Collaborating With Your Director: It’s Your Job, Too!
by Jacob Feldman
Opera is approaching a crucial junction. Consumers of performance art are more frequently eschewing theater in favor of more immediate media, TV and Film in particular. In response, producers and directors are eager to recapture these audiences by rethinking standard approaches to theater. Opera directors in particular often look to do something new simply to be different, hoping to stand out from 400 years of standard practice. To do so draws focus away from what is most vital and visceral about performing arts: to produce performances auditory and visual, whether realistic or representational, that communicate a lucid and cohesive story to an actively engaged audience.
This doesn’t mean that novel concepts are inherently ineffective. However, at every turn the opera director must remember that intricate sets and lavish details, or abstract re-settings and fresh perspectives, should only be employed for the sake of accentuating the drama. We have all been moved by Aida at the Met, by its grandiose sets and visual impact. The most transformative theater for me, though, has often been found in more intimate settings. A stripped-down stage and basic costuming requires that the dramatic energy come from the cast, and it is this vitality that makes a simply presented piece of theater as compelling as any Broadway spectacular.
The relationship between director and performer is a complex one. Under the best of circumstances it is a partnership through which great theater is created. Opera is at its core a theater art, and we must treat the drama as paramount. It is a director’s responsibility to ensure that the message to be conveyed is not lost among the trappings of operatic convention and the apathy of repetition and tradition. The sets, lights, costumes, all serve to enhance the stage action. Even the music itself is innately dramatic and was written with dramamtic purose. Young opera performers too often become overwhelmed by the technically demanding task of producing “sound.” When this happens, the drama, the theater, and the energy of performance get pushed aside, stage direction becomes an issue of traffic control, and principals and chorus move around a massive stage in ways that facilitate singing and music but often ignore the natural flow of the drama.
My goal as an opera director is to nurture the marriage of what some believe to be exclusive objectives: to produce beautiful, lyrical singing and to communicate clear, cogent intention through text. To join these seemingly incongruous necessities, I demand an attention be paid to words, to intention, to theater in its most basic and vital form: communication. With young singers in particular I have the opportunity to integrate this focus into their default approach to performance and to encourage them to think critically about their own understanding of effective communication. This can and should at appropriate times be achieved on a number of paths: interactive character work, discussions of objectives, or text analysis.
As I began my career as a singer, too often I would see directors and singers alike being satisfied with cursory dramatic investment. The assumption was often made that most singers were not either interested in or capable of growing. As thorough as pre-preparation with teachers and coaches is, a cohesive piece of theater can only be realized through detailed and concerted effort on the part of the stage director and his cast.
Having said this, directing opera is inherently different from directing other forms of theater. We perform extant pieces, laden with decades (and sometimes centuries) of performance tradition. We don’t have the luxury of weeks of rehearsal and hours of exploratory work. These restraints limit a director’s ability to mold the work entirely. The desire then to simply “block” the opera must be resisted. A director must focus his efforts on solidifying the objectives and motivations of the characters and letting those objectives determine where and when the actors move.
For lack of a more descriptive phrase, opera is weird. Singing, repetition of text, and other operatic norms impede realism. Even in “Verismo” operas, there are obstacles to realism. Through analysis of what the text means (not just its vernacular translation) and how the text informs the drama and paces the emotional content of a character and a scene, a director can inject realism into what is inherently an abstract performance art. It is too easy to say “this aria is a sad one, because I miss the person I love, therefore I will sing it sadly.” This makes for a monochromatic delivery, and we all know that love is anything but monochromatic. My preferred remedy is this: Take a phrase of text and choose the one word that in the context of the opera that best informs the meaning of its phrase when that word is stresses. If the choice of that one word is unclear, try many words and see which one makes the most sense. Remember: there is no “right” answer. Take Nemorino’s second aria: “una furtiva lagrima negl’occhi suoi spunto.” Whether the tear is secretive (furtiva), the tear is in her eye (suoi), or the tear is forming (spunto) can dramatically affect the impulses underlying Nemorino’s pursuit and subsequent rejection of Adina. Emphasizing the tear’s furtiveness, Nemorino confides his unwavering interest in Adina; stressing that it is her eye could reveal that Nemorino too has been crying; indicating that the tear is newly forming suggests Nemorino’s growing understanding of Adina’s feelings. As staging progresses, exploring this sort of emphatic choice within the text affords director and actor insight into the motivational aspects of a character’s dramatic arc.
