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Elemental Integration: Interview With Robert Israel

By Ed Hawkins

An elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and professor in the School of Arts and Architecture at University of California in Los Angeles, Robert Israel made his Seattle Opera debut with a new production of Wagner’s Walküre in 1985, followed by the complete Ring des Nibelungen in 1986. His other productions for the company include the sets and costumes for Verdi’s Aida in 1992 and Wagner’s Parsifal in 2003. For the 1996 world premiere of Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas at Houston Grand Opera, Israel created the sets which were later seen at Los Angeles and Seattle (1998 and 2005). His designs for Philip Glass’s Satyagraha were seen here in 1988 and those costume designs are now part of the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Israel has designed sets and costumes for a multitude of theater and opera companies around the world. He spoke with Ed Hawkins between meetings with Seattle Opera’s production staff in January, 2006.


Ed Hawkins: In his season announcement, Speight said that he has been looking forward to your designing a new Macbeth for Seattle because, in his words: “When in December of 1982 I started talking to Robert Israel about our second Ring, he sent me some slides of his productions. The most striking was Macbeth, and he told me repeatedly how much he wanted to do it a second time.” How does that design differ from what you’re doing here?

Robert Israel: Well, first of all, I’m working with a different director. So you take a different approach. One of the problems with the opera is integrating all the elements like the witches into a scene, and moving smoothly from one scene into the next—with the kind of flow that is necessitated in contemporary Verdi. Verdi didn’t have that flow. In his day it took as long to do a Verdi opera as it did a Wagner opera because you stopped between each individual scene. So, the contemporary designer and director have to find a way to segue between scenes so that there’s a continuous action.

The biggest difference between that first production of Macbeth and this one is: [director] Bernard Uzan and I have found a better mechanism for that continuous flow which is very important because you don’t want the opera to ever stop—you want it to keep going from one scene right into the next. The mechanism we found for that was these figures on stage—the witches.

You have to have the witches, of course. And the reason there are so many witches, as opposed to just three as in the play, is because the opera happened to premiere in Paris, and if you were doing an opera in Paris, you always had to use the corps d’ballet because they were the mistresses of the great patrons who liked to see them as much as possible. Dancing and sex. So in nineteenth-century Paris, it was a necessary political act for Verdi.

In that production, [the witches] came out, did their dance, and that was about it. But in the twenty-first century, the idea of dancing witches has the potential to look incredibly foolish. So in our production, we want to better integrate them. They never leave the stage. It’s a really important aspect of the production in terms of making the scenes move. They are on in every scene. They will riddle the stage. There will be witches all over the place, and they’re there all the time. And they are universal: all of them are dressed either as brides or in widow’s weeds, from all different periods: Victorian, eighteenth century, the Renaissance, all the way up to the 1940s. All in black and white, with veils, on their hands and knees a lot.


EH: The outfits-of-all-eras aspect of the witches’ costumes brings to mind your design for the Flower Maidens in Parsifal.

RI: It’s just a coincidence, although there is a quality that you picked up on there that ties things together. The witches have always been there, they’ll always be there. They are also facilitators who can help us get from A to B to C and back again


EH: Will these scene-to-scene transitions consist only of stage pictures? Or did Verdi provide music to underscore them?

RI: Verdi doesn’t provide for them per se—Verdi never provides for that!—but Bernard can stage the action to overlap from one scene to another.


EH: Is this your first time working with Bernard?

RI: Yes. And before committing to this we needed to find out if we were compatible. So I visited him while he was directing something in Arizona and he cooked lunch for me. We talked about food and then we talked about Macbeth.


EH: When did you decide that you were compatible?

RI: When we were talking about food.


EH: What was the common ground in Macbeth you found early on with Bernard?

RI: We both felt that at its core, Macbeth is about a man and a woman and their complex relationship with each other and how the inherent destructiveness of that relationship is triggered by the possibility of great power. How they try to direct themselves and eventually destroy themselves. This is a constant, terrible situation that is full of the possibility of greed, hatred, violence. Verdi’s tragedies are always really violent.

Another real breakthrough was the integration of the witches that I mentioned earlier. We decided that the rest of the characters in the opera are mid-nineteenth-century characters. All of the uniforms smack a little bit of the Italian Risorgimento. We even have the Victor Emmanuel show up during the prelude to remind us that this is really an opera about Italy: a chorus from the opera was used as a rallying cry for the Italian Unification movement. We want to tell a story about Italy with Scottish overtones—we are using some plaids to allude to the tartans of the eleventh-century Scotland—because, however you cut the cake, the opera is a mixed metaphor. It’s about an eleventh-century Scottish king, who shows up in a seventeenth-century play by Shakespeare, which was adapted by a nineteenth-century Italian composer into an opera which we’re presenting in the twenty-first century. You have a lot to contend with.

What people don’t realize is that there’s always that problem, maybe not as extreme as in this example, but there’s that problem of justifying periods. You have to deal with those things. One way would be to set the opera in the present day as you recently did with Così. It’s just that with Macbeth you’ve got so many layers.


EH: How has your process in collaborating with Bernard differed from past relationships, specifically from those with François Rochaix (Ring II) and Francesca Zambello (Florencia en el Amazonas)?

RI: Everybody has a different personality. Everybody gets from one point to another differently. The only time it’s difficult is if the people are difficult, and Bernard is not a difficult person. I’m not either. I have strong ideas about the design, but it’s really the director who’s in the driver’s seat. Bernard has strong opinions, which is something you hope for, but he’s not a “difficult” person. It’s gone very smoothly. I think we’ve been really been at working out the problems of the production.

I love working with François. I love him as a person and I’ve always found him very exciting to work with. The working relationship was really easy. Same for Francesca. I’ve been very lucky that way. There’re certainly directors I’m not compatible with, but fortunately I’ve never been paired with them here.


EH: Does a harmonious director/designer relationship usually lead to a successful production?

RI: Usually, but not always. For example, I did an Aida here with François, but I don’t think we succeeded. We got along fine, but it’s a terribly difficult opera, that’s the opera where the tail can wag the dog. Even if you know that and prepare for it…the tail is awfully big, you know?


EH: What did you take away from that experience?

RI: I took one thing away from that: don’t do Aida again. I don’t want to do another Aida. There are lots of operas I would love to do….


EH: Such as?

RI: Don Carlos. Believe it or not, I’d love to do another Ring. I guess I didn’t learn my lesson. I never thought I’d hear myself say that, but I love doing Wagner. I’d love to do Der Freischütz, but I doubt that’s going to happen, because people in this country don’t do it much. I love Prokofiev. I’ve done two Prokofiev operas and would love to do them again: The Love for Three Oranges and The Fiery Angel.


EH: You mentioned your love of Wagner and also how something that really strikes you about Macbeth is how layered it is. The same could be said for Wagner, no?

RI: Absolutely.


EH: What is it about a rich, multi-layered piece that speaks to you as a designer?

RI: I love anything that is pregnant with possibilities. It’s certainly true of Macbeth and it’s true of a lot of Wagner. I’m being simplistic when I say that, but it’s absolutely true.


EH: Some designers might get overwhelmed by all that possibility. How are you able to work your way through so many layers and retain a specific point of view?

RI: There are lots of possibilities in Wagner that make it so exciting. It gives you so much to chew on. I guess I don’t mind chewing all that much. And when you’re able to find something that works on all those levels, it’s all the more gratifying.


Ed Hawkins, a Seattle Opera staff member, is active in Seattle’s fringe theatre community as a director, actor, and sound designer. His artist interviews are a regular feature of Seattle Opera’s publications.