Picture the multitude of soldiers, horses and weapons that populated the recent blockbuster film “Troy.” Add in myriad satyrs, nymphs and fauns plus a score of ego-driven opera singers. Then squeeze them all onto a stage for four hours and you’ll begin to grasp the job of Francesca Zambello, who directed “Les Troyens” last year at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
Zambello is an opera director. In other words, she’s fearless.
Dealing with powerful impresarios, delicate singers and bossy conductors comes with the territory. But Zambello puts it simply, saying, “I’m a storyteller.”
Sometimes her challenge isn’t who she’s working with but what she’s given to dramatize. Take her latest piece, Shostakovich’s rarely performed 1928 opera “The Nose,” which opens at Richard B. Fisher Center at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson on Friday.
In the opera, a man’s proboscis is accidentally cut off at the barbershop. It runs out the door and takes on a grand new life of its own. And a cast of 27 principals and 24 chorus members sing about it in Russian for about two hours.
“It’s a rather bizarre, quirky, zany wonderful story,” says Zambello. “The nose looks like a big nose a 5-foot nose. And as he grows in self-importance, he grows from being a regular-size nose to a supernose.”
If anyone is up to the task of the supernose, it’s Francesca Zambello.
“She’s at the top of her form and the top of her field,” says Leon Botstein, Bard’s president, who will conduct the American Symphony Orchestra in “The Nose.”
Botstein engaged Zambello for the production about a year ago, which is relatively short lead time in the world of opera, especially with a director as in demand as Zambello, who regularly works in the major opera houses of Europe, including the Paris Opera and London’s Covent Garden.
Zambello’s renown has come, at least in part, for her faithfulness to operatic tradition. This stands in sharp contrast to directors like Robert Wilson and Peter Sellars, who find fame by making themselves and their vision such an obvious, sometimes intrusive, part of what’s on stage.
“I’m a populist,” says Zambello when asked to describe her style, during a recent discussion between rehearsals at Bard. “I’m interested in getting opera out there to the widest number of people through means that make it as accessible as possible.”
Staging a piece in the 3,800-seat Met certainly means reaching audiences. But Zambello also points to a production early this year of “La Boheme” at the 5,000-seat Royal Albert Hall in London. “Seventy-five thousand people saw that,” she says.
Zambello approached “The Nose” as she does every opera – with months of historical research, long discussions with the production team and a gut instinct about what works on stage and can speak to contemporary audiences. “It’s a satire from the 1920s, based on (the short story) by Gogol, which was written in the 1830s,” she says. “It’s about class climbing, and that’s something that’s endemic all the time. (It’s also) about everyman versus bureaucracy, and anybody could relate to that.”
Composed when Shostakovich was 21 years old, the music has an optimism that became increasingly rare in his music, as he struggled to be an artist under Soviet rule. “It shows brilliant virtuosity and tremendous influence of Stravinsky,” Botstein says of the score. Zambello sees in the opera’s quick pacing Shostakovich’s interest in film. “It moves forward in real time, almost a cinematic time,” she says.
Along with a multinational cast that includes six Russians, Bard’s “Nose” team features as set designer the Latin American, New York City-based architect Rafael Vinoly. Follows in the footsteps of Frank Ghery, who designed the Fisher Center as well as the sets for last year’s production of Janacek’s opera “Osud,” Vinoly is planning a new science building for the Bard campus and in the meantime takes a stab at opera.
Says Zambello, “When you collaborate with someone from outside the theatrical realm … it’s always stimulating intellectual dialogue, and eventually you have to find a way to get it on the stage, and we’re getting there.”
After recent summers spent in France, Austria, Japan and Seattle, Zambello is enjoying the summer at Bard since she has a home less than an hour away in Gardner, near New Paltz.
“It’s wonderful to be able to work and sleep in your own bed. It boils down to something so simple,” she says. Zambello shares her country home and a Manhattan apartment with her companion of 15 years, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Manuela Hoelterhoff, and their three beagles.
Hoelterhoff has written on opera and music for the Wall Street Journal and has an upcoming book on Hitler and Wagner. Recently she was named to a new post overseeing cultural reporting for Bloomberg Media. The new job will make it even harder for Hoelterhoff to travel with Zambello, who says, “It’s not good to have your partner with you when there’s so much work.”
The couple did collaborate on one opera, “Modern Painters,” based on the life of John Ruskin. Zambello’s production premiered at the Sante Fe Opera in 1995. The libretto was by Hoelterhoff and music by David Lang. “I’m sure we’ll end up collaborating on something else,” says Zambello. “We both have our thoughts on each other’s work. It’s great to have artistic discussions with her. She’s a keen thinker.”
As a leading American figure in opera, Zambello is often approached by composers eager to write for the stage. “I try to be as helpful, positive and nurturing as possible, because that’s a very isolated world,” she says.
Though it’s not often Zambello does direct a new piece, her track record with them is good. An operatic take on the classic French book “The Little Prince” premiered last year at the Houston Grand Opera with music by the Academy Award-winning composer Rachel Portman (“The Piano”). Six other companies have since lined up to remount the piece, including the New York City Opera.
Also in the 2005-06 season, the Metropolitan Opera will present Zambello’s staging of the premiere of Tobias Picker’s “An American Tragedy,” based on the novel by Theodore Dreiser. It’s her third collaboration with the composer, who lives near Rhinebeck. “It’s truly an upstate (New York) opera. Most of it takes place in the Adirondacks,” Zambello says. Picker admires Zambello’s abilities as a director, having seen her in operation both in and out of the opera house.
“She’s a real director,” he says. “You go to her house and two people are sitting near each other and she tells them to talk to each other or look out the window. She’s always directing. … I love going out to eat with her. You get good service.”
Originally appeared in the Times Union, July 25, 2004.