Looking for Love in the Director’s Chair: Operagasm Exclusive Valentine’s Day Interview with Kevin Newbury
Bringing you the Best of 2014! Celebrating 2014 and beyond!!!!
by Melissa Wimbish
Always looking for love on Valentine’s Day here at Operagasm, I found myself furiously blasting through my little black opera hunks book looking for a name that made my heart flutter this year …
Erwin Schrott! Hmmmm, I thought. Well, Anna did recently sing at the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. What if she hit the gym while in Sochi and built just enough bicep to beat my ass? … Maybe next year. Next page.
Noah Stewart!! BINGO! This girl (pointing to myself) never gets enough chocolate on Valentine’s Day. Totally dialing him nowwwwww — oh, damn, straight to voicemail. Pfff.
I say to myself, “After three years of sweet opera love on Valentine’s Day, maybe it’s finally over.” I head to the freezer for my backup plan: a Snicker’s ice cream bar and bottle of Veuve Clicquot (not a mini). Suddenly, a gust of wind from the freezer blasts the little black book from my hands. The pages begin flipping and I feel like this is about to turn into a scene from The Never Ending Story or something … Egad! Who is that sweet-faced, svelte Cherub with the sea foam eyes staring back at me? KEVIN NEWBURY! How did I miss that name before? Yes, yes, yes! Give me that hunky world-premiere director wrapped in a silky red anything!
Kevin Newbury: Hello?
Me: (slight delay because how can you hold a Snicker’s ice cream bar and not take at least one bite)
Me: I’m so great! How are you?
KN: Oh, I’m good – I miss you!
Me: I miss you, tooooooo! How is everything?
KN: It’s good! I’m back in New York for a little while so it’s nice to be here and, yeah it’s going really well.
Me: Are you snowed in? (Ugh, why am I already talking about the weather when I have Kevin motherfucking Newbury on the phone?)
KN: Uhh, yeah, I’ve been trying not to go outside at all, it’s pretty miserable.
Me: So cold…
Me: (heavy breathing)
KN: So, what did you want to talk about?
Me: I don’t know, I was kind of wondering that myself .. I guess stuff that singers want to know?
Me: Like .. what is it like being an opera director? Why is it so great? (Yeah, I just asked that, people. Don’t judge!)
KN: (laughs) Well, the thing about opera I really believe is that when it’s done well, it’s the best of all possible art forms. It brings in live music and good design and good acting and good story-telling and hopefully a real point of view. Opera can do what all of the art forms do combined. Of course, it’s not very good a lot of the time, but when it is good it can do what no other art form can.
Me: And how do you fit into that?
KN: As a director I see my role as guiding that whole ship. Recognizing the best idea in the room when I hear it is key — whether it comes from a singer or a designer or an artistic director or the conductor or myself, doesn’t matter. It’s all about creating a good atmosphere of collaboration so we can tell the story.
Me: Is it always your vision? For example, when you’re working with larger companies and you have to deal with the administrative team, donors, board members, etc. Does that input ever interfere with your intention?
KN: Not as much. Sometimes a company will say, “Well, we really liked this production of Anna Bolena, would you like to do Norma? We’re thinking of a similar timeless style as opposed to setting it in a 21st century boardroom …” So yes, sometimes they might reflect on how a production fits into the rest of their season, but I don’t usually have lot of limitations on the ideas I present. They may have a few thoughts and budget considerations, but it’s usually no more than that. When I first got started that wasn’t always the case, but now I have a lot more say. I mean, I’ll certainly talk to a company about what designers and cast members they might like to see … sometimes the cast is already in place, of course, but that’s another conversation.
Me: Well, let’s have that conversation.
KN: It’s the biggest difference between directing opera as opposed to theater and film.
Me: What is? (sorry, I was looking at that picture on his website and couldn’t stop thinking of how much he looks like Justin Timberlake)
KN: Casting. I always cast in theater and film, but in opera I don’t always have a lot of say in that process. Especially at some of the bigger companies. Now I will say, I’ve been really lucky getting to work with people like Joyce DiDonato and David Daniels, so of course that’s amazing … but sometimes the casting is not what I would say is my ideal physical type or level of acting capability. It’s a decided negative of directing opera. For. Sure. Here’s an extreme example: You go to a show and you have a very capable young artist that’s twenty-five and he’s playing the father to a mezzo who’s forty.
KN: Right? And then you’re dealing with fake beards and trying to get someone to act like they’re older and that in a visual culture — that is so frustrating! It doesn’t matter how talented he might be, he’s being put in an awkward position.
Also, some singers do not care about anything but singing. I love singers of all shapes, body types, ages … I don’t mind what you look like if you know how to carry it. If you’re sexy and doing a love scene, it doesn’t matter to me if you look like a fashion model, but if you don’t have any charisma…? You can’t teach somebody charisma. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your voice is. If you’re an amazing singer and that’s all you have, go do concerts.
KN: I shouldn’t say stuff like that.
Me: (Still laughing)
KN: It’s not about HD, it’s not about the closeups, it’s not about being gorgeous. It’s about being interesting and having presence.
Me: When you go out and see theater or opera as an audience member, do you pick up on any defining qualities in directing style? Would you say you have a style? Like when you hear a Hendrix solo and you know right away who it is…?
KN: That’s a good question.
Me: (Yeah, he wants me.)
