Veteran opera director Andrew Sinclair, director of this season’s opening San Diego Opera production, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, knows what makes opera tick. In this interview, he shares his wisdom about the true guts of opera: catharsis, raw emotion, and tears.
AS: She’s absolutely wonderful. And I love this company.
EM: They love you. Of all the many productions you’ve done here, do you have any favorites?
AS: That’s hard, because I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad experience with this company. I think it says a lot about the company and the singers it employs. I particularly enjoyed doing Tosca, partly because it’s one of my absolutely favorite operas. The construction of the piece is really so perfect. The length of the acts, the way the drama is driven, and the music of course is fabulous. I’ve had a lot of association with Tosca in other parts of the world. It also was interesting for me to do Maria Stuarda, a piece I’m very fond of. The Pearl Fishers was a big challenge. It’s very beautiful music but it’s an extremely bad libretto. I had to really think of something to make that work. It wasn’t just me, it was Zandra and John Malashock as well, that made it into a dramatic piece. Of course we’ve done it thirteen times in various parts of the country. But as I said I’ve never had a bad experience here.
EM: Which opera has been the most difficult? Pearl Fishers had its challenges, but what about Lohengrin?
AS: Lohengrin was a production I already knew because it came from Covent Garden, and actually - this is going to really date me - I was the original stage manager when the production was new. Then I became assistant director and came back to the opera house freelance to assist on a revival. I’ve directed my own productions of Lohengrin elsewhere in the world. It’s hard because there are a lot of people involved. People said, well, they just come on stage and they stand. But they all have to react. And it’s actually that background which brings the whole picture to life, so in terms of numbers, that’s hard. Aida’s hard. I’ve done two different Aidas here, and again it’s the numbers of people. When I was asked to do it last year I said I’d done two before and didn’t want to do any more because it’s a lot of work with very little reward for a director.
EM: So, moving so many people about the stage…?
AS: Moving people about the stage is not in any way rewarding, I can tell you (laughs). It has its own sort of private hell. But Ian asked me to do it and because it was Ian and this company’s been very good to me, I agreed. And I’m really glad I did, actually, because I found something new about Aida. It’s basically a very intimate piece. And it’s a victim of that one big scene. Everyone says, “Oh, well, you can have horses, you can have camels…” Horses, elephants, camels, it’s about people. And my problem had always been with Aida herself.
EM: The character?
AS: Yes. Because we know what she is from what she tells you. She’s an Ethiopian princess who’s been captured, and the first time we see her is as a slave. Somehow for me that image never goes away. And the music (sings from the Prelude) is very beautiful but it’s very sad, very wistful. And I thought, I have to find a way to make Aida strong. We had a wonderful Aida in Latonia Moore, marvelous. So I decided I was going to put her in the Prelude. So that you saw this proud woman.
EM: Yes, I loved that.
AS: Then we discover she’s having an affair with a member of the enemy army. And you have a conflict. Then it becomes interesting. We had a great Amneris in Jill Grove. We’d done the boudoir scene one day, and I said, “How much do you think they confide in each other?” She said, “I don’t really think so. She’s a slave, a princess, she doesn’t want anything to be known about her.” I said, “Why don’t we look at it this way. Imagine you’re both princesses, which in its way brings a certain loneliness because of your rank. Your countries are at war with each other. So really the person you’ve become closest to, as Amneris, could be your own personal slave. Why don’t we just have a conversation as Aida and Amneris talking one day.” And so they started. Jill said, “Aida, do you have a boyfriend?” “Well, I did back in Ethiopia, but I don’t know if he’s around anymore. What about you, Amneris?” “Well, there’s somebody I like a lot and I think he likes me…” So this went on, and we established a relationship between Amneris and Aida, which makes apparent betrayal by Aida greater for Amneris. We did the scene again and it was totally different, it was amazing.
EM: That’s brilliant. There’s nothing like a little “improv” to get the juices flowing.
