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Gentleman Jim

F. PAUL DRISCOLL checks in with director James Robinson, one of the busiest men in the opera world.

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The director, photographed near his Brooklyn home by Dario Acosta
© Dario Acosta 2006
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The world premiere of Salsipuedes at Houston Grand Opera, 2004
© Brett Coomer 2006
James Robinson seems amazingly calm for a man who is juggling rehearsals on two different coasts. It's September 2005 - a typical month in a schedule the stage director himself calls "ridiculous" - and Robinson is at work on a revival of Il Viaggio a Reims at New York City Opera while preparing for tech and chorus work on Norma for his San Francisco Opera debut the following month. The director jokes that his air of calm is "a life skill, painfully acquired after years of practice," but it genuinely seems to sustain him. Robinson - who divides his "home time" between Denver, where he has been artistic director of Opera Colorado since 2000, and Brooklyn - has an unusually full calendar this season; after bringing his Carmen (first seen in Seattle in 2004) to Denver in November, he mounted a new Don Pasquale at Houston Grand Opera in January. This month, the Norma he was working on for San Francisco arrives at Opera Colorado before moving on to a March revival at Canadian Opera Company in Toronto (where the production was unveiled in 1998). Spring brings La Traviata at Boston Lyric Opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Opera Colorado and Street Scene at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Robinson's uncompromising, often edgy stagings of opera began attracting national attention just over a decade ago. Now forty-three, he doesn't seem to favor a particular area of the repertory - he's taken on everything from Mozart and bel canto standards to dark-horse revivals of twentieth-century rarities by Weisgall, Antheil and Argento - or to have a signature "look"; his striking visual sense embraces the extravagant funhouse atmosphere of Catán's Salsipuedes at Houston Grand Opera as well as the elegant severity of Handel's Radamisto at St. Louis. Traditionalists may look askance at Robinson's near-savage stagings of Norma and Lucia di Lammermoor, entirely purged of Romantic-era coziness, or protest the boisterous comic antics of his Viaggio. But his intelligence, wit and, when called for, his ability to achieve first-class results with great economy of means are undeniable.

Havashim's Fire
Keith Phares, Erie Mills, Jacob Ashworth, Sarah Tannehill and Patricia Risley in Miss Havisham's Fire at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, 2001, designed by Robinson's frequent collaborator Allen Moyer
© Ken Howard 2006

One of Robinson's trademarks is his unfailingly supportive and painstakingly detailed work with singing actors, a process that can achieve revelatory results with the right combination of artist and role: Erie Mills in Miss Havisham's Fire in St. Louis; Maria Kanyova as Suor Angelica at NYCO; Garrett Sorenson as Lensky in Boston; Stephanie Blythe and Elizabeth Futral as Handel's Caesar and Cleopatra in Denver. Robinson says the key to his collaboration with singers is "the admission of ignorance. When I first started working at this, I thought I had to have all the answers - that when I went into rehearsal, I needed to know where every person was going to be onstage at all times. Then I found out how frustrating it was when somebody wanted to deviate from the supposed master plan. You've set this structure up, but somebody has another idea, and maybe that idea is actually better than your original idea, so now what do you do? Does everything start to fall apart, or what?

"Then one day - maybe seven or eight years ago, maybe longer - a singer came to me in rehearsal and said, 'What do I do here? I need to figure this out.' And I said, 'You know, I have no idea.' Suddenly it just felt so good to say that, because I don't have to have all the answers all the time. It was actually refreshing to say, 'What do you think? Where are we going to go with this? Let's try three different things and see where it goes.' The work became more productive and more interesting. People retained things longer, because they had been given responsibility. If the performer thinks something is his or her idea - and maybe it is his or her idea - they're going to own it."

Le Nozze di Figaro at Opera Colorado, 2005
© P. Switzer 2006

Robinson had early ambitions to be a composer of film music. He studied at the University of Tulsa, the University of Chicago and in France before coming to the University of Minnesota, where he did graduate work with composer Dominick Argento. In the late 1980s, while working on his Master's thesis ("a one-act opera that I never completed"), Robinson spent a summer working as an usher at Santa Fe Opera, where Tatiana Troyanos's performance in Ariodante "really turned me on to opera." His composing ambitions put aside, Robinson returned to Santa Fe the following season as a production assistant, later becoming a stage director for the company's apprentice program. He also served four years as staff stage director for the opera program at New England Conservatory in Boston. He counts two jobs in the early 1990s as his career breaks: an eleventh-hour fill-in directing a Santa Fe Capriccio and an offer to stage Les Contes d'Hoffmann at Boston Lyric Opera. "I'm absolutely indebted to Richard Gaddes in Santa Fe and Stephen Lord in Boston for taking a chance on me, and more work came fairly quickly. If I hadn't started getting so much work, I probably would have done something stupid, like go to graduate school to learn how to be a director. But I believe the way to do it is to do it."

What does Robinson expect from his singers? "To bring more than just the notes and the words to rehearsal. I expect them to have thought about the connection of music to the text. After that, it's tricky. Unlike actors, who are trained in groups and encouraged to show vulnerability, singers are often trained in isolation - it's just the singer and the teacher. Singers are not allowed to show that they don't know something. I try to let singers in rehearsal know that it's okay if they screw up, or if they want to try something. It's not as if we're doing animal improvisations or anything like that, because I don't think that's useful. But I try to loosen things up a little bit, so singers don't have to worry about the singing, or the phrase, or the rhythm in every minute of rehearsal. If they screw up a rhythm when we're blocking a show, so what? We'll fix it some other time."

