Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Srauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 7,
1999. All rights reserved.
Postcard from a Warm but Strange Place
The book for Dominick Argento’s surrealist opera "Postcard
from Morocco" does not require that the action be set in Morocco.
The libretto specifies "any place warm and strange." Albert
Takazauckas, director for the Opera Festival of New Jersey production
of the one-act 1971 work, says, "The distance is the point. It’s
not someplace in Europe. It’s a step beyond that. This is not like
going to Paris. It’s about being separated and displaced."
Takazauckas’ "Postcard" opens Saturday, July 10, at McCarter
Theater. Cal Stewart Kellogg conducts. With the exception of one role,
all singers play double roles. A team of mimes from American Repertory
Ballet appears in the performance. Supertitles are provided for the
basically English opera.
Argento’s opera takes place in 1914 as seven people in a railroad
waiting room confront each other and their luggage. The travelers
include a lady with a hand mirror, an operetta singer, a foreign singer,
a puppet maker, and puppets. The other characters are defined by their
luggage. The luggage, which helps carry the plot forward, includes
a cake box, a hat box, a paint box, a shoe sample kit, a cornet case,
and an old valise.
Interviewed from the Princeton apartment that is his temporary season
quarters, Takazauckas laughs when he is asked how he goes about conveying
the surreal. "I think day-to-day life can be surreal," he
says. "Acting almost average can convey the surreal. What is familiar
suddenly becomes different. Take the Hitchcock film `Shadow of a Doubt.’
It’s about an average family in Santa Rosa, but dreadful things are
happening. The familiar becomes uncanny. That’s what I’m trying to
do. The ordinary becomes strange and dangerous, and fills people with
terror and uneasiness."
Takazauckas suggests that a pervasive vagueness about the characters
contributes to the surreal mood. The focus in the opera is on the
performers, rather than the characters that they play.
"I want to make clear that a performer plays multiple roles,"
says Takazauckas. "This is not like `Aida,’ where a singer leaves
the stage on one side, puts on a different costume, and re-enters
on the other side of the stage as someone else. Here, the characters
become different on stage. The lady with the hat box becomes a foreign
At this point Takazauckas corrects himself. "Actually, it’s not
`the lady with the hat box.’ It’s `a lady with a hat box.’ All the
characters are not even `the.’ It made me think. Using `a’ makes it
more diffuse, more distant, and harder to grab onto — more surreal.
It’s like the man on Saturday Night Live, whose first initial is `A.’
So he becomes A. John Smith instead of John Smith."
Part of the appeal of "Postcard" for Takazauckas
is its orneriness as a stage vehicle. "One wants to say `difficult,’"
he says, "but now you are supposed to say `challenging.’ It’s
like the London Times crostic. It’s complex. You have to sit in front
of it and figure it out. It’s challenging all the way down the line.
The libretto tends to be abstract, not logical and clear. That’s a
positive idea here."
Takazauckas notes, "People always sing in this opera about what
they have in their suitcases, but nobody will open them. You never
know if they’re lying. The refusal to open the luggage implies danger
and the surreal." Or as librettist John Donahue explains, "We
see each one trying hard to protect whatever small part of himself
he has in his suitcase, the symbol of his secret or lack of secret,
his dream or lack of dream."
"It’s appealing to hear Argento’s voice," Takazauckas says.
"He calls the opera `Postcard’ because it’s brief. It’s not quite
a letter. It incorporates abbreviated things, like postcards do. Also
postcards are nostalgic about where you’ve been. And Argento is interested
"Argento chose to orchestrate the piece for very few instruments,"
Takazauckas says. "Like the vocal parts, nothing is doubled. That
spareness adds to the effectiveness of the piece, and mirrors the
Takazauckas uses Argento’s extensive Wagnerian orchestral quotations
in the opera for dance interludes. "We stop and do a dance to
entertain the travelers," he says. "The Wagner is mostly orchestral,
but it also appears in the vocal line. Argento works in the Wagnerian
quotes throughout piece. Sometimes he modifies it. In the section
called `Memoirs of Bayreuth’ he turns `Evening Star’ [from Wagner’s
`Tannhauser’] into a jazzy little two-step. I use the dance company
throughout the opera. It’s part of my idea to make the piece work."
One of the challenges for "Postcard" is conveying 1914, the
year Argento designates as the time of the action. "We use clothing,
props, and a surrounding sense," Takazauckas says. "In this
piece nobody talks about politics, art, or literature. They don’t
mention World War I or the Kaiser. We try to give a sense of 1914
as a sweet remembrance, rather than an exacting thing. There are disrupting
elements in the book. For one of the sequences, it asks you to bring
out a microphone. In 1914 there were no mikes as we know them. So
you want to do a surprising thing, but you don’t want to make it look
like Dali with melting watches."
