Monday, November 8, 2010

A Chat with Jeffrey Buchman

Now that the Young Artists Program is in the middle of its fall tour of Donizetti's Viva la Mamma!, it seems the perfect time to catch up with Jeffrey Buchman, who is directing the YAP production, as well as serving as Seattle Opera's Assistant Director for the 2010/11 season. Read on to learn the difference between a stage director and an assistant director, the challenges and rewards of working with Young Artists, and what Buchman thinks about this season's operas.

What’s it like being an assistant director? How do your responsibilities differ from being a stage director, like you are for Viva la Mamma?
As an assistant director, it is my job to get a feel for the director's vision for the production, and then to do everything I can to help him or her to make their vision materialize. For me, the process starts by grasping the big picture, but then it becomes all about the details. When the director gives a singer a specific staging, it is my responsibility not only to keep track of what the director has asked them to do, but also to remember how and why he asked them to do it. This is very important because singers are very intelligent and if something doesn't make sense to them, they will question it.

For a show like Tristan und Isolde, which only had one cast, it was also my responsibility to prepare the cover cast. As it turned out, two of the covers had to go on and did a fantastic job. The Brangäne cover went on for a piano dress rehearsal, and the Tristan cover went on for a performance. Being a cover is very difficult because they don't get the daily staging rehearsals in which to actively develop their characters and process the staging, so as an assistant director you have to work closely with them to be sure that they understand their character's emotional journey.

Looking back on the first two productions of this season, how was it working with directors Tomer Zvulun in Lucia di Lammermoor and Peter Kazaras in Tristan und Isolde? Were there any big differences between their styles of directing?
What was so wonderful for me in working with both Peter and Tomer was each of their collaborative spirits. They are both very creative artists with vividly clear vision to their work, and it was an absolute joy to go through the process of daily rehearsals with them. The differences I experienced in working with each of them were really dictated by the uniqueness of each production. Peter's Tristan und Isolde was a physically quiet, but emotionally tumultuous, psychological journey that required very stylized movement and took place on a minimalist set. On the other hand, Tomer's Lucia di Lammermoor was physically very active, required a realistic acting style, involved moving a large number of chorus and supers, and played on a very complex set of levels and stairs. Though, while working both shows I recall having thinking that as different as each production was, at the core of each opera was a very similar central theme: two lovers who destiny has determined can only be together in death.

Before this season started, how familiar were you with this season's five operas? Had you worked in productions of any of them before?
I was already very familiar with Lucia, Barber, and Magic Flute. I recently conceived and directed an updated production of Magic Flute that I am very fond of, but I am really looking forward to reconnecting to the piece through Chris Alexander's exciting vision.

Although I've never worked on or seen a production of Don Quichotte before, I was already familiar with the opera. My wife, Rosa Mercedes, who choreographed Lucia here at Seattle Opera, recently did Don Quichotte for Tulsa Opera. She and I have a long history of collaborating together, and we really enjoy studying and prepping new operas with each other—even if we won’t be working together on the production, which was the case with the Tulsa Don Quichotte. As for Tristan, the opera was completely new to me and, in the process of working on the production, I totally fell in love with the piece. It definitely got under my skin and it would be incredible to be able to direct it sometime.

Rosa Mercedes and Jeffrey Buchman

You also work with Peter Kazaras in the Young Artists Program. What are some of the biggest differences between putting on a YAP production and a mainstage production?
First of all, in a YAP production you are dealing with emerging young singers who, in general, may need a bit more hands-on guidance. The YAP is a training program, and so there is an element of training that is also present in the staging process that is not there in the mainstage productions. Another big difference is the budget. The YAP productions work within a very limited budget, which forces you as a director to rely almost entirely on the characters you create to tell the story. In a mainstage production, you have the luxury of balancing detailed character work with more elaborate production elements—set, costumes, lighting—to help tell your story.

Viva la Mamma! isn’t often performed; what was your reaction when you found out you’d be directing it?
Of course, I was excited about getting the opportunity to direct here at Seattle Opera, but my first reaction was "Viva la what? An opera by Donizetti?"

Did you know anything about it?
I knew nothing of the piece, so the first thing I did was get the score along with several recordings, and I began to study the show. Very soon after, I began to get a sense of the mix of unique and quirky personalities I wanted to create. There is no getting around the fact that this is an over-the-top farce, and I didn't see any reason to try to play against that, so I just opened myself to looking for opportunities to make the audience laugh, through the music and the text.

How difficult is it to put on a comedy? How does it compare to a drama?
No doubt, comedy is very difficult. There are many more timing issues than you would generally deal with in a drama, but I wouldn't say it's harder. I think comedy and drama each hold their particular challenges.

For me, the most important thing in comedy is that it be cleanly and consistently executed, especially in a show like this one where there is a substantial amount of physical humor. The tendency is to go just a bit further each time a comic moment is played, but once we gauge how far to go with a moment, everyone needs to trust it and not force it. There is a story that you are telling through the comedy and it always has to be clear to the audience.

What is it like working with young artists as opposed to established performers?
I really enjoy working with young singers. I've worked with young artists at Chautauqua Opera, Sarasota Opera, Tulsa Opera, and now Seattle Opera, and it's something that I hope I will always be able to do. I like to think that when working with young artists, I am helping to shape how they will approach the beginning stages of their careers. The biggest challenge is that I can never assume that they know exactly how to give me what I am asking of them—but I can also never treat them like they have no idea how to give me what I'm asking of them. It's a balancing act I try to be very conscious of. What I love about working with young singers is that many of them are just waiting for the right information to help them grow, and you can often see great progress in a very short amount of time. It is really incredibly rewarding.

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