Friday, January 8, 2016

Aidan Lang and Seattle Opera Form a perfect ‘Marriage’ - Part 2

By Erica Miner

EM: Sounds like doing Figaro in Seattle after New Zealand was good synchronicity. 

AL: It was, actually. It was more to say, this is how I think Mozart should be done within this aesthetic. It has a particular style, a very different scenic structure. I felt it was a good thing to show people. 

EM: I find your Figaro character analyses fascinating. Are there universal themes you wish to capture in this production? Of those very complex characters in the opera, which one or ones do you find the most complex and/or intriguing? 

AL: Every time you do this piece - and I lose track of just how many over the years (Laughs) - you really do find more. You can almost take any two characters in a room and there’s a story line between them. It’s what’s so fascinating about the opera. In Act 2 when the Count and Susanna are in a state, then when Bartolo and Marcellina come in and sing with the Count, and even the quartet When Marcellina, Bartolo, Basilio and the Count are all singing, “Heavens come to my aid at this moment,” they’ve actually each got a different reason for singing that text. The brilliance of this piece is if you have time to follow everyone’s story line logically you have a set of characters of infinite complexity, even if they’re only on for a relatively short time. There’s back history to them, going back to Barber of Seville. That’s really the huge pleasure. 

EM: Do you have one particular favorite character? 

AL: I love the Count, because his actions dictate the action of the piece. His decision to go back on his promise to abolish this ancient rite - which is of course a fiction anyway by that time in history - is the catalyst of the whole events. What we’re trying to get with both the Count and Figaro, is to echo notes Beaumarchais wrote to his actors. It’s really interesting. There’s a huge paragraph to the Count where Beaumarchais says that despite his devious actions he needs to be played with an elegance and charm. So often the Count gets played rather darkly, blackly, like a mini Don Giovanni. Actually the way the comedy works - what I’ve said to both those characters, the singers - is we have to want you to be forgiven at the end in order to have completion. The purpose of comedy, going right back to the Greeks, was to correct deviant social behavior. This comedy, this house, is a microcosm of society. You, the leader of this household, a young 19-year-old whose parents have died, are responsible for setting the tone of this castle. You are off the rails with your going after anything in a skirt. We try to get his wildly inappropriate behavior done with a charm, that when he is forgiven by the Countess we actually want that to happen. It’s quite hard to play that because it’s very easy to play the dark side, the anger, and lose the charm. So that’s why I like him. It’s fascinating, finding that balance - he’s a complete dork sometimes, but completely driven by what he wants to achieve, which is Susanna before the wedding (Laughs). If you’re really honest and get that balance between the Count’s intensity and a lightness of playing him - and don’t let it be goofy - but finding a balance of that lightness as well. I love the Count, he’s so complicated, a really fascinating character. He sets the tone of the evening. 

EM: And he has to be redeemable. 

AL: And you need to want him to be redeemable. That’s the key thing, that if you don’t like him because of his behavior, you think, why doesn’t she divorce him? 

EM: Or send him to hell, like Don Giovanni. 

AL: (Laughs) Yes. He isn’t Don Giovanni. It’s a very different play, a different purpose. With all these characters you really play the true situation. Some of the cast who’ve done the roles before, they say, “I haven’t really considered that before.” You have to play moment by moment as to what’s happening, what they know. The real difficulty is we know this piece so well we jump to the end of a scene. He doesn’t know that yet until that line. It’s fascinating. 

EM: Yes, difficult to play because we think we know the piece. That’s why I find the way you analyze these characters and their relationships so intriguing.

AL: It’s a question of being honest and not taking the shortcut, “Oh, we do this all the time.” Really saying, in this circumstance how would you react. And we’ve gone into a period “look” but we’ve very slyly cheated - all the chorus costumes are made of old jeans. You don’t notice that detail, your seat is thirty feet away, but the fabric moves in a different way. We’ve given all the lower orders things like Vans or street shoes rather than period shoes. Only the Count and Countess have period shoes. We wanted people to behave in a normal way. If you’ve got flat soles you walk in a different way to an elevated heel. We wanted to get away with period acting, yet make the audience comfortable with who the characters are with a period look silhouette to the costumes, and still make the behavior, gestural language, modern. We’re playing kind of a deliberate “cheat” game, to allow the singers to walk in a contemporary fashion which is identifiable to our audience, but with that reassurance that the social setting is authentic. 

