Wednesday, November 11, 2020

A Conversation with director David Gately

Stage Director David Gately has helped to create a new The Elixir of Love production for streaming at Seattle Opera. Gately has directed opera all of his professional life, starting back during his days in college. In this conversation, which took place shortly before arriving in Seattle, he discusses his hopes for this Seattle Opera production, directing while social distancing, the future of the performing arts, and more. 

How would you best describe your directing style?
I find it best to let others describe my style. Nevertheless, my approach is simply to concentrate on the acting and the characters first. Whenever I look at a piece, I immediately go to the text, while the music is yet another source of information about what’s happening between characters.

My comedy is rather aggressive with lots of physical interaction. Now, obviously that’s going to be a real challenge with social distancing where people can’t be near each other. So this is going to be a totally completely different kind of thing. We hope the viewer will get the flavor of what we’re doing within the guidelines of being safe
So what has it been like directing while social distancing?
Its uncharted waters for everyone. I’ve had some practice at Texas Christian University where I run the opera studio. I teach all my classes in a large blackbox theater. All the chairs and singing positions are clearly marked with enough space between them. They aren’t to be moved. In addition, the School of Music has strict cleaning protocols. Even if only two people are in a room, you must wear masks.

As for Elixir, I know Seattle Opera is doing similar things—testing, cleaning, and so forth. And Christina has talked about everyone wearing these social distancing bracelets. They vibrate whenever we get too close one another—a sort of warning signal.

We will use the cameras and editing so that the artists appear to be closer than they are. For instance, where I might normally have singers right next to each other, when in fact they’re socially distanced. One camera is filming the singer while another is filming the other singer’s reaction.

What can Seattle Opera subscribers expect to see in this production?
My goal is to make it way more than a sort of concert version all dressed up. Yes, it has sets, costumes, lighting, all of the stuff you’d expect in a full-on stage production. Plus we’re filming it with multiple cameras. A lot of the acting and character development and comedy will be worked out during rehearsals. It’s good that we have a long rehearsal period. I’m sure there will be many frustrations. But nobody can say, “I do it this way, because that’s the normal way it’s done.” There is no normal to this. This is all brand new territory.

Fortunately, I know a lot of the singers in the cast! I actually have personal experience working with some of them. I know how they work—they’re extremely flexible and fun. It’s going to be a fun collaboration. And while filming, we can stop the cameras, make adjustments, and start again. I think there’s plenty of opportunity here that you wouldn’t normally have just because it’s such a different project.

Do I have trepidation? Yes. Am I excited about it? Yes. It may take a bit of experimentation, but yeah, we’re going to see where it goes. I’m just thrilled and thankful for the opportunity, especially now.

What is your hope for the future of opera?
In the best of all possible worlds, I hope we are going to get back to some kind of normal, eventually. I know we are. However, it’s going to take longer than anyone predicted. Until 2,000 people feel comfortable sitting in a room with each other, opera, Broadway, all of it, is not going to happen. So during this time we’re still going to try to find different ways to entertain, lift spirits, and monetize artists. Singers can only do so many free concerts on YouTube. Singers still have to pay rent.

That’s why I believe Christina’s vision in doing this is astounding. If we succeed with this production, I think it can be a model for many other companies for the near future and into next year.

Why is this The Elixir of Love the kind of opera we need right now?
Comedy is always apropos. Even in the darkest times, you just have to laugh at times. A good laugh lifts the spirits, even if it’s just for a short time. We all need that right now.

How did you get started directing opera?
I studied theater in college. I guess that’s where I developed my approach. I did all the things a theater major would do. I took acting and directing classes. I was in numerous plays and musicals. While at Oberlin, which has an outstanding Conservatory of Music, any student can audition for opera productions. I got a number of roles. I also directed. Certain people saw what I was doing on stage and off. I was invited to festivals to work, and suddenly my whole career has been directing opera.

As a teacher what are you telling your students?
All I can do in my classroom is to try to make my kids excited about the art form and performing. That’s my job. But it is not going to be easy for them. I was just talking to some of my colleagues about this the other day. We believe that some parts of the performing arts industry will have to start from scratch. And many part of the industry will not return. Take the closing of Columbia Arts Management as an example. It was tough world when I started. It was a tough world after the 2008 economic collapse. I expect the same after this pandemic and economic downturn. So many of the small companies where I got my start don’t exist anymore. The future is unknown. But I will say this: The arts always rebound! It will be different—hopefully stronger and better.

Learn more about The Elixir of Love at

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