Moun­tain do Di­rec­tor Leonard Foglia

Di­rec­tor Leonard Foglia

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

Leonard Foglia didn’t set out to make a ca­reer in opera. In fact, he didn’t even start out as much of an opera fan. “I’d been to the opera twice in my life be­fore I di­rected my first opera, so it’s not re­ally my world,” he re­called when he sat down with Pasatiempo on a sunny af­ter­noon on a ter­race on the grounds of Santa Fe Opera. It was a week be­fore the world pre­miere of Cold Moun­tain, the adap­ta­tion by com­poser Jen­nifer Hig­don and li­bret­tist Gene Scheer of Charles Fra­zier’s award-win­ning Civil War novel. If Foglia was ner­vous, he didn’t show it — although he did com­pare the process to pre­par­ing to give birth: “Noth­ing’s quite ready. The suit­case is un­der the bed, and it isn’t packed.”

Be­fore the world of opera came call­ing, Foglia’s life was in the theater. “For many, many years I was ex­clu­sively a theater di­rec­tor, un­til about 12 years ago when I di­rected my first opera. And it’s sort of bal­anced out since then. Although in the past cou­ple of years, opera has pre­dom­i­nated, mainly be­cause they sched­ule so far in ad­vance. You’re booked! And theater’s al­ways so last minute.”

Per­haps opera was al­ways in the cards. His first di­rect­ing job on Broad­way was Master Class, Ter­rence McNally’s 1995 Tony Award-win­ning play about Maria Cal­las teach­ing at Juil­liard, which orig­i­nally starred Zoe Cald­well. (In his cast was a young tenor named Jay Hunter Mor­ris, who sings Teague here in

Cold Moun­tain.) “That’s when I first be­gan study­ing opera,” Foglia said. “I thought, I’m do­ing a play about Maria Cal­las, I’d bet­ter learn some­thing!” But he con­tin­ued work­ing in theater, helm­ing Broad­way pro­duc­tions of 1998’s Wait Un­til Dark, 2005’s

On Golden Pond, and 2008’s Thur­good. He will be back on the Great White Way this fall with The Gin

Game, star­ring James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson. “The first per­son who hired me [for opera] was a con­duc­tor named John DeMain. I said to him, ‘I pre­sume if you wanted an opera di­rec­tor, you would have hired one.’ ” DeMain as­sured Foglia that that was the case. The opera was Dead Man Walk­ing. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘Talk to them [the singers] like you’d talk to ac­tors, be­cause no one ever does.’ ”

The big­gest dif­fer­ence Foglia has found be­tween di­rect­ing in the two forms is that the dra­matic pace has al­ready been es­tab­lished in opera by the mu­sic. With a play, he said, “It’s a blank page. You can try it a mil­lion dif­fer­ent ways, and you, with the ac­tors, have to come up with the arc of the scene. In an opera, the com­poser’s al­ready made that de­ci­sion. So my job, and what I talk to the singers about, is I try to make them think: Why did the com­poser do it that way? You’ve got to come up with your own rea­son for go­ing there, and not just be­cause the com­poser said so. But that’s the big­gest thing. The arcs of the scenes have al­ready been cre­ated.”

Foglia has been in­volved with the op­er­atic adap­ta­tion of Cold Moun­tain from the start. “In this par­tic­u­lar piece, I was hired first as the dra­maturge. So I’m hired re­ally be­fore any­thing is writ­ten. I spend time work­ing with the li­bret­tist. Of course, the words come first, and then the com­poser comes into it, and I’m there, in­volved in the whole process from the be­gin­ning. On this one, it’s been about four years.”

The amount of time spent work­ing on Cold Moun­tain has given the di­rec­tor a chance to steep him­self in it. “You dive into the form. You dive into the mu­sic. The process was re­ally quite long, and that was good for the de­vel­op­ment. Gene Scheer fin­ished the first act of the li­bretto, and then Jen­nifer [Hig­don] did the mu­sic for the first act, and then we work­shopped the first act. And then the whole process be­gan again for the sec­ond act. I was pretty im­mersed in it, and early on, when Jen­nifer would say, ‘How much time do you need to get from this to this to this?’ I would say, ‘I don’t have a clue.’ I al­ways say to com­posers, ‘Don’t think in those terms. Just think in your mu­si­cal terms. I would rather fol­low your lead.’ ”

Foglia does not work in the stan­dard opera reper­tory. “I only do new op­eras, so we’re al­ways shoot­ing it out of the cannon, and the re­ac­tions al­ways sur­prise me. I find peo­ple are re­ally split. They’re ei­ther over­whelmed by the story and the sto­ry­telling, or it’s all about the mu­sic. And hope­fully, if we’ve all done our jobs right, it’s too mixed up to even di­vide it so neatly.”

He reached back for an old theater anec­dote to il­lus­trate the ex­cite­ment and the per­ils of cre­at­ing some­thing com­pletely new: “The great Ge­orge Ab­bott, the Broad­way di­rec­tor, his quote was, ‘A mu­si­cal will live or die on how you end this sen­tence: Let’s do a mu­si­cal about . . .’ We’ve all seen mu­si­cals by re­ally rep­utable peo­ple, and you just sit there and shake your head and say, What were they think­ing?”

Cold Moun­tain tells a story in which a main char­ac­ter cov­ers hun­dreds of miles, try­ing to make his way home from war, and barely says a word. How much of a chal­lenge was that to trans­late to the stage? “Into an opera with singing?” Foglia said. “Well, you have one per­son who cov­ers 550 miles, and the other per­son is all in one place. And we flash back to dif­fer­ent times in their lives, as they flash back to times be­fore the war. So, in a way, it’s back to ba­sic El­iz­a­bethan theater. You just didn’t have a lot. You know, you put a wall here and a throne there, and ev­ery­body goes about their busi­ness. You’re out in a field, you’re here, you’re there, and hope­fully things have been writ­ten into the text, or the way you light it, so that ac­tu­ally kind of strips away a lot. You just go there with­out hav­ing to re­con­struct it. Now you’re 50 miles away, now you’re 30 miles away — it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter. It’s the emo­tional jour­ney that mat­ters.”

To cre­ate the look of the piece, Foglia spoke with his long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor, scenic de­signer Robert Brill. “I said, ‘This is the way Gene has syn­the­sized the li­bretto and has come up with his way of telling the story.’ And Jen­nifer took that and cre­ated the whole mu­si­cal land­scape. I said, ‘I want us now to re­spond to all of that.’ . . . So this is our re­sponse to the Civil War. This is our re­sponse to the story. And now the ac­tors have to deal with it!”

Cold Moun­tain hits the boards in a year that marks the 150th an­niver­sary of the end of the Civil War, a war that, as Foglia ob­served, “still con­tin­ues in a lot of peo­ple’s minds.” This sum­mer has seen the cri­sis over the dis­play of the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag. “It’s a good story, isn’t it?” he said, shak­ing his head. “I’m just so pleased that dis­cus­sion’s hap­pen­ing. It’s kind of ex­tra­or­di­nary that it’s all hap­pen­ing around this.”

“It’s the emo­tional jour­ney that mat­ters.”

Leonard Foglia

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