KN: I feel like if you’re someone like Robert Wilson – who is amazing – that has a very distinct visual style, you know you’re at a Robert Wilson show when you see his work. And that’s not necessarily bad, I’m actually a huge fan of his, but I don’t know if someone would be able to say “that was a Kevin Newbury production” for the same reasons. I love ensemble-based storytelling which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a distinctive style.
I think the way that I move people in the space, the way that I direct a chorus, and the way that I direct scene changes and transitions has definitely helped me to discover or, maybe fall into a style in these past couple of years. I don’t think I knew right away what my style was because it’s all based on what I’ve seen, what I respond to, who I’ve learned from and worked with … So, I would like to think that you might say, “Oh, that’s a Kevin Newbury production” but not in the same way you would Robert Wilson or Ann Bogart or one of these more iconic directors that have that signature style.
Me: Having had such incredible success with Paul’s Case in DC and New York in a black box setting, can you talk more about that experience and what it means for the future of opera?
KN: Absolutely. So many companies want to have smaller stages or secondary spaces and I think it’s really an exciting time for opera. Audiences are craving that intimate connection and immediacy and this sort of setup can really showcase all sorts of opera. There’s nothing like a big orchestra and a big theater, but it shouldn’t overshadow those deeply intimate possibilities we have with smaller venues.
Me: This question comes from one of our readers: “You’ve directed several successful world-premieres in the past year including Doubt in Minnesota, Oscar in Santa Fe, and Paul’s Case in DC and New York. How is your approach different when you tackle a world-premiere as opposed to a classic like Mozart or Verdi?”
KN: Well, it’s very different because you’re telling the story for the first time .. so it’s not about putting your stamp on a classic. When you look at the canonical pieces like Boheme, Norma, Anna Bolena, Figaro — it’s sort of like doing Hamlet in that it’s been done so many times. You’ve got to do your homework in order to make sure you’re not inadvertently doing something that’s already been done. While there’s still a lot of creative freedom, it’s more about “what is Kevin Newbury’s production of (insert classic opera) going to look like?”. When your audience comes in to see Boheme they have very concrete ideas and they know she’s going to die. Unless you’re Cher in Moonstruck.
KN: Whereas a world-premiere is just about telling the story in the clearest way possible for the first time. Even if you’ve read the story it’s a total surprise how it’s going to come together. It’s an amazing opportunity — I LOVE working on world-premieres, they’re absolutely my favorite.
Me: What’s the closest you can get to that feeling with the more traditional repertoire?
KN: Bel canto. I love directing bel canto operas which is weird because a lot of directors hate it. There are so many beautiful interludes and great chorus moments that really heighten the action … and this constant vacillation between public and private space. I also love Janáček, Mozart, Strauss, and big beautiful scores that haven’t been done as much. Handel is great, though a lot of the pieces go on too long. I think most operas should be cut by thirty percent.
KN: No, seriously, I do.
Me: But, why? Even back then do you think they should have been cut? (As in, would you say that to Handel’s FACE?!)
KN: There was nothing to do back then, right? It’s not like they had TVs. They would want the opera to go on that long so they could stay out of the cold and inside listening to music. Also, people tended to leave their boxes and go have sex or have snacks, or maybe both. Nowadays, once you’re there you’re sitting for such a long time. I don’t always have the attention span.
Me: Speaking of bel canto … something exciting is brewing at Lyric Opera Chicago with your name on it?
KN: Yes, I’m directing Bel Canto — such a beautiful book and opera. Renée [Fleming] is involved as artistic advisor and she’s lovely and amazing. Jimmy Lopez’s music and Nilo Cruz’s libretto are fantastic. I’m genuinely excited about it.
Me: I can’t wait to see it!
KN: Me either.
Me: Now on to the first date questions. What’s your music setup? What non-classical music do you listen to?
KN: I’m a total musical omnivore. I love jazz, rock & roll, everything. I love going to big stadium concerts and I love discovering new bands. One of my favorite things to do is throw on Pandora or Rdio and listen to all of the suggested bands, see who’s playing, and then pick up tickets to see them somewhere here in New York. My absolute favorite band right now is Alt-J; I think they have the best record of the year. And I love Madonna of course.
KN: Oh my god. I’ve been obsessed with Madonna since I was a kid. In fact, I’m probably in showbiz because of Madonna. I remember watching the 1990 Blond Ambition Tour on HBO and seeing her rolling around on the bed singing “Like a Virgin” and asking if there was a God and singing “Like a Prayer” and I was like, “Oh my god, religious and sexual ecstasy are the same thing!” … and now I get paid for it. Her life as a performance artist is just incredible.
I ran into her once when I was seeing a performance of Cabaret and we had a little conversation about the weather … and she was so nice to me. But, I remember reaching out to hug her when I first saw her because I thought I knew her (he laughs) like, “Oh, hey Melissa how are you? Oh, wait you’re Madonna”. (He laughs more)
Me: Any plans for Valentine’s Day?
KN: Yes, we’re going to see Cibo Matto at Le Poisson Rouge! What about you, what are you doing?
Me: I’m going to sit home and cry because I just realized you like boys.
KN: (He laughs) Awwwww… Well, if I liked girls, you’d be at the top of my list, darling!
Once again, Operagasmers, I have been bamboozled by yet another operatic heartbreaker. This song’s for you Kevin Newbury: