Long before he was born, Matthew Ozawa says there was a vital family connection with Beethoven’s Fidelio. His father was born in Wyoming’s Heart Mountain Relocation Camp, a grim, shameful place of persecution and oppression, reminiscent of the yearning for freedom in the opera’s prisoners chorus.
Still, Ozawa, who directs the San Francisco Opera’s next production of Fidelio, says that beyond all the historical-philosophical-emotional issues, his attention focuses on the music: “I come to opera as a musician, playing the clarinet for 14 years before shifting gears to directing. I always start with the score.”
Another personal connection to Fidelio is “otherness,” as Ozawa is aware of being somebody “I don’t see around, an Asian-American opera director,” son of a Japanese-American father and British-American mother.
In the heart of the opera, Ozawa sees how “humanity can overcome oppression and defeat tyranny, with a woman’s sacrifice, the liberation of prisoners.” He knows by heart the history of Fidelio, performed as an act of defiance, a hymn to liberty. The very first performance, in 1805, took place in Vienna, when the city was under French military occupation.
Ozawa lists performances under Toscanini in Salzburg in 1937 one year before the Third Reich began its subjugation of Europe Anschluss took over Austria; during the years World War II engulfed the world; and then in Soviet-occupied countries, the rare performances had a special meaning, but providing barely hidden celebrations after the death of Stalin — something I witnessed myself in Budapest.
Fidelio was the first opera performed in Berlin after the end of World War II, in the city’s only undamaged theater, the Theater des Westens, in September 1945. In 1948, conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler said before a performance in Salzburg:
“The conjugal love of Leonore appears, to the modern individual armed with realism and psychology, irremediably abstract and theoretical. Now that political events in Germany have restored to the concepts of human dignity and liberty their original significance, this is the opera which, thanks to the music of Beethoven, gives us comfort and courage.”
Ozawa sees in the opera’s arc from the prisoners’ chorus to the celebration of freedom in the finale “a symbol of hope,” intending to present the work “through a contemporary lens,” reflecting the perspective of the voiceless gaining the power to speak.
The new production’s physical setting — by Ozawa, set designer Alex Nichols, lighting designer JAX Messenger, costume designer Jessica Jahn — has been a matter of special interest to SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock, who quotes Ozawa’s intention “for the production to be a conversation starter around what change looks like around the world.
“He reminded us that Fidelio has been used throughout the last 200 years as a rallying cry in moments where society wants to reaffirm, celebrate, or shine a spotlight on the power of the human spirit to overcome oppression. As [Ozawa] says, humanity has the power to defeat tyranny by shining a light on injustice. He plans to explore this theme while staying true to the original spirit of the piece: avoiding a heavy-handed approach, he will use nuance, analogy, and cultural references that allow the story to speak to the greatest audience possible and have lasting power for the future.”
Shilvock describes the role of prison in this interpretation of Fidelio at the heart of the production, in “its approach to the system around the prison — the political, bureaucratic infrastructure that oversees and manages the prison.
“There is a striking dichotomy between the incredibly sterile ‘front office’ of the prison, the polished concrete floors, the warehouselike feel, and the reality of what happens in these facilities. And then the political structure that enables such facilities to exist and how politicians (in this case Pizarro and Fernando) engage with the facility.”
Eun Sun Kim will conduct performances on Oct. 14, 17, 20, 22, 26, 30; the cast includes Elza van den Heever (Leonore), Russell Thomas (Florestan), Greer Grimsley (Don Pizarro), James Creswell (Rocco), Soloman Howard (Don Fernando), Anne-Marie MacIntosh (Marzelline), and Christopher Oglesby (Jaquino).
Tickets are available by calling (415) 864-3330 or online. Audiences from anywhere in the world can livestream the Oct. 14, 17, 20 performances of Fidelio for $25. Tickets to go on sale soon at https://sfopera.com.