Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

10 Questions for...
Mark Lamos

November 23, 2010

Mark Lamos Photo: Westport Co Playhouse

Thanksgiving weekend in Los Angeles isn’t downtime for the performing arts, and that is especially true over at Los Angeles Opera who will follow up a very worthwhile Lohengrin with an imported production of Verdi’s Rigoletto staring George Gagnidze and Sarah Coburn. The show will also mark the local debut of one of the best known American theater and opera directors, Mark Lamos. A multiple Tony nominee and winner for his regional work at the Hartford Stage in the 80s, Lamos is a frequent collaborator at nearly all of the country's leading opera companies. He’s also an actor and may be recognizable to many as one of the stars in 1990’s Longtime Companion. Here in Los Angeles he’ll be guiding audiences through the depravity that imbues Verdi’s masterpiece at every turn. But before things get too serious in Mantua, he was nice enough to take a turn at 10 Questions for you and Out West Arts. Which went something like this:

1. What opera would you most like to direct, but haven’t yet?
Oh there's a list. Lear by Aribert Reimann, King Priam by Tippett, The Rake's Progress by Stravinsky, La Rondine by Puccini, and anything by Handel.

2. What opera would you never want to direct, even if you had the opportunity to?

3. What’s the best thing about working with singing-actors as opposed to the non-operatic variety?
They come to the first rehearsal knowing all the music and consequently a lot of the motivations behind the characters and their objectives, etc. Actors pride themselves on beginning the process as a sort of 'blank page', carrying their scripts around for weeks-- waiting for actors' memories can be intense and debilitating. Rehearsals with singers are completely revivifying in contrast-- and quick. Of course, when they show no instinct for acting, there are deeper frustrations. Opera is theater, after all.

4. Your debut assignment at L.A. Opera will be Verdi’s Rigoletto. What exactly is his problem?
Well, he's physically deformed; he hates himself; the one woman on earth who was kind to him has left him a widower, and he is insanely attempting-- like a father in a Molière farce-- to keep his teenage daughter pure by locking her up. He is essentially a dysfunctional obsessive, enjoying his corrupting work with his scary, sexually obsessed boss. Because of his flaws, however, we identify with him. This is one reason we go to the theater. The 'other' becomes the 'self'.

5. Which music made you want to direct opera?
An aunt and uncle gave me the Risë Stevens/Fritz Reiner recording of Carmen one Christmas when I was little. I had studied violin for years, but Carmen -- and Bizet!-- had her way with me. Then came, in quick succession: Don Giovanni, Boris Godunov. I picked them out in record stores because of their covers and played them until they were memorized!

6. You’ve long been associated with American opera companies such as Glimmerglass, Santa Fe, and New York City Opera as well as new works from American composers. Which American composer have you not worked with yet that you would most like to?
John Corigliano. I think he should make an opera of Rocco and His Brothers. His Red Violin Concerto is a particular favorite of mine.

7. And while we’re on the topic of past successes...What, no Wagner?
After Chereau? You must be kidding. No production has so far topped his "Ring" in my opinion. Brilliantly conceived. I enjoy listening to the "Ring", and possess numerous recordings of it. And i would certainly jump at the chance to conceive and direct it if offered-- but I have to confess that so far in my lifetime I have not been able to sit through live productions of Lohengrin (Vienna), Parsifal and Götterdämmerung (Met). However Tristan und Isolde (Met)-- I managed, and happily, despite the fat woman playing the title part. In this day and age of surtitles, I want to scream and flee when Wagner's carefully crafted libretto cannot be acted out in front of us because the singers are too fat or too lazy or too worried about their music. Wagner's operas are "singing dramas", and should be held to the highest standards. Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen could ACT.

8. Your iPod is destroyed by a vengeful mezzo. Which lost tracks would you miss most?
I don't have an ipod because I only listen to music if I can give it my undivided attention. Music is not the soundtrack of quotidian existence. I listen to music at home without distraction from great big speakers-- or live, which is a real passion of mine, especially concert-going. But, that said-- the "lost tracks" I would miss most? Ligeti chamber music, Britten solo piano music, the recordings of Nathan Milstein, Eileen Farrell, Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, Krystian Zimerman, Olga Kern, and the Tebaldi-Del Monaco-Bruscantini Forza. Worst of all would be the loss of an Arena di Verona concert-- 2 disks-- starring Freni and Pavarotti. Or Tony Bennett and Bill Evans' rendition of 'When in Rome'.

9. What's your current obsession?
"Current", such an interesting word. Though we've never met, obviously you know me well. OK: Positano. My husband of 31 years and I just got back from a magical stay there. We dream of living there someday-- or spending as much time there as possible. Though Berlusconi and the pope are awful, and though we love Obama, we are increasingly exhausted by American politics and culture wars and the U.S. obsession with religion and the insane and destructive media.

10. With which opera character do you have the most in common?

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2 for 2 Brian! Having read this, I'm now inclined to see Rigoletto while I'm down there to see Lohengrin. His comments in Q 7 regarding Wagner and fat singers- priceless. As a follow-up, since he holds Chereau's Ring in such high regard (and rightly so), I would like to know if he saw the Freyer Ring and what he thought of it. Can you send a follow up?

I love this format- I may try to steal it in some form- forgive me please!
This is my favorite interview on your blog so far, and certainly one of the funniest.

I must agree with Mr. Marcher -- his comment about Wagner is priceless.
kind of surprising for a director like mark lamos who has the reputation of being an 'actors director' to make a comment like 'despite the fat woman playing the title part'... not classy
Oh there's a list. Lear by Aribert Reimann, King Priam by Tippett

Two great choices. Never in a million years at LAO though....
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