The Art of Staging Opera – A Conversation with José Maria Condemi Part 1

The following conversation began in the administrative offices of the San Francisco Opera, whose facilitation of this conversation is deeply appreciated.


[Below: Opera stage director José Maria Condemi; resized image of a publicity photograph from]


Wm: When I interviewed you five years ago [Rising Stars: An Interview with Stage Director José Maria Condemi], I did not ask my usual questions on the influences on you that led to you becoming an operatic stage director. Let’s start this conversation discussing those influences.

JMC: I get asked that question often. I wish I had a “my life led me to my career” answer but certainly there was never a plan to follow this or that step so as to become an opera stage director.

Wm: Then let’s go back to the beginning in Argentina, and to your earliest involvement with music?

JMC: I come from an Italian background. My grandparents moved from Italy to Argentina and my parents are first generation Argentinians. It was a very typical Italian upbringing when it came to food and popular culture, but there was no opera.

My mother kept me busy from an early age and, when I turned five, I was sent to piano lessons, which I took for more than ten years. In my early teens, I delved into painting, dance and later into theater. So I had a strong connection with classical music, visual arts and theater, but not necessarily with opera.

When it came time to choose a career, as it is often the case in Italian-South American families, I was expected to become either a physician or a lawyer. So I finished secondary school at age 17, moved out of the sleepy country town where I grew up and started medical school at the University of Buenos Aires.

There were no introductory pre-med courses, so in my very first class I had to dissect a cadaver. This proved a bit too much of a jump, from growing up in a very provincial small-town setting to being a “grown up” university student in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires barely out of my teens.

I very much enjoyed the scientific aspects of medical school, and even today, I am quite interested in science. But, at that time, I was not prepared for the human requirements of the job.

During the first three years in medical school I mostly dealt with books and theory, so I did very well. But on my fourth year we started going out into the community and doing actual work with patients, particularly in underprivileged neighborhoods. I vividly remember a particular day in which I had to vaccinate some babies. All my science education and the hours with books and anatomical specimens did not serve me well that day. I was simply not prepared or mature enough for the actual job.

Wm: I understand why you never became a family doc in Argentina’s rural interior, but don’t yet understand how you came to be an opera director.

JMC: Leaving medical school was a bit of an act of rebellion against my upbringing and the “plan” I was expected to follow. I wanted to do something radically different, but I had no idea what that would be about.

[Below: Stanley Kowalski (Thomas Gunther, left) confronts Blanche DuBois (Julie Adams, right), in José Maria Condemi’s 2014 staging of Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” for San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program; resized image of a Kristen Loken photograph for the Merola Program.]


And one day Opera came to my life: I was walking down a street in Buenos Aires and heard a recording of Bizet’s “Carmen” being played at a record store. (It was the Agnes Baltsa/ Jose Carreras one.)

Even though I had probably heard the music before, on this particular day something struck me and I paid closer attention. I became fascinated by the visceral power of hearing that music.

Up to that day, I had never seen a full opera on the stage and I didn’t even own a single opera recording. Yet that “Carmen” had such a powerful effect on me that, six months later, I was spending a lot of time listening to opera, buying records and further immersing myself in the art form as a listener and dilettante, all while I was still a full time medical student.

Wm: How did you make the transition from medicine to music?

JMC: This happened slowly over the course of about one year. The famed Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires was functioning at prime level and they had a training branch called the Teatro Colon Institute.

[Below: José Maria Condemi, right, rehearses a scene with Eurydice (Davinia Rodríguez, left) and Orphée (William Burden, center) in the 2012 Seattle Opera production of Gluck’s “Orphée et Eurydice; resized image of an Alan Alabastro photograph for the Seattle Opera.]

Staging rehearsal for Seattle Opera production of Orpheus & Eurydice.


It came to my attention that they had a four-week course Summer course introducing one to the process of becoming an opera stage director (or Regisseur”; we use the French denomination back home).

Without knowing much about it, I decided to take the course and what had become a small passion quickly turned into an obsession and later a career.

I quit medical school and informed my family I was going to sign up for a three year undergraduate program in opera direction at the Colon Institute.

My family was not precisely receptive to my sudden career move and they announced that they would not support me financially.

However, in Argentina all school fees are waived and I was able to support myself teaching music in schools (finally all those many years of piano lessons were paying off.)

After graduating from the Teatro Colon Institute, I tried to make a living as an opera stage director, but with only one professional opera company in Argentina at that time, I knew my chances would be severely limited.

Through my grandparents, I had been able to become an Italian citizen and, with a brand new European passport, I started to plot a move to Europe.

In the process of doing research for the move, I came across and advertisement in Opera News for the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music (CCM), and their Artist Diploma in Opera Directing.

My plan to move to Europe started to shift and I started looking at schools in the USA. I learned that, besides Cincinnati Conservatory, there were two other schools – Indiana University and University of Florida in Tallahassee that offered a degree in opera directing.

