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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Francesca Zambello: Theater for Social Change

From the Fairly Recent Past Dept.: This interview with Glimmerglass Festival Artistic Director Francesa Zambello was written before the start of the 2012 season, when she still was fairly new in town; since then, she has made the place and its productions better and better. This summer, Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” will be featured, along with Puccini’s “La Bohème,” Verdi’s “Thieving Magpie,” and Robert Ward’s “The Crucible.” More info here.

SHE HAD WHAT COULD BE ARGUED was the best possible Metropolitan Opera directorial debut, with her 1992 production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” getting all but booed off the stage. Not only did Francesca Zambello’s stock as a director shoot way up, bringing a series of international engagements that has yet to slacken, but she also was invited back to the Met a decade later to helm what became a much-lauded production of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” – which she’s repeating at that opera house this fall.

Francesca Zambello | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Last summer, she took over artistic and general direction of Cooperstown’s Glimmerglass Opera and immediately dropped from its moniker the O-word. It’s now the Glimmerglass Festival, and part of it mission is to present a season that mixes all manner of musical theater, from outsized opera to vintage Broadway, while adhering to Zambello’s vision of the Festival’s mission.

“This season is about ideas for social change,” says Zambello. “I chose works that could inspire discussion about those issues, and we’ve scheduled events beyond the productions themselves that allow us further exploration of those themes.”

Although Meredith Willson’s perennial “The Music Man” might seem to resist such a theme, “It has a message about music and community and Main Street USA,” says Zambello. “Which we are. And Marcia Dodge, who is directing it, has updated it to World War Two to give more of a social message and a sense that it doesn’t feel locked in a particular time period.

“I also wanted to feature a Cooperstown native, Dwayne Croft, who’s playing Harold Hill.”

Last season’s successful “Annie Get Your Gun,” featuring Deborah Voigt, is another example of the kind of musical theater piece the Festival will feature. “We have to do musicals from before the age of the microphone because everything we do is about acoustic sound. Our Young Artists program incorporates a group of music theater performers, so it’s a balance of talent. And we’re a repertory company – so everybody’s got to do everything.”

“Lost in the Stars,” by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, premiered on Broadway in 1949 – but don’t call it a musical. “It had to open on Broadway,” Zambello explains, “because the color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera had yet to be broken – and wouldn’t be for another eight years, when Marian Anderson sang there. So it could not be in an opera house at that point in time. On Broadway, Menotti premiered ‘The Consul,’ Blitzstein premiered ‘Regina’ that year, ‘South Pacific’ opened with Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin – so there wasn’t this separation. So if one more person says to me, ‘It’s a musical!’ . . . No! This is what was going on historically.”

Based on the book Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, “Lost in the Stars” paints a poignant picture of apartheid-era South Africa, with clear cries for social change. Egypt’s ongoing “Arab Spring” revolution resonates with Verdi’s “Aida,” itself a view of love and slavery in Biblical times. Says Zambello, who will direct this production, “It was first performed at a theater our size, the Royal Opera House in Cairo, with 850 seats. We can present it from a different angle, which is that it’s an intimate opera, except for one very big scene. We’ve learned that many of our subscribers have ever seen ‘Aida’ live, and every year we do one standard opera.

“I wanted to think outside of the box. Why shouldn’t we present the great works, and the big works? If you lived in Germany, in a small town, your Stadttheater, your local town theater, would present ‘Aida’ or ‘Lohengrin’ with reduced forces. And, to answer people who ask where the elephants are, we’ll have two elephant sculptures on the lawn. I’m excited about it. I mean, I’m also nervous about how Aida is going to be here, because we don’t normally experience these works up close and intimate. But our mission is to try things.

Rounding out the summer is what many consider the masterpiece of Jean-Batiste Lully, his 1686 “Armide,” a co-production with Toronto’s Opera Atelier. “French Baroque operas are difficult to produce because dance is an equal partner with the music, so we’re fortunate to work with our partners over the border in Toronto. They have a company of 16 Baroque dancers – that’s a lot! This will be a sumptuous, ornate production – visually, musically, dramatically, and with a great cast. Unless people have seen William Christie’s work, they’ll never have seen anything like this.”

The Festival is also about its setting, alongside Otsego Lake a few miles north of Cooperstown. When I met Zambello last week, the lawns were being groomed, the noise of set-building issued from a warehouse-sized building near the auditorium, and the administrative office was a hive of clutter and busyness.

“It takes months of preparation – it doesn’t just come out of a suitcase, ready to go,” Zambello declares proudly. “We have almost 30 acres of beautiful property that is gorgeously maintained, and we’ve added new picnic areas overlooking the lake in addition to the regular picnic areas.”

Which leads to another of her passions: welcoming families to the Festival. “I’m anxious that we do pieces with kids. We had kids last year in several shows, and this year they’re in ‘Lost in the Stars’ and ‘Music Man.’ And when we announce our repertory for next year, we’ll be doing a piece that uses a lot of children, because part of my personal goal here is to do more for families and children, as well as getting more kids in shows.

“We have special pricing for kids: they can buy tickets for $10. There are certain days when adults can get good seats for $25. So you can get your whole family here for under a hundred dollars if you play your cards right, and you can picnic for free on the beautiful grounds. There are backstage tours, question-and-answer sessions, free previews – you can come to any of that and not even see a show, although I would be upset.”

The strategy is working, she notes. “‘Aida’ already has performances that are sold out, and I think that’s partly due to the deals we offered last year. For instance, if you had never been here before, you could buy a ticket for $25. I think those people are coming back. ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ brought a lot of new people, and ‘Music Man’ will do the same.”

While the emphasis on bringing in younger people is important, Zambello is also looking at ways to attract another demographic. “I believe we have to work very hard on people in their fifties and sixties who made a good living but who never went to the theater or the opera. There are a lot of those people out there, and I want to get to them. A lot of twenty-somethings could care less about what we’re doing. But a lot of fifty-somethings could get interested. People say, ‘Oh, the audience is aging,’ and I say, let’s go get them – they’re not doing anything else!”

Metroland Magazine, 31 May 2012

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