BWW Interview: Director Josh Shaw of DON GIOVANNI at The Vortex

BWW Interview: Director Josh Shaw of DON GIOVANNI at The VortexArtistic and Executive Director of Pacific Opera Project (POP) Josh Shaw was recently named "One of Musical America's Top 30 Innovators in Classical Music." Over the past six seasons, he has directed 23 productions at POP including THE RAKE'S PROGRESS, ARIADNE AUF NAXOS, and LA CALISTO. His reimagining of THE ABDUCTION FROM THE SERAGLIO as an episode of Star Trek has gained national attention and has been produced by seven companies.

Shaw is the resident director of the Southern Illinois Music Festival, the Principal Stage Director at Opera Neo in San Diego, and the resident director of Chamber Opera Players of Los Angeles.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and grew up in the South-in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas. We moved a lot. At the end of my eighth grade year we moved to Laurel, Montana, and I went to all of high school and a year of college in Montana. Then to undergrad in Arkansas, followed by grad school in Southern Illinois. A few years of regional theater, dinner theater, and tours and then I landed in Los Angeles. I've been here over 14 years now.

Do you come from a musical family?

Yes, my dad was a minister of music during my entire childhood, so church was my primary exposure to music. I did Children's Choir, Youth Choir, solos on Sunday, Easter Pageants, handbells-all that. My mom sang in church as well and played a little piano. Of the five siblings, I'm the oldest.

When did you become interested in music as a career?

I went to college thinking I wanted to teach high school choir. I knew any career in music would be a tough road. I wasn't naive about that. I just could not think of anything else I was ready to commit to as an 18 year old. Now, I realize I didn't have to "commit" to anything at that age. One semester as an education major was enough for me. The deal breaker was having to be in the marching band for a year. No, thank you. As far as I was concerned, half of the reason of going to college was to sit in the student section at football games. So, if I wasn't going to be an ed major, that only left vocal performance if I wanted to keep my scholarships. Of course, I had to audition for the opera as a performance major. I was cast as the lead in my very first opera-Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe. I was Horace Tabor if you can believe that! At 20 years old-a terrible idea. From there on I was going to be an opera singer. I devoted myself to becoming that over the next three years of undergrad, despite the fact that I never even saw an opera I wasn't in until I was in grad school.

Are there any artists or musicians from the past whose work has significantly influenced you?

I spent one summer with Carol Freeman at Opera in the Ozarks. I was completely green as an actor and I really didn't work with Carol very much that summer, but seeing him talk about opera with such passion and watching him stage things in contemporary and/or updated ways-I had never seen that before and obviously to this day it sticks with me.

What have you learned from your teachers that you want to pass on to the next generation of stage directors?

Well, I'm completely self-taught as a stage director-meaning I never received any training or instruction in direction-I just borrowed from directors I liked and went from there. (It's called "borrowing" when I do it to other directors and "stealing" when they do it to me.)

The most important things I want to pass down:

  1. Organization is part of your job. The best ideas in the world mean nothing if you can't put them into action.
  2. People enjoy a laugh, don't discount it.
  3. When all else fails and you can't figure out a scene, read the text. If that still doesn't work, listen to the music.
  4. No one in the history of the world has ever said "I wish that opera was longer." Cuts are your friends. You, the music director, and maybe a few singers are the only people who are going to miss a chunk of recitative or a third verse.

Did you think differently as a singer?

I believe so. I can't imagine being an opera director having never been a singer. It's been years, but I still know the sensation of singing and moving. I ask a ton of my singers physically. I feel comfortable with that because I know what it feels like to be running around and singing.

What are some of your favorite operas/operettas/musicals to direct?

I love THE MIKADO. I think it is hilarious and, of course, I love the opportunity to poke fun at the powers that be. And rewriting lyrics is a fun hobby of mine. I like meta operas such as VIVA LA MAMMA!, ARIADNE, and THE IMPRESARIO-there's nothing I enjoy more than making fun of myself and this foolish "business" we call opera. LA BOHÈME is a favorite for so many reasons. The camaraderie of the four guys in Acts 1 and 4 is so true to life for me. The love stories are absolutely 100% believable with their lust, true love, petty jealousy. We've all been there, right? And, at least the way I direct it, the arch of comedy, comedy, comedy, drama is just the perfect night of theater.

Are there some popular operas that you like a great deal but have yet to direct?

There are many more I want to get to soon, such as LA CENERENTOLA, RIGOLETTO, THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, and THE RING CYCLE, but my top picks when I started out were CARMEN, TOSCA, BOHEME, MIKADO, COSI, and DON GIOVANNI. Luckily, I've done all of those, most of them a few times.

What lesser-known works would you most like to stage?

