Dallas — A perusal of opera director Peter Kazaras’ brief biography at the UCLA School of Music’s website has some surprises. He is a retired singer with a grab bag collection of roles, from Loge in Wagner’s Das Rheingold to Captain Vere in Britten’s Billy Budd. He is a full professor but no mention is made of a Ph.D (a very unusual occurrence). Instead, his educational credentials are a degree from Harvard (no major named) and a law degree from New York University School of Law. There are many other credits, such as running the young artist program for the Seattle Opera and directing some world premieres, even at the Met.
Curiouser and curiouser.
As a stage director, he is revisiting many of the major opera companies. Before, he sang leading roles when he was there, but now, he is the director. That is the case with The Dallas Opera. He was here as a singer, but now is back as the director of The Dallas Opera’s acclaimed production of Puccini’s La bohème.
“This cast would work in a movie of the opera,” he says. “There have been times when the singers didn’t look like starving artists and consumptive seamstresses. With this cast, I didn’t have to make any accommodations for the broadcast. Up close, they should look even more like their characters than from the stage.”
Kazaras says that act two is the most complicated, and thus the most difficult part of the opera to stage. Jean Pierrie Ponelle’s stunning set doesn’t help. It is a Paris street scene with four story buildings surrounding the action. There is also a raised platform in the middle the space. It serves as the more enclosed spaces, such as the garotte occupied by the four guys and the watchman’s perch at the city gates.
“It is a factor that you have to work around,” Kazaras says. “Act two opens with a bustling street scene filled with vendors and merrymakers [it is Christmas Eve]. The only possibility is to group them on either side of the platform. But they have to keep moving around on the stage so it looks natural.”
Kazaras achieves this but it is not the bustling madcap scene usually seen in this opera. I asked if it would be possible to move the box on and off the stage.
“Well, it would take a very long time and we are only holding the curtain between acts one and two for a few minutes. Besides that, it is very heavy and there isn’t anywhere to put it; it would have to move on and off at every intermission.”
I asked him about the level of detail he achieves in staging an opera, especially one like Bohème, which depicts real life.
“I give them a lot of details, but they have to feel natural for the singers to make them work. Sometimes, a singer will tell me that it feels awkward. However, as the rehearsal progress and the singers settle in to how they are going to play their roles in this production, most of that goes away.”
This is one of the challenges of opera. You will have a cast of experienced singers who have sung the role many times, combined with singers singing the role for the first time. Such is the cast in this production.
Other potential problems are troubles with props.
“The business with the candles can be tricky,” Kazaras says.
He means the scene in act one in which our two ill-fated lovers meet for the first time and sparks fly. (If you know the musical Rent, which was inspired by this opera, this is the “Light My Candle” number). Mimi has knocked on Rodolfo’s door because her candle has gone out. He lights it form his and she, reluctantly, goes to leave. But she has left her key somewhere in the room. Her candle goes out again and so does Rodolfo’s, with a little assistance. They hunt for the key in the dark and Rodolfo finagles a way to touch her hand—and the rest is history.
“The candles can be trouble. If Rodolfo’s goes out prematurely, we lose his clever stage bit of blowing it out. Mimi’s candle must to go out as well,” Kazaras says. “It sounds simple, but it isn’t. If you pull it off with precision, it is one of the most memorable scenes in the opera.”
You can see how the two singers work the candle trick in one of the two remaining shows in the Winspear Opera House, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 25 and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 29.