The Art of Staging Opera – A Conversation with José Maria Condemi Part 2

This post continues a conversation that began with The Art of Staging Opera – A Conversation with José Maria Condemi Part 1.


Wm: The San Francisco Opera, among other companies, has on several occasions given you the task of reviving an older production, such as Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of Bizet’s “Carmen” or their current production of Puccini’s “Tosca”.  Do you find it more challenging to re-stage an older production than to create a new one?

JMC: The challenges are different. New productions are about concept, the teamwork with designers, dealing with budgets (or cuts to budgets), etc. Revivals are about how to create exciting storytelling even with pre-existing scenery or, often, with shorter rehearsal periods.

Some revivals can still be thrilling, even decades after its original presentation. If the production was solid and strong from the start, then it’s usually easier to remount it.

Other productions, which were not strong to begin with remain weak no matter what. But I’ve been lucky to get to work on iconic revivals such as Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of Verdi’s “Falstaff”, which is still exciting and fresh.

Sir David McVicar’s productions of our current day, like those of Ponnelle’s from the past, have something very powerful and true about them and they stand the test of time.

Wm: McVicar is able to make sure his works are mounted by himself or his assistants, but Ponnelle’s productions that still exist (why any were destroyed is another discussion) are sometimes staged in ways that I don’t think mesh with the original production. On the other hand, you have shown, in restaging, as an example, Ponnelle’s “Carmen” that you can add details not in the original production that enhance the story that Ponnelle and Bizet were telling.

JMC: It is always a balancing act between honoring the original director’s intention while keeping it fresh for the audience that is seeing it today. I do try to add details or even change things but always with an eye for the integrity of the overall concept.

But you have to keep in mind that sometimes I have to work with sets and costumes that are older than myself (for example, the production of “Tosca” that I have directed for Seattle Opera and Florida Grand Opera recently). However, even in those cases, with the right cast and if the presenting company allows proper rehearsal time and attention to details is served, they can still be a thrilling theatrical experience.

Wm: A revival obviously can still require a lot of work. Are there differences in approach to a revival and a new production?

JMC: Typically, new productions come with more resources and a generous allocation of time for rehearsals, perhaps up to six weeks. The added time allows for a director to really work with the singers on creating storytelling that goes beyond the surface of the story of the opera.

Revivals can be, sometimes, shortchanged when it come to rehearsal time or even technical rehearsals.

Wm: Let’s talk about the San Francisco Opera “Tosca”.

JMC: There is something about the painterly work used in San Francisco Opera’s “Tosca” sets that I think is still interesting to see, even in current days when projections seem to be quickly replacing the craft of stage painting. But I am also excited about doing a brand new production of “Tosca” for Cincinnati Opera next Summer, designed by the wonderful Robert Perdziola, which will be traditional in its approach, but not with “museum dusty”.

Wm: You were responsible for staging both San Francisco Opera’s 2012 and 2014 revivals of the “Tosca” production. There were some notable events in both years. In 2012, Angela Gheorghiu withdrew from the opening performance at the end of the first act and was transported to the hospital. Melody Moore sang the final two acts, although Gheorghiu performed in all the remaining performances for which she was committed. Is there a story there?

JMC: Nothing more than exactly what you described. Ms Gheorghiu became physically very ill at the end of Act I and could not continue beyond. Luckily, the wonderful Melody Moore had sat in rehearsals and was able to step in and take over the second and third act. It was both a nerve-racking and thrilling night for all involved.  

[Below: Tosca (Melody Moore, above) has just killed Scarpia (Roberto Frontali) in a 2012 San Francisco Opera performance of Puccini’s “Tosca” directed by José Maria Condemi; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Wm: You had another artist withdraw only a few days before the opening of the 2014 “Tosca” revival and Lianna Haroutounian made her San Francisco Opera debut in the role, even though she had never sung it before. I assume that was quite a situation.

JMC: I absolutely loved working with Lianna and you are correct she had not sung the role before. But her professionalism and consummate integrity as an artist made for one of the most enjoyable times for me ever. I can only hope to work with Ms Haroutounian again.

Wm: You all pulled it off, and it was one of highlights of the Fall 2014 season.

JMC: Before the 2014 “Tosca”, I had had the pleasure of working with Patricia Racette. a fascinating artist of uncompromising integrity to her craft. Ms Haroutounian belongs in the same level and, even with limited rehearsal time and not having done the role before, she rose to the occasion marvelously and also brought her fellow cast members to her high standards. I was thrilled for her success.

Wm: As a stage director, what do you look for in an artist with whom you will be working?