EM: At the same time you’re giving the audience more to think about, the universal details. 

AL: That’s right, the universal thing you mentioned, but these are people we should identify with. I’ve just come up from a run of acts one and two, and my final note to the singers was that the way to make it real is not to let the music dictate what you do in a diamond-like precision, but the kind of acting that responds to each sharp moment in the score. In Rossini it kind of works that the music dictates the action. This is 40 years earlier, close to Gluck, and actually they need to act in a way that makes the music come as a natural consequence to what they do and not the other way around. It’s a subtle difference, but other than a few moments it should just feel that it’s in continual motion. Most people on stage do a stage turn so their body is always front, always facing the audience. I’ve told them if in doubt make a full circle, do a complete turn. That smoothes out the rough edges. They’re always on the go. It creates momentum to the whole action, especially in Act two, which is 45 minutes of non-stop. 

EM: Indeed. No one knows that better than I do. Now I’m going to take a leap, if you’ll forgive me, from Figaro to Wagner. Is there a new Seattle Ring cycle in the offing? We’re all dying to know more. Anything you can reveal yet? 

AL: (Laughs) As Figaro says, “My face lies but I don’t lie.” We’re not quite ready to do our reveal. We’re hoping to make a statement around Flying Dutchman in May. A few ducks are being put in line. We’re very mindful that we’re renowned as a Ring house (, and we’re not betraying that legacy. 

EM: Your answer was absolutely perfect. I hope you will keep me somewhere close to the front of the line. 

AL: (Laughs) I will, yes. 

EM: To wrap up, what are some of your ultimate goals for Seattle Opera, and how do you see the future of opera in general? 

AL: Those are key points, really. I think if you went back to the glorious period of opera, which is from Handel through to 1920s - Puccini and a bit later to Strauss - in that period before film and TV, opera was the theatre of its day. Audiences in the 19th century saw no difference between going to an opera and going to a play for their entertainment, in a way that today they see no difference in going to a Broadway show, a musical or a play. When all these great operas were written that was the condition of the day. So really my vision - the unattainable vision (Laughs) - is that opera-going here in Seattle should just become a normal thing. “The opera’s on, so I’ll go to that. I don’t know the title, it’s Katya Kabanova, I have no idea what that is, but I know that Seattle Opera is doing it so I know it will be good.” That’s really where I want us to be. And to get there, when you look at all the entertainment options, the way opera is suddenly perceived now, I think we get there by giving this wonderful integrated theatrical experience. There’s a point of difference for each thing we do, we make people think a bit, but without lecturing, that people go away from our shows having an experience which is emotional but also thought-provoking. And each piece has its different level of being thought-provoking. 

EM: Has opera changed in this century? 

AL: I think it has. I was talking to a journalist yesterday about how a lot of Italian singers are now all around the world rather than just in Italy. The world has shifted. The implosion of the CD industry, which had poor consequences, was followed pretty swiftly by the Met going to the HDs, the videos, the camera technology. Rather than having to rely on TV companies to record an opera performance, which is hugely expensive, companies can now form in-house teams with portable cameras, which they can do much more efficiently. So there’s a move away from opera being perceived as just a vocal, aural experience. I think that’s really timely because that kind of understanding helps to break down those age-old barriers we struggle with in opera. When we get young people in, they think, “Oh my God, I really enjoyed that, it’s like a play.” That’s what I want people to feel. This shift in the industry has helped it anyway, and it’s important that we lead in that way. Some people are pessimistic, but I think if we get enough entry points to people of today, without cheapening or losing the resonance, to make that presentable in a way that people understand. Not let productions be straitjacketed by the historical context, just allow it to breathe and make the modernity and relevance of these pieces - make something that is fascinating to people and they want to see what we’re doing. That’s really where I want it to go. In a way, the shift in the industry should help that rather than it being a barrier. Does that make sense? 

EM: It does. A lot of people say opera will see a resurgence. In the context you just described I think that’s entirely possible and doable. That’s a wonderful concept, and I thank you for sharing that and for your great insights. It’s been a delight to speak with you. 

AL: It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much indeed.

Photos used by permission of: Philip Newton, Rick Dahms
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Aidan Lang and Seattle Opera Form a Perfect ‘Marriage’- Part 1

By Erica Miner

How many opera directors have directed Wagner’s first Ring cycle in Brazil? Newly minted Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang can make that claim. He also is one of only three general directors in the history of Seattle’s opera company.

