Stephen Wadsworth At Seattle Opera, Stephen Wadsworth has directed Janacek's Jenufa (1985), Gluck's Orphee et Eurydice (1988), Wagner's Fliegende (1989) and Lohengrin (1994), and Handel's Xerxes (1997). Wadsworth moved to Seattle in 1998 to work on Seattle Opera's third production of Wagner's Ring cycle, which previewed in 2000, played to sold-out houses in 2001, and will be seen again in 2005.
In 2004, Wadsworth directs Lohengrin in Seattle and the premiere of Handel's Rodelinda at the Metropolitan Opera. More information about his work can be found in his on-line biography under the Lohengrin Artists page.
Ed Hawkins spoke to Wadsworth on December 23, 2003. More of this interview appears in the summer 2004 issue of Seattle Opera Magazine.
One reason why I wanted to focus on stage directors for this series of interviews is: for many people like me, who are artistically minded yet still relatively new to opera, an appreciation of opera can be greatly enhanced by exploring it in terms of stagecraft and storytelling. Fortunately, in the few years that I've been working at Seattle Opera, there's been a lot of very interesting work being done on that level.
Yes. Speight has always worked to cultivate relationships with directors who were interesting. And one of the great things about working at Seattle Opera is that Speight, who's now given all the 10 basic courses that you can have in a Wagner meal, has also carefully conditioned his audience for Wagner.
I read an anecdote in one of the articles written about your work on the Ring about how, during one of Barry Millington's lectures at a Wagner symposium, you made some bold comments and received a lot of spirited feedback from very enthusiastic members of that "cultivated community."
That's putting it mildly. I talked about the idea of there being a production of a Wagner opera, specifically the Ring, which might be scenically "traditional," in the sense that Wagner might recognize it, and yet also be staged from the point of view of Personenregie, or "directing people"-and perhaps less traditional in that respect. Something psychologically acute.
What interests you about Wagner's operas?
I'm interested in what Wagner wrote. And I'm interested in perceiving that as closely as I can and in laying that bare through a staging that opens up all the doors of possibility-the interaction between two people, say, in a scene. And people might be surprised to find out what Wagner actually wrote. I don't mean I'm interested in showing them something that I think should have been written-that's not interesting at all. You see the distinction I'm making here?
Yes I do. What about the folks at the lecture?
Well, when I made that comment at the Millington lecture, it was about the Ring specifically, and then Speight stood up and announced that I would be directing the next Ring. And people freaked out. After the lecture there were over a hundred people lined up who wanted to talk to me. It was really a wonderful moment that I wish every director could experience. Because the public demanded with a kind of love and passion and humor-some of them were very witty-that we see our job as an act of curating rather than an act of partying or using.
I don't think it is the job of the director to "party" all over a great work of art. In fact, one of the hardest things about directing responsibly is to try to keep yourself off of the piece, while accepting and enjoying the fact that you can never not be all over it. And the more interesting you actually are as a person, the more you're going to get on it. And that's inevitable. That's part of the pact of re-creating. But one has to be very careful when one is a curator.
Someone, I think it was the soprano Maria Guleghina, after having described some of the ludicrous productions she was in, said, "Excuse me, but isn't it true that if someone did that to a great painting, they would be immediately fired? Or even arrested for actually hurting it?" I thought it was a brilliant point. It's like we're dealing with great pictures. It is not our job to re-paint them. We should only be concerned with: Where to hang it? How to light it? In what context? What color is the wall behind it? How do we present it to the public in a way that the public can appreciate what it is, perhaps even contextualize it in terms of that painter's body of work or some other trend or school or idea? In terms of the period he or she painted. The list of curatorial concerns and responsibilities is long. And I think that a lot of productions that we see simply fail to meet them. When I go to an opera, I can tell in the first four minutes if this director is responsible or not. And this doesn't mean a director can't work responsibly in any style, or do wild things and still serve the piece.
Did you receive any spirited audience feedback after your Lohengrin premiere?
I don't remember getting any mail saying "Your Lohengrin is too conceptual!" Because in fact, our approach is conceptual only in the sense that scenically it is not a literal representation of what Wagner asked for. We created a space in which to enact this play so that the action, which in my experience of Lohengrin has often been rather obscure, would feel to the audience extremely clear. Clarity is my favorite thing.