Just as the characters in "Postcard" change before the eyes
of the audience, so does the language. Parts of the libretto are in
German. "It’s like German 101," says Takazauckas, "baby
talk German — easy words, very cliched." The person who plays
"a foreign singer" uses an invented language. "At first
I thought it was Portuguese, then I thought it was a hybrid French-African,
but it wasn’t either one," he says.
Takazauckas was born and raised on Carmine Street in New York’s Greenwich
Village (U.S. 1, July 9, 1997). He declines to give the year of his
birth, though he readily states his height (six-foot-five). "My
father was of Lithuanian background; my mother was Calabrese. They
met in Manhattan. I grew up with kids who were Irish and Polish, or
Greek and Hungarian. We were the hybrids. We never thought much about
it. People could look around and think, `I don’t have to marry somebody
Takazauckas’ interest in staging opera and musical theater grew from
his encounters with composer Joyce Bartleson at New York’s New School.
"Joyce was my good mother," Takazauckas says. "She was
one of those angels who appear on the road and take you in the right
direction. I can’t speak about her. I get too gushy." After her
death, he studied with Virginia Hoff, who co-founded Westchester’s
Hoff-Bartleson School with Joyce Bartleson. From the two women Takazauckas
acquired a focused practicality. "I haven’t been pulled and pushed
around by a lot of theories," he says.
Takazauckas’ route to directing was indirect. Employed as the map
curator at Columbia University, he encountered Kenneth Cooper, harpsichordist
and promoter of baroque music, who was then a Columbia graduate student.
Cooper recruited him to direct Handel’s opera "Susannah."
Employing his considerable persuasive talents, Takazauckas persuaded
Columbia to give him extra time off each summer so he could work in
summer stock. Since then he has amassed an array of dramatic and operatic
directing credits that cover the repertoire from classic to contemporary
and speckle the map of the United States. His work is marked by an
imaginative staging that makes the audience feel physically part of
the action. Takazauckas sees a theatrical production as a fragile
entity, but declines to specify particular narrow escapes in his work.
"Every time you do a piece of theater you do it without a net,"
he says. "It’s always amazing how it just goes on."
Now based in Oakland, California, and an artistic associate
with San Francisco’s Conservatory Theater, Takazauckas has included
OFNJ in his normal migratory route for at least the past six years.
He’s happy in Princeton. "I like the little apartment set-up I
have here," he says. "I feel very comfortable here. I’m a
rabid fan of Thomas Sweet Ice Cream. I enjoy Micawber books, the Record
Exchange, the bookstore by the barber shop, and Palmer Square. I usually
walk to McCarter through the campus. You start passing the same people
when you do the same walk every day, and you get nods."
An engagement in Russia has a high profile in Takazauckas’ plans for
the near future. He will be going to Novosibirsk, capital of Siberia,
in December and January to direct "Pal Joey." Based on the
John O’Hara novella, the musical is one of the last shows that Rodgers
and Hart did together. The project intrigues Takazauckas. "One
of the things I find most interesting is the idea of working with
a different kind of actor. This is an anti-hero musical. It’s fascinating
and bold, and I want to see the Russians’ reaction to the American
musical. I’ve had contact with the head of the theater and the translator.
We’ll sing in English and do the dialogue in Russian because music
is always more singable in its original language."
Takazauckas knows about the temperature and the scant amount of daylight
in Siberia in December and January. "It will be cold and dark,"
he says, "but my next job is in Miami, so it’s okay." Considering
his immersion in "Postcard from Morocco," and his location
when the new millennium arrives, Takazauckas seems to be solidifying
his hold on the surreal from two directions. With "Postcard"
he faces the surreal in the artistic depiction of day-to-day life.
In Siberia, he can expect to see life becoming surreal as it imitates
art. There they’ll be, the population of Novosibirsk, exhaling frostily
below their fur hats as they set off in the twilight of a winter’s
noon; that’s normal for that part of the world. The surreal wrinkle
is that some of them will be mouthing, in English, just as they heard
it in the musical that just bowled them over, "Pal Joey’s"
irresistible hit tune "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered."
— Elaine Strauss
July 10, at 8 p.m. , with performances Friday, July 16, 8 p.m.,
and Sunday, July 18, 2 p.m.
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