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Singers Take a New Role
Career transitions in opera are not uncommon. Many of today's opera administrators began their study as musicians and went on to non‐performing positions within the field. A few people have had the opportunity to transition from successful and fulfilling performing careers into other areas. Several accomplished singers, including Sir Thomas Allen, Catherine Malfitano, and Peter Kazaras, are now parlaying their knowledge and experience into second careers as stage directors and offer their advice on transitioning from one artistic discipline to another.
Although opera singers' performing careers are not nearly so limited as those of dancers, the vocal, physical, and personal demands of a full‐time performing career eventually lead some singers to explore other professional options. For the singers interviewed for this article, the transition to directing has been a natural one, especially with the support of colleagues at Central City Opera, Arizona Opera, and Seattle Opera. "Catherine is one of the most prepared directors I have ever worked with — down to the last prop," says Pelham Pearce, general director of Central City Opera. "Being a performer known for her dedication to dramatic integrity in each role, Catherine casts her eye across the entire breadth of a production — props, lighting, chorus, costumes, and scenery with the same integrity and attention to detail."
In 2005, Malfitano made her stage directing debut at Central City Opera with Madama Butterfly. She recently directed and sang La Voix humaine with La Monnaie in Brussels, and she will be directing Central City Opera's production of The Saint of Bleecker Street this July. Tenor Peter Kazaras has staged productions for Seattle Opera, Hartt College of Music, the Academy of Vocal Arts, and San Francisco Opera's Merola Program, and is now the director of the young artists program for Seattle Opera. Sir Thomas Allen made his directing debut in 2003 with Albert Herring at the Royal College of Music; directed a tremendously successful Così fan tutte at the Sage, Gateshead; and began the 2006‐07 season by making his U.S. directing debut with Le nozze di Figaro for Arizona Opera.
Whether singing or directing, Malfitano says she looks for pieces that have a lot of conflict. "Most of operas do, to be honest," she says. "My tastes are varied and my teaching has helped me to realize that there is so much I want to direct. I never sang Handel professionally, but I enjoy teaching it, and I would love to direct it." Allen says that he feels most comfortable directing pieces with which he has been associated as a singer. Kazaras has worked with a wide variety of organizations and staged a range of works — from Norma with Seattle Opera to an off‐Broadway production of Blood on the Dining Room Floor.
Singers who have worked with an array of stage directors are in a unique position to draw upon the lessons they learned as they come into directing. Kazaras says he learned what acting was all about through his experience of working with directors like Martha Schlamme, Alvin Epstein, Francesca Zambello, Stephen Wadsworth, and Christopher Alden. Although each has a different approach, Kazaras says, "The single most salient feature is that it is collaborative. It is not a solo enterprise. In the best of all possible worlds, it is about getting on a vessel together to go on a journey."
For Malfitano's directing debut, she created a new production of Madama Butterfly with designer Dany Lyne. Malfitano has a strong visual sense, she says: "I'm not the sort of person to hire a designer and say, 'OK, we're going to do Tosca, let's meet in two weeks and show me what you've got.'" In that way, she says, her preparation as a director is similar to her preparation as a singer. "I didn't come to the first rehearsal saying, 'Show me what to do.' I researched, which allowed me to dream, visualize, imagine, and give flesh to the characters." Although she enters the process with strong ideas, Malfitano enjoys collaborating with her colleagues: "When there's teamwork, it's hard to say where it begins, where it ends, and where an idea comes from. I bring ideas so that the designer understands the atmosphere I am trying to create. The more a director can give a designer, the better the production can be. The audience only gets the tip of the mountain. To know what goes on from the bottom up is really fascinating."
Singers are in a unique position to bring something distinctive to the process through their first‐hand experience as performers. Kazaras, as director of the young artist program at Seattle Opera, has come to be known as someone who works well with early career singers. "I am able to completely frank with people about what they are doing. There are things I can see because they are mistakes I made myself."
When working with students, the academic schedule allows Kazaras to work differently than he would with professional singers. "When I went to UCLA, the singers were phenomenally prepared musically, which is very helpful. When you have more rehearsal time, you are able to talk about the characters and the background of the piece. You have more time to have a conversation."
While singers‐turned‐directors feel their familiarity with roles as performers is an asset when directing, they are also mindful of creating an environment that allows singers to find their own way. "As a director," Malfitano says, "I know how I wish to guide the singers deeply into their characters, and I understand their needs both vocally and psychologically. What is most important to achieve as a director is to get everyone in the cast to tell the same story. While I create the frame for this shared storytelling, the singers must bring the roles to life in their own special way."
The collaboration among artists is fundamental, as is the relationship between the artists and other company personnel. Allen says of his experience with Arizona Opera, "It's like a good engine. It works well because each part is doing its job. When one is a visiting artist, the people you really count on for a sense of stability are the people you will be seeing every day, like the receptionist, the security guards." Malfitano also attributes her success to support from the company. "It really makes a difference what the attitude is from the top. I get the feeling that Pat Pearce wants to have the company act as a family in which everyone is working toward a goal. He engenders this sense of inclusiveness and gets the best out of people. Ardis Krainik was the same way. She made everyone in the company feel important and welcome. If you want a good performance, you need to make people feel like they're a part of something bigger. Pat gave me the sense that he was going to support my vision, but also gave me clear direction and feedback."
Kazaras appreciates the support directors receive at Seattle Opera: "If Speight [Jenkins] finds directors that he trusts, he encourages them to find their creative teams, which is a great way to work. When directors know what they want, they will know who to work with. If you get directors who know what they can do, it's best to let them do it. Some people can work with
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