Interview: Tara Branham of TOSCA at Opera San José Shines a New Light on the Operatic Canon

Branham makes her Opera San José mainstage directing debut with the Puccini classic running April 15 to 30

By: Apr. 12, 2023
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Interview: Tara Branham of TOSCA at Opera San José Shines a New Light on the Operatic Canon
Director Tara Branham
(photo courtesy of Opera San Jose)

Director Tara Branham is more than ready for the big stage. After serving for three years as a Resident Artist at Opera San José, where she has assistant directed numerous productions and helmed its much-lauded virtual production of Jake Heggie's Three Decembers, she is capping off her tenure there by directing OSJ's mainstage production of Puccini's Tosca. Branham of course is well aware that it's the kind of evergreen audiences will come to with certain expectations, and she intends to meet them even as she hopes to make the production equally entrancing for first-time operagoers. In fact, Branham herself is a relative newbie to the artform. She was already in the midst of a thriving career as a theatre and film/TV director when a chance meeting with an opera singer set her on a new path less than a decade ago. Thus, she is able to bring a fresh eye to the canon precisely because, as she puts it, she hasn't already "seen Tosca a million times."

I spoke with Branham by phone earlier this week just a few days prior to opening night. We talked about how she found her way to the world of opera, her vision for this production of Tosca, the various mentors she's so grateful to have learned from, and her hopes to shed new light on the opera canon while still delivering all the thrills and chills that longtime fans expect. In conversation, she's funny, approachable and very articulate, with the natural confidence of someone who's smart enough to know what she doesn't know. Among other things, I got a kick out of how she respectfully challenged a couple of my questions. After Tosca, Branham will immediately head to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis to direct her first Cosi Fan Tutte, so it's clear her career is on a roll. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You've been Resident Director with Opera San José for almost three years now, but isn't Chicago your home base?

Yeah. My husband and my apartment are in Chicago and we have been living there since the summer of '08, but when my residency began with OSJ, I started spending anywhere from 7 to 10 months out of the year in San Jose. I actually started here about 4 years ago, when I came to assistant direct Madama Butterfly, which Maria Natale, our Tosca was also in, playing Butterfly, and then I continued with the company for a few more shows as the assistant director. In January of 2020, [former OSJ General Director] Khori Dastoor offered me the residency, with an opportunity to potentially renew for up to three years

It was the first opportunity for a Resident Director they had ever given, so it was very flattering and I of course said yes. Then in March of 2020, the world changed, and we weren't sure what the residency would look like, if it was necessary, anything like that. Around May or June they invited me to come and direct Three Decembers, which was the first digital opera that Opera San José had done. I had a background in college of digital media and film and television production, and also in theatrical production and theatrical directing, so I was kind of uniquely suited to help Khori create, really, a New Medium that would provide her audiences with something that they couldn't get in the theatre and they wouldn't normally get in a movie.

Tosca performances start in just a few days. Are you feeling ready? For that matter, do you ever feel ready?

There is a quote that a painting is never finished, it just comes to a resting point. I would say that my work in general is something that is built up in layers, so Tosca will continue to grow after I leave. The performers know the story that they're telling and it's going to be beautiful and exciting if you come to the first show, and then it will gain even more depth and layering and nuance if you come to the last show. So Tosca is more than ready to open, but I can't wait to see how it progresses.

Interview: Tara Branham of TOSCA at Opera San José Shines a New Light on the Operatic Canon
Kidon Choi as Scarpia & Maria Natale as the title character
in Tosca at Opera San José
(photo by Kevin Berne)

Tosca is obviously one of the cornerstones of the repertory. What was your very first exposure to it?

Shortly before Khori offered me the residency, I was looking at the top ten produced operas per year because I knew that I wanted to work not only on new opera, but also opera that had been done time and time again. I knew that somebody would need me to specialize in a Puccini, and Tosca was the third-most produced opera at the time, with over 5,000 performances in a year. And so my first exposure to Tosca was as a conceptual idea.

