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Interview: Stephen Lawless, Director of San Diego OPERA'S Civic Center Production of THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO

Interview: Stephen Lawless, Director of San Diego OPERA'S Civic Center Production of THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO

Stephen Lawless will be directing the San Diego Opera's production of The Marriage of Figaro this week. I met with him in the opera company's rehearsal room recently to discuss that, how he came to be a director, and his views of a director's responsibilities.

"My parents were of the generation that listened to the radio. I remember there was always music around. I grew up in the North of England in the 60s, so it was The Beatles. In fact, one of my teachers taught, I think it was Paul McCartney. It was fantastic music."

The director's grammar school in England gave him a chance to hear non-pop styles as well. "It used to do yearly productions of Gilbert and Sullivan. I got sort of interested in that and went to see the Doyle Carte, then started reading about Gilbert and Sullivan, and opera." And that became his main musical interest. "The major companies came to Manchester, and it was cheap! I remember having a box at the opera house, and we were not a wealthy family, so it had to be cheap."

By his final year of high school, Lawless had become so taken with opera that he, rather naively, decided to write a letter describing his interest in directing to John Copley, whom The Daily Telegraph recently described as Britain's "best opera director." It's surprising the letter found its way to him. He was, as all good directors often are, travelling. Lawless sent the letter to Covent Garden where Copley'd been working and got an answer three months later post marked Hawaii! The letter had followed Copley from London to a production in Australia, and then to Hawaii where he was vacationing. It said, "Come see me in London."

Lawless did, and Copley was sufficiently impressed with him that he used his influence to get him into post-graduate work at the London Opera Center, even though he'd had no university training. He doesn't know why the famous director went out of his way to help him start a career except that, "He was very generous with lots of people, and so I got into a stage management course at the Center." Though Lawless thought he was "dreadful," I had my doubts when he told me, "My first job out of it, at 19, was working for Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears." They were doing a series of opera courses and Lawless got to work with them in a variety of roles for three months. When I couldn't help but laugh because of the improbability of his good fortune at working with the well-known pair, he commented, "I've always said it's been downhill from there."

The first opera to really stir his ambition was The Barber of Seville, the predecessor to the Mozart opera he is rehearsing this week in San Diego. He thought he had tickets for The Magic Flute. "I'm glad it wasn't that. It might have put me off for life. When I heard the overture (to Barber), I realized I recognized the melodies. They'd been used in countless cartoons and countless movies. I suddenly realized I knew more about opera than I had imagined. The Magic Flute, I've only directed it once, and I don't think I'd ever do it again. It's too difficult."

It's likely that The Magic Flute seems comparatively difficult partly because he has an incredible amount of experience with The Marriage of Figaro. "Within a year of leaving the Opera Center I was working at Glynbourne as a stage manager and the first show I worked on was Figaro. I must have worked on 30 performances. Four year years later I was assistant director and I revived it. It was the famous Peter Hall production with Kiri Te Kanawa, Ileana Cotrubas and Frederica von Stade." After a United States tour Lawless had seen perhaps 80 performances. "I mounted my own production for a college in London (Guildhall School of Music and Drama) in the late 80s, and that's really what got my career started." He staged that production again in Hong Kong, Dallas and Toronto. He's now done a total of six new productions, and San Diego's will be the fifth time the most recent one has been staged.

Lawless's views have changed over the course of his many interpretations of Figaro. Recently, while studying Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, Mozart's other collaborations with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, he noticed both are in two acts with a comic emphasis in the first and a more serious mood in the second. He decided The Marriage of Figaro should be interpreted in a similar fashion. Though often comic, "There is something more serious at play. As in Chekov, there are tears behind the laughter. And that's what we're trying to go with. What the countess asks of Susanna, for example, to meet the count in the garden disguised, is terrible for her, a huge terrible imposition on her wedding day."

Da Ponte placed characters of depth into realistic, if comically portrayed, moral and political dilemmas, as relevant today as in the opera's 18th Century setting. Lawless pointed out that a 1988 Peter Sellars production had, with startling prescience, been set in a Trump Tower luxury apartment.

"After working on Figaro for 40 years, I feel, apart from four pages, I finally have the whole thing together. They're in the Act II finale where Mozart wins hands down. It's so brilliant and so fast." At first glance, it's probably hard for most opera goers to believe a sought after professional was still discovering new things after staging six productions and seeing hundreds of performances. But the opera's vocal score approaches 400 pages of action, dialog and situations open to multiple interpretations. "I am in awe of Mozart, and of Da Ponte to a certain extent. The opera covers everything. It's funny. It's serious, and it's political. It does all the right things for me. The political isn't abstract, it's personal--proof of what savvy artists they were."