I love the silly Bel Canto comedies by Rossini and Donizetti. The music is just so enjoyable. As a director, I feel like the music tells me exactly what to do on stage-particularly in the comic moments. I spent months last year deciding on Rossini's LA GAZZETTA for this season and, after a very long and difficult search to get my hands on a vocal score, I spent the better part of last month assembling and translating it. Although the plot is no more flimsy than that of THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, it is by no means a perfectly designed opera. The music is so charming, however, that the story almost becomes irrelevant. So I'd like to do more of these kinds of works and explore the lesser-known Rossini and Donizetti.

When and how was Pacific Opera Project (POP) founded?

In July of 2011, Stephen Karr, myself, and our wives got together and decided it was time to form a company to provide quality opportunities for singers in Los Angeles. Our goal was to provide a platform for all of the immensely talented, but under appreciated artists in our city. The goal was not to do wacky updated performances or to become the "hipster" opera company-all of that just grew out of circumstance. POP has become more than I ever expected. The fact that we can do five productions a season is mind-blowing for me.

Where do you get those unusual suits you wear at POP performances?

I'll never tell! Just kidding. I used to make a trip downtown to the fashion district for each production, but now I have a few places on line that I always check first. Funny thing about this suit gimmick-I have no idea when or how I got myself into this predicament of always getting a new suit for opening night. I think it may have begun when I took a fashion risk and bought a shiny red suit for CARMEN in 2014. People liked it, so I got a pink one for BOHÈME, and then it just became its own beast. Now it's something that has to go on my checklist for production week-how am I going to top last production's suit?

These days many LA operagoers feel a personal relationship to POP. Do you know most of the regular patrons?

I do know a large percentage of our audience-at least I recognize them enough to have a conversation about previous shows they've been to, or what they thought of the latest LA Opera production where I saw them. As we grow, that is becoming less and less feasible, and I worry a little bit about losing that personal touch. But that's ok. Growth-particularly in attendance-is our number one priority at POP right now. We are looking to reach 2000 people per production by the year 2020, an ambitious goal for a company that reaches about 1500 patrons per run with our larger shows. And, of course, we aren't going to use 500 or 1000-seat venues to accommodate those numbers. We are committed to keeping the vast majority of POP shows at 350 seats or less, which means longer runs and double casting.

People of all sorts donate to POP. Sometimes we've been called The Bernie Sanders of Opera Companies, meaning that we have a large amount of donors at the $100 or less level. As our reputation increases, we are attracting donors who are used to giving at a higher level. So we do have a few folks who give in the $2000-$5000 range. To date we have never had a personal donation over $7500. I'm sure that is very unusual for any non-profit arts organization in their eighth season.

What makes your current POP staging of DON GIOVANNI different from most other versions?

It is a 1930s gangster setting with very bright costumes. Each character gets his or her own specific color and wears it proudly. The production looks similar to the great 1990 film DICK TRACY. However the set is more mono-chromatic, so the characters and costumes really pop out. There have been "film noir" versions of DON GIOVANNI, but that's not really what this is. The entire concept, which I've done a few times now, came from POP's 2011 production of DON GIOVANNI. Back then, we had no money-like really no money. We picked DON GIOVANNI because it was the most affordable option with only eight characters and a small chorus.

I sat down to figure out how to design and costume an opera with only a few hundred dollars. This idea of bold, brash characters hit me and the idea to costume each character in their own signature color was born. It made sense to put brightly clad characters against a black and white background so they really stood out. Well, back in 2011 if you wanted to order a solid red or solid orange suit, they really only came in one style and that was the oversized, zoot-suit look. I bought a few, put them on the guys, and suddenly they looked like mobsters. I thought, "I can work with that" and a concept was born. Mobster settings typically work well for updating operas because you instantly have a bunch of male characters and a hierarchy of servant/master relationships.

Over the past seven years and several productions of DON GIOVANNI, the concept has grown and has been fleshed out. I picked DON GIOVANNI to start this season at POP because I believe this production can be one of the most thorough and well-executed DON GIOVANNIs an audience might ever see. The cast is fabulous and most have done their roles with me before. I'm going to great lengths to "fix" some of the issues that are typically glossed over in DG. Things like: How is it the Commendatore has a memorial the day after he is killed? Why is Don Giovanni and no one else wearing a mask in the opening scene? Why does Anna say she thought he was Ottavio?

Your BARBER OF SEVILLE in Santa Barbara was riotously funny. Will we get much comedy in DON GIOVANNI?

I'm sure we will. Having done the show so many times recently and knowing our cast's great acting abilities, I'm feeling a strong urge to go to the dark side of Mozart and DaPonte's "dramma giacosa". However, when it comes down to it, I just can't resist a good joke or a cheap laugh. And I don't think POP is the setting for an overly dark DON GIOVANNI. Our audience wants and expects to laugh. And at POP I'm number one a producer and number two a director. I'm going to give the audience what they want. I'll save the overly dark and brooding DG for some other company. Maybe my European debut...

