Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Meet Our Artists: TOMER ZVULUN, Stage Director

La Bohème opened to great enthusiasm from critics and audiences this weekend, many of whom were discussing the use of the photos of turn-of-the-century Paris (and the photo taken by the Bohemians at the end of Act Two) and the many fresh and unusual staging moments in this traditional production. These ideas are the invention of Tomer Zvulun, who made his Seattle Opera debut directing our gripping Lucia di Lammermoor in 2010, and who was a Resident Assistant Director at Seattle Opera for many productions before that. I checked in with Tomer about his life with La Bohème, his colleagues, and his blossoming career.

Do you remember your first Bohème? What did the opera do to you?
Bohème is the show that made me realize I wanted to work in the opera world. I watched an unforgettable performance of La Bohème in Tel Aviv, and I remember being absolutely entranced. I returned for every performance and at the end of the run decided to follow a career path in the theater and opera rather than going to medical school, where I was already enrolled. I never regretted that decision, and every time I hear Bohème I have a flashback of that performance and that night.

Which characters and scenes in La Bohème do you find the most real?
Bohème is wonderfully human. Different moments from it remind me of my own experiences: the deep friendship between the guys, the moment that Mimì and Rodolfo fall in love, the devastation you feel when losing somebody you deeply love, etc. But the highlight for me is Act 3, which I find one of the most profoundly touching scenes in opera. The scene in which Mimì is breaking up with Rodolfo, or trying to break up with him and she can't. It’s so universal and emotional. Each one of us has gone through a separation, whether we were the ones leaving or the ones left behind. This scene is deeply moving. I remember that when I staged it for the first time, years ago, I got sick after the rehearsal. It was so emotionally exhausting and intense.

Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo) and Tomer Zvulun at La Bohème Rehearsal
Alan Alabastro, photo

You have so many wonderful original moments in this staging of La Bohème, things I’ve never before seen—Colline about to bash Benoit over the head with the chair, Musetta calling for a spotlight before her waltz, Marcello and Musetta kissing furiously as they quarrel, Mimì getting up from her deathbed in panic when she thinks Rodolfo has left her (to name a few). Where do these ideas come from? Do you tend to use such ideas in every Bohème you direct?
Bohème more than other shows has a very rich and distinct tradition. Puccini was very specific about the timing and the action in his operas. I have lived with Bohème for so many years, doing many productions of it and watching many performances. There are ideas that came to me while listening to the recordings, ideas that came from this rehearsal period (for example, the chair moment you mention) or from the last time I directed Bohème (Cleveland 2008). I like doing it in a certain way, but two things never fail to amaze me: how perfect Puccini's pacing is and how much you learn from the people you do it with. I am told that one day I will get tired of Bohème, but I laugh at that notion. And dread it at the same time.

Tomer Zvulun at La Bohème Rehearsal
Alan Alabastro, photo

You worked on Erhard Rom’s set in Cleveland as well. How has this production evolved since then?
Erhard and I collaborated for the first time in 2008 in Cleveland, and began finding a mutual vocabulary back then. In the past few years we’ve done quite a few shows together: Lucia both in Cleveland and Atlanta, Don Giovanni at Wolf Trap, and now we are preparing a new Falstaff for Wolf Trap. We have developed a trust and respect for each other that only great friends and collaborators have. Together with Robert Wierzel, our lighting designer, we share a similar aesthetic and a special friendship. It is really fun to return to the piece again and revisit and develop the ideas that worked and get rid of the ones that didn't. Our ideas about nostalgia and photography emerged in Cleveland, but we didn’t have the chance to develop them visually, at least not fully. Here in Seattle, with more sophisticated projections, we are able to create a much more specific world, one of memories and nostalgia.

In Zvulun's staging, Rodolfo (Francesco Demuro) and Marcello (Michael Todd Simpson) gaze at a photo, taken by the happy gang at Café Momus, as they sing their nostalgic duet in Act Four
Elise Bakketun, photo

You’ve been busily working at opera companies around the U.S. since you were a resident Assistant Director in Seattle. Are you working overseas, as well? Do you work often in your homeland of Israel?
I have been very lucky. I have directed new productions all over the U.S., but was also able to return home to Tel Aviv and direct Gianni Schicchi and Dialogue of the Carmelites at the IVAI in Tel Aviv. That was a tremendous experience, to return home. Last year I worked in Panama, and this spring I will work in South America, directing a new Lucrezia Borgia in Buenos Aires. In the near future I will make a debut in Europe in an important festival. As exciting as traveling all over the world is, it can get very exhausting. The best part of my job is collaborating with the people that I love and care for: designers, singers, musicians, and in this case the people here in Seattle Opera that have known me since I started here as a young assistant—the stage managers, the costume and scenic department, the chorus... Opera is a complicated art form that is, in its core, a collaboration and a HUGE communal effort. It takes a miracle to get all those people together and create a successful show, and if things come together well on opening night, it’s an unforgettable experience. That was exactly what I felt when I made my debut in Seattle with Lucia in 2010. It felt like a little miracle, something I will never forget. And nothing is more exciting than sharing that miracle with your colleagues and collaborators. IT IS ADDICTIVE!!!

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