Lawless's passion for Mozart hasn't narrowed his field of interest. "To be honest, if the subject and the music interest me, I'll direct anything. Because I've been doing this for a long time now, if somebody asks me to do an opera I don't know well, I first listen to it. If I get that gut reaction, it only needs to be for about four, five or eight bars, if the images start happening of what it looks like, of what you want to do with it, if it's strong enough, that gut instinct, you keep working to see whether it will expand. And if there's something in there, whether it's #Me Too or Trump or whatever {long pause}. I believe what we artists do, what we provide is the alternative to what politicians do. Art says, 'This is something to strive for,' and it's about humanity and the humanities, whereas I think politics goes in the totally opposite direction. So if I can find something that has that kind of social conscience, that's one of the things that makes me interested."

Rossini's Cinderella is among the operas he has turned down, more than once, because he struggled with how to portray good. Then, "I was working with a mezzo-soprano in Canada on Anna Bolena, and she was married with a daughter who knitted stockings and sold Girl Guide cookies. And I thought, that's good. And suddenly, into my head came a production. Having turned it down for years, now when I meet with general directors I ask are you thinking at all of doing a Cenerentola, because I'm desperate to do it."

What happens once he decides he wants to direct? After a short sardonic laugh, he said, "You fight with the management about more money, both for the design and for the people.

"Once finances are agreed, you set out with your designer to explore it together. And you have to trust this person so you can say anything as ridiculous as you like and get them to say 'that's ridiculous,' or 'there might be something to that'. It's the closest working relationship I have with anybody."

And difficult to achieve since new ideas may be viewed as criticism and create hostility. The recent death of designer Benoît Dugardyn of a heart attack at just 60 deeply affected Lawless. The two had a 25-year history of working together on new productions, including San Diego's successful 2016 staging of Il Trovatore.

While money for sets is obviously important, Lawless believes massive sets can make it more difficult to bring out an opera's emotional content. "The scenery should be there not only to carry an idea of what the piece is to be about, but also to showcase the people. It shouldn't be in competition with them. ... Part of my job is to make the cast look the best and the strongest that they can. I'm a great believer in fairly simple sets. "

Although the list of the operas Lawless has worked on in his long career is extensive, he still has quite a list of new projects he'd like to take on, including Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan, the duo who first stirred him to learn more about opera. "I have a wish list. In fact, I have three wish lists. One is for six main-stream operas I've never done, another is for six occasionally done, and the last is for six I'm never going to do because no one's ever heard of them or would want to put them on." He'll be directing two he's wanted in the coming year Così fan tutte and Káta Kabanová. A production of Don Carlos was discussed, but fell through when a key figure dropped out. He's hoping the project will be taken up again next year.

When we discussed recent operas, Lawless mentioned he'd been asked about doing Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, and was impressed by the opera, but couldn't do it because of a scheduling conflict. He also spoke favorably of Minitour by Birtwistle, a composer of notoriously thorny music. "This one is more lyrical than you might expect."

His impressively full directing schedule means a lot of travel, which has become more difficult for nearly everyone. He used to travel often with his partner, a lighting designer but, "Whatever disputes we'd had at home tended to carry over into the lighting session." They decide to work apart. Lawless manages four months of the year at a relatively new home in Scotland. It's a needed break from opera.

When I asked what experiences in his career have given him the most satisfaction he said, "I've had lots of satisfying experiences. Rehearsing Figaro time after time after time never ever bores me. It always throws something new out that you have to deal with." Lawless also recalled, "Der Rosenkavalier at the Bolshoi. I remember the curtain calls and drinks on the stage after the show." As he went to get his coat, he was alone in the auditorium. He stopped to look back at the stage relishing the moment, thinking "this is quite special."

But what he calls "the best day of his life" was only peripherally related to his profession. "It was here when I did Trovatore. The day between the general and the first night was my birthday. I flew down to Laguna San Ignacio, rented a boat and spent two hours with a California gray whale and her calf. It was the most extraordinary day of my life. Absolutely thrilling!"

When we turned to the financial difficulties of many of today's opera companies, Lawless said, "The state of opera tends to follow the state of the country or the city, and if money's tight it puts a lot of pressure on the business. There's not a lot of state funding at the moment. There's good emphasis now on writing new works that actually engage with contemporary issues and on companies trying to take opera to people rather than trying to pull them in."

When French revolutionary leader Georges Danton said that the Beaumarchais play on which The Marriage of Figaro is based "killed off the nobility," he was premature. Too often the names have just changed from King and Count to Prime Minister, President, or just plain "Boss." Though written over two centuries ago, Figaro continues to "engage with contemporary issues," a major reason Stephen Lawless has been a bit obsessed with getting its mix of comedy and serious moral dilemma just right. I'm looking forward to seeing his most recent production, and hope that by the time of the first performance, he's mastered those four remaining pages.

The San Diego Opera's production of The Marriage of Figaro will have four performances and stars John Moore as Count Almaviva, Evan Hughes as Figaro, Caitlin Lynch as Countess, Sarah Shafer as Susanna, Emily Fons as Cherubino, Susanne Mentzer as Marcellina, and Ashraf Sewailam as Bartolo. John Nelson is the Conductor.

Visit San Diego Opera for ticket information for The Marriage of Figaro and other productions scheduled for the current season.

Photo courtesy of San Diego Opera.

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