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This article by Elaine Strauss was published in the Preview section of U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 15, 1998. All

rights reserved.

Boheme’s Energetic `Figaro’

Director Darko Tresnjak has more than the usual bag

of tricks to use in shaping theatrical vehicles. He has directed both

dramatic and operatic productions. He has been a professional dancer

and choreographer, as well as a puppeteer. A Swarthmore English major,

he has lived in eastern Europe.

After making his area debut directing Boheme Opera’s "Madame Butterfly,"

last season, he returns to Boheme to direct Mozart’s "Marriage

of Figaro." Performances take place Wednesday, April 22, and Friday,

April 24, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 26, at 3 p.m. in the Villa

Victoria Theater in West Trenton. The Wednesday performance, billed

as "Casual Night at the Opera," targets first-time opera goers,

who are encouraged to dress down and attend the pre-concert talk that’s

given, one hour before each performance by Joseph Pucciatti.

"Marriage of Figaro," Boheme’s first entry into the Mozart

repertoire, features Matthew Lau as Figaro, Canadian soprano Katherine

Johnson as Countess Almaviva, the Met’s David Arnold as Count Almaviva,

Allison Charney as Susanna, and Gwendolyn Jones as Cherubino. Joseph

Pucciatti conducts.

Tresnjak, 32, was born in Zemun, Croatia, now a part of Serbia. He

moved to the United States when he was nine, in 1975. His mother,

unlike most people in her circle, thought that there was going to

be a war. "People said, `Marija is insane’," Tresnjak remembers.

"But she said, `I know that there’s going to be a war and I want

to get my kids out of here’."

After Tresnjak’s sister, 11 years his senior, married an American

diplomat, the family moved to the United States, and Tresnjak attended

schools in Maryland and the District of Columbia.

At age seven, before leaving Croatia, Tresnjak had already directed

his first dramatic production. "It was the year of the Munich

Olympics, 1972," he says. "I was fascinated with the concept

of the Olympics. I got the kids on the block to do opening ceremonies.

I rigged it so I would get all the medals. My grandmother freaked

out because we lit the Olympic torch on the roof of her house. I always

had a sense for the epic."

In high school, Tresnjak did two years in one, and graduated from

high school a year early. He had just turned 17, and didn’t want to

go to college right away when his brother-in-law was assigned to Cracow,

Poland. Tresjnak tagged along. "Poland is a fascinating country,"

he says. "It was the time of Solidarity. I saw lots of Polish

theater, took French lessons at the French Consulate, and Polish lessons

at the Polish consulate. I did ballroom dancing and skiing. I applied

to college while I was in Poland. It was a good year. "

An English literature major at Swarthmore, Tresnjak finds the roots

of what he is doing now in his college studies. "I got to examine

English literature from a formal point of view. It’s not that different

from working on opera. You analyze the score and get a sense of character."

At Swarthmore, Tresnjak directed two shows, with casts approaching

30, exceptionally large forces for undergraduate productions. The

epic outlook of his childhood was still with him, and is one of the

things that draws him to opera.

After graduation, Tresnjak studied dance at the Martha Graham School

in New York. During five years’ residence in Philadelphia, he danced

with four or five Philadelphia-based dance companies, including one

that combined dance and puppet performances. Eventually, he founded

a dance theater company, Twitch Limit, which combined movement and

text. "We did good work for several years, and got good reviews,"

he says, "but we decided to move on. I always wanted to direct.

I realized that dance was mostly a vehicle for my theatrical ideas,

and I was getting burnt out between dance, puppetry, and directing

dance." In retrospect, Tresnjak is happy about his exposure to

dance and puppetry. "Now I feel that I have a lot more skills

than most directors."

Tresnjak’s directing is buttressed by a master’s degree

from Columbia University, where he studied with Ann Bogart and Andrei

Serban. He moved to New York City five years ago, but finds that eight

months of the year he is away on directing projects. This year he

directs four operas and two plays outside the city. He is a regular

at the Williamstown, Massachusetts, Theater Festival, where he directs

one show a season. Last year, it was Carlo Gozzi’s "Princess Turandot,"

the source of the opera. This year it is "Life is a Dream,"

by Calderon de la Barca, a Spanish contemporary of Shakespeare.

He is critical about the state of theater in the United States, but

exempts opera from his criticism. "Most of the time when I go

to theater in America," he says, "I think I’m seeing movies

without the closeups. There’s not much energy coming off the stage.

With opera, you have wonderful trained artists with voices that can

fill large spaces. They often have a matching theatrical sensibility,

and know how to fill space dramatically. There’s the energy of unamplified

large voices. Opera takes us to magical places that theater doesn’t

take us to."

"A lot of theater is coming from Europe and Asia." Tresnjak

says. "It is on a large scale and has a strong sense of color.

The classical tradition is richer than in the United States. In Japan

or China, people in the theater are trained in dance and acrobatics,

in addition to acting. There’s a definable level of discipline. In

the United States, if you’re an opera singer, you train every week.

If you’re a ballet dancer, you have barre classes three, five, or

six times week. If you’re in the theater, you get an MFA and you’re

finished. What does an actor do to renew skills? It’s a huge question."

As a director, Tresnjak hones his skills by creating new productions.

"My work is half creativity, and half craft," he says. "I

have been directing pretty seriously for the last 10 years. My craft

has been developing. Within the past year, I have done `Butterfly’

for Boheme Opera, and `La Traviata’ at Sarasota. Now it’s the `Marriage

of Figaro.’ It’s going from hard to harder to hardest."

Tresnjak has set Boheme’s "Figaro" in the late 18th century.

"What people are going to see on the level of craft," he says,

"is an extraordinary degree of physicality. I’m trying to match

the energy of the music. The music is so compact, and so much happens

so quickly. I’m trying to stage everything that’s implicit in the

music."

In trying to stage all the implications of the music, Tresnjak also

attempts to depict the revolutionary nature of the Beaumarchais’ trilogy,

on which "The Marriage of Figaro" is based.

"I’m trying to bring back a few moments of the political context,"

he says. "In Act One, there’s a moment where Figaro is cleaning

the count’s wig. I have him put the wig on a platter and bring his

hand down on it as if the Count was being beheaded." In addition,

Tresnjak enjoys the ironies he finds in the opera. "I’m interested

in the interaction between the sexuality of the characters, and the

rigid morality of the time."

With his far-reaching approach to opera and theater, Tresnjak, not

surprisingly, is booked for engagements as far ahead as 2001. Next

year he brings Rimsky-Korsakov’s "May Night" to Sarasota for

its American premiere. "It’s a jewel of a comic opera," he

says. Tresnjak’s production of the Rimsky-Korsakov vehicle incorporates

puppetry; dance is already part of the score. In addition, he will

direct some non-musical productions. "I feel the absolute need

to do both opera and theater," he says. "I can’t do without

either."

— Elaine Strauss

Le Nozze di Figaro, Boheme Opera, Villa Victoria

Academy, Route 29 North and West Upper Ferry Road, West Trenton, 609-683-8000.

$18 to $38. Lecture one hour before curtain. April 22, 8 p.m.; April

24, 8 p.m.; and April 26, 3 p.m.


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