You recently got an award from Musical America. What prize was it? What did it do for your career?

That was the Top 30 Innovators in Classical Music. I was flattered to be on a list with such movers and shakers in the business. But the real reward was receiving an email saying, "stuffing the ballot box does help your chances". I thought it was spam and just about deleted it, but decided to reply just in case. Apparently, so many singers were submitting my name that they thought I was doing some kind of campaign. That just about brought me to tears. There's no doubt that I get a ton of credit for everything that happens at POP. I do work very hard and I'm proud of what I've accomplished, but it is all built on the backs of the unbelievably talented and gracious singers who agreed to play with us at POP. To know those people took time out of their busy schedule to write something about me, meant everything to me.

What important performances do you have coming up this season and next?

Opera Orlando is doing my production of Mozart's ABDUCTION FROM THE SERAGLIO in May. I'm looking forward to making my debut out there. Scott Levin and I have spent the last week writing a new libretto for THE MAGIC FLUTE that is set in the lands of Mario and Zelda, as in early 90s video games. We'll premiere and workshop that at The Southern Illinois Music Festival (SIFest) in June. This will be my first FLUTE, an opera I've avoided for the past eight years, because it is difficult. SIFest is where the Star Trek ABDUCTION began, so I have hopes that this FLUTE could take a similar path to national recognition. POP of course has only the second staging ever of LA GAZZETTA in the United States this June. That has become a passion project for me. And then in April and May 2019 POP will be partnering with Opera in the Heights for a very special and innovative MADAMA BUTTERFLY, but I can't say much more about that now.

What do you expect to be doing five years from now?

Well, I sure hope I'm doing what I'm doing now at POP, but on a slightly larger scale. Getting to the big leagues has never been my goal, but I will say that it has been very nice to be at Opera Santa Barbara and New Orleans Opera in the past few months. To be able to just direct a show and not worry about financials or promotion is wonderful. Five years from now it is my hope that POP will have a full-time general director, a marketing staff, and a few other key staff positions so I can focus solely on the productions for six or seven months out of the year. Then I can spend the rest of my time directing elsewhere. I want to meet all the new up and coming young singers, conductors, and directors.

How much modern technology do you use in your work?

Behind the scenes, I use a lot. On stage, not so much. I use rehearsal videos constantly. It baffles me that everyone doesn't. A singer can instantly see or hear something on film that would take me 15 minutes to explain. I use projections occasionally, but they terrify me with their constant crashing and malfunctioning.

Do you have time for a private life?

Not really, but that is ok for now. I get to play for a living. I travel all over the country, attend parties and functions surrounding every production, and more often than not see plays, operas, and musicals with friends for free. I'm not going to complain about that. I've been married to Kelsey Namara Shaw for four years next month. We met doing a GILBERT AND SULLIVAN tour nine years ago. I'm the luckiest man alive. Now she is a consultant for Partner Energy. She works in sustainability and green technology. Or as I always say to over simplify it, solar. She was a singer, so she gets it-all of it-the hours, the passion, the idiosyncrasies of singers, but she is also a savvy business-woman. She was a founding board member of POP and donated the bulk of our start up money in 2011. She's served on the board ever since and until very recently ran "front of house" for us. In addition, she's a very talented librettist and is constantly helping me when I get stuck on updated rewrites. She wrote lyrics for entire songs in THE MERRY WIDDER, THE MIKADO, and ABDUCTION. She's currently working on an updated version of TRIAL BY JURY. She and Brooke DeRosa, the composer of last season's THE MONKEY'S PAW, just had their first collaboration DOES NOT COMPUTE picked up by Cowtown Opera in Calgary, Alberta. Their original opera will be produced next month.

Do you have any interesting hobbies like cooking, painting, or reading?

I used to, but then I started an opera company. I used to brew beer, play golf, and go the gym every single day. All of that has gone by the way side. Now, I love watching television. I'm often on the computer working at the same time, but there is hardly a Netflix, Amazon, HBO, Showtime, or Starz series that I haven't watched. Kelsey and I also enjoy wine and wine tasting trips-something I try to work into every out-of-town gig I get.

Do you have a musical story or joke to tell us?

Of chorus I do.

POP's DON GIOVANNI can be seen at the Vortex, 2341 East Olympic Blvd in Los Angeles on April 13, 14, 20, 21, and 22.

More information is available at pacificoperaproject.com




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From This Author Maria Nockin

Maria Nockin attended Fordham University at Lincoln Center while studying voice, piano, and violin privately. For many years she taught English as a Second Language (read more...)

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  • BWW Interview: Director Josh Shaw of DON GIOVANNI at The Vortex
  • BWW Review: ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
  • BWW Review: THE BARBER OF SEVILLE at Granada Theatre
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