JMC: I like to work with artists who are intellectually curious, are willing to dig deep into their souls to reveal the complexity of the human condition and have a hunger for storytelling.

I get extremely bored and often frustrated when a singer has decided that his or her character should only be played one way or who does not show curiosity or willingness to entertain alternative approaches, dimensions and nuances.

This is why I love working with young or early-career singers, as they tend to remain curious and open to inquiry.

Last year, I directed the “La Boheme for Families” performances for the San Francisco Opera, with the younger cast. We spent a lot of time talking about the opera, the characters and the situations. One day one of the singers said to me, “I find it interesting that Mimi makes a clear point of telling Rodolfo her real name, but that he does not do the same”. That type of insight and curious inquiry is precisely what I look for in any artist of any level.

Wm: You’ve subsequently returned to staging Previn’s “Streetcar Named Desire” in Louisville and Santa Barbara. Are there other contemporary works that you are planning?

[Below: Conductor Joseph Mechavich (left) and Stage Director José Maria Condemi on the sets of the 2015 Kentucky Opera production of Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]


JMC: I will be doing a new production of Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” at Indiana University later this year and possible revivals of my production of “Frida”. I love working with living composers and to be able to interact with them in rehearsals and ask questions.

A few years ago, I created a new production of Catan’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” and I was thrilled to have the chance to meet and work with Daniel Catan. Unfortunately, he passed away only a few months before our rehearsals started.

Wm: Our first interview took place during your staging of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” for the Seattle Opera. You recently directed the same title for the Cincinnati Opera. How have your thoughts on this Romantic Era opera evolved as you return to it after a period of years?

JMC: I always enjoy the challenge of staging “Trovatore” – an opera known for its convoluted story, which demands dramatic cohesion and clarity. The cast in Cincinnati was terrific and included three our of four principals doing role debuts, so there was a lot of time spent in rehearsals discussing characters, dramatic situations, and our personal relationship with the themes of the opera: revenge, matriarchal mandates, mental illness, the pull of blood, karmic cycles, etc.

[Below: Azucena (Jamie Barton, front center) tells her story in Jose Maria Condemi’s 2015 Cincinnati Opera staging of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”; edited image, based on a Philip Groshong photograph for the Cincinnati Opera.]


I always strive to stage a “mid-Verdi” piece like “Trovatore” the way I like to think the composer would have wanted it done, knowing how his stagecraft developed in the later years of his career.

Wm: Your appointment as Director of Opera for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music has been announced. What will be your role there, and do you expect it to tie into other operatic activities in the Bay Area?

 JMC: My overarching function will be to develop the training program and oversee its artistic output. I will also be teaching classes, directing production and spearheading a number of collaborative ventures with other local arts organizations. I am thrilled to be joining the faculty at SFCM during the dynamic leadership of President David Stull.

Wm: In Summer 2013, you had responsibility of staging a revival of Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” at the San Francisco Opera in which Philippe Sly, the person cast as Guglielmo, was performing his first important mainstage role for an internationally ranked opera company. As a director (and a person, like Sly, who was an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera), did you feel a special responsibility to assure that his debut was successful? Do you look forward to staging an opera with a talented newcomer, but one who has little experience in “big company” mainstage work?

JMC: I had actually worked with Philippe prior to “Cosi fan Tutte”, when he played a role in the world premiere of “The Secret Garden”, a San Francisco Opera commission that I directed. So I was very aware of Philippe’s exceeding talent as a young singer and had no doubt that he would make a terrific mainstage debut as Guglielmo.

[Below: Philippe Sly, right, is Archibald Craven and Sarah Shafer, left, is Mary Lennox in the 2013 San Francisco Opera performances directed by José Maria Condemi at Zellerbach Hall of Gasser’s “The Secret Garden”; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


I was glad to have the opportunity to guide him and support him on such an important event in his career and I thoroughly enjoyed the process.

Wm: It is now clear that the investment in opera company Young Artist’s programs over the past half-century has paid dividends, with many current opera stars owing their success to this early experience.

You are still one of the only persons to have learned the craft of stage direction in a Young Artist’s program. Would you recommend that there be a much larger investment in training young artists in such “non-singing” auxiliary roles as stage direction, opera conducting and perhaps even projection design?

JMC: Absolutely! I would not be where I am in my career if it hadn’t been for the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and San Francisco Opera’s Merola program and all of the opportunities that I was afforded not only to train and learn my craft, but, most importantly, to be able to make mistakes in a safe and supportive setting. I would love to see more opportunities for young stage directors, conductors and designers.

Wm: Thank you, José  Maria.

JMC: Thank you William. Always a pleasure catching up with you!