Thursday, April 15, 2010

Staging AMELIA with Assistant Director Mary Birnbaum

I had the chance the other day to yank Amelia assistant director Mary Birnbaum (right) away from rehearsal and check in with her about the process. No stranger to Seattle Opera, Mary first visited the company in the summer of 2001, when she saw Stephen Wadsworth's first RING cycle. Since then she’s studied English at Harvard and theatre at L’École Jacques Lecoq in Paris, founded her own theater company in Manhattan, and worked with Wadsworth on his production of Verdi’s Falstaff at The Juilliard School. When Stephen asked her to read Gardner McFall’s book of poems The Pilot’s Daughter and consider whether she wanted to come to Seattle and work on Amelia, Mary was “immediately hooked.”

JD: If you look at the synopsis of Amelia, the opera doesn’t proceed in a linear, chronological direction. They’ve created an opera that moves backwards and forwards in time, and in and out of several different realities. How do you stage the action so that the audience can follow this non-linear storytelling?

MB: We’re working very hard to make sure the story of Amelia is clear; but I think modern audiences are more used to this convention than they know, as flashbacks and "flashforwards" happen all the time in television shows and movies. There is a poetic approach to shifting realities in Amelia; for example, Daedalus and Icarus, who come from mythology, and The Flier, who comes from history, come, in this opera, from Amelia’s dreams--we see them because they’re inside of her. In the same way, Amelia's father and mother, long since dead in the later scenes of the opera, continue to reappear in her consciousness. In a sense, I think the layering of multiple realities in Amelia resembles the experience of being pregnant, where there is, quite literally, an inner life as well as an outer one; and it’s also a bit like being on an airplane, where you’re sort of ‘outside of time’ for a few hours, although really you aren’t, life is going on down there on the ground. My advice to the audience is, although we are staging the action naturalistically, bear in mind that Amelia is a poem: each line in the libretto, all the musical ideas, what happens in the staging, everything has more than one meaning. Our set designer, Tom Lynch, has given us in almost every scenic location multiple levels, even the sets have more than one meaning.

I highly recommend reading the libretto before seeing the show, as it stands alone as a gorgeous piece of artwork. If not, here’s my attempt to explain what the opera’s about in one sentence: Amelia is trying to reconcile the circumstances surrounding the mysterious disappearance of her father with the fact that she is about to become a mother. There’s more to it than that...but that should get you started!

JD: It seems like every time I come down to the rehearsal studio, people are in tears. Is Amelia going to be one of those operas where you need to bring an extra handkerchief?

MB: It’s extremely intense, it’s true, because Amelia deals with people’s most desperate desires and deepest fears. Of any director, Stephen Wadsworth is the best equipped to deal with this kind of intense emotion. He’s been teaching acting for many years, and has a brilliantly disarming technique when it comes to emotional storytelling. He’s unabashed, emotionally, more than happy to ask his singers to explore the full expressive range of human emotions. You know, we—-in the age of cameras and close-ups--we love poker face. Most of us, in real life, do our best to avoid the full-blown intensity of operatic emotion, the kind of thing that makes you wave your arms and sing, very loudly, “Oh, my God, I LOVE YOU!!!” (Birnbaum demonstrates.) But that’s what opera is about; that’s what opera allows you to do.

Stephen--and in fact the whole team working on Amelia, including Gardner McFall and Daron Hagen--wanted to build a piece that can serve as a vessel for these large-scale emotions; but everyone is acutely aware of not wanting to cross the line into sentimentality. I think for us, sentimentality implies cuteness, and tends to fail to achieve universality. It’s like comedy, you can’t TRY to be funny. We certainly are not trying to make people cry, just to present the reality of these people's lives, which happen to be emotionally fraught.

JD: Speaking of comedy, Amelia is such an intense show, will there be any comic relief?

MB: Well...there’s lots of comic relief in the rehearsal studio! Everybody in the cast, and the creative team, too, has a great sense of humor, so we’ve been alternately crying and laughing! Generally, however, we’re trying to keep the dramatic tension pretty taut, which is consistent with most fiction and movies that concern the Vietnam War--it's not a laugh riot. These stories are really hard. You know, in Apocalypse Now or Platoon there are shots of guys being chummy, joking around or laughing, but it’s not very funny--they’re clearly doing that because they want relief from the stress and the horror of the situation. I think it’s interesting that Amelia explores a story that concerns Vietnam, but from a woman’s point of view. That frat-boy kind of forced hilarity is foreign both to Gardner, who wrote the libretto, and to Amelia, whose story is taken from Gardner’s life. Instead there’s a gentleness, a quality of observant quiet to Gardner’s writing, which I haven’t seen before in this kind of fiction.


  1. Hallo, SeattleOperites!
    Maybe what audiences want is an opera production that is genuine enough (and NOT sentimental!!) that makes one cry!! Good productions of Boheme, Butterfly, Traviata, and (YES!!) Rosenkavalier have left me in tears at the end -- and made me come back to see the SAME PRODUCTION again -- and again!! Hopefully, this will be true for the SeaOp production of Amelia!!!
    Win H.