This to me is the most important exercise through which a director can create visceral and meaningful theater. Repeat performances bring new revelations, and the realities of staging and the interaction with costars alter some of the particulars. However, immersing yourself in the drama of text will prepare you for any and every eventuality. These are the tools of every “straight” actor; even the most successful film and stage actors continue to explore characters in these ways, yet they are mostly ignored by opera singers. These same methods must be employed with opera as well if the realism of the stage action is to be accepted. This is the responsibility I assume as a director: to elicit from the singer the most fundamental aspects of compelling theater and in doing so we keep our art form legitimate and relevant.
Tenor Jacob Feldman has been repeatedly praised for his superb stage presence, musical sensitivity, and compelling characterizations. Jake recently appeared as Fayvl (Frederic) in the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene‘s off-Broadway production of Di Yam Gazlonim, a Yiddish adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance, which was nominated for Best Revival of a Musical by the Drama Desk Awards. The New York Times calledGazlonim “… bright, brisk and funny.” Other recent performances include Pedrillo (Die Entfürung aus dem Serail) with Chesapeake Concert Opera and Pedrillo (Die Entfürung aus dem Serail) and Mime (Das Rheingold) with Liederkranz Opera Theater.
As a stage director, Jake’s production of Madame Butterfly with Opera Company of the Highlands received great acclaim. The Times-Herald Record called it “splendidly sung and acted” and remarked: “Particularly enhancing for the action and setting was [the] lighting design with its sky-blues and ruby sunsets” Other directing credits include Rigoletto with Opera Company of the Highlands, Romeo et Juliette with Chesapeake Concert Opera, Hänsel and Gretel with Opera Company of the Highlands, Don Giovanni with Amsterdam Concert Opera, and Il barbiere di Siviglia for Opera Theater of Lakeland (assistant). Upcoming, Jake will direct Don Giovanni for Chesapeake Chamber Opera.
A well-accomplished character and comprimario singer, Jake has appeared frequently with Opera New Jersey (Monostatos in Die Zauberflöte, Dr Caius in Falstaff and Gherrardo in the Double Bill of Gianni Schicchi/Buoso’s Ghost, Albert in Albert Herring), Liederkranz Opera Theater (Pedrillo in Die Entfürung aus dem Serail, Barbarino in Alessandro Stradella, Dr. Blind in Die Fledermaus, St. Brioche in The Merry Widow,Charlie/Family in Mahagonny Songspiel/The Seven Deadly Sins, Vasek in The Bartered Bride, and both Phillipe and Alexander in Romberg’s The New Moon), and Opera Company of the Highlands (Beppe in Pagliacci,Kaspar in Amahl and the Night Visitors). Jake has also appeared as Monastatos in Die Zauberflöte withHarrisburg Opera, Aeneas in Dido and Aeneas with Empire Opera, Sergeant in Il Barbiere di Siviglia withOpera Theater of Lakeland, various characters in a double bill of the Stephen Paulus operas The Three Hermits and Hester Prynne at Death (world stage premiere) at The Quick Center for the Arts at St. Bonaventure Univeristy, Adam in John Eaton’s Youth, Scaramuccio in Ariadne auf Naxos with Ensemble du Monde at Merkin Hall and with The Orford Arts Festival. Jake made his European debut in August of 2006 as Bardolfo in Falstaff at the Festival Lyrique-en-Mer in Belle-Ile-en-Mer, France.
Jake spent the summer of 2002 at Seagle Music Colony, where he performed Pirelli in Sweeney Todd and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. He also appeared at the Natchez Opera Festival that spring, as Beppe in a cover performance of Pagliacci and as répétiteur for Seymour Barab’s The Toy Shop. In addition, Jake has been seen at Opera Mississauga in Toronto (Remendado in Carmen), Summer Opera Lyric Theater of Toronto (Bardolfo in Falstaff) and College Light Opera Company in Cape Cod, MA (various roles including Nanki-Poo in Mikado).
Jake received a Bachelor of Music Degree with High Distinction in 2001 from McGill University, having begun a degree in Biology before concentrating solely on music. His performance experience at McGill included Don Basilio in Le Nozze di Figaro and Spalanzani and Frantz in Les Contes d’Hoffmann with Opera McGill, Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors with McGill Player’s Theater, and Jack Point in The Yeomen of the Guardwith The McGill Savoy Society. He also served as vocal coach and répétiteur at the McGill Savoy Society forThe Mikado, HMS Pinafore, and Iolanthe. Jake resides in Woodside, Queens and currently studies with former Metropolitan Opera Baritone Mark Oswald.