BWW Interview: Losing the Disguises - Opera Director Lesley Koenig on Verdi's A MASKED BALL
A Wagner-loving cat and a childhood listening to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts influenced Lesley Koenig's eventual plunge into the world of opera. Now a jet-setting director, she brings her brilliance and expertise to San Diego Opera's exciting production of A Masked Ball, Verdi's masterwork based on the 1792 assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden. I sat down with Lesley to discuss the concept she has developed for this strikingly beautiful opera, which was censored in the original and reset in colonial Boston.
EM: How great to have you back! What's new and exciting since our interview last season?
LK: At the moment I am Interim Managing Director of the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company, the oldest theatre company in Vermont, with an incredibly rich history, a wonderful season coming up, and a sparkling future.
EM: That is exciting. Tell me more.
LK: Weston (pop. 554) sits in an idyllic part of southern Vermont, a truly classy area where cell phone service is largely not available and the roads are not paved! Lots of people visit Vermont from places like New York and Boston and some decide to stay. The population of the area is highly educated.
EM: Sounds like an extraordinarily erudite group.
LK: Also wonderfully collegial. For exercise, I like to take the staff snowshoeing for forty-five minutes or so mid-day! And I can't believe how quiet it is there. Imagine how magical it was to prepare the Ballo staging in a carriage house with no cell service, no television, no noise - complete silence. With some candles lighted, it was almost a 19th century experience staging a 19th century opera.
EM: So, Italian this season, French last season, German next season at SDO. Do you feel any more or less comfortable in any of these?
LK: I'm comfortable in any or all of them. I love languages. I speak German, French, Italian, and can understand a fair amount of Russian, and bits of Czech. We staged the opera mostly in English, until Krassimira (Stoyanova), the Amelia, told me she preferred German, so now that's what we speak!
EM: Are you happy to be back in San Diego? When did you arrive?
LK: Yes, it's just so magical here. I've been here since February eleventh. It gave me time to have lots of meetings, so by the time we had a production meeting, which usually happens at the beginning of the first week, it was my second week, and I'd been through all the costumes, props and all sorts of stuff. We really had a lot of things already taken care of.
EM: You sound well prepared.
LK: Very well prepared. You know, when people ask what we do for a living, I think for a director the answer should really be "homework." It's all about preparation.
EM: It is for conductors, too.
LK: It certainly is, and singers, too. Everybody's doing a lot of homework.
EM: How do you approach a new staging?
LK: I walk all around my house, practicing each person's moves, where I want them to move and to go. By the time I get to rehearsals, it's all planned out.
EM: I admire that kind of analytical approach. Were you already familiar with Ballo?
LK: Just since eight months ago. This is the first time I really ran into this opera. I've only staged two Verdi operas myself. I assisted on a few other ones when I was younger. But Ballo was completely new to me.
EM: A new discovery, superb. Which Verdi operas had you staged?
LK: Rigoletto and Luisa Miller, at the Met. It's funny how I learned Ballo. I like to walk on treadmills to exercise. And I walk a lot. So I'd put on the opera while walking and just listen and listen to it. I knew the famous aria "Eri tu" from the millions of auditions I've heard in my life, and the first time I got to it while studying Ballo I was like, "Oh my goodness, that's in this opera?" And what really blows me away about Ballo is you keep thinking it can't get better, and then Verdi does something where all of a sudden you think, "It's brilliant," and then it's one incredibly new idea following the next.
EM: That's so true. I immediately fell in love with Ballo at the Met, and loved it more every time I played it.
LK: I think sometimes it's played so very seriously, from the beginning, but it's not entirely. The king is a very lighthearted guy. He decides everybody's going to get dressed up and go to Ulrica's (the fortuneteller's) house, and says, "Let's just have a lot of fun."
EM: Ulrica's just a diversion, at least initially.
LK: Yes. He has a great sense of humor, and humanity, and adores his people. Until he gets his hand read. Then things begin to change for him. Even though he says it's just a joke I think he begins to feel more upset at that moment. But the piece really surprised me. You think, Ballo In Maschera, masked ball, it's about the last scene. But in every single scene, people are in disguise and lose their disguise. In the first scene the whole idea comes up as the king decides everybody's going to be disguised to go to Ulrica's house. Then the masked ball is introduced when Oscar gives him the invitation.
EM: Getting and losing disguises. I never quite thought of it that way.
LK: In fact I've asked the crew to build a diorama, for the first act, of the last scene of the last act - the masked ball in miniature, but it's on the stage - as if the king is already thinking about how he's going to decorate the palace for the masked ball. So in the first scene you see it there on the table. Then masks are entered in. In the second scene the king, the noblemen, the pageboy Oscar, everybody's in disguise. Then when the king gets his future read and loses his disguise it starts the tragedy for him. The same thing goes for Amelia. For me she does not enter the second act in disguise - usually she's veiled when she comes in - because she's not expecting to run into anyone. But she ends up veiled, in disguise, because of things that have happened in prior scenes. And when she loses her disguise she almost loses her life, and destroys her husband's life. It continues until everybody in the last act is in disguise. And it just builds and builds, both musically and dramatically.
