From the Met to Disney, this director seeks all stages

Francesca Zambello is gaining worldwide recognition for her clear, bold stagings

Opera fans have reason to celebrate: The era of the stage director who creates controversy for its own sake may soon be over.

Directors like Peter Sellars and Andrei Serban, whose productions of both new and classic operas are known for inspiring scandal, are being replaced by a newer generation of theater pros who focus on content over controversy.

Leading the way is director Francesca Zambello, an American who grew up in Europe.

Ms. Zambello is gaining international recognition for tackling the most ambitious opera projects, such as Hector Berlioz's gargantuan "Les Troyens" at New York's Metropolitan Opera, opening next year. But she also plans to stage family spectacles like "Aladdin" for Disneyland and a play for Seattle Children's Theatre by Asian-American author David Henry Hwang.

The secret to her success is clarity, says conductor David Charles Abell, who has worked with Zambello on a recent London musical, "Napoleon," and will collaborate with her for Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" at the influential Bregenz Festival in Austria next year.

"She knows how to focus the audience's attention on what she considers important in the piece," Mr. Abell says, "so her stage pictures tend to be clean and uncluttered."

Abell says he also appreciates her ambitious, yet nurturing and consensus-building approach.

He points out that opera is often about the plight of a central woman character, and as a woman director, Zambello can "shed a light on these women that few male directors can approach. 'Napoleon', for instance, was as much Josephine's story as her husband's."

Zambello, who divides her time between New York and London, says she's only interested in telling the story.

"Whatever it takes.... Good direction is usually imperceptible. We see so much bad direction, which calls attention to itself, that people think [directors] are usually all there to destroy the work."

Zambello, a graduate of Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., started directing theater while in college. She decided to give opera a try after honing her skills at early jobs like codirector of the Milwaukee Skylight Music Theater.

The Skylight, a gem of the local cultural scene, is devoted to "presenting opera, musicals, and Gilbert & Sullivan in innovative and intimate settings," Zambello explains. There, she learned how to plan a season and direct on a minuscule budget. She learned to work efficiently, and today e-mails singers she plans to direct to save time and keep creative ideas flowing.

The result is passionate stagings – some of which have sparked controversy. But her defenders say the risks she takes are for artistic expression, not for publicity's sake.

A decade ago, she staged Donizetti's popular opera "Lucia di Lammermoor" at the Met, and expressed the work's themes of madness and death by filling the stage with coffins. This was much to the dismay of audiences, who wanted something lighter and more romantic.

A recent production of Francis Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites" for the Santa Fe opera featured a finale in which the nuns are martyred at the guillotine. The act is usually implied offstage. Zambello placed the nuns center stage so the audience could see the true extent of the tragedy.

This "in-your-face" approach has drawn both admiration and criticism.

"Zambello is a character- driven director; she is ... talented at drawing vivid performances from women singers," says James Jorden, editor of the opera journal

But Mr. Jorden dislikes what he sees as a lack of glamour in her productions. "Everything is so terribly serious and earnest. No wonder the British think she's a genius," he says.

Abell, however, finds Zambello's visual approach well suited to the music she works with and calls her "extremely sensitive to the beauty and power of music."

He adds that, unlike "shock" directors, she never uses violence gratuitously. "In 'Napoleon,' her ideas for staging the battle scenes with a cast of only 30 were innovative and breathtaking," he says. "In the run-up to the first major battle, the stage floor rose in reverse rake to an unbelievable height, and the audience was blinded by strong sunlight – precisely Napoleon's strategy to beat the Austrians."

The magic of stagecraft always inspires Zambello, whether she is working in opera, drama, or popular spectacle.

Her aim in directing the upcoming Disneyland "Aladdin" is to share that love of stage with young audiences.

"Aladdin" is close to "real populist theater, something we are not spending enough time on," she says. "I wanted to do it since I knew this would be shown five times a day, seven days a week to audiences of 2,000 people. For many of these people, it is their first experience of live theater, and I think it is important to give these people the best."

Because of her passion, Zambello is poised to become one of the major creative players of this century, experts say.

"Storytelling is always at the heart of her work, even if an opera is updated or placed in an unusual context," Abell says. "Audiences love to feel involved in the story of real characters, and this may be [another] secret of [her] success."

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