Stage direction is a bit like conducting an orchestra: You can only learn it by doing it, and that means a pretty expensive proposition. This requires a leap of faith by the presenting organization that the unknown talent they are hiring is going to be able to do the job.
Seattle Opera has a reputation for finding, nurturing, and presenting gifted young singers before they make their international debuts. Less often it has had the opportunity of choosing a gifted young stage director.
This week with the opening of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice on Saturday night, we have the young and very gifted José Maria Condemi in that role. He is also credited as producer because many of the ideas for sets, costumes, and lighting are his. Condemi has worked closely with a group of up-and-coming designers on the Seattle Opera staff: for sets, Phillip Lienau; costumes, Heidi Zamora; and lighting, Connie Yun.
Reading about Gluck’s ideas for Orphée, Condemi says, the composer strove for “noble simplicity.”
“Gluck wanted to distill the story to its essence. I feel very strongly about honoring that intention. To make sure that everything on stage supports that storytelling, I wanted a strong involvement with it all to support what I do with the singers, choreographer (Yannis Adoniou), dancers, in order to offer a complete package.”
Historically, Gluck’s Orphée comes almost as a shocking break with the Baroque opera performance tradition which had held to that time, with its fantastic machinery and magnificent costumes and sets, as well as set sung arias with ornamented repeats. Gluck’s Italian version was first performed in 1762, only a few years after Handel’s and Bach’s deaths. The French version premered in 1774, and is the one which will be performed here. Condemi has directed both.
“I did a production for a very small company, West Bay Opera, in California. We didn’t have much money (for props and sets, etc.), but it was successful and very strong. So it can be a powerful opera with a few very strong elements.”
He prefers the French style for this opera. “The dancing, so much in the French operatic style, feels a bit out of place in the Italian, and the added aria for Orphée in the French version gives it a different aspect.”
While not disregarding the mythological aspects of the story, in this production, Condemi is emphasizing the human side.”If you take away the myth, what’s left is Orphée’s dilemma. How does he deal with grief? He’s had a sudden, major loss.” (Eurydice dies from a snake bite the day of their wedding.) “It’s so abrupt. He’s had no time to prepare, that’s why he’s in such distress.Anyone can relate to this and I found that so powerful. The mythology would be very satisfying for those who know it, but the core of the piece is human.”
Condemi is able to feel this from the inside, having himself experienced a sudden, close death like this. “It completely changed my view of how people deal with loss. I wanted to convey this right away, in the first moments of my staging. I wanted to show the different ways Orphée copes. And the costumes help tell this part of the story.”
The other character who develops the human side of the tale is, conversely, Amore, the goddess of Love.
“What she does is extremely practical,” says Condemi, “She’s not out to teach him the philosophy of love, but to give him practical advice: ‘Okay, go find her, but you must not speak to her or look at her.’ Amore’s timing is impeccable. She turns up at the exact right moment. At the end, she literally stops Orphée from killing himself. She’s not just a goddess but a practical deity who walks the talk. She’s a real character and the music Gluck wrote for her is quite cheeky.”
Condemi sees her as in the same mold as Despina (Così fan tutte), Rosina (The Barber of Seville) or Zerbinetta (Ariade auf Naxos), three intelligent girls whose wisdom is not far-fetched but down to earth, Zerbinetta most of all. “I wanted the costumes to reflect that practicality. Every time she arrives she changes the tone, and there’s always an element of humor as well.”
Condemi’s path to stage direction has been an unusual one. Starting in medical school he found that while he loved the science, he did not like the nuts and bolts of dealing with disease. He even thought of becoming a plastic surgeon, before deciding medicine was not for him. Although he had been a highly imaginative child, switching to a career in the arts was hard, coming from an Italian family in Argentina where he was expected to be a lawyer or doctor.
Not a singer, he spent three years studying to be a director at Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, getting his undergraduate degree; then discovered a master’s degree program at the Unversity of Cincinnati also in directing, and went there.
The summer Merola Opera program offered by San Francisco Opera prepares young singers for opera careers, just as does Seattle Opera Young Artists program, but it also has one space for an aspiring stage director. In 1999 and 2000, it offered this slot to Condemi, and, impressed by his obvious talent, the following year he became the first and only stage director accepted to be an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera, a two-year residency. Since then he has not looked back.
Condemi came to Seattle as an assistant director under Chris Alexander in 2003-4, and has since directed two operas here, La Bohème in 2007 and Il Trovatore in 2010, but this Orphée is the first production which has been his from scratch.
Now 43, his directing career is in full swing. While creating this Orphée here, he is also stage director for a production of La traviata at Opera San Jose, actually in performance now. It’s a production he already did in Santa Barbara, where he is now the artistic director, so, he says, he can leave it safely in the hands of his assistant at this point and give Seattle all his attention. He goes from here to Opera Colorado for Florencia en el Amazonas, then the world premiere of the San Francisco Opera-commissioned children’s opera The Secret Garden, composed by Nolan Gasser.
But he still loves science. “I still have a huge interest in science and I’m always reading about it. I’m fascinated by the brain, and reasearch into its neuroplasticity. I read a lot of that.”