Described as “an Englishman by way of New Zealand,” the London-born Lang served as general director of New Zealand Opera from 2006 to 2014, and took the Seattle Opera reins from Speight Jenkins, who helmed the company for 30-plus years. Lang’s remarkable blend of talents, which include expertise in the theatrical, artistic and business realms, serve him well in his new position. 

After a well-received run of Bizet’s all too seldom performed early opera The Pearl Fishers (, Lang takes to the stage to direct the current production of Mozart’s beloved classic, The Marriage of Figaro, which incidentally is the first opera Lang saw as a child. Lang’s Figaro is all about marriage: three couples of three different generations and their diverging and intersecting journeys in matrimony. I caught up with Lang in the midst of a hectic rehearsal schedule that itself resembles the busy-ness of the Figaro overture. 

EM: This is your first full season under your aegis at Seattle? 

AL: Yes. Last season was all in place. We did actually have a new production, Semele, which I kind of helped steer through the designs, but the designs were complete when I arrived. This season is a funny one, in that the program was kind of in place but we made changes. The fifth opera got suspended, so I added it back, and I put in a new Jack Perla piece. The Pearl Fishers was mine and Flying Dutchman I put in, which I cast together with Speight (Jenkins, former general director) because obviously he knows his Wagner. Figaro was a curious one - no production was in place. So I’ve had total say over the production style we’ve gone for, the productions we’ve done. In the case of Figaro, the main casting was all in place. The smaller parts hadn’t been cast yet when I arrived. So it’s a bit of a hybrid season, but I’ve had a lot more influence, especially from a production point of view, than is normal for the case when you inherit these jobs. All of next season, which we just announced on January 1st (, is entirely mine. So I’ve had a lot more input this year than I’ve had any right to expect (Laughs). 

EM: What has it been like to take over from Speight, who was such a legend and had such a long tenure? 

AL: I actually came six or seven months before I was due to start, so we had a very long handover. The reason the board wanted that to happen - I think was a really good idea - was most importantly that it gave me time to understand how all the arts sit in this city. Running an arts organization in one city - each community has its own kind of tastes, and that of course is the legacy of what’s gone before. But also the arts sit in different cities in different ways. Some are more “arts” cities than others - New York, Chicago, San Francisco - than cities of a lesser size. A lot of cities are strong in one art form and not necessarily in another. So it gave me a chance, not only to look at how opera was received, was placed, in this city, but actually the arts in general. Also to get to know the company without the burden of office quite yet, which was really useful, and give our donors a gentle easing from one general director to the next. So it was a very amicable handover, which isn’t always the case. I’m not going to name names, but as we all know… (Laughs). Speight and I would go to things together. We felt it was very important to have a smooth transition for audiences, donors, staff, as we go off in a slightly different direction, that they have seen a logical progression - an advancement rather than it being a change for change’s sake. So that was really our secret, that Speight and I worked beautifully together in that time. It allowed him a really graceful retirement, which was very important to me. It could have felt awkward, but actually felt really nice, that really smooth handover, rather than it be, okay, now we’re going to do it differently. Inevitably things change, but I want it to evolve and develop. 

EM: It’s a testament to the great characters of you and Speight, that it was such a smooth transition. 

AL: I think we all felt it was important, but I think we all wanted it. It seemed like the most logical way to do it, a lovely thing to do. It met both our needs rather than it being “imposed.” It worked really well. 

EM: It makes perfect sense. And by the way, I loved Pearl Fishers. I never got to play it at the Met, because as you know it’s been a hundred years since they’ve done it. 

AL: The last person who sang Nadir at the Met was Caruso (Laughs). 

EM: That’s astonishing. 

AL: Isn’t it just? (Laughs.) 

EM: I know it’s early in the season, but things are going well so far? 

AL: They are. I like a season to be varied, not only in terms of repertoire but in terms of style. I hate it when the audience know what they’re going to see before the curtain goes up. For me it is about varying style, finding the right visual style for each individual piece. The needs of one piece are very different from the needs of another. We’re doing the arts, not commercial entertainment, where things are focus-grouped to death, where there’s no risk. One needs that element of risk. If you make an artistic statement about a piece, you’re not going to appeal to 100% of the audience. It’s the nature of the beast. Not being frightened about it. As long as what we do has a clarity and integrity, people will respect that even if they disagree with what the solution or interpretation is, the fact it’s been properly thought out and considered. For me that’s what it’s about. But also giving people a varied feel to each piece, so that even if they didn’t particularly like the way we did Pearl Fishers they’ll come back to Figaro knowing that we haven’t adopted a house style, that it’s going to be different. It takes time, you need to get some runs on the board in order to develop that trust. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about. For the arts it’s developing your audience so you can put on the telephone book in Chinese and people will come, because you’ve got a reputation of being interesting (Laughs). You can’t do that in your first year. You don’t get there in your first year. 

