‘I was a tenured professor, but I thought it was time to move on,” says Claudia Zahn, who directed the opera programs at the University of Washington in Seattle for 10 years and then became a graduate student at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts. “I felt I hadn’t worked enough on process. I wanted to improve. I chose Mason Gross because it is close to New York and has good reputation. [The late] Israel Hicks [theater arts chair at Mason Gross] was a teacher of mine at Carnegie Mellon. I thought that if he liked the place, it had to be good.”
With her fresh degree in theater directing, Zahn oversees four performances of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”: Fridays, January 28 and February 4, at 8 p.m.; and Sundays, January 30 and February 6, at 2 p.m., in the Nicolas Music Center on the Douglass campus. The opera is sung in German, with supertitles prepared by Zahn. The dialog of the work is spoken in English.
The multiple casts that sing the roles of the principal characters are Mason Gross students. Pamela Gilmore, head of the Rutgers program in opera, is the producer. Kynan Johns, director of orchestras at Rutgers, who also traverses the international opera and instrumental music circuits, conducts.
A tuneful mix of comedy and solemnity, “The Magic Flute” combines romance, humor, and fantasy. The comic principals are the naughty Papageno and the teasing Papagena. The romantic leads are Prince Tamino and Princess Pamina. Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, has been abducted by the high priest Sarastro. With the help of magic bells and a magic flute Tamino and Papageno free Pamina. The audience learns that the Queen of the Night is evil and that Sarastro is good.
Zahn has worked on parts of “Magic Flute” as an assistant director and as a student. “I’m very familiar with it,” she says in a telephone interview from her home in Highland Park. “Coming to Rutgers for a master’s degree has made me a better director. I’m dealing with things on a deeper level than before, and I’ve gotten more rigorous.”
As a director, Zahn has developed a distinct philosophy. “I’m specific about the intention of each character,” she says. “I focus on actions and not emotions. I ask performers to threaten or entice or flirt. I want them to deal with what they’re doing, not with what they’re feeling. Sometimes players come up with business, and I draw on that. Performers have to discover the possible actions and intentions of their characters. That’s acting technique.”
Zahn aims to get her idea of action across to those whom she directs. “It’s important to bring the gesture into the entire body,” she says.
“I do a lot of staging,” Zahn continues. “The movement framework is especially important with more inexperienced players and a short rehearsal period. The three ladies in “The Magic Flute” have to be choreographed because they work in concert with each other, and their moves have to be coordinated.”
Trained in period movement and style, Zahn does not consider herself a sophisticated choreographer. I do very basic stuff,” she says, “not real dance. I’ve learned how and why to bow in the 18th century; I’ve learned how to use a walking stick or a cane; and how clothes make you move differently. Movement is very often based on clothing; clothing lifts or lowers our center of gravity.
“Performers have to wear clothes as if they belong in them, not as if they were something foreign. You can’t perform in opera only from the neck up. I try all kinds of things so it becomes a physical sport. We used to waltz a lot in class at Carnegie-Mellon.”
There is a pedagogical reason for multiple casting of the roles in “Magic Flute,” Zahn says. “The music department wants to use as many students as possible, and have them discover what it is to work on a role. There are a lot of good students. I like to rehearse with different groupings and give students a chance to change partners. When you mix and match, you get different dynamics. It keeps you fresh. You have to respond in the moment.
“Mixing and matching gives players a chance to make new discoveries. That’s what rehearsal is about. Performers find out who they are and what the character is like. I encourage participants not to do the same thing all the time. That’s a challenging thing for singers without much training in acting.
“Doing the titles was very lengthy,” Zahn says. “I wanted to find the right words and the right phrases. I wanted to get the essence of the characters and be true to the story. I had to time the titles to match the music. And I wanted to keep them on the short side so people wouldn’t always be looking up. It was a lot to keep in mind.”
Zahn grew up on Long Island. Her father, who now lives in California, was in public relations. Zahn’s mother, who died two years ago, started out as an opera singer and added musicals to her repertoire. “My sister and I grew up on George Gershwin and Cole Porter,” Zahn says. Both studied piano. Zahn accompanied her mother’s singing of musicals and opera. Zahn’s other instruments are violin and guitar.
“I always went to opera,” Zahn says. “I think of opera as terrific musical theater.”
As an interviewee I think of Zahn as resilient and adaptable. Our conversation is scheduled on short notice and tucked into the half hour window between Zahn’s picking up her repaired car and having a quick pre-rehearsal dinner. She cheerfully zigs and zags, offering refreshing answers to the questions I send her way.
The Magic Flute, Mason Gross School of the Arts, Nicholas Music Center, 85 George Street, New Brunswick, Friday, January 28, 8 p.m.; Sunday, January 30, 2 p.m.; Friday, February 4, 8 p.m.; Sunday, February 6, 2 p.m. Mozart’s comedic opera with the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra. $25. 732-932-7511 or www.masongross.rutgers.edu.