An Opera Discussion During the Pandemic Lockdown – A Conversation with Director Stephen Lawless

The following conversation is the follow-up to an in-person interview conducted in 2016 in Santa Fe. See: Opera as Drama: An Interview with Director Stephen Lawless.

Wm: Stephen, since our interview in Santa Fe, I’ve reviewed your new productions of Weber and Mozart operas at Virginia Opera in Norfolk and at the San Diego Opera, and revivals of your production of Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” at the San Francisco and Los Angeles Operas. I want to discuss each of these performances I reviewed. But first, I’d like to know where you are during this Covid-19 pandemic and how it is affecting your work.

[Director Stephen Lawless; edited image of a YouTube interview for the VIrginia Opera.]

SL: I arrived back in the UK on the 24th February after the premiere of “Roberto Devereux” in Los Angeles. I had meetings in England and Latvia before travelling to my house in Scotland where I have been ever since during the lockdown. My house is fairly remote and I don’t really see many people at the best of times, so the lockdown has not really impacted majorly on my life. It has however impacted on my professional life as the production of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” for the Grange Festival in the UK I was about to start rehearsing has been delayed until next year.

I wait to see whether the revival of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d”Amore” in Seattle and the new production of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” in Riga will happen later in the year. Either way I think Covid-19 will make major differences to the operatic world as I’m certain international travel will never be as easy again.

It saddens me that young people will not have the ease of access to foreign companies (opera has always been an international affair – it’s one of the things I most admire about it) that I have enjoyed throughout my 40-year career whilst recognising that that “ease of access” comes at a price environmentally.

Wm: On to the “Freischütz” – one of the operas that has a long performance tradition in Europe, but is almost totally absent in North America. I very much liked your creating a production that transferred the setting to rural Central New York around the turn of the 19th century, as an homage to the stories of New York author Washington Irving. See Review: Freischütz American Style – Virginia Opera’s Praiseworthy “Magic Marksman” – Norfolk, January 27, 2017. I found the work to be impressive, and the production one that helped the exposition of the opera’s complex storyline.

[Below: Jake Gardner as the ghostly Samiel appears in the otherworldly Wolf’s Glen in the 2016 Virginia Opera 2016 production of Weber’s “Der Freischütz”, renamed “The Magic Marksman”‘, edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]

SL: “Freischütz” is a problematic piece and I think it was laudably brave of Virginia Opera to produce it [and with such a great cast]. it’s utterly magnificent music yet remains dramaturgically  difficult. It has always held it’s own in the German and Austrian houses as the prime example of operatic “Sturm und Drang”…. the artistic precursor to the Romantic movement. But the mix of music and dialogue presents problems as does the “supernatural” plot.

[Below: a Virginia Opera (Norfolk) orchestral rehearsal for the Stephen Lawless production of Weber’s “Der Freischütz; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]

When Russell Allen offered the piece to me it was clear that we couldn’t perform it in German and had to find a different context to make it work for an American audience. Washington Irving and Carl Maria von Weber were roughly contemporary and Irving’s Sleepy Hollow and Weber’s Wolf’s Glen had a lot in common to me, so it seemed natural to set it in a German Immigrant community in the Eastern US roughly at the time of composition. It allowed us to perform in English but still stay true to the German original. I think our presentation solved a lot of problems with the piece, but I’m still not entirely convinced of it’s stage-worthiness.

Wm: I’m a strong proponent of American opera companies exploring such operas that have a worthy performance “history”. I have commended the adventuresome repertory of the Sarasota (Florida) Opera that, in their 2019 and 2020 four-opera Winter Festivals mounted appealing productions of d’Albert’s “Tiefland” and Catalani’s “La Wally” and over an expanse of time have performed every one of Verdi’s operas. Are there operas (beyond the couple you identified in your previous interview as ones for which you want to create the productions) that you would recommend opera companies on this side of the pond consider?

SL: I think expanding the repertoire is really necessary, but I think this is no longer the climate in which to do that. There are many pieces that I would urge companies to do (Franchetti’s “Cristofero Colombo”, which I mentioned in our previous interview, is a piece I particularly love).

[Below: an illustration from the original published score of Franchetti’s “Cristofero Colombo”: edited image of an historical drawing.]

Wm: “Cristofero Colombo” was indeed performed by the Florida Grand Opera in 1992 with Justino Diaz and Carol Neblett, in celebration of the quincentennial of Columbus’ voyage, but it remains a rarity.

SL: I think the double whammy of the financial crisis of 2008 and now this pandemic will  effectively rule out any such adventures into the unknown in the future. Companies will perforce have to play safe by presenting  the standard small repertoire just so they can survive financially.