AS: Latonia’s done Aida a lot. But every time she comes to rehearsal she rehearses as if it’s her first, and gives the same energy. So I came away thinking, yes, I wouldn’t mind doing Aida again now because having gone down that road I don’t think I’ve quite finished with it.
EM: So there’s always a different approach.
AS: Yes, and that’s where we’re very lucky. Because often we get to do pieces more than once. I’ve done Lohengrin a lot, Lucia, Butterfly, Bohème. Now this will be my tenth Pagliacci. And it’s very different from the first time I did it. I think the way I’m doing it here is different from the way they’re used to singing it. People think of it as a sweet little troupe doing a sweet little show which goes wrong. We’re playing it about people who are at a stage in their lives where life is pretty grim. My own feeling about Canio is that possibly he was very talented and started to have a career and either the drink got to him first or it was the nerves that made him drink, but for whatever reason…
EM: Before he knew his wife was unfaithful?
AS: Absolutely. And I don’t necessarily think Nedda is his wife. He calls her “sposa” - if you look at the wonderful black and white Fellini film, La Strada, it tells the story of Canio and Nedda in a very different way. So Canio is now doing these traveling shows and the only money they earn is from when they perform. I think Canio is a very good man, he gave this hunchback Tonio a job when nobody else would. He says to Nedda, “I found you a starving orphan on the street and took you in and gave you a name. And my love.” Then there’s Beppe who I think possibly ran away from home to join the Circus. So if we try and think back about these characters and what their history might have been, it does tell us quite a lot of what’s going on. Canio is under tremendous pressure, I think. Which the others don’t realize necessarily. And clearly they’ve been here before in this village - the chorus sings, ‘Ritornanno’ - and they’re favorites. Also as in La Strada, gradually the female character starts to become the principal character everybody loves and everybody laughs at more than the star of the show. She’s very loved, men come up at the end of the performance, and women, and congratulate her. So perhaps Canio subconsciously is getting resentful about that, and becomes incredibly jealous.
AS: I don’t think he wants it anymore, he’s got too much on his mind. He has his drinking buddies in the village but he doesn’t want to be social with people, and I think the villagers clearly notice a big change in Canio this time from the last time. So gradually there’s getting to be a bigger divide. Also Tonio, I think he’s grateful to have the job initially, but sometimes just being laughed at and ridiculed all the time - it takes its toll. He sees the way Canio treats Nedda and he thinks, “I wouldn’t do that.” And when he finds himself alone with her it gives him the courage to declare his feelings for her.
EM: Which is a big leap for him. He’s outraged when he finds out what’s going on.
AS: Yes, enormous outrage. In this production, once the show starts, we do it so you see backstage as well, you see all the props being handled and things like that. When Canio comes back, clearly he’s had a lot to drink before the show, he goes on stage. Tonio loves it. This is going to be a disaster. He’s one of those characters who doesn’t think things through. The idea of revenge is great, but for how long. Then when Canio starts becoming violent with Nedda, it’s too good. So Tonio’s actually the one who puts a knife in Canio’s hand, and of course Canio kills Nedda, kills Silvio, and in this production - I want to tell you exactly what happens - it’s Tonio who has the last line, “La Commedia è finita.” I believe that’s the way it was originally written. Over the years it’s changed to Canio.
EM: It’s great when you can do something different that the audience doesn’t expect. People come in with certain fixed ideas. Nice to push the envelope now and then.
AS: I think so, because we’re not being unfaithful to Leoncavallo and the libretto at all. It’s just that we’re doing it slightly differently. It’s another way of seeing the characters. It’s not about how it looks. These days, for a lot of contemporary directors, particularly in Europe, it’s a very visual concept. Opera is about people.
EM: Amen to that. So you approach from backstory, but between Pagliacci, which is more intimate, as opposed to Aida, do you approach the staging differently?
AS: I approach it the same way. It’s still about people, first of all, and their relationships. It’s just that Aida has a lot more people in it, and so have the scenes. But you have to remember that Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci may be one-act operas, but they’re big pieces. They’re like a three-act opera condensed. They’re hard.