And then when Khori and I spoke in January of 2020, she said, "You know, if you end up doing three years of the residency, we can probably have you do a restaging of something - I don't know, maybe like Tosca." So that is really when I started watching Tosca, performance after performance that I could find on the internet. Patricia Racette has been one of my mentors, so watching her Tosca, watching the Maria Callas Tosca - my Toscas were all digital for a while.

And then my first Tosca I ever saw in real life was [current OSJ General Director & CEO] Shawna Lucey's at San Francisco Opera, so it's very full circle. Her Tosca was stunning and beautiful, and I couldn't have had a better first exposure to it in live performance.

What is your vision for this production? What will your Tosca be like?

My Tosca aims to complicate the idea of heroes and monsters. I see the possibility of these characters being very black and white - Tosca is very loving, Cavaradossi is very heroic, Scarpia is very evil - and in [Susan Vandiver Nicassio's book] Tosca's Rome, the author mentions that when she saw Tosca for the first time, I think in the 50s, that was very much how it was played.

Yeah, the various productions I've seen have generally been played that way. I think I've even seen Scarpia receive ironic boos at the curtain call as the singer all but twirled his mustache.

Yeah, and so just from a core values standpoint, I don't actually believe that heroes and monsters exist. I believe that people exist, and sometimes when they are trying to make their lives better, and the lives of those around them better, and their country better, they do heroic and monstrous things. But they are trying to do something they think is for the best.

So if I approach Tosca from that perspective, how do I find what they think they're doing? And can I complicate it so that every single character when they walk onstage, you're putting yourself in their shoes and you understand how you might come to make those decisions? For me what that does is increase our compassion for humanity.

How do you plan to make the dynamic between Scarpia, Cavaradossi and Tosca relevant in these days of Me Too?

Hmmm...[pauses] Can you ask that question in a different way?

Let me rephrase. When Tosca chooses to offer herself up to Scarpia, how do you see her in that moment?

I think Tosca faces an impossible decision, whether to sacrifice herself or to sacrifice the love of her life. And because of who she is, her upbringing, her religion and her core values, she is choosing to sacrifice herself. When she sees the knife, she realizes that there is a third option, and she chooses it. That is how I see it.

In terms of Me Too, I think that ... [hesitates]

What I was trying to get at was how do you make it not just yet another example of a woman sacrificing herself because of men behaving badly?

How do I make it not that - is that the question?


I think my counteroffer would be why do I need to make it not that? I think we make choices based on the circumstances we find ourselves in. And just because what happens with Tosca we now recognize as something that happens again and again and again throughout history doesn't make it any less relevant. Unfortunately, it starts to make it universal.

I think acknowledging the complexity of that choice, and acknowledging the fear and terror and desperation, and then also consequently the bravery and generosity and love that leads to that choice, that's what I'm interested in seeing. I'm interested in seeing people make impossible choices.

That's interesting to me. I'm almost never a fan of productions that take something like Tosca which has been around for over a hundred years now and try to completely reinvent it to make it feel "current," rather than explore what's already there and really get to the heart of that. But maybe that's just me.

I think as a director and an artist, my goal is to look at a piece of art and decide what light I want to cast on it. But I'm not changing the sculpture - I'm changing your view on it. That's my goal.

When did you first get an inkling that you might want to become an opera director? I mean, it's not the easiest job in the world to pursue.

[laughs] I was taking an acting class in Chicago based in the Meisner Technique and there was a woman who I saw first on the bus to the class and I was like "Who is this woman? She's stunning and she feels like an artist. She's gotta be goin' to where I'm goin' to." She and I became incredibly good friends, but my first question to her was like "Why are you here? Why are you taking this class?" And she's like "Well, I'm an opera singer, and I want to get better at acting." And I very naively, but also kind of rudely said, "They don't make opera singers act!" [laughs] And I had never seen an opera in my life, let's be clear about that. I was coming from a place of ignorance.

She looked at me and she's like "Well, I'm trying to change that." I was properly and gently put in my place, which was good. And then the first opera that I ever saw was at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and it was Elektra with Christine Goerke. The subscriber that I sat next to was like "Oh, this is a terrible opera for your first one. You're gonna hate it! It's so strange." [laughs] That was the production that had Clytemnestra as like bald and her gang was in BDSM gear and blood poured out through the stairs. Christine Goerke was amazing, and I didn't hate it. I just didn't know if it was for me yet.

