The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Former Metropolitan Opera stage director Kristine McIntyre talks about Verdi’s “A Masked Ball,” which opens the Madison Opera’s new season this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

October 22, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

This is Kathryn Smith’s second season as general manager of the Madison Opera. For more about her and her impressive background, here is a link to a story that appeared last week in The Wisconsin State Journal:

But the Madison Opera’s 51st season will also be the first season that Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) herself has selected and put together. Last year, she ended up being responsible for the three operas that her predecessor, Allan Naplan, chose before he left for the Minnesota Opera, from which he has since unexpectedly resigned. (Sorry, The Ear has no update. Can anyone out there help with news of Naplan?)

Smith’s inaugural season is an impressive one. It that starts this coming weekend with Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” (“Un Ballo in Maschera”) in Overture Hall on Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.; then moves on to the Madison Opera’s first-ever Handel opera, “Acis and Galatea” Jan. 10-13; and concludes with Mozart’s masterpiece “Don Giovanni” on April 26 and 28  before going on to Opera in the Park on July 13 for a peek at next season.

Tickets to “A Masked Ball” are $18-$118. Call the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Here are links to the Madison Opera’s website and to the page for “A Masked Ball” where you can find a lot of information about the various productions (casts, sets, program notes) and the organization and its history plus an opera blog:

Maestro John DeMain (below), the artistic director of the Madison Opera who also specializes in opera and conducts it around the US and world, will conduct members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which he also heads.

Stage director Kathrine McIntyre (below) recently gave an email interview to The Ear:

Can you briefly introduce yourself and your career?

I fell in love with opera when I was 16 and decided pretty young that I wanted to be an opera director. My educational background is English literature and theater, so my process is to really delve into both the text and the psychological reality of the characters.

I began my opera career at the San Francisco Opera and then worked at the Metropolitan Opera (below) for 8 years where I directed revivals of Verdi and Rossini and assisted on new productions. I left the Met in 2008 in order to focus on my own directing work, and now I direct all over the country. I’ve been fortunate to split my career between working on new and recent works and many new productions of classic opera repertory.

Where do you place “Un Ballo” in Verdi’s overall output and in the history of opera?

“Ballo” comes just after the period we refer to as Verdi’s middle years – after he composed “La Traviata” and “Il Trovatore” and “Rigoletto” so he was at the height of his dramatic and musical skills. It was a period in which he was also obsessed with Shakespeare and had spent years trying unsuccessfully to turn King Lear into an opera.

All of that impacts “Ballo” –– it is a very skillful piece, brilliantly constructed and so well characterized. Verdi (below) really pushed many of his composition ideas to the edge in “Ballo,” particularly his amazing ability to mix light and dark elements in the same scene. You could write a treatise just on his use of laughter throughout the piece. He took a lot of chances in “Ballo” and it’s a shame that it’s not done more in this country because it’s really extraordinary and very, very satisfying, both musically and dramatically. (See McIntyre’s further comments about “Ballo” as a neglected masterpiece in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

What do you see as the relevance of the opera – its plot, characters and music — to today’s public?

On one level, “Ballo”  (the set is below, in a photo by Douglas Hamer for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City) is about a classic love triangle: a man falls in love with his best friend’s wife. That’s certainly a timeless theme.

But at a larger level, it’s also about the conflict between public and private life, between duty and emotion. It’s about the nature of leadership, in this case about kingship, and it asks, “What duty does a sovereign or leader have to those he leads?”

Those are profound questions that we are still trying to answer. So Verdi is telling both a human story and exploring big themes –- in that way, the work is really Shakespearean in scope, and like a great Shakespeare play, it’s universal.

What specific aspects of this particular production or interpretation would you single out to the pubic as noteworthy or unusual and why?

This is going to be a very dramatically satisfying production. We have a cast who are not only great singers, but also great actors who are deeply invested in the dramaturgy of the piece. And amazingly, they are all doing their parts for the first time, so the energy of discovery and exploration will be a huge part of the production.

Ballo” takes great actors because the characters are much more complex and realistic than in many other operas of the same period. The piece is also based on a true piece of history and I always think it’s fascinating when real life is elevated to the level of grand opera.

What would you like to say about working with the Madison Opera and this production?

I’m thrilled to be back in Madison doing this opera, which is one of my favorites and one I’ve wanted to direct for a long time. I live in Portland, Oregon, so I actually feel very at home here in Madison. I’m having a great time working with the chorus, the local singers and the dancers who are in the cast.

Is there anything else you would like to say or add?

If anyone is on the fence about opera, or about Verdi, then I think this is the piece for you. It has great music that will be extraordinarily sung, but it’s also very powerful dramatically – and really entertaining. Verdi never lets the story or music lag, so the piece just tears along and suddenly you are at a masked ball and it’s all about to go horribly wrong. It is a real evening of music theater.

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