EM: I get goose bumps just thinking of all that.
LK: There are eleven bars and a quarter note at the end of the opera, sort of a hymn where Gustavo forgives Renato and the chorus and soloists sing a song of clemency, that I think may be the most beautiful eleven bars and a quarter note in all of opera. Literally. I cry every single time I hear it. My assistant cries too, so we are always knee-deep in Kleenex by the end of the opera. I'll probably cry tonight (in rehearsal), although it probably will be a very messy rehearsal (laughs).
EM: Nothing wrong with crying. It's opera after all!
LK: It's just an incredible piece of music, too, though not dark like Don Carlo. Massimo (Zanetti), the conductor, says the music has a kind of Mozartean quality. I agree. It's not a "park and bark" opera at all. It really is a great story, also in the humanity of the characters, and almost true. Ulrica existed, King Gustav existed, and also Anckarström. Since we're doing the Swedish version, we wondered, "What was Anckarström's first name?" and we looked it up historically. It's something like Jakob Johan, but we're using Renato. In the big scene with the king at the end, everybody says, "Who killed him?" It was going to be sung as, "Anckarström!" And we switched it back to (sings) "Renato!" We figured his best friends were going to call him Renato, even though that wasn't historically correct. So we use Gustavo instead of Riccardo, but we still use Renato instead of Anckarström. Very interesting.
EM: I love that concept. We did both versions at the Met. It does get confusing.
LK: It does. I call Sam and Tom the colonial "Sam" and "Tom," even though they're Horn and Ribbing in the original, because their names are never mentioned. "Cristiano" says his own name when he reads the letter, but otherwise I call him Silvano in rehearsal. We don't even worry about it. It's mostly a question of how you set the costumes and is he a king or a count. I think it's wonderful doing this version, since it had been censored.
EM: What has it been like, working with these wonderful singers?
LK: The opera's about three hundred-odd pages long. We blasted through, I think, two hundred pages in the first two days. And then the other hundred. So in five days we staged the entire opera with the exception of some chorus scenes. When we started rehearsing I staged one and a half chorus scenes and there was still a bunch of work to do with the chorus and supers. The music is very complicated, the ensembles and everything. For the tenor aria, we waited till Piotr (Beczala) arrived. So we'd pretty much staged the whole opera, and in detail, too, by then, with all the soloists and my assistant standing in for the tenor. I had said to Krassimira, because this is the first time she's sung the role of Amelia, "Shall we stage the duet with you and the tenor even though we don't have the tenor?" She said, "Yes, please," so she could get a feeling for where she would be and why, and "inhabit" the role before the tenor arrived. We did enough to "zoom" through but with detail, the whole opera, and when Piotr arrived we had a musical (rehearsal) for three hours, and then we started staging. So I had a chance to put him into every scene still while we were in the rehearsal hall, and then put everything together on stage.
EM: Like the missing track of a recording.
LK: Yes. It actually ended up being kind of interesting. But such soloists! You know, you never want people to arrive late. But because other people in the cast were new to their roles, especially Krassimira, it allowed everybody time to develop their roles. Stephanie (Blythe) didn't need to learn how to develop her role, but the rest of them have been able to, so there was a kind of cool infusion of energy for everybody else, when Piotr showed up. Krassimira was up to a different level by the time she finally sang with the tenor. They've worked together in the past, so it's just been so much fun. Oh my God, what a wonderful bunch of people, what senses of humor. We laugh our heads off. You know, Stephanie, come on (laughs), and Kathleen Kim (Oscar), Aris (Anckarström) - what an incredible group. I'd say this is one of the two or three happiest things I've ever put together in my life, in terms of a fantastic experience.
EM: Great opera, wonderful dream cast. Wow.
LK: And not just vocally and physically, but dream colleagues, just hilarious. We laugh our heads off.
EM: I know last season you said you were having so much fun with Samson here.
LK: This is even more fun. It's supposed to be fun. Why else would anyone choose to be involved in this profession? It's ninety percent process and ten percent performance. My life is a hundred percent process. So if the process isn't fun what's the point?
EM: People up on stage or down in the pit tend to lose sight of that, the process, but for you it's all about that. You said this opera has lighthearted aspects but it's also really serious.
LK: It is. At the end of the second act, when Renato says, "Che, Amelia?" Her veil comes off, he is completely humiliated in front of members of the court, and she is destroyed. In the third act, he wants to kill her, but loves her too deeply. He blames the king and decides to kill the king instead.
EM: Assassination, intrigue, exquisite music - all the elements we crave in opera. I can't wait for opening night. Thanks so much for your insights.
LK: It's been a pleasure, as always.