Attila Jun as Oroveso in Robinson's Norma at San Francisco Opera, 2005, designed by Moyer
© Terrence McCarthy 2006

Robinson calls his rehearsal vocabulary "non-traditional, if that's a meaningful label. As a director, you should do whatever it takes. I often use film references. The influence of American movies on world culture is inescapable. Sometimes for a show, I will send people a required viewing list of movies. In rehearsing GiulioCesare [at Houston Grand Opera and Opera Colorado], in which we included a lot of 1930s Hollywood references, I made sure that everybody knew Dinner at Eight and Broadway Melody. They went off, and they looked at those. One of the greatest movies for comedy ever - and it still works for people onstage, if they're smart enough to have seen the movie - is Pillow Talk. I feel like everything I ever learned about anything came from Pillow Talk. Maybe it's because that movie creates a world with its own inarguable, particular logic, which is what comedy is supposed to do, yes? I used to think it was kind of weird talking film when you're in an opera rehearsal, but when you can say to somebody who's struggling, 'This is like that moment in Doctor Zhivago - or All About Eve or Ryan's Daughter or Taxi Driver,' you are tapping into a common visual and emotional experience. I can't very well say to everybody, 'This needs to be like that 1968 broadcast of Tebaldi.' Nobody's going to get that now."

Robinson says he "thrives" on his pre-production work with designers and conductors. "It's easy to come up with ideas about a piece. That's not the difficult part. What's hard is to communicate those ideas to an audience, and to make sure that there's some type of continuity. I don't think my work is particularly flashy, but I believe there's dramatic integrity to it, in large measure because of the people I work with. Good designers keep the project honest. They make sure we're not just going off on some flight of fancy because it would be great to have some particular effect onstage. I don't like to watch productions where it feels as if this is the director's work, that is the set designer's work, this is the costume designer's work, and that piece of it belongs to the conductor. I love it when it all looks and sounds as if it came from a single vision."

Education Manquée
Une Education Manquée at Manhattan School
of Music, 1994

© Carol Rosegg 2006
His pre-production process never varies. "I always start with the music. I was trained as a musician, and those are my first instincts. If there's a CD available, I just listen to it, not really sitting down with the libretto or anything. I just have it on as background music to kind of get it in my ear. It's funny how much music informs those early decisions about the way you want to approach a piece, even if you don't really know what the story is. It's strange. I get very visceral impulses, and then I go back and read the libretto, and then I go back and do all the more academic research. But I have to start with what the audience will hear - that's where those initial gut instincts come from.

"Take Nixon in China. I had a very dim memory of having seen it on television, but when I knew I had to do it, I just popped the CD in, and there was something about the music that informed the way I wanted the piece to move in and out of time, and the way it needed to look. It's a feeling that I wanted to capture - the intellectual analysis of how that feeling gets presented onstage was part of my work with [set designer] Allen Moyer."

Nixon in China
, staged at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2004, is a testament to Robinson's skill at brokering coproductions; eight companies will share the staging. Other American directors, notably Francesca Zambello, have developed stagings that have been used by more than one theater, but Robinson has a particular affinity for the process; his Turandot, for example, created for Minnesota Opera in 1995, has since been seen at twenty-four other companies. Charles MacKay, general director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, says his company, "could never have afforded to stage Nixon solo. It was Jim who knew how to get other companies to share resources with us. He is incredibly imaginative, but when it comes to budgets, he can think conservatively. Jim is one of the keys to the future of opera. I believe that his vision and his interpretive skill will help to define opera in the twenty-first century."

Has being artistic director of his own company affected the way Robinson approaches his work with other presenters? "Sure. It's irresponsible if, as a director, you don't consider your audience and plan a production accordingly. For example, a general director may say, 'I want you to do this production of opera X. It can't be too off the wall. We need it to really reach the people.' Paying attention to that request is not compromising a vision - I actually prefer it when somebody says that. They tell you what your budget is, they tell you what the rehearsal period is. It's just part of the challenge for me. It's totally cool. Sure, there are times when I'm not willing to compromise, because I believe a compromise is being made for the wrong reason. You can do things with less money, but you can't do it without time.

Jim Robinson
© Dario Acosta 2006
"In this business, you really have to get to know the people you're working for. That can help your process, because when you get to a point when rehearsals are over, and you're onstage about to open, and somebody's having a cow about something, it's really too late to change things. I understand that even better now that I am an artistic director myself. You need to really be careful about every decision. Some of the work that we've done in Denver has represented something of a challenge to our audience's expectations, and I've been very impressed that they have come on board with it. I think we've won their trust, but I still think that it's important to be somewhat cautious."

Does that caution ever make itself felt in Robinson's rehearsals? Erie Mills, the unforgettable Miss Havisham of Robinson's 2001 Miss Havisham's Fire in St. Louis, demurs. "Caution? Absolutely not. That Miss Havisham was one of the great, great experiences of my career. Heaven on earth. When St. Louis called me, I knew that Jim was attached to the project, and that he had really pushed for this piece, which had been a failure at New York City Opera when it was first done in the 1970s, and was reworking it with Argento, who had been his teacher. I love Dominick's music, so I grabbed the offer. Then I got the score, which was this big, thick, thing, and my music was on a lot of those pages. Now it was a great rehearsal period - Jim creates a sense of ensemble as fast as anybody I've ever seen, and I got such a sense of calm, such a sense of craft, from him - but I decided to keep myself separate from the scenes that I was not in, and skip those rehearsals. It was hard enough to learn what I was in - the action moves back and forth in time to three different periods in [Miss Havisham's] life. So I never saw it come together until run-throughs. His process was so easy that you never really felt you were being guided. He always phrased his comments in a way that indicated that matters were open for discussion. But when I looked at that run-through, and saw that big show running like clockwork, with all the moves worked out perfectly, I thought, 'Son of a gun. He knew exactly what he wanted every step of the way, and that's exactly what we are all doing.' And we loved doing it! Now, in my book, that's a great stage director."

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