EM: No, but I imagine Seattle audiences will be open to just about anything. 

AL: I think I’m very lucky having Seattle. I think with other cities it would take much longer to get there, and again it’s a legacy of what the company has done in the past - create a very inquisitive audience. That’s what I really like. They can be eager to discover things. We’ve always put in new pieces - next year we’ve got two pieces new to Seattle. With Speight there was always at least one piece Seattle had never seen before. So you cultivate an inquisitive audience. We have our talk back after the show. We get 150 people. They want to talk about what they’ve seen immediately after the show rather than go back to their homes (Laughs). They’re great. I’m really lucky to inherit that. 

EM: They’re very lucky to have you. In your most recent experience at New Zealand, you collaborated with other companies such as Glyndebourne and Welsh National Opera. Do you have plans to seek similar partnerships eventually? 

AL: Absolutely. More than eventually, like next season (Laughs). I arrived in New Zealand in 2006. It was very much considered a kind of poor cousin to Australia. I thought, there’s actually a full time big company producing a lot of work, and three state companies who were all basically putting on shows created for that company. I thought, we have an advantage in New Zealand to actually set up a workshop and make new productions rather than renting all the time. I would then find partners, because I knew each of the state companies - Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide - all wanted to do different things but didn’t really have a resource to make shows themselves. Labor rates were very high, and they didn’t do workshops. So I set up a workshop and began to create a number of new productions, for which I found partners, first of all in one company, then the others. It worked on both sides. Here in Seattle we didn’t really have a reputation of collaborating that much. We’d rent-in shows but not do new shows in co-production. That’s what I’ve gone about addressing. We have two new shows next year. Interestingly, on one of them which we haven’t finished the designs yet, a company has just come in and said, “I’m quite interested in co-producing, is it too late?” I said, “No, it’s not.” The following season we already have two new co-productions in place. By 2017-18 we’re up and running. But also next season, 2016-17, I’m bringing a show from Glyndebourne. In other words not just out of the American pool. And I’m bringing a show from London and Graz -Traviata, very successful production. So I want to show some interesting but not over-the-top controversial European works, which really have fantastic pedigree and deserve to be seen by our audience, because I know they’re going to like them. 

EM: That does sound exciting. 

AL: That’s what I mean about learning about how the arts sit. Getting a sense of taste, where they’re at now, where they can be in five years’ time. Planning what the audience sees over a long term, to lead their taste, as it were. 

EM: You’re wearing two hats with Figaro. How do you make the tricky transition from your administrative offices to directing an opera? 

AL: I did Figaro In New Zealand - we rehearsed it during the summer holidays. There’s a difference when you’re creating a thing from new, you really are living it 24 hours a day. When you are reviving it, although with two completely new casts, you’ve got the framework for it already, so it’s not quite the all-embracing task it is when you’re creating it. And secondly, we’ve done it over Christmas holiday and New Year, so everyone was only really back yesterday, and we’re on stage on Friday, so all the main rehearsal was done when everyone else was toasting their muffins over Christmas. It turned out that it wasn’t such a bad time to do it. 

EM: Sounds like the stars aligned. 

AL: Yes. But it’s not my intention to do more of this. I put this production in because the search committee when I was being appointed spent a lot of time - a lot of it online - looking at my productions as examples. They looked very carefully at the aesthetic and style of opera I believe in. When I saw that Figaro was already planned and there was no production in place, the obvious thing was to bring the New Zealand production over - it fits perfectly on our stage - and kill two birds with one stone. It’ll be evidence of what I believe opera should be, because it’s a fun production. But it was not really my intention to direct a lot of stuff. I’ve got three years planned out and I haven’t got any plans to direct. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe in five years’ time I might do one, but it’s not my purpose. It’s the exception rather than the rule.

Next: Aidan Lang and Seattle Opera, Part 2

Photos used by permission of: Rick Dahms, Philip Newton
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]