Production set in the 1960s aims to be relevant to the women’s movement
By Peter Alexander March 22 at 9:00 p.m.
Opera is a world of its own. Singers and conductors have their own inside language, they have traditions that seem arcane to outsiders, and they know the works intimately.
Stepping into that world from outside can be intimidating, but that’s the position stage director Ron Ben-Joseph finds himself in. With a background in theater, but not opera, he was engaged to direct this weekend’s performances of Mozart’s Così fan tutte for Boulder Opera (Friday in Longmont, Sunday in Boulder).
Ben-Joseph did bring some skills to the job: As a singer he can read music and follow the score, and he has worked in musical theater. He has taken voice lessons from Dianela Acosta, the artistic director of Boulder Opera and one of the singers in the cast, and in turn he has helped coach her acting in arias that she has learned. But even with that background, it’s not easy to dive into directing an entire opera.
How is he handling this baptism by fire? “I’m learning, I’m learning,” he says.
“One of the first things I did (was) research where theater directors that jump into opera mess up. I do not want to make those mistakes! So I plunged into music theory and the history of opera, and I tried to watch two or three operas a week. I tried to get the sense, the style, just to be respectful and not come in there and go ‘Oh, I know what to do!’
“I didn’t want to be that guy.”
The task was not made easier by the fact that Così is a difficult opera to get right. The plot is artificial and frankly unbelievable on the surface, but at the same time it deals with very basic and deep human emotions that are powerfully expressed in the music. The cast and director have to reconcile these two elements, relishing the humor and silliness of the onstage action without losing the emotional depth of the music.
If you don’t know the opera, it is about two pairs of lovers, two soldiers and a pair of sisters. The men have been bragging extravagantly about their girlfriends’ faithfulness, but a cynical older bachelor, Don Alfonso, challenges them to prove their claims. At Don Alfonso’s direction, the men pretend to march off to war. After leaving the scene, they don disguises and are introduced to the women as foreigners. Each then tries to woo the other’s girlfriend.
Over the course of the opera, the women resist, come to grips with temptation and their own weakness, and ultimately succumb. At the end the rather cruel ruse is revealed. Both men and women realize they have much to forgive. In the traditional ending, the women return to their original partners, but today other ways of ending the story are common as well.
“You have two guys who put their girlfriends through torment emotionally, and I think that comes from a very deep insecurity,” Ben-Joseph says. “That was one of the first things I saw. I could judge these guys for being misogynist, but I had a girlfriend once that I was insecure about, so I could kind of see it. Once I saw that personal hook, I really felt for the women, especially with the #MeToo movement.”
With that insight, Ben-Joseph wanted to find a time period that would make the story more relevant today. “This reads to me as if it were set in the late 1960s,” he says. “We’re about to start the female revolution, empowerment and women’s lib. That’s how it started taking shape, and I couldn’t not tell that story, and set it in that world.”
One part of that world was the Viet Nam War, which adds a darker element to the moment when the soldiers seemingly march off to war. Nevertheless, Ben-Joseph aimed to be sensitive to the artwork. “We always stayed true to the libretto, to the score,” he says. “We don’t impose anything. All we’re doing is using a lens for people to view this in a different way.”
Ben-Joseph is extremely complimentary to the performers. “They’re so talented, and they’re doing such a good job of honoring the score and being truthful to it,” he says. “I don’t know that anyone’s going to walk away from this production saying, ‘Oh my goodness! The direction!’ I think they’re going to walk away saying, ‘Those are phenomenal singers! That is a phenomenal orchestra!’
“These performers are starting to have fun and free themselves from feeling structured. You’re seeing real people, and that’s something I’m very proud of. There are a lot of genuine moments that are beautifully acted. That is what I want people to connect with—people that are alive and communicating real emotions in a deep, organic, authentic way.
“That’s what makes it badass.”
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Mozart: Così fan tutte
Sara Parkinson, music director
Ron Ben-Joseph, stage director
7:30 p.m. Friday, March 23, Stewart Auditorium Longmont
3 p.m. Sunday, March 25, Dairy Center for the Arts, Boulder