Wm: Speaking of a core repertory works, I reviewed your production of Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro”, which the San Diego Opera presented on the opening night of their 2018-29 season. See: Review: A Captivating “Marriage of Figaro” Opens San Diego Opera’s 54th Season – October 20, 2018. I was struck at how effectively you integrated the “sexual impropriety” themes that Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte highlighted with the revolutionary “overthrow the nobility” themes that Mozart’s contemporaries saw as inherent in the opera’s source material, Beaumarchais’ play. I found your images of the giant, sprawling Almaviva family tree, as well the line of doors opening into the Almaviva mansion, to be especially impressive.

[Below: Figaro (Evan Hughes) expresses some dangerously subversive thoughts about aristocratic privilege beneath the Almavivas noble family tree; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

SL: I think of “Figaro” fundamentally as “my” piece….. I have been working on it since the start of my career at Glyndebourne back in the seventies and have directed six new productions (with another new production – coronavirus permitting – next year in Germany) and countless revivals. In the past were anyone  to ask me what I thought were the greatest operas I would reply Verdi’s “Don Carlos”  or Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov”….. and exclude “Figaro” because it is (ostensibly) a comedy. But the fact that it is a comedy should place it at the top of that list.

[Below: Figaro (Evan Hughes, seated) and the Count Almaviva (John Moore, standing above and hovering) find themselves with very different thoughts about the privileges that the aristocratic count believes he should have regarding women subordinate to them; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Both Mozart and Da Ponte use irony and humour as weapons to highlight the absurdities of the artificial construct that is class and privilege. They then throw away those artificial constructs in the last Act when the Almaviva household leaves the confines of the house and under the cover of darkness revert to just being human. Leslie Travers (the designer) and I wanted to illustrate the literal weight of tradition and privilege that Figaro had to fight against so we came up with the idea of a family tree that gradually erodes alongside the Count’s power. The combination of “sex” and “power” is not just a contemporary issue…. it has always been with us. As Mozart and Da Ponte knew, it’s always been great box-office!

Wm: Next, I reviewed performances at the San Francisco Opera and Los Angeles Opera that revived your production of Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux”. The San Francisco performances brought immense pleasure, In fact, even though I gave strongly favorable reviews of the production and casts at The Dallas Opera in 2009 and at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. I reviewed the San Francisco revival twice: Review: World’s Best Ever “Roberto Devereux” Performance: Radvanovsky, Thomas, Barton, Frizza – San Francisco Opera, September 8, 2018 and Review: A Second Look at San Francisco Opera’s Superb “Roberto Devereux” – September 23, 2018.

Conducted by Donizetti specialist Maestro Ricardo Frizza, with a cast including Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta and Richard Thomas as Devereux, I don’t believe there has ever been a more successful run of performances in the opera’s eighteen decades of existence as occurred in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.

[Below: Roberto Devereux (Russell Thomas, seated, left) and Sara, Diuchess of Nottingham (Jamie Barton, seated right) discuss what they mean to each other; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

SL: “Roberto Devereux” has always been a revelation to me. When I was first offered the three operas that make up  Donizetti’s “Tudor Trilogy” by The Dallas Opera, “Devereux” was the one I didn’t know at all. But it has become my favourite out of the three. I remember hearing the overture for the first time (with its use of “God Save the Queen”) and knowing that this one was for me.

I have been fortunate in that for the majority of the revivals of it I have had the extraordinary Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta (and saddened that she has now given up the role as her voice is changing). And very lucky that Jamie Barton and Russell Thomas were in it in San Francisco. I hadn’t done a production in San Francisco for 30 years so was very pleased to be back there under such great circumstances and with such a great opera and a piece of work that I am very proud of.

Wm: The Los Angeles Opera performance was very interesting, even if its outcome was very different from what was originally planned. You and I had met in San Diego before your “Figaro” and you had indicated that it was to be the vehicle for Placido Domingo’s role debut in the baritone role of Nottingham.

By the time of opening night, Domingo and two other cast principals had withdrawn for various reasons. Only tenor Ramon Vargas remained of the originally announced principals.

[Below: Ramon Vargas in the title role of the Los Angeles Opera’s Stephen Lawless production of Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Soprano Angela Meade took over the role of Queen Elizabeth I at the last moment, without an opportunity to learn the production’s complex staging. Meade sang it from stage right while the production’s choreographer, Nicola Bowie, acted the role. I could tell when you appeared at the curtain calls, you were very pleased at the success of Bowie’s performance.

