`Blond Eckbert' Director Sees Herself as a Framer of Ideas - Hers and Others

FRANCESCA ZAMBELLO, one of opera's most prominent directors, knows the terrain surrounding the Santa Fe Opera almost as well as she does her permanent home on Manhattan's Upper West Side. With two years of SFO productions behind her and responsibility for directing a pair of SFO works (``Barber of Seville'' and ``Blond Eckbert''), this former prote of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle can practically find her way around Santa Fe's adobe-walled streets blindfolded.

Underneath the yellow canopy of a lawn tent on SFO grounds, Ms. Zambello appears as relaxed and congenial as she is confident and directorial. Casually dressed in black shorts and a matching polo shirt, she intersperses her responses to an interviewer's questions with commands to stage associates. Clearly, this is a woman who both understands and is comfortable with handling the reins of power that guide operatic productions.

This month, the opera world is watching closely as Zambello brings her interpretation of ``Blond Eckbert'' to the SFO's open-air stage (see review, above). Scottish composer Judith Weir wrote both the score and libretto for this updated interpretation of Ludwig Tieck's 1796 piece about magical storytelling, recovered memories, and lost love.

In the coming months, Zambello will be directing performances at the English National Opera, the Royal Danish Opera, Berlin Opera, Covent Garden, and Opera de Bastille. The following are excerpts from the interview.

What's your reading of the current state of opera?

We're fully embracing an American style and getting out of being so Euro-centric, though there are some vestiges of the opera establishment fighting to hold on. We've developed an American visual style, an American production style, and we know what it means to say someone's an American artist. What we lack now is how to incorporate more of our technology and more of the other visual and performing arts into standard opera and into the new kinds of pieces we're doing.

What trends in American opera do you see as significant?

People still look to the Met [Metropolitan Opera in New York] for guidance because that's just the way it is in a big city. But in other communities people are looking to do things that mirror their society. That's not a trend as much as it's an evolution of the style of American opera. Opera isn't for everyone the same way the World Cup isn't for everyone, but these sorts of movements are important ways to broaden opera's base. We want to enlarge the audience market of people who today don't know about opera, and we can do that by energizing, enhancing, and building a product that people will respond to once you put it in front of them. A lot of the potential that's in opera rests on the shoulders of people like myself who see opera in terms of its being music theater.

How does your work differ from that of Peter Sellars?

He broke down a lot of boundaries, and he made people pay attention to the power of the text in theater, but we have very different styles. A lot of his original work was about sensation and shock, while I work from a more emotional base. My productions come from the people I work with, so what happens on stage comes out of the people I choose and not so much out of the ideas I put on a piece. But I do see both of us as having the same goals of bringing music and text and theater together, and that's a pretty potent combination.

What's your philosophy about taking risks?

You can't read the reviews. You have to do what you believe in. You don't make a choice to be living like a vagabond pursuing a higher cultural aesthetic unless you're confident in your vision. It's important that people have a passionate reaction and a personal reaction, no matter if that's a positive or negative one. Anything is better than having your mind filled with mediocrity. I'm devoted and committed to the art form and believe it can reflect our times.... But what we have to do is create an environment in which the piece thrives.

In what sense do feminist ideals underlie contemporary opera?

Art should reflect a society, and half of society is women. We shouldn't just see men's interpretations of female characters. Just think about all of the phenomenal women characters who have populated opera for the last 100 years, and then think about the one-dimensional portrayals of the women we've seen. My job is to tell the story as a creative interpreter, so I try to shed a little bit of new light on pieces that have previously been done in a singular fashion. Opera is received information, and if we're to treat things as fresh then we've got to go back to the essential story and to the life of the piece. I have an aesthetic that may not always jive with an American audience (laughter).

``Blond Eckbert'' represents the second time you've directed a Judith Weir piece. What's the appeal?

She's a very mystic, haunting composer ... a composer who connects to the spirit and has mastered a profound pathway to the audience's soul. Blond Eckbert predates Jung, yet it is very much about the individual's quest to unite the anima and animus. Blond Eckbert will be a mixing of a romantic sensibility, just highlighted a bit and pushed to an extreme, along with a mystic, fairy-tale feeling.

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