presumably translate to practical working differences. Directing an opera necessitates a different set of parameters, collaborators, and consideration than a play or musical. One starts from a script, the other from a score. But what about the mindset, the aesthetic necessities of each? The late opera, theatre, and film director Patrice Chéreau once insisted that “for me they are exactly the same—telling stories with actors.” But beyond that commonality, how does one handle the artistic necessities specific to opera?
When Peter Gelb took over at the Metropolitan Opera as general manager, he proposed “modernizing” the house—a move in sharp relief to his predecessor Joseph Volpe’s more traditionalist leanings. Besides increasing new productions and inviting artists yet unheard at the Met, he launched a collaborative effort with Lincoln Center Theater and opened the opera house to directors who’d never directed operas before—i.e., theatre directors. It’s a sensible move if the goal is keeping the Met more up to date, as theatre evolves at a fairly rapid pace, in terms of mounting new productions of new material, whereas opera companies tend to haul out the same antiquated repertory productions year after year. Case in point: The current Met season features both the Franco Zeffirelli La Bohème from 1981, as well as his 1987 Turandot.
Two directors Gelb brought on at the beginning of his tenure were Tony winners Bartlett Sher (he/him) and Mary Zimmerman (she/her). Both have since become Met mainstays, directing productions throughout the course of the Gelb reign, including the current season.
Sher—who in recent years has mounted acclaimed revivals of Golden Age musicals next door at Lincoln Center Theater, and whose hit staging of To Kill a Mockingbird is still running on Broadway—has garnered positive responses for his forays into opera, starting with his adaptation of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Premiering in 2006 during Gelb’s inaugural season, the production was hailed by The New York Times as “inventive” and “breezy.” The central conceit of Sher’s Barbiere wasn’t to update the action or plot, but to extend the opera’s frame—literally, by expanding the stage into the orchestra, allowing some action to take place within the audience itself.
This expansive attitude toward the material also appears in Sher’s version of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, highlighting and developing the psychological underpinnings of the piece by using Hoffman’s mental constitution as the plot’s framing device. The choice garnered praise from the NYT, which called Sher’s vision a “vindication” of Gelb’s decision to invite theatre directors to the house. The attention to frame recurs in Sher’s Le Comte Ory, in which Rossini’s opera is staged as an opera-within-an-opera, complete with a scaled-down working stage.
In an interview, Sher insisted that his approach to theatre versus opera isn’t all that different. “The work that I do is the same, whether it’s opera or theatre or musicals,” he said. “My job is basically the same: I rehearse, I prepare, I go from there.” Still, he conceded that “what distinguishes an opera is, I start from music, I don’t start from text.”
For Sher, the process begins with acclimating to, even immersing himself within, the score. As he put it, “I go through note for note with four or five selected recordings, studying the score and previous musical approaches, plus previous interpretations of the opera. There’s a whole three- or four-week period where, before I can even decide what kind of interpretation I might be approaching, I have to really learn the piece. That’s different from being sent a script and sitting down and learning it and reading it. You have to get inside the compositional structure, you have to get inside all of these things that contribute to what is interesting and unique about an opera.”
As Richard Wagner wrote in The Art-Work of the Future (this “art-work” being opera), “The Art-Work of the Future is an associate work, and only an associate demand can call it forth.” This “associate demand” refers to opera’s existence at the junction of varied artistic disciplines, and it necessitates the dedication and care described by Sher in order to fully understand and channel its engrossing, artistically overpowering qualities.
For her part, fellow Met veteran Mary Zimmerman—whose theatre work includes Metamorphoses, The Arabian Nights, and a staging of The Jungle Book—expressed a similar thought, explaining, “In general, there’s enormous differences. You know, it looks kind of just like theatre, but it acts differently, and it behaves differently.” The difference comes from opera’s guiding musical supremacy. Unlike in a play, the pace is set not by actors or directors, but by the orchestra, a change that drastically shifts a director’s interpretive task. Zimmerman continued, “I’m not saying there’s no interpretation [from the director]—there is. But the conductor sets the tempi, and the music, the score itself, gives you the rhythm of the evening. I think a large part of what you do as a director, and in creating my own work and doing my own scripts, is trying to figure out the emotional rhythm of the evening, the pace of the scene and exchange, creating feeling and meaning from all of that. But all of that is out of your hands in opera.”
The interpretive nature of Zimmerman’s practice may be the cause of her occasional ruffling of opera critics. Her 2007 staging of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor included the controversial decision to stage the Act II sextet “Chi mi frena in tal momento” not as a purely reflective moment, as specified in the libretto, but as a wedding photo, a move that led the NYT to comment: “The tension is internalized in the soaring and elegant music. Instead Ms. Zimmerman invents an action: the wedding participants and guests are assembled by a photographer for a formal photo. Though the moment is beautifully directed, this staging device, again, overwhelmed the stirring performance.”
Her departure from tradition continued in her 2009 La Sonnambula, by Bellini, with Zimmerman staging the work as an opera rehearsal for the opera. The NYT again disparaged the choice, writing “as a directorial concept, ‘This is just a rehearsal’ has become almost as clichéd as ‘It’s all a dream.’” Her next two productions, the 2010 Armida and 2017 Rusalka, remained more in keeping with traditional direction, and accordingly received more favorable reviews.
Zimmerman’s interpretive practice can indeed pose a hurdle: Added layers of meaning can both reveal and obscure. Her initially panned Lammermoor is a prime exhibit. In that case, what the NYT insisted “overwhelmed” the performance also added a unique layer of psychological insight. Zimmerman explained that her take on the scene was inspired by once having to go in for a work-related photo shoot during one of the lowest moments of her life.
“In social occasions, embarrassment is something we want to avoid,” she said. “Even when it’s almost life and death, we just continue with the social ritual.” Far from a derailment of the drama, her staging revealed the characters’ deference to, as she put it, “the iron fist of social decorum.”
In their own different ways, both Sher’s and Zimmerman’s practices hold to the same central conceit: deferring to music over text. In Sher’s view, when directing an opera, “You’re not exploring something as much as applying the things you’ve learned in advance.” At the end of the day, the opera director is, in Zimmerman’s view, “a servant of that music.” The method of serving that music, of course, differs from director to director, and is unique to each work. Zimmerman’s current production of Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice, adapted by Sarah Ruhl from her own play of the same name, poses a unique situation: It’s brand new. “Because it’s the first production,” said Zimmerman, “I didn’t want layers of interpretation.”
Sher, on the other hand, is tackling the Verdi warhorse Rigoletto for the coming season. Their differing directorial approaches to these very different assignments will soon be seen. But in both cases we can presume what is always the case with opera: It’s all up to the music.
Veronica Maldonado (she/her) is a writer and critic covering classical music and culture. She lives in Brooklyn.
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