Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Eric Einhorn talks about directing Portland Opera's "Carmen" and more

Eric Einhorn
Eric Einhorn is an award-winning stage director who is directing Portland Opera’s production of “Carmen," which opens this Friday at the Keller Auditorium. Einforn has directed productions on stages throughout the nation and has been a Metropolitan Opera staff stage director since 2005. When he is not on the road, he lives in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, with his wife and two kids. According to Einhorn, Ho-Ho-Kus is the only town in America that officially has two hyphens.

When did you first direct “Carmen?”

Einhorn: In high school – the very first thing I ever directed was a 30-minute adaptation of “Carmen.”

Holy smokes! Sexy “Carmen” in high school!

Einhorn: I think that if I looked back at it, it would be incredibly G-rated. It was a really fun experience. I started an opera club in high school, because I knew that I wanted to be an opera singer. I had the dream of going to a music conservatory and becoming a singer, but there were no opportunities in high school to experience opera. So I started the opera club. So we did “Carmen” as a vehicle so that I could be Escamillo and sing the Toreador song.

The next year we did an Offenbach one act. I found out that directing came to me much more easily than singing. Singing was much more challenging, and I wanted to do it, even if it killed me. So, I went to Oberlin Conservatory – all set to be a singer. But during the course of my studies, I rediscovered directing. After graduating I started assisting and the directing bug sort of hit me.

Did directing appeal to you because you wanted to command everybody around?

Einhorn: It hit me from necessity, because when I started the club in high school, I didn’t want to direct, but no one else wanted to do it either. So I did it. I must have been all of 16 or 17 years old when I directed “Carmen” in the high school production, and I yelled the whole time. I didn’t have my rehearsal technique down! All of my friends endured it, and they remained my friends! But I quickly found out that that is not how you make art!

You must have directed something at Oberlin.

Einhorn: I went there as a voice major. Oberlin has a great design-you-own-major program. So I was able to do a directing major alongside a voice major. I directed some scenes early on and did a junior and senior thesis. For my junior thesis I directed “Starbird” by Henry Mollicone. The opera department was doing one of his full-length operas, “Coyote Tales” at that time, and he agreed to come back and conduct my production. It was great to my first show – right off the bat – conducted by the composer. For my senior year, I directed “Emperor of Atlantis,” by Viktor Ullmann, the composer who died in a concentration camp during World War II. It’s an amazing opera.

Tell us a little about the upcoming “Carmen” at Portland Opera, and how you work with the cast.

Einhorn: We have an outstanding cast. Everyone is unbelievably solid all the way through. The production is big. We have two flamenco dancers, many soloists, a children’s chorus, adult chorus, supernumeraries – everything but animals in this show.

With any show that I direct, the thing that I don’t want to be is fussy: worrying about the buttons, place settings, and things like that. For me, opera is about people: these characters, their relationships to one another, and what they are doing. I remember preparing for “Carmen” the first time for a full production. I was digging into the piece and had only seen it once. So I had very little baggage. When I read it, it gave me the same feeling as I had when I read “Oedipus Rex. I immediately wondered if everyone understood the greatness of this opera. It not only has outstanding music, but what makes it so great is the perfect storm of music, drama, storytelling, and text – and it all comes from a place of real humanity. We intend to get beyond the typical stereotyping of these characters: Carmen the vamp, Micaëla the nice girl from the country, Don José the victim of Carmen the seductress. I maintain that these are real people going through real emotions and such and like anyone in a real life conflict, it’s not loss, or love. I think that Carmen is an incredibly vulnerable person. She presents herself in a certain way because of her life experience. She’s been hurt before. She’s been through a lot. The gypsy culture that she comes from is transient and sometimes violent. So she comes from a rough upbringing. She has become who she is because of that. Don José – we know from the novella – there’s some dialogue in the opera but most of it is cut for modern audiences – he is from a small village, he dropped out of seminary, he can’t hold a job, and he killed a man over a game that he lost. So he had to run away and join the military. So, he’s a guy with a violent past and an explosive temper.