It would take me a couple more operas watching to see if it was a world I wanted to play in and exist in. I saw the Ernest Bloch Macbeth directed by Andreas Mitisek at Chicago Opera Theater, and it was strange. I don't know that I agreed with every choice Andreas had made, but I knew he was making very large and exciting choices, so I reached out to Chicago Opera Theater and Andreas and I had a 25-minute meeting. He was like "Can you read music?" and I'm like "Yeah, I played the violin for 12 years, and I sang." And he's like "You're a theatre director, so you understand the human condition and acting and how to get people motivated from an acting perspective?" And I'm like "Yeah, that's my whole job." And he was like "Great. You can be my assistant."

I had no concept of where I was or anything. My first show was Mozart's Lucio Silla, and it was like being thrown in the deep end of the pond. I have been very, very fortunate to find people accidentally who are amazing in their craft and groundbreaking in their own way. The second opera I worked on was La Voix Humaine, with Patricia Racette in a role debut. I can't overstate how watching Patricia Racette, who is a tremendous actor, rip through that made me realize that this is what I can expect and this is where I can live. So that was I think when my commitment to working on opera, in addition to working in theatre still, really solidified. And that brought me to Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which brought me to OSJ.

I'd like to circle back to OSJ's virtual production of Three Decembers that you directed. When I think back on those two and a half years where we could largely only experience performance online, that was one of my favorite things I saw during that whole period.

Thank you so much! We worked really hard on it.

I interviewed two of the performers, Maya Kherani and Efraín Solís, right after it had been filmed, and both said it was a completely new experience for them. What was that like for you as a director? Any trepidations about directing a big star like Susan Graham?

Again, it was being thrown into the deep end of the pond. I had worked adjacent to Susan Graham, because Jim Robinson had directed her at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, so I reached out to Jim and said, "Please tell me about working with this person so that I can support her." And you know he gave me the advice that he could, and that was wonderful.

And then Flying Moose Productions was the company that we worked with, and they really believed in my vision and wanted to make that come to life. They definitely went above and beyond, as did the company, to listen very closely to the experience that I wanted to provide for our audience. I often say that I am here as the arbiter of the audience; I am your audience of one. And when we are thinking filmically that becomes even more extreme because if I can't see it or if the camera doesn't see it, it doesn't exist.

I was literally moving in rehearsals so that they could get an idea of what I'm looking at and where I'm looking. I would sometimes sit right next to them while they're singing, so that they would know they were in closeup and shouldn't move out of camera. I would set up pictures of cameras on music stands, and I'd be like "Here are your three cameras in this moment. If you're not in front of one of them, or if you don't look at them, they will not see you." Constantly bringing it back to what is seen, what is captured, I think really helped them get an idea that they were going from an audience of you know 3,000 to an audience of one.

Yeah, when I spoke with them just after the filming had been completed, they both said it had been a huge learning curve for them. It was just not in their wheelhouse to sing to a camera instead of a large opera house.

Yeah, and by standing literally right next to them or moving all over the set, I'm sure I drove people crazy, but I think it was worth it. [laughs] And I knew that the piece is heartrending, and I was fortunate to work with Maya and Efraín and Susan who were already tremendous actors, so then we just had to get them used to the scale. We became very clear on the story we were telling, and then it was all about playing to the scale that we wanted to play to.

And Flying Moose helped me make sure that I was mapping out where I was sitting so that they could then set up the cameras to capture there. Which was great, and it really truly was a hybrid between film, television and opera.

Your process really paid off because what came across ultimately to the viewers, what made it so moving, was the depth of the relationships between the characters.

Yes. And so that was the next step. In an opera that I work on, we will always start with "What is the story we are telling? What are our relationships to each other? And what is our awareness to those people onstage?" Because if we start there, they get to fill in the blanks. I don't have to give them everything. I give them major beats and moments, and then they get to explore beyond that, because everyone in the room has seen or experienced or participated in thousands of hours of rehearsal and thousands of hours of watching. We are all experts in America at storytelling because of how much television and movies we watch; we can't even help ourselves. So if I give them the tools, they will fill in the blanks. And I think it resulted in a really rich production.

