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Francesca Zambello’s Show Boat: An American Classic at Home in San Francisco

May 19, 2014

Francesca ZambelloSan Francisco Opera’s June season promises a wealth of thematic riches, offering three works that explore and consider issues of prejudice and discrimination. The tragedies of La traviata and Madama Butterfly, which confront the harms of societal bigotry and imperialistic attitudes, are well matched in both emotional depth and sympathetic characters by Show Boat, the great American work by composer Jerome Kern and lyricists Oscar Hammerstein II and P.G. Wodehouse. Like Traviata and Butterfly, Show Boat is based on source material that is rich in character, social complexity, and historical drama.

The story, based on the novel by Edna Ferber, confronts the impact on individuals of the laws against interracial marriage. Broadway audiences welcomed the show in 1927, accepting for the first time black and white actors sharing the stage in serious dramatic scenes and delighting in the show’s memorable melodies and the lavish production by Florenz Ziegfeld. The show was such a hit that it was revived as early as 1932, and many times since. But it is none other than S.F. Opera General Director David Gockley who can take a good deal of credit for demonstrating that modern opera houses “command the resources necessary to give a grand work like Show Boat its artistic due,” as he remarks. His 1982 production for Houston Grand Opera, which toured the U.S. and even went to Broadway, was eventually an acclaimed recording, the first one of the show in its entirety as heard by audiences in 1927.

It’s a sign of his deep affection for the piece that he chose for its director his longtime collaborator the directing megastar Francesca Zambello. Currently the general and artistic director of Glimmerglass Opera and the artistic director of Washington National Opera, Zambello made time to return to the company she has enjoyed working with since 1983 to direct the work she calls “sprawling” and “powerful.” Our discussion began with some of her early theatrical inspirations.

You lived abroad growing up. Which stories fascinated you most?

I went to part of junior high and high school in Paris, and I think I was lucky to see a lot of things at the Paris Opera and a lot of French experimental theater. A lot of it, I don’t think I even understood what I was seeing. And the museums made a huge impact on me. That’s where I spent most of my weekends. Of course, I was lucky to see some seminal things like Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth; those things made a huge impact on me.

You knew you were a director very early, making puppet theaters under the piano as a kid. Have you had any insights of late about why you’re drawn to that directorial role?

I think it’s just always been that desire for story telling. It’s like a hunger. You want to interpret and tell stories. And for me that’s really it. I don’t think it’s any great revelation. You just have a passion. And if you have a burning passion, you’ve got to follow it.

You fell in love with the music of opera during college. Was there one in particular?

I think the Italian repertory. I didn’t come to love Wagner until later. I discovered Wagner in my 20s. When I directed my first Wagner, which was Tannhäuser at the Danish National Opera, I was about 29 and there was no looking back then. I was an addict!

Your first big job in the states was Beethoven’s Fidelio at Houston, which you set in a banana republic because of contemporary events in Central America. Can you comment on the practice of directors resetting operas in different eras and countries, and Regietheater in general. When does it work and when does it not work?

I think for every individual audience member it’s to their individual taste when it works. This has been a discussion that’s been going on now for 30 years. Someone like [Walter] Felsenstein in Germany and the great Ruth Berghaus, these are people who had a great impression on me. People have to realize that opera was always a visual as well as aural art form. There are a hundred operas that we do a lot — really, 20 that we do a lot. And if we kept doing them the exact same way, they would get stale. The same way that we want to hear different singers in those same 20 operas. It’s the kind of thing where you always get that question in the Q&A: “Why?” And it’s so simple. We accept that Picasso painted a blue guitar and there’s no such thing as a blue guitar.

Is there one idea that you think Wagner’s Ring cycle is “about,” that you would want people leaving a production of the Ring thinking about or feeling differently about than when they walked in?

The most important thing is really the rebirth of the world through Brünnhilde, and I hope people took away from it the peril of the destruction of nature. Then, of course, I love it more than anything that the hero is a woman. [From] the Ring you take away so many things and so many themes, so I feel to summarize it in a sentence like that is a bit bold.

You’ve said that the most important thing you learned from [director] Jean-Pierre Ponelle was “if you don’t make sure the show is right in a small room, it will never be right in a big space, on a big stage.”

Oh God, that’s so true.

How do you manage to do that when companies sometimes are on very tight schedules, with singers flying in late in the game at times?

The heroine, Magnolia, is going through a huge change and evolution, and watching her change is a parallel to watching America change.

I guess I’m fortunate. I’m not in those situations now. I’m not interested in doing things if people aren’t there to rehearse. At this point I generally know the people I’m working with and if I don’t, I try to meet them beforehand. And now I’m in a different position: I’m running a company, and so I spend a lot of time thinking about the casting and get the input from the directors I hire and the conductors. The more time you spend up front, the better it’s going to be.

