BWW Interview: HOUSE OF USHER Falls, Andreas Mitisek Rises
Once upon a midnight dreary (sorry, "Raven"), Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" was perhaps the favorite of his short stories adapted as horror films for mid-20th century audiences. These days, "Usher" may be more familiar as the subject and title of the Philip Glass-Arthur Yorinks opera, which takes a more psychological but nonetheless chilling approach to the story. A new production opens at Chicago Opera Theater (COT) on February 23, following a premiere at the Long Beach Opera (LBO) on January 27, and marks the start of Andreas Mitisek's tenure as COT's General Director. Not surprisingly, Vienna-born Mitisek, who also conducts the opera, heads both companies.
I caught up with him by phone at his office in Chicago to find out what attracted him to the work, what the challenges are for him, and what he likes--and dislikes--about opera in general.
Opera at its best
"'The Fall of the House of Usher' is a great example of what I call musiktheatre," says Mitisek. "Not musical-theatre but a combination of music and theatre that is opera at its best. In this case, 'Usher' has a haunting, eerie story plus Glass's hypnotic music, which seems to suspend time and space. We're never quite sure of what's real and what's simply going on in the narrator's head."
It tells the tale of the premature burial of Madeline Usher and the revenge she wreaks on her twin, Roderick, as related by the brother's childhood friend, William. It's a chamber opera with three main characters, one of whom only makes her presence felt through vocalize--music without lyrics. Mitisek sums it up as a "thrilling piece"--90 minutes without an intermission where the tension is constantly building.
Though he is "only" conducting this opera, Mitisek has been kind of a renaissance-man in Long Beach, where he has been conductor since 1998 and Artistic/General Director since 2004, often directing and designing productions [even lighting them] as well as conducting. Now that he has guided operas himself, has this caused problems in being a collaborator with "Usher" director Ken Cazan, as conductor to another artist's concept? "I understand that it's very important for me not to put my hands in," Mitisek says. "We may consult but in general I keep out of his way. At the same time, because I have directed, Ken knows he can look to me to help make any ideas work musically."
Contemporary relevance for audiences
As the artistic head of the two opera companies, Mitisek is constantly searching for pieces that have contemporary relevance for audiences, which he sums up as an acronym: Out-of-the-box, Provocative, Engaging, Relevant, Adventurous. He has certainly shown his devotion to this ideology during the last 10 years in Long Beach and looks forward to showing his unique point of view to Chicago opera-goers.
While he has more experience in dealing with West Coast audiences than those in the Windy City, Mitisek has spoken in depth to COT subscribers and patrons and finds opera-lovers in both cities more similar than one might expect. "Both cities have a strong opera presence through well-established companies. We complement those big organizations--LA Opera and Chicago's famed Lyric Opera--through our range of operas and intimacy of scale." He concludes, "LBO and COT attract audiences who are looking for something different and are curious beyond the standard repertoire."
Helping him accomplish his goals are grants to both his companies from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support works by American composers. Last year's $500,000 grant to COT provides part of the funding for "Usher" plus two more operas, in 2014 and 2015, one being a world premiere. (It will also help the company create its first cash reserve fund.)
Opera that "sings" to him
Of course, Mitisek doesn't need a grant to foster his interest in new works. Although he hails from one of the world's most famous musical cities, he found that the works being done at the Vienna State Opera didn't "sing" to him. Thus, he created his first company when he was still in his twenties, to present contemporary alternatives to Verdi, Mozart and the other stand-bearers of traditional repertoire. "I'm a very visual person and I found what I was seeing and hearing wasn't meaningful to me. So I decided to create a company that would get away from the kinds of clichés that opera conjures for many people."
Over the last 10 years in Long Beach, he has delved deeply into contemporary music, including such works as Glass's "Akhnaten" and John Adams's "Nixon in China." Dispensing with clichés has not only meant moving to new operas but productions that are site-specific; for example, Ricky Ian Gordon's "Orpheus and Euridice" was staged in a swimming pool. He's not yet doing this in Chicago, but the possibilities are already rumbling around in his head. While Verdi and Mozart have not been permanently banished from his companies--Verdi's fairly obscure "Giovanna d'Arco" ends the COT season--there will definitely be a good reason for one of their works to be in his future.
"The Fall of the House of Usher," an opera in two acts without intermission, by Philip Glass and Arthur Yorinks
Long Beach Opera, Warner Grand Theatre, San Pedro, January 27, February 2-3, 2013
Chicago Opera Theatre, Harris Theatre in Millennium Park, February 23, 24, 27, March 1, 2013
Roderick Usher ...Ryan MacPherson
William ...Lee Gregory
Servant ...Nick Shelton
The Creative Team
Set designer...Alan E. Muraoka
Costume designer...Jacqueline Saint Anne
Lighting designer...David Martin Jacques