You talk about Wagner directing the acting of his performers and encouraging them to make the drama as much an element of their performance as their singing or anything else. But hasn't the craft of acting changed? Haven't we moved away from the stylized, rhetorical gesture "norm" of his day?
Sure. Of course. Style is probably the thing in theater that interests me the most. You see, those actors in those days, the ones that were great, spoke a different theatrical language-vocal, gestural, whether in a play or in an opera-than we speak now. It was a very different language-different tools, as it were. But they used those tools to do exactly what we do with our tools: which is to get to the heart of the moment and to impress upon the public the import and the power of a moment, or of a scene or of an interaction. I'm really interested in understanding how that was done.
But using the current vernacular to achieve that understanding?
Well, yes. Or even using that vernacular. Which is what I've done more and more, in productions of plays of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. That's what I do. I love that. Because I think it's a grotesque hubris to assume that one's rather teeny little, generally-not-very-well-educated, very jumbled 21st century mind or randomly gathered aesthetic can begin to match the purity of purpose or the grandeur of aesthetic-historical synthesis that fueled the writing of these plays. Especially when they come from great artists who were great with craft, great with aesthetic concerns and great with content. Those three things are really not separable.
Of course there have been many productions that I've seen, and even a number that I've done, which were updated (the 1988 Seattle Orphée was one), and I still have plenty of time for that, when I'm going to the theater. But I find that I have less time at the moment for it in my own work. I'm much more interested in honoring, again curating that part of the work, and not being the one who is rewriting the piece.
So where does the "Wagnerian" style of acting fit into all that?
It's of great interest to me. But it's not something that I dealt with in this Lohengrin production or indeed in the Ring production. In those productions, I've been more concerned to bring on board the sort of great American tradition of acting, which is working from the inside out. For years I've taught acting to singing actors, a baseline Stanislavskian approach to merging actor personality and character. Ultimately it is sort of anti-style, to its detriment, I think. But, it's also very pro-inner truth.
The style of acting for Lohengrin is based first and foremost in a very grounded, emotionally available, intelligent actor personality working hard to merge-specifically, moment to moment-with character and character intention. That's the bottom line. And it's really the bottom line for anything I'm doing. And not to a lesser degree in Lohengrin than in, say, a Marivaux play, where I have incorporated the acting styles of the period.
Do you sense that there is a difference, though, between when you direct a Marivaux play (where the actors are probably well-schooled in movement) and when you direct a singer, who always has to be cautious because of how the physicality will effect his or her ability to sing for four hours to the back row of a 3,000-seat house?
Yes. The sort of acting technique that I've developed for singers is based on a good understanding of their needs. But my biggest challenge to a singer is "How much of the time do you really need to be thinking about that? And when you are, do we need to see that?" Those are technical concerns which I find that I'm going to be talking about a little bit more when I direct an opera than when I direct a play, simply because singers, shockingly, are for the most part not offered any training as actors.
Do you think that's changing?
No, I don't. Acting training is no more ingrained or sophisticated in conservatory training than it ever was. Fortunately, since opera became a theater of directors about 20 years ago, singers have been exposed to many different styles of performing. The have more exposure to ideas about what a piece or a moment can mean, how those things can be expressed. And that's been incredibly valuable. When I get singers who have worked with a Peter Sellars or an Anne Bogart (two important American directors whose work is, I think it's fair to say, very visually based and rather "conceptual"), I know that I'm going to find singers who are awakened to ways of expressing things. These will be singers who have a sense of the different ways into the piece and will therefore have a certain kind of flexibility that other singers maybe won't have.
One more thing I want to ask you about, and that's your thoughts on working in McCaw Hall.
Well, I'm very excited about that. I'm going to be very interested to see what it can do. I'm really glad that the backstage layout is...easier, because it was a real nightmare back there before.
The best thing about McCaw Hall though is what happens front-of-house. The orchestra pit goes much deeper into the auditorium, the floor of the auditorium is now broken up so that it puts everybody in smaller areas of roughly the same amount of space, the back of the auditorium is closer to the stage, and the stage opening is squarer and higher. All of those things are really appealing, and the acoustics seem to me really marvelous. I think that in Lohengrin we may stand to have a significant boost in excitement. And that isn't necessarily something you would've thought you needed from the last performances. I think there may be some choral and orchestral moments in this Lohengrin that are going to be absolutely awesome. And that's about the hall.
Ed Hawkins, a Seattle Opera staff member, is active in Seattle's fringe theater community as a director, actor, and sound designer.