Interview: Elkhanah Pulitzer of DIDO AND AENEAS at Opera San José Sees Opportunities for Renewal and Rejuvenation in the Pain of Tragedy

The Baroque Masterpiece Marks Opera San José's First In-Person Production in More Than a Year

By: Nov. 05, 2021
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Interview: Elkhanah Pulitzer of DIDO AND AENEAS at Opera San José Sees Opportunities for Renewal and Rejuvenation in the Pain of Tragedy
Director Elkhanah Pulitzer
(Photo by Kristen Loken/Courtesy Cadenza Artists)

Opera San José is continuing to pave the way for change and diversity in the world of classical music with its all-women helmed director team for its 2021-22 season. Following on Fenlon Lamb's acclaimed virtual production of Rimsky-Korsakov's Mozart and Salieri, Elkhanah Pulitzer directs a new production of Henry Purcell's Baroque masterpiece Dido and Aeneas, the company's first in-person production in over 18 months. Known for its soaring arias, the opera tells the story of Dido, the Queen of Carthage who, having foresworn romantic love, is tormented by the Trojan hero, Aeneas. As their love is kindled, a powerful sorcerer plots the queen's downfall. Through deceit and trickery, Dido is torn from Aeneas, culminating in one of opera's greatest tragedies. Sung in English, with English supertitles, Dido and Aeneas will be performed November 13 - 28, 2021 at the California Theatre in San José. In accordance with current city and county mandates, proof of full vaccination will be required to attend. For more information and a complete performance schedule, visit operasj.org.

Lauded for her exploration of the intersection between music and theater through innovation and hybridized forms, director Elkhanah Pulitzer has forged quite an impressive career in opera and theater. Recent projects include David Lang's premiere of prisoner of state at the New York Philharmonic and the live tour of Esperanza Spalding's album 12 Little Spells. She has also directed projects for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center, San Francisco Symphony, and Los Angeles Opera, among others. Theater directing credits include work with Impact Theatre, Cutting Ball and Ensemble Theatre Company.

I caught up with Pulitzer last week by phone from her home base in El Cerrito. In conversation, she enthusiastically shares her deep knowledge of classical arts and mythology combined with a passion to find the emotional underpinnings that connect them to our present-day world. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Dido and Aeneas premiered way back in 1689. What is it about this opera that still resonates for you today?

Well, a whole bunch of things. I think that great storytelling carries with it the DNA of what it means to be a human being. Great art holds up a mirror to life and also teaches us how to be better human beings and gives us a map hopefully for that. And it reassures us when we are feeling alone, or in isolation, about suffering or joy. Dido does all of those things, in terms of being a tragedy and being about a whole series of circumstances that lead to her tragic end as queen. I feel like the pain of that loss, and the factors that go into it, are things that are timeless, because it's about the human heart and what happens when it breaks. That feels like it's beyond any specific era, or genre of music.

And I think storywise, it's really a potent way of us all sharing. My hope is to offer a sense of renewal and rejuvenation out of the pain and loss of the tragedy, to be able to come together and lament with Dido, as an audience, and also to hopefully find some solace and comfort in that process. That's really the goal of the whole thing.

What was your jumping-off point as a director?

As a female director right now at this moment in history, there's a lot of debate around presenting stories of women who die, or in some ways are cast as mad or tragic and victimized or overly emotional. So it's been kind of an ongoing question and exploration for me, of why tell this story now, why engage with it? Beyond Dido being a queen, or a woman, she's a human being and human beings get their hearts broken, and sometimes it does end tragically, regardless of the politics of state. And so that to me was worth delving into.

And beyond that, as I started to get into the history of the narrative, obviously starting with The Aeneid, but then looking at other representations and narratives written about Dido as a character through history. There are variants on some of the ambiguities that shroud her as a character, and I would say those ambiguities rest in whether or not she and Aeneas marry, or what really their union is, and that's of great debate, back to The Aeneid. There's actual source text to support interpretations on both sides of that, and the impact that has on the legitimacy of their union, in a political sense, and what that also means personally for Aeneas to depart.

So that's all pretty interesting and then there's also her difficult personal history, which has a lot of parallels to Aeneas. I mean, she was co-regent with her brother, her brother killed her husband and seized power, and she fled, taking some political advisors and wealth with her, and founded Carthage, having gone across the Mediterranean Sea and into modern-day Tunisia.

You're working with a terrific cast, including artists like Maya Kherani and Efraín Solís whom Opera San José audiences will be familiar with. What has it been like working with them?

