New York — When the curtain rose on opening night of ``Samson'' at the Metropolitan Opera House recently, the audience met with an unexpected sight: not Samson or his Philistine foes, but a mass of 18th-century patricians in elaborate, foppish regalia. Samson showed up later, of course, but dressed in biblical garb that struck a pungent contrast with his surroundings. The person who dreamed up these images, and others, throughout the evening -- involving wheeled stage sets and stylized gestures, among other devices -- is Elijah Moshinsky, a vigorous young director whose name is gaining prominence not only on the opera scene but in the theater, television, and cinema worlds, too. Already he has directed Shakespeare for thePublic Broadcasting Service, staged plays for the National Theatre of Britain, and unveiled his ``Samson'' at Covent Garden in London and the Chicago Lyric Opera as well as at the Met.
Curious about the challenges of directing for so many media, I visited Mr. Moshinsky in his Manhattan hotel room just after the ``Samson'' dress rehearsal. I started by asking about ``Samson,'' which Moshinsky calls ``an opera in disguise,'' noting that Handel wrote it for the concert hall -- not the stage -- because the law forbade operas on biblical subjects. Directing it, says Moshinsky, was a matter of neither free ``self-expression'' nor objectively ``serving the work,'' but rather ``inventing a shape'' for a curious musical hybrid.
As for the 18th-century setting, Moshinsky says he wasn't straining for novelty. He just didn't want his production to look like ``a sandals epic with Victor Mature,'' he says with a smile.
Such comments mark Moshinsky as a very practical artist. In keeping with this, he doesn't think of his work as being a ``career'' with its own momentum. ``It's just jobs,'' he says with a wave of the hand.
Nor has he sought out the classical assignments -- Shakespeare and Handel and so forth -- that have taken up most of his time. ``It's just happened,'' he says.
He doesn't mind this, though. He likes ``bringing to life the ideas of the past,'' and admits to a weakness for ``big, epic'' productions -- as opposed to boulevard comedy, say, where the main thing is ``to make sure the actors say their lines quickly and don't bump into the furniture.'' He approaches each ``job'' on its own terms, not fussing much with theoretical distinctions between different media. ``I just go in there and direct,'' he says.
Moshinsky got his start as a director ``by accident,'' as he puts it. Born and raised in Australia, he went to England as a graduate student, and took a summer job at the Covent Garden opera house. ``Then the director got sacked five days before a production,'' he recalls, ``and I had to put it on.''
In the great tradition of ``42nd Street,'' the result was a success and Moshinsky was launched. He stayed with opera for a while, then went to the National Theatre at the invitation of Peter Hall, who was then in charge. What was it like to direct people who weren't singing? ``A relief!''
Although he spends much time with other forms, Moshinsky still has a special place in his heart for opera. ``It can reach levels of intensity that aren't available anywhere else,'' he asserts. While most American opera directors are mainly concerned with ``staging,'' in his view, he cares most about ``the emotional story'' of the work. ``I don't care if the audience is always energized,'' he says, ``as long as they're engaged emotionally with the material. Then the story will come to them naturally.''
In building this audience engagement, his primary tool is imagery. ``Eisenstein wrote something very interesting in his memoirs,'' says Moshinsky, referring to the renowned Soviet movie director. ``He said he got obsessed by images that he had to make happen. That sums up directing for me. It's why I'm particularly keen to do film.''
And as soon as his $1 million musical called ``Rage of the Heart'' has opened in London next autumn, film is what he's going to do next: a movie version of Shakespeare's ``Twelfth Night.'' Moshinsky's goal is ``to take the images inherent in the poetry, the verse structure, and the character structure, and get them into film.''