Alison Moritz on Bernstein, Directing, and Moving Forward (Together)
Stage Director Alison Moritz is a rising young star on the contemporary American opera scene. She debuts with Opera Santa Barbara in this April’s double bill of Trouble in Tahiti and Gallantry. Her recent productions have been lauded as “about as gorgeous and accessible as any opera anywhere” (The Commercial Appeal), and her work has been praised for its “incredible economy of resources, lean production design, and eye for jest and banter” (The Orlando Examiner). She chatted with Opera Santa Barbara’s Brian Hotchkin about the production, Bernstein, and opera’s continuing role in our lives.
Brian Hotchkin: Welcome to Opera Santa Barbara! We’re so thrilled to have you here for this production. In any double bill pairing, it’s important to find the common thread; how will you tie these two pieces together?
Alison Moritz: Thank you! It is great to be here. Gallantry and Trouble in Tahiti are innately linked because they are part of the same mid-century moment of American history. Specifically, in this staging, I imagine that Sam and Dinah’s everyday suburban reality is just that… reality! Meanwhile, the happy-chirpy trio (which functions as a sort of Greek chorus) comes from a heightened world of American commercialism, idealism, and excess. The trio in Tahiti links very well with Gallantry, since Bernstein originally imagined the Tahiti trio as a group of radio announcers and Gallantry is set in a television soundstage.
Ultimately, each piece is about facades. On the surface, Sam and Dinah are living the American Dream: lovely home, nice kid, steady paycheck. But, as we see, the cost of maintaining these public fronts is often too much. Gallantry shows the comedic version of this – we assume that the television soap opera is the reality of the piece when, in fact, the drama of creating the soap opera is much more interesting!
So, ultimately, both operas feature this idea of a “show within a show.” In Gallantry, we have the classic backstage/onstage farce in the vein of Noises Off, Birdman, Kiss Me Kate, etc. But in Tahiti, the “show” is actually Sam and Dinah’s real life – the performances that they are putting on for each other, in order to keep their marriage intact.
BH: Both pieces incorporate the influence of the media, Tahiti with radio jingles and Gallantry with a television announcer and commercials. Does this impact the way you tell these stories?
AM: I think every generation has to come to terms with new media. Looking through history, it’s remarkable that technological advancement is almost always coupled with a sense that life itself is speeding up, moving faster and faster into the future. I certainly feel that today, at least! I’m very interested in finding a way to reflect that kind of speed and momentum onstage, and making opera feel truly kinetic.
BH: Can you talk about the continued relevance of Trouble in Tahiti in 2018??
AM: I think it would definitely be difficult to move Tahiti out of its mid-century context, mostly because Bernstein has done such a striking job of setting us in a very specific time and place with the music. To me, one of the most compelling and sad things about Tahiti is how firmly entrenched the idea of male invulnerability is in the opera. Sam sings a whole aria (set in a gym!) about not wanting to be a weak, flabby man. I think it is important to look at the medium of opera – which is traditionally all about people singing about their feelings – and to see how much Sam still keeps inside or hides from his wife. It’s really tragic to see how much of their inner lives Sam and Dinah keep from each other, and how much of that is caused by some of the the myths surrounding masculinity.
BH: How do you balance Tahiti’s showpiece comedic moments with its emotional drama and conflict?
AM: Balancing the comedic moments with the dramatic moments in Tahiti is definitely a challenge! In this case, I think our take may be more serious than people are used to. That’s deliberate – first of all, I believe much of the “humor” in the piece is really irony. I know of a lot of productions that feature Dinah’s aria “What a movie!” as this ultimate comedic showpiece when it’s really a breaking point for her – a break of reality, where she escapes into her imagination in order to cope with the stresses and disappointments of her real life.
I know it sounds quite serious, but I think it will be a wonderful complement to the zany comedy of Gallantry, which is really about as silly as you can get!
BH: Gallantry is quite a light show in comparison! Talk to me about the challenges of directing comedy and balancing comedy and melodrama?
AM: I don’t come to Gallantry as a soap opera lover – I come to this piece as an OPERA-opera lover. Therefore, my biggest inspiration in Gallantry is to set up a structure that echoes one of my favorite operas: Ariadne auf Naxos. Strauss’ opera contrasts the “high art” of the opera singers with the “low brow” commedia dell’arte troupe. In Gallantry, I’ve translated that into two worlds – first, you have the actors in the soap opera itself (Lola, Doctor Gregg, and Donald). They take their jobs quite seriously and their melodrama contrasts with the more overtly comedic characters of the television studio, who exist to support the Television Announcer and the taping of the show.
Of course, the key to comedy is that each beat is actually quite serious to the characters onstage! Performing on camera is a high stakes event, so hopefully the comedy comes from a very “real” place.
BH: We hope these shows will attract new audiences – as part of opera’s new guard of stage directors, do you think about the future of opera, and attracting new audiences to the pieces you direct?
In many ways, we’re in a golden age of entertainment. It’s so easy to access amazing art online all the time! It’s much harder is to find a sense of community and authenticity away from the screen or outside of our self-selected social groups. I think that’s what the modern opera company can and should aspire to provide their audiences – a sense that opera can be a point of social, intellectual, and artistic progress.
That sounds a little bit like I’m asking you to eat your vegetables – but I swear I’m not! Opera is a medium fueled by emotions. Biologically, emotions are created in the body to motivate us to action. In other words, we’re compelled to metabolize emotions into action. This, of course, is the stage director’s job in an opera – to bring the musical and textual story to physical life. But, on a macro level, I also think that this is the job of an opera company in 2018 – not just to excite the emotions of a community, but to do it in a deliberate and delightful way that moves us all forward. Together.