What a director does, or, “Yes, this is actually my job”

Crystal Manich

Many people have asked me, “What does a director do?”  The question is a good one.  When you go to the theatre you are presented with a spectacle that has both visual and aural components combining to tell a story.  What that story is and how it’s executed is the work of a director with a team of designers and, in opera, a close relationship with the music director who is responsible for the aural world.  Eventually, both the aural and visual worlds must work together.  All of it is planned in advance.  Singers are added quite late into the process, but it is only then when the process really begins to bloom.  In theory, everything seems possible.  In practice one finds that some ideas that may have been conceived months ago might not work at all—this could be as small as changing idea about an entire character or as big as a scenic element not working as you originally imagined.  Whatever emerges from a process, if it is a good process, is always better than what was originally thought of in the first place.

The foundation work, however, is the most important element in planning a production.  The best part about being a director, and certainly one of the reasons that I became one, is the requirement to delve into literature and revisit one’s knowledge of history.  The last time I read Homer’s Odyssey was in high school.  What a joy to be able to read it again (it’s easier now!) and to be able to fill in the character holes that any adaptation—be it a play, film or opera—inevitably lacks.  For instance, my recent reading of this masterwork made me realize that it’s as much about King Odysseus’s journey home as it is about the coming of age of his son Telemachus.

Sidebar: see the end of this article for Greek names and their Roman counterparts.

In Monteverdi’s adaptation we are not introduced to Telemachus until the top of Act II—Athena/Minerva is bringing him home to Ithaca.  The audience member is bound to ask, “Where has he been?” or “Why isn’t he already home?”  Homer’s tale fills this vital gap for us.  Telemachus sets sail, from inspiration by Athena, to find out if his father is dead or alive.  After all, King Odysseus has been gone for 20 long years: 10 were spent fighting in the Trojan war; his whereabouts for the other 10 is unknown to his family and kingdom.  Athena intervenes in the destiny of both father and son and it is thanks to her that Odysseus will return to reclaim his throne, a place so long abandoned that many suitors are fighting for Queen Penelope’s hand in the hope of becoming King themselves.

My goal is always to direct shows that are accessible to anyone as opposed to only targeting opera fans or history buffs or those well versed in ancient literature.  In order to achieve this, however, I must get inside every aspect of what this story encompasses and choose what I want to show onstage.  The glorious thing about opera is the dramaturgical gaps that exist in almost every piece, most certainly in the pieces written in the 17th century.  This forces directors and designers to fill in the gaps with missing information, or not as the case may be, and exploit where the core of the story lives.

The Return of Ulysses is first and foremost a love story.  The music tells us this.  The piece, however, leaves out the specific amount of time that Odysseus/Ulysses has been absent.  Opera Omnia’s adaptation has re-appropriated a duet, originally sung by two minor characters, to the King and Queen before the opera begins.  Thanks to this change we can theatrically get inside the passage of time and the loss of love by utilizing the Prologue to tell the story of the cause of Odysseus’s separation from Penelope: war.  (Now I find myself in a wormhole, for I must revisit Homer’s Illiad and consider telling the story of the major events of the war in about a minute of stage time…)  Then there is the question of a wooden horse, vengeful gods, erroneous sea routes and seductive island nymphs.  And then there’s the question of Telemachus and making sure that he is fleshed out as much as possible so that he plays a direct role in assisting his father to reclaim his throne, his coming of age that is so present in Homer.  The solution to this problem I will leave as an incentive to the reader to buy a $20 ticket to the show.

I could go on for days, but what I have written lies at the heart of what I believe is the job of the director: the ability to distill information and execute a clear story.  But a director is only as good as her team.  I am so fortunate to have such a strong group of designers and cast members and am looking forward to our arrival in the rehearsal hall in 15 days time.  Then we will bloom.

The Return of Ulysses will play at the Baryshnikov Arts Center September 10-12, 2013.  Click the “tickets” link above to reserve your seat!

Greek names and Roman counterparts The ancient Greek and Roman gods and heroes share attributes and therefore have two different names referring to the same god or person.  Here is a short list of those who are referenced in Monteverdi’s opera The Return of Ulysses, which of course references the Roman names.

Odysseus=Ulysses

Athena=Minerva

Poseidon=Neptune

Zeus=Jove

All of the other names in the opera are from the original Greek.