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Opera's Next Wave

Director THADDEUS STRASSBERGER

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Thaddeus Strassberger
Courtesy of Los Angeles Opera

Few young stage directors in opera have demonstrated an intellectual drive to match Thaddeus Strassberger's. He wanted to work in opera from the time he was a child. ("It's been a long, slow burn," he says.) He began as a set and costume designer. At the Accademia Teatro alla Scala in 2001, the centenary of Verdi's death, he began to make the transition to director. "There was so much seriousness about what was going onstage," he recalls. "I got to see so many productions of Verdi, and Muti was conducting them. I no longer felt like an outsider, interloping in this European art form."

At thirty-six, Strassberger has built an enviable resumé, staging works as diverse as Les Huguenots at Bard SummerScape, Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at Norwegian National Opera and Rossini's La Gazzetta at the Wildbad Festival. Currently his production of Chabrier's opéra comique The King in Spite of Himself is playing at Bard SummerScape. Next month, he opens his new production of the Verdi rarity I Due Foscari at Los Angeles Opera. 

Strassberger's starting point as a director is making sure that there's a real reason to put the opera onstage. "I think in these days of cultural budgets being slashed that we can't just take it for granted that it's just going to be there." When we spoke, Strassberger was preparing to stage Nabucco for Washington National Opera. "When they approached me about doing it, I had to think about it for a minute — to ask, 'What is the purpose of it?' What I ultimately came up with is that politics and culture are in dialogue with each other, and the idea that the opera is being done at Washington National Opera's Kennedy Center, the center of politics and culture in this war between what's important in the world and what's extraneous. I thought, that's a good dialogue to have in this conversation. In Nabucco, every decision about the piece is fundamentally trying to answer that question." 

Strassberger believes that opera is the true fabulous invalid. "Strauss and Hofmannsthal, Verdi and Solera — even going back to da Ponte and Mozart — you feel as if everyone is in this constant state of gloom and doom: the theaters are shutting down next year, the quality isn't what it was, we don't have the voices we used to have. When Verdi presented the score of Nabucco to Bartolomeo Merelli, they said, 'There's no budget.' Verdi said, 'I've got Strepponi and the whole cast,' and they said, 'You'll have to use sets from the warehouse,' and Verdi said, 'That's all right. Let's get it onstage.' That's no different from an American company saying you have to rub two sticks together to get the production on because our NEA budget got cut this year." 

Strassberger is a little more worried about audiences being able to take on the immersive experience of opera. "The last bastion of the opera house is to give yourself over to something that is not participatory, particularly. You don't get to click anything to choose the ending. I wonder if that is something people will become less accustomed to doing." spacer 

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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6