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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Master Director

Stage Directions Dept.: We checked in with Jonathan Miller with pieces from 1989 and 1997; here’s my report of his July master class at the Glimmerglass Festival.


“THE PERFORMING ARTS, LITERATURE, the visual arts—these are what draw our attention to aspects of our lives that we otherwise wouldn’t notice,” says Jonathan Miller, who celebrated the uniquely human ability to suspend belief during a master class in directing that he presented at the Glimmerglass Festival on July 25.

Jonathan Miller with Students at Glimmerglass.
Miller won the world’s attention as part of the 1960 satirical revue Beyond the Fringe. By 1970 he was directing Shakespeare at London’s National Theatre and began directing an acclaimed series of opera productions a few years later. Is he known at all as a comedian? I asked him during an earlier Glimmerglass visit.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s only the older people who’d know anything about Beyond the Fringe, and I don’t have anything to do with them.”

He made his Glimmerglass debut with La Traviata in 1989 and has returned several times to Cooperstown to helm more productions. La Traviata is one of his favorites, both in terms of its story—“It’s based on one of the greatest novels ever written”—and Verdi’s setting, which he finds so true to its time and place that he’d never presume to set a production of it elsewhere.

His master class featured, appropriately, a Traviata selection—the third act, in which a dying Violetta (Jacqueline Echols) tries to rally when her estranged lover, Alfredo (Marc D. Cammarota) returns.

“I’m trained as a physician,” Miller explained, “and a person in this condition would not be able to get out of bed.” Thus he challenged Echols to play the scene almost entirely recumbent. He toned down many a typical operatic gesture, asking Cammarota, for example, to enter more slowly, “and sing a little bit away from her. Don’t be so rapturously affectionate. You are profoundly disconcerted by what you see.” He even showed Matthew Scollin, as Dr. Grenvil, the correct (and rather dispassionate) way to take someone’s pulse.

As the Violetta-Alfredo encounter replayed with Miller’s suggestions, it gained surprising power from its new-found intimacy, making a tug-at-the-tear-ducts scene even more compelling.

“It’s the minuscule details of behavior that remind you what dying is like,” he offered. “You have to make the audience believe in what’s going on.”

And he made the excellent point that it’s absurd for an audience to burst into applause mid-scene. “Allow yourself be moved by what she has just sung, and not applaud what she has just sung,” he said after Echols broke our hearts with “Addio, del passato.” “The tiny details are what bring to life an opera that otherwise becomes a series of applaudable songs. This piece should move you to tears.”

Which he then demonstrated with tears of his own—and he wasn’t kidding!

Metroland Magazine, 14 August 2014

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