Wm: What did you decide to do?

JMC: I applied to both Cincinnati and Indiana University. I made it to the short list in Cincinnati and came for a series of interviews and auditions. I was blown away by the facilities and opportunities that CCM would provide me.

It is an amazing school and since it only accepted one director a year, the opportunities for training and practical work were too good to pass. In the end, I was accepted into the Artist Diploma track and was offered a full scholarship ride and a paid assistantship. So I packed up my life in Buenos Aires and moved to Cincinnati with two suitcases.

Wm: How did the Cincinnati program influence your career?

JMC: Both of my main teachers were British: Malcolm Fraser, who was the founder of the Buxton Festival, and Jonathan Eaton. These two teachers were simply extraordinary. I owe them both a huge deal of any success I enjoy today.

[Below: British opera director Malcolm Fraser; resized image of a publicity photograph, from the Buxton Festival.]


Mr Fraser passed away a few years ago and I sorely miss his presence in my life. Early in my first year at CCM, Professor Fisher told me that if I was intent in remaining in the USA after graduating, then he suggested I consider switching from the Artist Diploma track to a full Master of Fine Arts degree, which would offer a more rounded academic education.

And so I took his advice and transferred to the MFA program.

He said to me that if you are doing a career in United States, having a music degree is more useful than the degree I was pursuing. He suggested that I stay another year and do a thesis.

I stayed an extra year at CCM writing a thesis and taking very interesting classes in dramaturgy, script analysis, etc. I was also able to train in both the Opera and Theater schools, working with opera singers, but also actors.

My thesis project in opera was a full production of Poulenc’s “Les mamelles de Terésias”, supplemented by an academic paper on the Surrealism movement around its creation.

My main project in the Theater track was a play by Caryl Churchill called Mad Forest, about the Rumanian Revolution.

Wm: How did you move from academic music to a professional career?

JMC: It was by chance. I was finishing up coursework at CCM, but I had to secure a professional internship, which was a requirement for graduation. While researching options, I came across another Opera News advertisement for the apprentice stage director position in the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program.

I applied and I was invited to “audition” for the program. I had to discuss a number of opera scenes and explain what conceptual approach I may take and how I would stage them.

The interview went well, but, knowing I was only one of more than two dozen applicants, I was certain I would not be chosen. Three days later, my cellphone rang and I was invited me to join Merola. I participated in the program in the Summer of 1999 and then I was invited for a second time in the Summer of 2000.

Wm: What did you do as an apprentice director in the Merola program?

JMC: I assisted renowned stage directors such as Lotfi Mansouri, directed the Merola Grand Finale, attended master classes, took language lessons and just soaked it all up. It was a thrilling Summer and many of my fellow “Merolini” have gone to very successful careers.

Wm: And the Merola program success paid dividends for you!

JMC: During my second Merola summer, I was told that the Opera Center had considered adding a stage director to their roster of Adler Fellows, their full-time resident artists program.

They asked me if I would be interested and, of course, I jumped at the incredible chance. I became the first (and so far only) Adler Fellow Stage Director, a position I held for two years.

It was also an exciting time, because my second year as an Adler Fellow coincided with the arrival of the new San Francisco Opera General Director, Pamela Rosenberg, so I got to work on some really interesting mainstage shows (Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova”, Messiaen’s “Saint Francois d’Assise”, etc.)

Wm: Are there other productions that you have done that you regard as particularly special?

JMC: Yes, there are a number. The new production of Gluck’s “Orphée et Eurydice” that you saw at the Seattle Opera, is one of them [See William Burden Triumphs in Gluck’s “Orphee et Eurydice” – Seattle Opera, February 29, 2012]. I had created a concept for that opera for a small production I did for West Bay Opera in Palo Alto.

Several years later, I was able to revisit the same concept in a full new production at Seattle Opera with a much larger budget. It remains one of my favorite productions that I’ve done.

Another one I am proud of is my staging of Osvaldo Golijov’s “Ainadamar” at Cincinnati Opera, included most of the original cast (Dawn Upshaw, Kelly O’Connor, Jessica Rivera)

[Below: Dawn Upshaw in José Maria Condemi’s 2009 Cincinnati Opera production of Golijov’s “Ainadamar”; resized image of a production photograph for the Cincinnati Opera.]


I also enjoyed doing the new production of Verdi’s “Ernani” for Lyric Opera of Chicago that you reviewed [Licitra, Radvanovsky Gleam in Lyric Opera’s Glorious New “Ernani”: Chicago, November 5, 2009].

Most recently, my new production of Robert Xavier Rodriguez’ “Frida” at Michigan Opera Theater has a special place in my heart. And I thoroughly enjoyed the production of Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” that I did for Merola last Summer.

Part Two of this Conversaton follows soon.