Pea Unmasks Reality TV Princess; Weill’s Jazzy Mahagonny
“Follow her butt!” bellows director Paul Curran.
A camera man duly points his lens at mezzo Jennifer Rivera’s bottom and the image streams to a TV propped on a chair.
After considering it, Curran turns back to the cast. “Great. Now, let’s do it again.”
Curran, 49, is staging an unusual quartet of works for the Gotham Chamber Opera in New York.
It’s called “Baden-Baden 1927” after the German music festival in which four cutting-edge composers staged a night of one-acts: Milhaud, Toch, Hindemith and Weill.
The cast includes Helen Donath, a well-known soprano of other eras, who at age 73 will play Jessie in Weill’s “Mahagonny Songspiel” and the Queen in “The Princess and the Pea.”
The afternoon I visited, the cast rehearsed Toch’s “Princess,” which Curran is staging as a reality TV show.
Never heard of Toch? He was considered one of the premier avant-garde composers in Weimar Germany, and in 1956 won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
Curran, a burly guy in an orange-check shirt, jeans and sneakers, told me about the show which opens this Wednesday at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater in New York.
Tarmy: How were the original operas commissioned?
Curran: The artistic director of the Baden Baden Festival asked Paul Hindemith, the composer and conductor, to put together four pieces on the subject of “What is art, where is art going, and what is art and music?”
Tarmy: Wow. Big questions. Were the operas connected, thematically or aesthetically?
Curran: Absolutely not. Four totally different operas about four totally different subjects, which is why I set this performance in an art gallery. I have four different artworks on the walls that can be linked or not linked.
The main thing is to keep things loose.
Tarmy: So this isn’t a stiff night at the opera?
Curran: The cast talk to the audience, and we’re going to invite the audience up on stage. It’s got a very improvised feeling about it.
Tarmy: Are all the operas being streamed?
Curran: That’s for “The Princess and the Pea,” a parable about what makes royalty, in this case being able to discern that there’s a pea underneath 20-odd mattresses.
I find that story utterly disgusting. What’s the parable today? I immediately started thinking of reality TV.
Tarmy: How does this production compare to your work with other companies?
Curran: Over the past 15 years I’ve been used to working for big theaters -- Covent Garden, Tokyo, Oslo. So it’s nice to have an intimate crowd who are absolutely 100 percent focused on what we’re doing.
Tarmy: It might be small, but you’ve got some big names -- the painter Georg Baselitz has contributed to the sets.
Curran: This was planned about two years ago. I met with him at his place outside of Munich. He gave us free range of his pieces, and we chose the ones we thought would be most appropriate for the stage.
He’s allowing us to use the images, mind you, not the original pieces. To use original works would be crazy -- the insurance costs alone would bankrupt the company.
Tarmy: Speaking of which, what is the future of this costly art form?
Curran: People are always in a panic about money, not opera. Opera’s fine. Do we need money to make it work? Of course we do.
And do we need to translate it into an idiom for the modern day? Yes, it’s vital. I don’t want to sit in a museum.
I like leaving the audience with questions.
“Baden Baden 1927” premieres Oct. 23 and runs through Oct. 29 at Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, 542 W. 59th St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; http://www.gothamchamberopera.org.
(James Tarmy is a reporter/writer for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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