Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Meet the Director: Dan Wallace Miller

Director Dan Wallace Miller joking around with Michael Chioldi (Scarpia) in between filming Seattle Opera's streaming Tosca. Philip Newton photo
As someone who’s both disarmingly zany and down-to-Earth all at once, Dan Wallace Miller brings a presence to opera that’s hard to ignore. From days of running his own company Vespertine Opera Theater, to creating Il trovatore (‘19) and our immersive opera, The Combat (‘17), the stage director possesses a distinct power: helping newcomers (including millennials and Gen Z) realize that they too, are enamored with this art form. And with Miller’s inspired take on Tosca, he shows how this centuries-old art form is as seductive and as electrifying as it ever was.

What have you been up to during the pandemic? What’s it like directing opera again?

It feels remarkable to be directing. The pandemic initially seemed like an opportunity to really flip the sort of content opera can produce on its head. As someone who has always enjoyed dabbling in non-traditional theater, I wanted to take advantage of this potential, and spent time brainstorming with my collaborator Christopher Mumaw. As the pandemic wore on and extended long past the point anyone in the industry was imagining, I drifted away from artistic work and did what so many people did in 2020 to retain a teaspoon of sanity: I played a truly embarrassing amount of video games. People may not realize this, but video games have become a genuinely powerful vehicle for telling unique and artful narratives. There was one in particular, “The Last of Us Part II,” ostensibly a zombie game (I know), that was actually a masterful meditation on human suffering. It was one of the best examples of immersive storytelling I had experienced in years. It had me sobbing by the end.

Dan Wallace Miller

You’re accustomed to directing for the stage. Have you ever directed a streaming opera before this Tosca?

Despite having a degree in film and drawing inspiration from cinema in all my work, I had never created in this format before. I’ve only really ever been qualified to complain about movies, not make one. In a way, this was an opportunity to confront one of my deepest fears! I’m so used to pulling elements of film into opera, and now I had the chance to pull opera, and elements of theater, into film. It was pretty revivifying after so many canceled shows and dried-up contracts for the past year. I think we’ve created something that you can enjoy now in 2021, and years beyond.

The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, front center, with cast and creative team members of WNO's Samson and Delilah. Dan Wallace Miller is top, far right.

Where were you when COVID-19 shutdowns began?

I was with Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center, assisting my mentor Peter Kazaras. We were in the middle of a Samson and Delilah when shutdowns began. As COVID anxiety was ramping up, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attended our second-to-last performance before lockdown (about six months before she passed away). It was so fascinating to watch her, because of course, she always got a standing ovation when she walked into the auditorium. Never in my life have I seen someone of such a small, physical stature command so much respect and awe. You could see the humility in the way she kind of brushed off the attention; she was there for the art. It was evident how genuinely excited she was to enjoy opera.

What was it like creating an opera in 2021?

It seems like we’ve turned a corner with the pandemic; we’re witnessing parts of the world slowly open back up. But Tosca was filmed with full COVID-19 safety protocols in place.

I got into opera inspired by both a love of music, and by a love of film, which I’ve always viewed as a 20th century permutation of opera. And film is actually the perfect genre for us to be telling this story. Because of COVID protocols, Tosca cannot physically stab Scarpia, nor can she kiss Cavaradossi. However, one can easily create intimacy through the art of filmmaking. In that way, COVID restrictions have presented us with an opportunity rather than a disadvantage. I’m not sure the audience will even know that restrictions were in place.

Seattle Opera's streaming Tosca directed by Dan Wallace Miller. Philip Newton photo

Why should someone watch a film version of Tosca when there are so many recorded versions?

As a director, I love trying to flip sacred cows on their heads. When we think of Tosca, we think of lavish sets that recreate three real world locations specifically in the summer of 1800 in Rome, we think of the spectacular gowns, we think of the huge chorus in the "Te Deum." We think of tradition when Puccini wanted us submerged in the shock and pathos the way he was when he saw the original Sardou play. This version stays true to that tension and immediacy through filmic techniques that aren’t possible on stage or in recordings of live stage performances.

You often use theatrical and stylized forms of storytelling in your work like shadow play, or that epic battle scene in Il trovatore where the singers were all moving in slow-motion.

Where do you find inspiration for stuff like this?

German expressionism (an art movement from the early twentieth century where a character’s mental state is represented in the world around them in garish and twisted ways) is a big inspiration of mine, and you’ll find that woven throughout the film. Because we cannot have regular intimacy between our singers in this Tosca, it helps to pull away from the realistic, and set the table more for the emotions of the piece. For scenes that would require larger groups of people, or people to touch, we use shadow play.

Suspiria represents a high watermark for the Italian giallo film and for horror filmmaking in general.

Tosca is (debatably) an example of verismo (Italian: “realism”) opera, meaning it’s all about passion, murder, despair, hopewrenching and explosive emotions. I took inspiration from another Italian art form from later in the 20th century, the giallo movies of the 1960s and 70s. As the Italian take on the slasher movie, giallo films tell similarly lurid and passionate stories as verismo operas, but with sumptuous and visceral cinematography. Gorgeous stuff. I think pairing a more contemporary film lens to a work like Tosca can help us engage with the opera in the way it would have struck people at the time.

What was the most exciting thing about getting to film at St. James Cathedral?

This was actually the second opera I’ve created in a cathedral, the first was The Rape of Lucretia at St Mark’s, the Episcopal cathedral on Capitol Hill.

St, James Cathedral during a typical Sunday service prior to COVID-19. Seattle Opera was fortunate to film our Tosca at this active house of worship.  

I was so excited to hear that St. James was on board, and a little nervous, because it’s a real cathedral where people go to worship every day. When we went to visit for the first time, we were granted access that I would never have imagined. Ken Christensen, the Video Director, and I even climbed the bell tower like the Hunchback of Notre Dame! St. James Cathedral adds so much gravitas to this film. It was an insane opportunity. And Father Ryan is a huge opera fan!

What are your goals as an artist?

I’m not sure I really have any specific goals. I just enjoy telling stories that grab my attention, and hope that they also grab the attention of an audience. When you boil it down, I really only have three ideas that I just reshuffle. I only wore three pairs of pants during the pandemic, and I feel like that’s also a nice number of ideas to have as an artist. It’s like that episode of The Simpsons where Marge finds a Chanel dress at the outlet mall and has to keep refashioning it to impress her friends at the fancy country club. I once did a very fun Magic Flute with Stephen Stubbs (who would later go on to create The Combat with me) and Peter Kazaras came to see it. I was eager to hear his notes and critiques as he would always offer after a show of mine, but all he said was “it was raunchy and bizarre.” I have never felt so validated.

Dan Wallace Miller in between filming with Alexandra LoBianco (Tosca). Philip Newton photo

You and I talked in 2017 about why opera is an important medium for young people, and for the moment we’re living in. So much has happened since then. I’m thinking about the #MeToo movement. Racial justice. A global pandemic. And so much more.

So my questions are: Why opera? Why now? Why care?

These are amazing questions. Much of the answer will unfold in the next couple years. This industry skid to a screeching halt in 2020. It’s funny, during the pandemic I had the opportunity to talk to so many other directors for the first time. We started talking regularly over Zoom. We showed up to put faces to names, and to create solidarity. We discussed the need for seismic change in how opera presents itself, and what voices it includes. It will be interesting to see what happens, and what all of us in the opera world are able to accomplish. It behooves us to reexamine what we consider to be opera. There are so many moving, gorgeous works and styles of musical storytelling that are not of a white European lineage, for example. The industry needs to embrace this moment as a revolution. In an odd way, COVID was the pause we needed to affect some serious change, and hopefully we’ll see that opportunity seized as the performing arts recover.

During the filming for Seattle Opera's Tosca. Philip Newton photo

Tosca, directed by Dan Wallace Miller, streams on Seattle Opera’s website June 25–27 for $35. Subscriber Early Access Days begin June 4. Learn more and get tickets at

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