Carmen is one of the most performed operas in the repertoire. How do you make it fresh?

Einhorn: When you look at an autograph of a Mozart score, you hardly get any stage directions except for something like “he enters.” But often when you come to Puccini and Bizet, we stop asking questions, because their operas have specific direction, and we start to think that’s just how it is. But if you treat this kind of opera as a Handel or a Mozart opera, then that perspective opens up new opportunities. You can give life to these characters in a new and engaging way that will not jar you out of what you believe “Carmen” to be.

A theater director once told me that if you accomplish 70 percent of what is in your head for a production, then you’ve had a good day. As a director, I come in with a plan. I have thoughts on everything about the show. It’s my job to have those thoughts. But I tell singers that I don’t have all of the answers and I’m perfectly okay with being wrong. That’s what makes rehearsals so exciting. You come with a starting point, but you have to leave your ego at the door. To achieve the best possible performance, you might start at A but arrive at somewhere completely different. You might arrive at something that works for the production and the performers through the dialogue of collaboration. I feel very strongly about the power of the performer to make choices and help in the collaborative process. At the end of the day, it is the performers who are up on the stage, and they have to be comfortable with what they are doing.

Do you use some kind of software or sketch out where the chorus moves?

Einhorn: I diagram the choruses. Because I have less time with them, I always have a distinct game plan. If you don’t have that, then I’m wasting everyone’s time. I give them a framework and encourage them to create their own stories within that framework. When Carmen comes onstage, you want the people around her to react to her individually: some may love her, some hate her, some may want to sleep with her, some people are indifferent. That’s the way it would be in life.

Can you talk about the lighting and how you work with the lighting designer?

Einhorn: I want to take some inspiration from Goya for the lighting. Oftentimes, “Carmen” can be too squeaky clean like a perfect day in Seville. One of the factors in the first act is the oppressive heat. It’s so hot that it’s hazy. We are at that intersection of heat and temper. At the stifling hot cigarette factory where the women are working long hours, someone makes a snide comment and that causes another person who just can’t take it anymore to take a knife and cut a co-worker. So I’ve talked with Shawn Kaufman, the lighting designer, about how to create this impression: hazy around the edges, charcoal and a little rought-hewn, chiaroscuro effects, playing with light and dark effects that mold this world into a more three-dimensional place.

There are 500 hundred lights being hung for this production. Shawn and I have worked together on shows for 10 years. We have a real shared experience and vocabulary. He knows how I like to tell stories. So he and I can work very quickly. I can show him a couple of research images, and he knows what the means in terms of how we work together. The lighting designer is often in a precarious position: he is the last one to get into the process of creating the show, and he has the shortest amount of time to do the most amount of work. But because Shawn and I have worked together so much, we have a good way of getting things done efficiently.

You are the artistic director of the On Site Opera company. What is that?

Einhorn: About three years ago, a colleague and I started a site-specific opera company. It was born out of a desire to see what else is possible. We didn’t pioneer the idea, but we are the only opera company that relies solely on site-specific productions. And we are interest in venue-relevance in terms of connecting the venue with the opera. So we did Rameau’s “Pygmalion” at Madame Tussauds s wax museum in New York City and Gershwin’s “Blue Monday” at The Cotton Club in Harlem. We pioneered the idea of Google-glass for supertitles for one of our productions. Overall, it’s all going very well!

Where do you go after “Carmen” is done?

Einhorn: I fly directly to Chicago. I’ve adapted a new opera for Lyric Opera for their outreach program. It’s called “The Property” and it’s from a graphic novel by Rutu Modan. It’s a companion piece to “The Passenger,” which is a holocaust story that was done for the main stage. We think that “The Property” is the first Klezmer opera.

Wow! All of this work sounds terrific. Good luck!

Einhorn: Thanks!

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