Since you're soon coming to the end of your time as Resident Director with OSJ, when you think back to who you were as an artist when you started three years ago and who you are now, what's the biggest difference you see in yourself?

Hmm... I think three years ago I was a theatre director who was working in opera, and now I have had the tremendous experience of being a theatre director who was working in opera who became an opera director working in film and television to now an opera director directing an opera. So when people ask me what I do, I am simply a director. I am a person who tells stories and enables people to tell that story to a given audience, using a particular medium. And I'm confident that I can do that in any medium that's placed in front of me. So that's a huge difference.

You've had the benefit of coming up at a time when women directors, music directors and general managers are thankfully no longer such a rarity in the opera world. What has it been like to have them as mentors?

One of the reasons I came here was to work under Khori. And then to get to work under Shawna as well has been so wonderful. I have been incredibly fortunate to find several very strong women mentors in opera. That began with Patricia Racette, continued with Khori Dastoor and now with Shawna Lucey. And I haven't lost Patricia or Khori. If I need them, I reach out. Shawna the other day in the middle of one of our tech rehearsals came to me and she's like "OK, here's a secret to make this moment work. Here is what your audience who has seen Tosca a million times is gonna be craving."

She's able to provide these insights that I quite literally don't have because I have been in opera less than a decade. I have seen two live productions of Tosca, not 50, right? And so what I am benefiting from in my mentorship from Shawna and Khori and Patricia is this wealth of knowledge about the industry. So I am able to have this sort of new perspective of an audience member who is maybe new to opera or trying out opera for the first time, because often that's my feeling. And then because of this mentorship, I am able to also have the blend of what will the people who grew up with opera, who have been listening to opera since they were six, who have seen hundreds of performances, who've seen every production at Opera San José, what are going to be their feelings?

They share those insights with me, and it complicates my experience of the opera and has made me understand my role as a director and the stewardship that I have to the audience. I understand that, yes, I am here for a new audience member, but I am also here for the audience member who loves this piece because it's been imprinted on their soul. I want to serve all of that audience, and their mentorship has allowed me to do that.

Do you know yet what's up next for you after you leave Opera San José?

Well, what is immediately coming is that I am going to be flying to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis where another mentor of mine, [Artistic Director] Jim Robinson, has given me the opportunity to direct a new staging of Cosi Fan Tutte. It is going to be such a huge and exciting opportunity piggybacking right after this huge and exciting opportunity, and I feel so gifted and blessed. I look around and I'm like "Whose life is this?!" [laughs]

But being a freelance director, we don't know what's coming next, so after that I'm gonna do a cross-country road trip, and then I'm in talks for two projects next year, and we will see what happens with those. My goal is to keep directing, and then assisting on canon, because I am still building up that knowledge. [For instance] I have never worked on a Rigoletto, I don't know the ins and outs of that piece, and it is useful to me to assistant direct a piece or to see it a lot prior to directing it.

One of the reasons why I came to OSJ was to learn canon, because my background was new work. I love new work, but I'm discovering that ... what did you say earlier? Not everybody has to make it about something new? I challenge that. I think everything is always new. [laughs] So every production, every moment, why here, why now, why this moment, is always so relevant to my process.

That is what I'm seeking to do with the canon, and we'll see if I can do that and then honor everything that people who have been watching Tosca and watching Cosi and who have been watching those warhorses for 70 years remember and love. That's worth keeping, in my opinion.

I said to Maestro Marcheso "Tosca's a masterpiece, Joe. Please don't let me mess it up!" [laughs] And he just looked at me and was like "You're not gonna mess it up." And I was filled with gratitude in that moment.


Opera San José's production of Tosca will be sung in Italian, with English and Spanish supertitles, with performances from April 15-30, 2023 at the California Theatre, 345 South First Street, San Jose. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit or call (408) 437-4450.


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