|Matthew Ferraro and Chas Rader-Shieber|
I started the conversation with Rader-Shieber.
I was looking at your bio and realized that you’ve been directing for quite a number of years.
Rader-Shieber: I started when I was two. We’ll go over that story sometime…
You were directing your parents!
Rader-Shieber: Yes. They will tell you that I was.
When did you become a stage director?
Rader-Shieber: There really wasn’t a point in time where I could say that I was a stage director. You just discover that you have a love/passion/need for the theater. You have to figure out how you want to participate. Are you a performer by nature? Since childhood, I’ve been interested in theater. I had to find my way and figure out how to participate in it.
So you decided on opera rather than the spoken theater?
Rader-Shieber: I found that opera – in the best sense of the word – exploits more. It offers more elements to play with. It’s more satisfying to me. I miss the music in spoken theater. I just don’t understand why they aren’t singing. It all seems natural to me.
Are you a singer?
Rader-Shieber: I am not. I don’t even sing Happy Birthday.
Did you direct theater in college?
Rader-Shieber: Yes. I directed the Columbia Players at Columbia University. I transferred to Carnegie Mellon as a designer and then stayed on for a Masters in directing. I directed spoken theater there. By the time I went to college there was no question where I going to end up. The designing studies were done with an eye toward direction opera.
Did you get a big break into opera directing somewhere?
Rader-Shieber: I worked as an assistant for a couple of years, and then was very fortunate to take on the artistic directorship of a small opera theater company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was Skylight Opera and is now Skylight Music Theater. I was there for a few years, and then went fully freelance as a director.
You’ve freelanced all over the place, including Tasmania.
Rader-Shieber: It’s the most fantastic place. I’m a great lover of Australia, and I’ve been fortunate to have done a couple of shows in Sydney. But Tasmania is amazing, and they have a wonderful Baroque festival there with two solid weeks of concerts and events.
Speaking of Baroque, here with Portland Opera’s young artists, you directed Handel’s “Rinaldo” at the Newmark Theatre.
Rader-Shieber: That was so much fun! I really like the Newmark Theatre with its stage, which is much like a Baroque opera house in size and scale
Now you are directing at the Keller Auditorium, in a big production of “Die Fledermaus” with a big cast of principals and chorus. Do you need a bullhorn to direct all of them?
Rader-Shieber: No, not at all. The joy of rehearsing is that the scale of rehearsal is completely different than what you see in the theater on opening night. When you are rehearsing 39 people in the chorus, I am as close to them as I am to you. So there’s no sense of moving great hordes of people around.
We work in one scale in one way with the understanding in the back of our minds of how this is going to transform when it gets into the theater. The audience takes its seat in the theater, and sees a curtain hanging there. The beauty of the theater is that it asks the question: “What’s behind the curtain?” So before the show even starts there’s an interactive thing going on. Then the curtain goes away and the story starts.
The storyline in “Die Fledermaus” is very silly and has a lot of twists and turns. Do you work hard with the principals to bring out the humor?
Rader-Shieber: Do you know what the secret to comedy is? It’s casting. That’s what makes good comedy. I don’t make the comedy. Portland Opera casts really well. I can’t make a person funny. You have to have singers who get it. They are entertaining people to be around, and they bring that to bear on the stage. This is just a great cast.
One of the non-singing characters I have enjoyed in the opera is Frosch, the jailer. I’m always interested in what he will do.
Rader-Shieber: There are some surprises we have up our sleeves. The actor we have in this production is fantastic, and he doesn’t just appear as Frosch in the third act. He makes two other appearances in the opera; so he’s in all three acts as different characters.
For Fledermaus what does the stage director do versus what the choreographer does?
Ferraro: Some operas have set dance pieces. For example, I choreographed “Salome” for Stephen Lawless for the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” which lasts around eight minutes. He gave me the setup for it: that there would be seven women in the dance, but that was it. I didn’t do any choreography beyond that.
But in Fledermaus, you’ve got ballroom parties going on and lots of waltz music.
Ferraro: Yes, the choreography is much more integrated into the entire opera.
Rader-Shieber: Plus there are moments that you think are dance moments that become danced sometimes. The relationship of work between the choreographer and the director are more fluid in this opera than many other operas. That’s more fun for me.
Ferraro: "Die Fledermaus" is a more presentational-stylized piece. It’s an operetta as opposed to an opera. The musical moments are much more like what you have in a musical where often at the end of a number when things become exuberant you need some kind of stylized movement or choreography to bring that home.
We are trying to integrate the movement into the narrative of the opera. There is waltzing, but not waltzing for the sake of it.
What is your dance background?
Ferraro: I was based in New York for 15 years. Now I live in Providence, Rhode Island. I was a ballet dancer for seven or eight years, then I started dancing for New York City Opera and the Met.
In this production of “Die Fledermaus,” you have some special guests to fit into the story, or do they just do their thing?
Rader-Shieber: There is no good return on trying to get special guests to fit into the story. You have to let them not fit in. You have to let them be exactly who they are and enjoy the oddity of that. That’s what makes them special.Ferraro: It’s always a non sequitur. Even at real traditional productions like at Royal Opera House at Covent Garden they will have some lounge singer walk into a 19th Century sing a popular tune. No one in the audience is going to call it into question.
Ferraro: It’s always a non sequitur. Even at real traditional productions like at Royal Opera House at Covent Garden they will have some lounge singer walk into a 19th Century sing a popular tune. No one in the audience is going to call it into question.
Rader-Shieber: The oddity is the fun.
Ferraro: In fact, the more of a non sequitur it is, the funnier.
The storyline is so silly.
Ferraro: The silliness isn’t a hurdle. The silliness is the point. Nobody has to drag their husband to listen to Wagner for five hours. This is plain fun.
Do stage directors put special markings in their score to help them figure out and remember what is going on where and when?
Rader-Shieber: Without post-it notes, I do not exist. I also use many ground plans of the theater.
Ferraro: It was originally called blocking because they would build a little mechanical model of the stage and have little blocks that represented each character. They would move the blocks around and write it down before they got to rehearsal.
When I design, I have a three-dimensional computerized model that I use, but it’s not all that efficient
Rader-Shieber: Most set designers will provide a modelling scale – quarter or half inch. But all of the preparation that you do has to be tempered by the process in the moment. You think that things will happen a certain way, but something better comes along in rehearsal.
Ferraro: I find that the things that you plan, if you are lucky, will only be as good as they were in your head. There are some things that you don’t plan that are better by far than anything you could have imagined.
There are some choreographers who won’t plan at all - like Balanchine. He only choreographed with the dancers in the room.
Sometimes in opera, it behooves you to plan. You are in a room with 70 people, and you don’t want to be staring at the floor. But some of the best ideas come when somebody drops something or somebody entered late or something else unplanned happened.
Rader-Shieber: The third act of Die Fledermaus is notorious for getting all of those people in one room – at the jail cell – and you have to plan that, but in rehearsal things happen, and then it all goes even better.