EM: So that’s a particular challenge. What about doing Pagliacci on its own?
AS: It’s the first time I’ve done it on its own. Often it kills a piece to interrupt the action. Doing Pagliacci all in one without a break, interestingly, I think it stands very well. Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci were never intended to be paired. It just happens they were. And they were both by two young, talented composers. Cavalleria has fantastic music. But there’s no doubt Leoncavallo is the more mature composer and dramatist. Pagliacci is the stronger piece.
EM: The opera also feels more mature.
AS: Exactly. In Cavalleria, for instance, there’s this big duet between Santuzza and Turiddu. You get to where it’s going dramatically, and then it’s repeated. It’s like Mascagni didn’t know when to leave that bit alone and move forward with the drama.
EM: It took Verdi a while to figure that out, too.
AS: Absolutely. But Leoncavallo is remarkably mature in his sense of drama. We stage the Intermezzo in this production as well, and in fact when I do “Cav and Pag” we stage both Intermezzos. I think important things can be said and they don’t detract from the music. I know Maestro (Yves Abel) is absolutely happy with it.
EM: At the Met we always did the two together. I’m looking forward to seeing Pagliacci on its own.
AS: It’s a very short night, but it’s okay because of the content.
EM: Dramatically it’s so cathartic, so intense, you soak up every element of the drama that way.
AS: I agree. Now that I’m doing it on its own I think it strengthens the piece.
EM: Speaking of actors and backstory, you started out as an actor.
AS: Yes. I trained in Australia and started doing some small things. But I was getting too nervous. So this is much better - and much easier, of course (laughs).
EM: Do you feel a special empathy for your actors, since they not only have to act but sing, too?
AS: Absolutely. I think what singers do, and what we ask them to do these days, is extraordinary. Occasionally you come across singers who genuinely can’t act. They do their best, and I feel for them as well, really. But when it feels real to them, it’s cathartic.
EM: Also for the director, conductor, musicians. It’s not real but you can’t help being drawn in. You can’t imagine the things I would feel while I was playing. I’d be sitting there in tears.
AS: I love it when a production moves me that way. When we staged the Intermezzo the other day, Adina Nitescu and Joel Sorenson played it in such a way… (hesitates) that I cried. So did other people in the room. They just added a slightly different dimension to it.
EM: It’s magical when that happens. It means you’re doing something right.
AS: Yes. You think you don’t cry in your own production unless it’s so bad (laughs). But no, they really did touch some things.
EM: About genres, any you especially enjoy doing?
AS: To be very honest I don’t particularly care for the French repertoire. There are exceptions. Not Pearl Fishers, but it was very good that I did it. The exceptions are Dialogues of the Carmelites, Manon, which really can be wonderful, though it’s very difficult. Werther has wonderful moments. And Pelleas and Melisande. I’m afraid that’s it. I didn’t ever want to do Faust, though I’ve seen very good productions, or Romeo et Juliette, or Lakmé, or Carmen. For me the Italian rep is where I’m probably happiest. There’s German rep I want to do. Arabella is my biggest wish piece. When I first saw it at Covent Garden I remember being absolutely enthralled.
EM: Stunning piece. It’s one of my favorite Strauss operas as well.
AS: It has a kind of Rosenkavalier trio, a duet in the first act, and that fantastic final scene. I absolutely adore it. But nobody’s asked me to do it. I fear it will have to remain on the wish list.
EM: I’m going to try and channel the gods into making Arabella happen for you. Meanwhile, you’ve given me so much wonderful stuff today. It was delightful as I knew it would be. And I’m looking forward to seeing some of those changes you’ve told me about.
AS: I hope we don’t frighten the audiences away.
EM: From what you’ve told me I think they’ll react in a positive way.
AS: Thank you so much. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
EM: You’re very welcome. I’m certain I will.
Photos used with permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at email@example.com