It's been great. I got to do Threepenny Opera with Maya a few years ago, and Efraín I worked with on Hydrogen Jukebox, so it's been really great to be back in the room with them. Nikola Printz and Nate Stark I'd not worked with before, but it's a great cast and everyone's really into the whole idea of coming back into the rehearsal room. For many, this is really the first time [since COVID hit], so it's been a pretty incredible journey just in terms of navigating - you know, rehearsing with masks on, all that stuff.

You are enjoying quite a fascinating, wide-ranging career. Was it always your intention to take on so many different kinds of projects?

Mostly I just pursue stories that I feel I can connect with and try to animate from within the work. Each work has different needs depending on its own DNA, and I like that. I like the learning and the discoveries that come with each new subject and topic. And I wouldn't want to be pigeon-holed. I come from theater fundamentally as my background, so storytelling is primary. When opera's working it's the best form there is, cause it's all aspects firing at a top level to make something greater than the parts.

I also really enjoy discovering different eras of music through the work. I am currently enamored with how much Baroque is like improvisational jazz, and how the bass line essentially creates the bed but then what happens on top of that is improvisational. The fact that there are moments, dramaturgically like turning points in our story, that are based on improvisational guitar riffs, is pretty cool. I'm excited about how each musical form also offers a different journey.

There have been some really encouraging signs of opportunities opening up for women in leadership roles within the opera world recently - like Eun-Sun Kim as Music Director at San Francisco Opera and of course Opera San José's Khori Dastoor moving on to her new position as General Manager of Houston Grand Opera in January. While that's been great to see and long overdue, it feels to me like women still aren't quite being invited to play with the big boys at, say, the Met or Covent Garden or La Scala. Does it feel that way to you?

[pauses] I think that the intentions to make those shifts are underway, and I think when you have a really large organization, the facility to pivot takes a bit more concerted effort. So I think it is happening, and of course I would advocate for more. Any movement towards more diversity is a good thing for humanity, in terms of storytelling. I mean, look at Fire Shut Up in My Bones [at the Met]. That was obviously a ground-breaking, watershed moment, and it did not actually take that long for the Met to pivot to do that, in the grand scheme of things.

And I hear tell of a lot of up-and-coming events, at least in the United States, that are moving that needle. I look forward to the day when it's so second-nature to have more diverse people's voices at the table that it's not quite as much of a talking point, you know? But I don't know how long that could take, because we are how many years from women getting to vote in the United States - a little over a hundred? So yeah, some of these things will take a while.

Do you have any aspirations to direct at the Met or Covent Garden, or is that just not really a factor for you?

I think again it's the idea of working on projects that I feel passionate about, at any scale. Just the other day, I was talking with a friend about this. One of the things that dawned on me several years ago was if you're in a boardroom, it doesn't matter if it's in a garage and people are just sitting on folding chairs, versus at the top of a penthouse in New York with cut-glass crystal to pour water. What really matters is the people and the ideas. And my friend said, "It doesn't de facto mean that there's more competency or heart or ability in one of those boardrooms versus the other." Although there's certainly more resources [in the penthouse boardrooms].

And so, yes, I mean long and short answer is I definitely see a future where I am working on larger-scale stages and with more resources in them. Also, I still really love intimate works with one person or a chamber. Part of my background was with SF Opera. I did a two-year sort of prototyping experimental lab for them, SF Opera Lab, that was about doing chamber-scale work and testing out various ideas, just to see what might also scale up.

I think the hierarchical kind of narrative around the scale of opera has been shifting and will continue to. You see large organizations in collaboration doing opera works in different contexts that support what that story's scale needs to be. That's really interesting to see, because then it's no longer bigger is better at the end of the day. I always say in terms of my theater background that I've had some of the most potent experiences of my life sitting in a house of 200 or 300 people, and not necessarily 3,000, you know? But I've also had memorable, powerful moments in a larger space. It just really depends.

After Dido opens, what's up next for you?

I am in the middle of a few projects right now. I'm working on a podcast about the White Rose [anti-Nazi movement in World War II Germany], which was a group of students who flyered, and fundamentally were also artists and scientists. So it's really about the intersection of art and activism in the face of extreme situations. That's a piece that I've been working on for some time.

And there's a few others, but some of them haven't been announced yet, so... [laughs]

I understand. Usually by the time a "brand new" work is announced, the creators have been quietly working on it behind the scenes for years.

Exactly. And also with COVID, I think a lot of places are re-examining some of those traditional formats around identity of a season, and when does it have to be announced. I mean there's stability and reassurance in some of those familiar models, right? If they always announce you know, in January, or September, or whenever it is, that helps us all in trying to find out what's happening. But on the flip side, with the uncertainty and destabilization of the pandemic came some, you know, cracks that also offer room for questions around whether that is still the best method. On a lot of fronts, right? Kind of everything.



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