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Francesca Zambello: Rattling the Cage

4 minute read
Terry Teachout

In the tight little world of opera there’s only one place to be this weekend. Fans from at least 44 states and 13 foreign countries are planning to fly to Seattle to see two of the biggest young voices in the business, Canadian tenor Ben Heppner and English soprano Jane Eaglen, make their double debut in the Seattle Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. But the prospect of finding a fresh pair of singers capable of tackling Wagner’s most vocally demanding roles is only part of what’s drawing opera lovers to the Pacific Northwest. This Tristan is being staged by Francesca Zambello, whose penchant for scandalizing stodgy opera buffs with a startling blend of flashy theatrics and unabashed feminism has made her the most controversial opera director of her generation. “Tristan’s ship,” Zambello explains gleefully, “is a huge ocean liner that has Isolde in the middle–as if she’s in a womb or a prison–and the lower deck is an engine room with sweaty bodies. When I saw the set, I thought, ‘People are just going to freak!'”

Judging by Zambello’s history, that isn’t a bad prediction. Six years ago, she staged Donizetti’s popular Lucia di Lammermoor for New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, and her vision of madness and death–the stage was strewn with coffins–drew catcalls from tuxedoed first-nighters expecting something considerably more romantic. In her version of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride, presented last fall by the New York City Opera, the two principal male characters were stripped down to skimpy loincloths and chained together, to underline what Zambello believes to be the opera’s homosexual subtext. “Cesca is an artist with a strong mind and a point of view,” says Paul Kellogg, the City opera’s general and artistic manager. “And whether one agrees with her approach or not, I can tell you that it makes for exciting opera.”

Born in New York City, Zambello, 41, majored in philosophy at Colgate University, although she already knew she wanted to become a director. Dark-eyed, strong-featured and forceful to a fault, she confesses to being “a born control freak.” An apprenticeship with the innovative opera director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle led to her 1986 European debut at Venice’s Teatro la Fenice, and her work is now seen regularly at London’s Covent Garden and Paris’ Bastille Opera, as well as in such American cities as Houston, where her joltingly fresh takes on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Britten’s Billy Budd opened back to back in January.

Though she isn’t the only director raising hackles among conservative operagoers, Zambello’s frankly emotional style stands in sharp contrast to the chilly postmodern pageantry of Robert Wilson and the ultrapoliticized, damn-the-capitalists stagings of Peter Sellars. “I think the new millennium is going to bring a new romanticism in the arts,” she says, “one that focuses on real people and their individual lives.” Every element of her productions is conceived as part of a single, unified metaphor for the opera’s underlying dramatic conflicts. Asked to describe her Billy Budd, she replies, “No boat, no uniforms,” a crisp summation that sails close to the literal truth: Alison Chitty’s stark set reduced the battleship H.M.S. Indomitable to a crosslike mast and a looming prow that jutted menacingly over the orchestra pit. Yet Zambello always leaves room for crowd-stunning effects: at the climax of Billy Budd, the title character was hanged in full view of the audience.

Zambello is not slow to respond to critics’ attacks. “My mother once saw somebody reading a newspaper in a grocery store,” she recalls, “and the headline said, THE SICK MIND OF ZAMBELLO. A lot of people who write things like that are menopausal males who don’t want to hear women speaking up about storytelling. Opera is still basically a 19th century world dominated by men; any woman who comes in and rattles their cages is going to upset them.”

Rarely has she rattled those cages harder than in her abrasive Met staging of Lucia di Lammermoor. She doesn’t expect to be asked back, and Met general manager Joseph Volpe confirms that he currently has “no plans” to re-engage her. “It isn’t fun to be booed,” she says dryly, “but sometimes it’s also a badge of success.” She ought to know. With dozens of other opera houses competing for her services, she’s riding high–and deservedly so. Few directors have done more to wrench open the minds of operagoers, and even the most outrageous of her productions stir the soul and leave an ineradicable mark on the memory.

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