Dallas — When you meet Mikael Melbye, your first impression is that he might be a dancer. He has the trademark lean body and carries himself with elegance and grace. But no, “dancer” is not listed among all of his many accomplishments. Of course, that doesn’t mean that he is not also trained as a dancer. There is just so much room on a résumé and Melbye already has succeeded at multiple careers on an international level: painter, designer, singer and director. And that is Sir Melbye, if you please. He was knighted in 1995 by HRM Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and granted a peerage (a title) in 2006.
Melbye is in Dallas to put two of those careers for work for the Dallas Opera. He is the director and designer of the production of Korngold’s Die tote stadt that opens on Friday. This opera is well suited for someone who can function in both jobs because much of the action takes place in the mind of the protagonist. Thus, the dramatic action of the characters plays a major part in creating the reality, or nonreality, of the actual surroundings.
“The set is shallow,” Melbye says. “It puts the singers forward on the stage, which will help with singing such strenuous roles. Projections on a scrim in the back, opens up the other worlds, imaginary worlds, where the action takes place.”
The projections for this production are being created by Wendall Harrington, who Melbye refers to as the “Queen of Projections.” This is borne out by her many credits in everything from Broadway to the major opera houses of the world. She has also designed for ballets and even for rock concerts (Talking Heads) and standup comedy (Chris Rock). Die tote stadt marks her Dallas Opera debut.
Die tote stadt (The Dead City), presents some unique challenges to the entire production team. The roles are almost unsingable because of the range and tessitura (where the role generally lies), as well as the length. A long role that sits high in the voice and is sung over a large orchestra and is full of passionate music can be a voice killer if not properly paced.
“You can’t direct this opera based on the synopsis that comes in the little booklet packaged with the recording: do this here and that there,” Melbye says. “You have to start by communicating the grand idea and then work downward thorough the multiple layers. You start with the geography of the set and then the choreography of everyone’s movements. Once these basic elements are completed, we start to develop the characters together. I can’t mold them to my vision of the characters. I have to help them come to their own realizations, which hopefully will mesh with everything else. But the most important thing in a show like this is to protect my singers from vocal strain.”
Melbye’s concern for the singers comes from a very personal point of view. He was a singer himself for many years—a lyric baritone. He appeared in leading roles at the Paris Opera, La Scala di Milano, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, and the Rome Opera. His American debut in 1984 was right here in Dallas as Guglielmo in Mozart’s Così fan tutte. He returned four years later for more Mozart, as Papageno in The Magic Flute, which was one of his signature roles, He recorded it under the baton of Colin Davis. He also sang at the Metropolitan Opera and for several seasons with the Santa Fe Opera. In 2000, having reached the 25th anniversary of his singing career, he abruptly retired from singing to launch a new career as a director and designer.
During our interview, he made a surprising announcement: “This will be my last show as a director and designer. After 43 years in the opera business, in one form or another, I feel that it is time to move on.”
That would be moving on to a third career, perhaps to concentrate on his painting?
He is a brilliant painter specializing in portraits, and not just of anyone. He painted the official portraits of many of the royals in his native Denmark, such as a stunning and silvery full-length portrait of Queen Margrethe II. He also paints private portraits of nonroyals and even a startling one of a German shepherd that gazes out at you with an expression of heartbreaking melancholy.
His style is a combination of photo-realism in impressionistic settings. He likes vivid colors and baths his subjects in bright light, even when the overall feeling of the painting is dark. His website also displays some landscapes, which also range from realistic to impressionistic.
“I come from a family of painters going back for generations,” he says, “and it was expected from me to continue that tradition.”
After all these years of being a singer, portraying characters, and then a director in which he helped others do the same, Melbye certainly has the insight into the human soul that is required to make a great portrait. A photograph can perfectly capture the physical aspects, but a portrait lets you see more—to peek inside the physical and see the real person who lives in there.
Whatever Melbye does next, you can be certain that it won’t be long before he is world-renowned again.