SL: Los Angeles was a different experience due to the fact that we lost three members of the cast, including the Elisabetta at the last moment. My old friend and colleague Nicola Bowie was absolutely extraordinary miming the role. It’s a very difficult thing to do. (I’ve had to “walk” a role in public when someone became ill when i was starting out and it’s not easy). Nicky’s choices were absolutely in keeping with the production and I was not only grateful for her saving the show but awestruck at the quality of her performance. Brava!

Wm: Before we leave the subject of “Roberto Devereux”, we have previously discussed my articles and reviews suggesting that in the 21 century we are in the “second stage” of a Donizetti revival – the first stage being interest in his vocal writing, particularly for the female voice.

I regard “Devereux” as an excellent example of the inherent dramatic power of the “double aria” – e.g.., a cavatina followed later in the scene by the two verses of a cabaletta with a stretta between the two verses. There was more than a century of expressions of critical distaste for what operatic authorities regarded as artifices for operatic song-birds. But I have argued that Donizetti appropriated the operatic “conventions” of Rossini’s day, combining them with such innovations as heroic tenors singing from the chest and using operatic libretti based on Romantic Era drama and literature. The results can be spectacular in a dramatically coherent staging, particularly one that incorporates the energies of the cabaletta verses into the stage action.

SL: Donizetti is one of my opera heroes. I agree with you that for decades he was viewed as nothing more than a composer who wrote banal music for divas, the antithesis to Wagnerian Music drama that was the  dramatic orthodoxy of the day. But he is – in my opinion – in his own way as great a composer. “Roberto Devereux” reveals a master operatic composer at the height of his powers.

[Below: Gaetano Donizetti, as painted by Giuseppe Rillosi, in 1848, the year of Donizetti’s death.]

Donizetti’s dramas are full of both subtlety and sophistication and as you say he shakes up and radicalises the form that he inherited from Rossini. He uses wit and irony in serious subjects to create fully rounded characters and uses “darkness” in comedies to give them greater depth and interest. You asked me earlier about rarely performed operas I would like to direct. One would be Donizetti’s “Linda di Chamonix” where this blurring of the lines between comic and serious is almost absurdist. This is not just casual but deliberate….. he knows what he wants to write.

I take your point that there have been two stages in the rehabilitation of Donizetti as a serious composer and agree that the first stage was the revival of interest in his operas after the Second World War because of the abundance of sopranos around that could do them both dramatic and vocal justice. I also agree that in this century he has come into his own because directors have discovered the richness of his dramaturgy.

But the two stages were not necessarily mutually exclusive. I remember seeing Joan Sutherland’s last performance of Lucia at Covent Garden and it was extraordinary not only vocally but dramatically as well. Here was a woman in her sixties (with bad knees which meant she couldn’t kneel), but was absolutely convincing in her portrayal of a 16-year old girl.

The juxtaposition of a woman in her sixties playing a girl in her teens was incredibly moving. She remembered what she had learnt from Zeffirelli thirty years before when the production (which effectively launched both of their careers) was new. We think of Zeffirelli now as a purveyor of costly empty spectacle but back then he was at the cutting edge as was Luchino Visconti and it would be wrong, in my opinion, to leave them and their productions out of the resurgence of interest in Donizetti and bel canto in general.

[Below: Joan Sutherland performs Lucia’s “mad scene” in the 1959 Royal Opera House Covent Garden’s Franco Zeffirelli production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor; resized image of an historical photograph for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.]

Wm: “Lucia di Lammermoor” is a special case, which always held, in some eras a bit more precariously, membership in the core operatic repertory. In the 1950s Maria Callas gave it a great boost, but Lily Pons and several others had been selling out houses in the role, before Callas became a household name among operaphiles. I had seen three of the superstar Lucias of the post-Callas 20th century – Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills – and had tickets to a performance of “Lucia di Lammermoor” starring Callas when she failed to show for San Francisco Opera’s opening night, thereby engendering a pre-agreed Callas lockout by the three major United States opera companies [Historical Performances: Callas Fired, An Opera Changed – San Francisco Opera’s “Aida” at San Diego’s Fox Theater, November 7, 1957 ]. I found Gencer’s and Sills’ dramatic performances to be superlative [Historical Performances: Leyla Gencer’s Stunning “Lucia” at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium – November 10, 1957] and Sutherland’s performance as Lucia to be affecting.

That said, “Lucia” performances of the latter half of the 20th century predominantly observed the “standard cuts”, including the omission of the dramatically effective scene between Enrico and Edgardo at the latter’s castle, and the earlier exchanges between Raimondo and Lucia, so that the opera’s story-line was focused on Lucia’s “mad scene” and the events leading up to it. For “uncut” versions one typically had to wait for “second stage” Donizetti productions.

SL: We’re basically in agreement on this.

Wm: Stephen, I appreciate this opportunity to catch up with you.

SL: Thanks