You were helped in the beginning by the National Opera Institute, which doesn’t exist anymore. What are your thoughts about funding and the financial difficulties that many opera companies in the U.S. are facing?

Of course, you’re calling me in Germany, which is having its own problems now but has certainly had a much greater tradition of government support. I think it’s a problem that America has always had that they don’t feel the need for support of the arts. They don’t recognize the connection that a civilized society will have less violence and less crime, and a more-educated population makes for a better world by far. Of course, opera is not going to cure cancer but it is going to make people’s lives better and make people better citizens.

I think that the place of the arts in America, because it’s slowly been eroded away, is part of the problem of our society, and what makes our society pretty screwed up in a lot of ways. It’s not just art, it’s education, it’s the things that people feel are “expendable.” So I don’t know where the funding is going to come from. We’re very grateful to the generous patrons who help us. And the patronage comes from the few, and we’re trying to do opera in our own little way in our own little world, and it’s very tricky. I don’t think it’s only about going out and getting a new audience. I think part of it is attracting new audiences and children. I’m very committed to doing programming for families and kids, but part of it, too, is “let’s work hard to help the people who are older, who actually have some free time now.”

I love working on this piece because it makes everyone understand their past, understand America today, think about history.

One of the quotes I like from you is “The director has to create a world that the story can live in.” Can you talk a little bit about the world you’re creating for Show Boat here in San Francisco?

With Show Boat it’s vastly difficult, because it’s multiple times, multiple locations, and it’s a genre that’s in flux. You’re in a world of naturalism. It’s not like opera when you’re often in a much more suggestive or stylized world. You’ve got to flow seamlessly from a riverboat to Chicago to a monastery, all sorts of locations. And you’re also going over a 25-year time [span], so you have to convey that through the characters and the visuals. The biggest thing is really the change of America at that time, the end of the Civil War, though this starts later, maybe 1890. But from then until the First World War this is a country in rapid change, so you’ve got to convey that. And the heroine, Magnolia, is going through a huge change and evolution, and watching her change is a parallel to watching America change.

What do you think are the other parallels to today from this story?

The issues of race are so prevalent for us. What is better? And is it better? Discrimination is a big part of our world that we’re certainly not past on many levels, and so I think those themes, the themes of a single mother, those are still issues for a lot of people.

Anything else you’d like to share about the production or about your relationship with San Francisco Opera, which seems to be a thriving collaboration?

Opera is not going to cure cancer but it is going to make people’s lives better and make people better citizens.

About the production, the scale of it: Edna Ferber wrote a great novel, which I definitely recommend reading. It’s a sprawling musical with opera, operetta, vaudeville, comedy; it takes a tapestry of performers, just like a tapestry of America. And the score calls for an African-American society and a Caucasian society. So you really have two choruses, two groups of dancers, two groups of actors, and it’s fascinating having that because you understand history. You have to rehearse a lot of the scenes with all the African Americans or all the white performers, so you come to understand segregation, in a way. I love working on this piece because it makes everyone understand their past, understand America today, think about history. It’s so powerful and the music is so spectacular and the elements of dance, different kinds of dance, weave their way through this piece. I can’t say enough. I’m a real advocate of this work.

It’s not just trying to keep opera going. It’s about keeping live theater going, because that experience can’t be replicated in any other situation.

And my relationship with San Francisco, I’m very grateful to David [Gockley] for the opportunities I’ve had there. That Fidelio you mentioned: He ran the Houston Grand Opera at the time he hired me, and I think his dedication to American artists, and of course international artists, and contemporary musical pieces like this, is truly remarkable. When you talk about funding, sometimes you have to go against the obvious and choose the bolder path. I’m grateful to be part of his administration there. And I’ve certainly learned a lot from him, running my own companies now.

Ever call him up to discuss things?

Oh God, yeah. Last week I had a very difficult decision to make about some things for Washington that I’m going to be announcing quite soon. I usually send him an email and say, “I need an advice conversation.” He’s very generous with his time to many people. He’s obviously been a huge force in opera in America. Everybody forgets that opera in America is not that old. Musicals are not that old, and I think of them as our opera. The popularity of them is like what Puccini and Verdi did. And it’s never going to be like that again because of TV and the Internet. But like I said, it’s not just trying to keep opera going. It’s about keeping live theater going, because that experience can’t be replicated in any other situation.

Lisa Houston is a soprano and writer from Berkeley. This season she will sing Beethoven’s “Ah Perfido!” with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra.