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First Ladies: Tony-winning director Mary Zimmerman prepares her musical debut while Chicago Shakespeare founder Barbara Gaines takes on the opera

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"Candide" production photo by Liz Lauren

By Dennis Polkow

When Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman is due in early at Goodman Theatre to discuss taking on her first musical, Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” it is obvious that she is tired, having stayed up most of the night revising script pages after a day and night of rehearsals. Today will also be a full day of rehearsals, but tonight will be the first preview of the work. As she is making her way to the table and chairs that her press folks have set up in a quiet area of the building, a beautiful large dog briskly enters, checking out both the area and the reporter. The dog has a Goodman Theatre security tag attached to his collar with his picture that identifies him as “Beary.”

“When I first got him, he was a wreck. He was a pound dog, so he is quite devoted. He is a mix—at the pound they said shepherd-husky, but a lot of people see beagle in him as well. Beagles have that black saddle but huskies often have a very thick double coat and little star as he does. I’m sure he is more than two breeds, by the way. But he’s a good old fellow. I’ve had him since “Pericles” in D.C. This is probably his fifteenth show, maybe? He was full grown when I got him and I’ve had him eight years, so he’s at least ten. I hope he’s only ten. I don’t know how old he is, I have no idea. He’s holding up, and he’s a sweet boy. Tonight he will be exiled from the theater for the first time and will be in the dressing room. He’s just sort of curled up by me in rehearsals most of the time.”

Mary Zimmerman

Does Beary always accompany Zimmerman, I wonder? “Pretty much. Not like always always, but pretty much. He’s been at the Met [the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where Zimmerman has directed three productions]. He was the first dog allowed at the Met since [director Franco] Zeffirelli’s dogs. [Laughs.] But he disgraced himself, didn’t you?” she says, rubbing the back of his neck. “The first, full orchestra rehearsal of ‘Lucia’ [di Lammermoor], I have these Irish wolfhounds that come onstage, or Scottish wolfhounds, or whatever they are, and Barry, who is normally calm like this, took off down the aisle like a shot [Zimmerman starts barking convincingly, getting Beary’s attention] and like, I was so embarrassed. I was so embarrassed for you,” she says, looking Beary right in the eye.

After Beary has sniffed the reporter’s briefcase, belongings, microphone and even the reporter, he settles in and stares at Zimmerman adoringly through our entire encounter. Zimmerman laughs when it is mentioned that much was being made that she is directing “Candide” as her first musical, since as she completed my thought, “ ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ is a musical. It’s an early musical [Hysterical laughter]. I knew that going into the rehearsal process that [doing a musical] would be somewhat different, that there was song and dance to be learned in a certain way and that there were different methods and procedures, and so forth. But you’re right, and not only just the operas, but I have never done a show that I didn’t have music composed for, ever. Even in college, I had student composers and a composer was always part of the team.

“Most of my shows have a song or two in them that’s usually drawn from a poem in the text, like ‘Arabian Nights’ is full of poems. ‘Argonautika’ is drawn from music. I have written little lyrics for little songs in shows multiple times. But it’s true that none of those adaptations of mine had music as their primary conveyance. In musical theater, music is not necessarily the primary conveyance, but it’s certainly equal to any other mode of communication that’s happening that night. In opera, music is the domineering factor. But with musical theater, [“Candide” musical director] Doug Peck says theater is the noun, musical is the adjective.”

But clearly, Zimmerman did not grow up as a musical-theater person, as in growing up listening to cast albums. “Well, I did listen to some—‘Annie Get Your Gun,’ for instance. When I was seven, I was really into that. And there were some others. A lot of my early theater experiences were going to shows at the University of Nebraska because my parents both taught there and to me growing up, that was just like the most professional theater imaginable. Whatever they did, I saw, and they did a lot of musicals. I remember ‘Little Mary Sunshine,’ I went seven times! It was the only show in town, fantastically staged, and we always went to Gilbert & Sullivan, which is close to light opera and to musical theater. And I, by the way, adored Gilbert & Sullivan, and actually want to do a Gilbert & Sullivan. I would love to.” Has that been put out there? “No, the problem is that it falls between categories. A lot of serious opera houses won’t really do it, or do it very rarely, and then when they do, they do it the way that serious opera houses do it, which is giving attention primarily to people who can produce the sound and all of that. And theaters don’t do it very often because it’s very expensive and you need singers. It’s the whole truism of it. Those are big shows.”

Zimmerman also admits the fact that at this point, the genesis for exactly how and when she wanted to do “Candide” is unclear, even to her. “It’s difficult to trace its origins exactly, but my old boyfriend Bruce Norris, who is a playwright and actor, used to say when we were in college thirty years ago that ‘Candide’ was the greatest musical, so I guess that stuck. And he’s a very cynical person, but he loves ‘Candide.’ Someone else was asking me when I first heard the music and I said, ‘I can’t recall,’ but I now believe that he probably played the album for me; I think that might be the case. My belief is that sometime I said to Roche [Schulfer, Goodman executive director], ‘If I ever do a musical, I would like to do “Candide,” but Roche believes that he independently conceived of the idea. [Laughs.] Because one day he was like, ‘I have an idea.’ And I’m not really sure. It is quite possible I never said that to him and that he did conceive it independently.”

"Candide" production photo by Liz Lauren

Based on the eighteenth-century Voltaire novella that sought to lampoon eighteenth-century optimism, Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” was written for Broadway in 1956, the show running seventy-six performances before folding, although the magnificent original cast album and the emergence of the show’s overture as a symphonic staple kept it alive as a cult classic. Hal Prince oversaw revisions of the work in the early 1970s that replaced the original book, both a one-act Broadway version, and a two-act “opera house” version, which is the version that Lyric Opera presented under Prince’s own direction back in 1994.

Bernstein himself allowed but had nothing to do these revisions, where half of his music ended up on the cutting-room floor and the rest re-ordered. “In trying to eliminate what was admittedly a confusing book,” Bernstein told me in 1985, “the adapters also began tinkering with lyrics and where particular songs should be heard in the show, eliminating the overall musical architecture of the work, at least as I imagined it, and also tipping the work in too comedic of a direction.” The composer set out to correct this with his own “final revised version” which he completed and recorded mere months before his death in 1990, but that version has yet to be heard in Chicago. “Too long and really a concert work in that form that requires a big orchestra and chorus,” says Zimmerman as to why that version was never even considered.

The first step for Zimmerman was getting permission from the Bernstein estate to re-envision the work. “We went to New York and met with his three kids, and his kind-of-aged agent, who is still alive; it was an office kitty-corner to Carnegie Hall, a very New York meeting. And we asked if I could have the rights to do a new book of ‘Candide.’ ” Would she have touched “Candide” without a new book? “I don’t think I would be doing the project if I weren’t, just because that’s been my practice forever. I direct the things that I adapt and [“Candide”] is adapted from a kind of novel, a kind of literary work that is right up my alley in terms of the kinds of things I’ve adapted in the past.” And make no mistake: it is not the book of the play “Candide” that Zimmerman uses for her source material, it is Voltaire’s original novella. “That’s my source, for sure. Although I have the rights to use any of the prior versions, I closed them early on. I did not refer to them, I referred to Voltaire.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if Bernstein’s kids weren’t defensive concerning their father’s last word on “Candide,” which having been revised, performed and recorded so shortly before Bernstein’s death, was almost his last word on anything. “No, they were quite lighthearted about some of his last words, actually. But you know, it’s a book that has been done many, many times and it’s a text that’s in flux. I can’t think of any other musical that has that kind of open door to do a new book like that, do you know what I mean? Or, that you would be prompted to do one. But I don’t even know the musical world enough to say that with authority.

"Candide" production photo by Liz Lauren

“It’s an adaptation of a core text, which is the Voltaire, which is in public domain and which anyone has access to. [The play] had multiple versions, so it just felt like a much more loose and open situation. I don’t have any urge to go around rewriting books of musicals. That’s not it. It’s just that this particular story is so much the kind of thing that I do and it was a really interesting project to use those songs and that novel.”

But why a musical of “Candide?” Why not a new stage version without so much music? “I am primarily someone who does theater, but in this case, it’s the combination of this particular music and the lyrics, which I think are just past master, like the wittiest things on Earth. I just love them, all of the double and triple rhymes, the extent of the vocabulary in them, the surprise of the rhyme, the rhythms, it’s just phenomenal. Just across the board almost, it’s phenomenal lyrically. And I’m a very wordy person. That is my orientation. So, the combination of this music and that original text and the fact that it’s an adaptation of the kind of work that I do all the time, that is to say, episodic, kind of problematic. It’s not like a Modernist work that is seamlessly constructed and endlessly revised. To me, it’s not like that, it has an improvisational quality to it. It’s very old and it’s got this romantic epic sweep to it, and yet it’s also really funny. All of my shows end up being kind of funny, even if they are from ‘The Odyssey,’ or ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ or whatever, I just try to add humor. But there is irony and playfulness in those texts as well.”

There is often the sense that those doing “Candide” as a musical often have not read Voltaire and are really almost over-the-top in their characterizations, almost to the point of caricature. Some of that is perhaps the difference between interpreting the work as a comedy versus a satire: is that a concern for Zimmerman? “It’s a really political work which Bernstein, of course, leaned into and that was his attachment to it as well. It started out more political.” Indeed, Bernstein originally intended “Candide” as an allegory for McCarthyism, which at one point found him in such suspicion as a potential Communist that his passport was confiscated. “But I think you’re right, that sometimes you can lean too much into, Pangloss is a fool, and it is foolish to believe in ‘the best of all possible worlds.’ But those who do ignore the second half of the novel where Candide meets Martin, who believes that it’s the worst of all possible worlds, and that is satirized as well. In other words, Volatire is not just dismissing the whole world so that there are no stakes and nothing matters and everyone’s a fool and let’s laugh at everything.

“By the way, I don’t want to ever say, ‘Here’s the final word on ‘Candide’ and now we’ve solved all the problems. I don’t have this like positivist view of the history of ‘Candide’ and now it’s all solved. It’s just another contribution, it’s just another minor adaptation, my little attempt. What people always say about this musical is like, ‘Oh it’s so great, but it doesn’t work. And I feel like saying, ‘What are you talking about, it doesn’t work? It’s still in the canon fifty years later, people still talk about it, people still enjoy themselves at it tremendously, kind of no matter how it’s done, people enjoy it. They love it, so what’s not working, you know what I mean? So, in no way am I just doing my own to be the final word, I am doing it because that’s what I do, because virtually everything I direct, I do my own version of.”

What does Zimmerman think of Bernstein himself insisting that “Candide” was an operetta, and does that influence any of her choices? “This is a musical, without doubt. I know he called it a comic opera, operetta, or whatever, but for me, it’s a musical. I’m trying to think, because we have key dramatic moments that are sung, and somewhere there is only dialogue. I think the words are important that are spoken as well as the things that are sung, although the most emotional things are probably sung. The thing about ‘Candide’ is that the way that the novel makes its own effect is the accruing of detail of adventure and of incident. So, if you like the novel, part of you likes that and you’ve got to incorporate that. An opera sits, you know what I mean? The scenes are often quite simple in their dramatic instructions, but you’re twelve minutes in the same moment. Its relationship to narrative time is very different.

“What I would say–and [Bernstein] gets to call it what he wants—is that the difference between an opera and a musical for me, is (1) composed through, and (2) a huge part of opera is not just the quality of the voice, it’s the size of the voice, and the demand of the voice and the size of the orchestra, all of that, and the complexity of the singing. This musical is shared between a lot of voices: there’s a lot of people. There are very few operas in which eight different characters have an aria, do you think? It’s usually ground down to two or three, maybe four, primary characters. Mozart, I guess, has a lot more. From bel canto on, it features a few. It’s very compressed and very tight, quite miraculously so, actually, it really is. But it’s a different kind of voice, a different thing that you’re doing. I think a big part of what opera is about is the astonishment of the achievement of both the size as well as quality of the voice.” For Zimmerman, that has meant casting “musical theater” voices rather than “opera singers,” and having a small twelve-piece orchestra to accompany them.

"Macbeth" set model by James Noone

Meanwhile, over on the fourth floor of the Civic Opera House, Chicago Shakespeare Theater artistic director Barbara Gaines is on break working on Verdi’s “Macbeth,” the work with which she will make her operatic directorial debut. With an October 1 opening and, as is typical of Lyric Opera, no preview performances other than a final dress rehearsal that is widely attended two days before, Gaines is at an earlier point in the process than Zimmerman, which Gaines’ immense calm would never betray. How, I wondered, did Gaines get interested in doing opera?

“[Lyric general director] Bill Mason came to me about ten years ago and said, ‘What do you want to direct?’ And I kept saying, ‘Oh, thank you! I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you.’ And I never got back to him because I was just, busy, and opera wasn’t the first thing on my mind. But then he made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse,” says Gaines, eyes growing wider, “which was three years ago. Bill said to me, ‘How about Tom Hampson starring as “Macbeth” and you direct Tom.’ I thought that was a pretty great idea. That was the thing: it was that [Bill] was really specific and I am a big fan of Tom’s: he is a hugely talented, generous-spirited person and we both care about character. We both care about storytelling, so we’re a great match with each other because we just want to make the story clear and the characters as deep as we can. He’s fantastic and his ideas are fantastic.”

Barbara Gaines

Did Gaines see the Zurich production that Hampson starred in, which is out on DVD? “I did, I saw it on video: I thought it was spectacular. I didn’t understand all of it, but I loved the audacity of it. I loved the witches, I thought they were great, and I thought that the two of them together made a terrific pair, Lady Macbeth and Tom. So, I really did enjoy it enormously.

“What that production made me understand—even at home watching it on TV—was that opera is just like theater. You know, it’s storytelling and you can be as creative as you want. And it was that kind of freedom I was craving, and just watching that, I felt like I had freedom to follow my impulses. So, for me in my education about opera, it was very, very helpful. I didn’t have to just have people standing around the place singing, do you know what I mean? It was a really inventive production. I know it was panned, I know people didn’t like it, but watching it helped me.”

Curiously, when Mason approached Gaines to direct the opera “Macbeth,” Gaines had never directed the original Shakespeare play, which she ended up doing for the first time at Chicago Shakespeare Theater two years ago, knowing that doing the opera was on the horizon. “I put that aside and decided to make them two entirely different productions. Bill got to me first, before I planned the Macbeth at Chicago Shakespeare. And so I know some of the ideas that I had for the opera ‘Macbeth’ were already in place by the time I did the other ‘Macbeth.’ Very different time periods, very different ideas, to tell you the truth. So to me, they’re totally not connected.”

There was never the idea that Macbeth the opera would be set in modern-day Iraq, as Gaines’ CST production was? “No.” What does Gaines see as the difference between “Macbeth” the play and “Macbeth” the opera? “Well, I think that I would say generally, it is the same story. But Verdi did something enormously clever, besides writing his music. He made the libretto a work of genius, too, because he deleted, cut all of the superfluous characters and just made it about Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth, which I thought was sensational. So, it’s very easy to follow. The story, if you know it already in even just a general outline, is even clearer in the opera than it is in Shakespeare. And the music tells the story pretty specifically. I think that in some ways what I have discovered—I don’t think I have said this aloud yet—is that, because the music is so spectacular, I think that in some ways, directing an opera, at least, a Verdi opera, anyway, is easier than directing Shakespeare because the music just tells you everything to do. Once you are inside of the music, the feelings come out. It’s amazing. The music just sweeps you away. And yet the music of Shakespeare’s language is totally musical as well.”

Thomas Hampson, Nadja Michael

In Verdi, the emotional content of the music fills in for the lack of text musicality. “Exactly. Here you have the orchestra, which is a big help.” [laughs] One thing a lot of folks who know the Shakespeare find very distracting about the opera is Verdi’s decision to, in essence, make the opera have a happy ending celebrating the new king in music after Macbeth is killed. “Ah, I can tell you why, and I think it’s right,” Gaines responds. “Here’s the thing: the tyrant is dead. A mass murderer has been killed by Macduff, by a victim of his crimes. I mean, look at the refugees now, in the Congo. Fifteen years ago, look at the refugees in Rwanda, any refugee situation in the world, Haiti right now. It is so tragic. But to be able to imagine a Malcolm in all of those countries that I just mentioned, to imagine that a good leader emerges who cares more about his people than about his sense of power, that would be a happy day. And I think that the celebration of a leader who will be good and just to his people is something to celebrate. So, I love the ending. And, it gives me hope that maybe one day, the world can be better.”

That is an interesting take, but what the conventional opera people often point out is that it is a love story, at least the way that Verdi writes it, having compacted it down to its essence. We as the audience, in a weird way, start to care about these people while they are scheming and murdering and that in some ways, we care more about them, more in the opera, than we do in the play because there is more of a distance in the play. “I think the music is so spectacular, and the resolution really doesn’t happen in this production until the very, very last moment. There is a great and profound revelation at the end.” Has Gaines added something to the original ending? “Well, because the music inspired me, and made me feel hope, I have done something theatrically which I hope will make the audiences feel that way, too. But I don’t want to give it away, I want you to experience it, but it’s pretty clear at the very, very end that hearts are lifted and that a new day is here. You know, a lot of us felt that way in November 2008, didn’t we? We’re in a depression now, we’re in a worldwide depression, and we can’t blame [Obama] for that. But we felt hope, and we felt joy, and that’s what the people of Scotland will hopefully feel at the end of this opera.”

Is Gaines attempting to bring the opera closer to Shakespeare with her approach, or is it more in the organic spirit of what the opera is trying to do that is somewhat different? “Verdi actually gave me the idea. His sopranos at the very end gave me the entire idea for the two things I am talking about now. And so, I have to say, it wasn’t Shakespeare, it was Verdi’s music. When I heard it—and I wept through it, but I wept with hope. I said, ‘How do I convey that, and I saw it, I just saw it. It flashed into my mind, this ending.”

If we go singing along happily with the new king with hope and everything else, how do we as an audience—this is almost back to Richard III—justify our affair with, as Gaines calls them, “Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth?” “Evil,” says Gaines, with an intense look and squinting eyes, “is very ordinary. It is pedestrian, everyday. It is how you treat your family at the dining-room table, you know what I am saying? That’s what evil is. And all of us have to take responsibility for the natural evil that is in the world. We could do things to have stopped a war. We could have done things to have helped, therefore it is our responsibility, every one of us [finger pointing at her and me], to act on our impulses, to act for the common good. How do we deal with the Macbeths? The Macbeths are just people, people that become obsessed with themselves and ambition. But they are ordinary people. And you will see just how ordinary. I don’t mean ordinary in that our performers are not spectacular, especially Tom and Nadja [Michael], they’re really brilliant. But their characters, you will know them. You will have done some of the things that they do to each other. You will have done them in your own life, you see what I’m saying? The gesture, the human gesture of what they do to each other and to other people. You probably have seen some of these things before.

“So, I think that the distance between the love affair and the hope for the future, I think that the music will carry people along, I really do. You know what? Maybe when you fall in love, you lose all distance, you lose all objectivity. But I’ve really fallen in love with the finale and what it says about, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Work towards peace. Don’t give up. Work towards a better world, and work towards it as a community.’ There’s something very beautiful about that that we could all learn from and be inspired by.”

And if we fell a bit guilty over having fallen for Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth, that’s okay? “I’m sorry, I think we should completely fall for them, because Nadja and Tom, they have chemistry. All of us are attracted to very sexy, very talented people. Regarding the Macbeths, it doesn’t mean that they are good people, it just means that you’re falling for them because they have seduced you. And seduction is really important in the opera, because the witches seduce. They find your greatest weakness and they say [picking up a plate of cookies and holding them in the face of a fat reporter while intoning a deep, seductive voice], ‘C’mon, have it. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” breaking her intensity with laughter. “Seriously, take the cookies.” And acting in what Gaines calls an ordinary fashion, indeed I do, before heading back to Goodman, where a rehearsal for “Candide” is preparing to get underway.

Why does Zimmerman think that so many “legitimate” or stage directors want to go off and do musicals or operas, something clearly out of their comfort zone? “I did not pursue it, it pursued me,” Zimmerman quickly responds. “In fact, there was a play I wanted to do this year, but Robert [Falls] was like, ‘Please do the musical first, and then we’ll do the play.’ But I’ve had the time of my life doing this. I love my cast so much. Anybody that works on [“Candide”], would have the time of their life.

“Carl Ratner had called me a million years ago when I did ‘Magic Flute’ for Chicago Opera Theater. I always say that I didn’t really direct it because it was a rented production and it wasn’t my design, it was a twenty-year-old John Palmer design, I believe, and I initially turned it down and got on a plane and went somewhere. The plane landed and I called back and said, ‘I think I have to do it.’ I loved the opera, I just wanted to do my own production. And then I thought, ‘Well, maybe this is a good first baby step.’

“Then I did ‘Akhenaten’ with [Chicago Opera Theater]. The reason I did that was because I wanted to meet Philip Glass, whose music I had adored when younger, and I wanted to trick him into liking me and make an opera with him, which I did, and all of that came to pass when I did ‘Galileo Galilei’ [at Goodman]. And then a couple of years went by, and [Met general manager] Peter Gelb called me. He had seen some of my work, I’m not sure what: ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Metamorphoses’ maybe? His stated mission was theater directors coming in [at the Met] and though he never said this to me, I also think that because I was an American, and that I was female, all played into the mission a bit, too. But mostly he wanted theater directors in there.

“There is a big, big difference. It is a big ‘bump’ when you start to work with opera people when you’ve spent your life with theater people. What the opera singer is dealing with physically is extremely demanding. There is no comparison between singing over an orchestra of eighty, a chorus of eighty, in a 3,800-seat house—which is what the Met is—versus singing amplified over a band of twelve in a house of 800 [as we’re doing in “Candide”]. Some of them are as brilliant as actors as any you would find, but if they are, it’s almost accidental, because the reason that they’re having the career that they’re having is because of the voice. And you can’t expect people to be that brilliant at two such different things.

“People understand what a discipline and what a craft singing is, but they don’t understand how difficult being a good actor is: it’s the art that erases itself. It’s the art that if it is successful, people don’t notice that it has happened. And the greatest actors in this country are the ones where you go, ‘Oh, that person really isn’t that character.’ Although, I also love a kind of flamboyant acting that does call attention to itself: I actually like that, where you notice the quirkiness: Al Pacino or John Malkovich are like that. And there’s a kind of virtuosity in that. I love that as well. But it’s no more fair to expect a world-class opera singer to be a brilliant actor than it is for Jack Nicholson to be expected to be able to sing an aria.”

2 Responses to “First Ladies: Tony-winning director Mary Zimmerman prepares her musical debut while Chicago Shakespeare founder Barbara Gaines takes on the opera”

  1. Candide in Previews – Says:

    […] photo, one of the few that is currently released to the press, is from a feature in New City : Geoff Packard in the center plays Candide, and is flanked by Jessie Perez and Jonathan […]

  2. Mary Zimmerman and Barbara Gaines Talk Music and Theatre « A Few Short Notes Says:

    […] or not you’re planning on seeing either of these shows, check out Dennis Polkow’s interview with directors Mary Zimmerman (Candide) and Barbara Gaines (Macbeth) in New City. Both primarily […]

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