Albert Takazauckas

Domenick Argento

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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.

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Albert Takazauckas

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."

Top Of Page
Domenick Argento

"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

in travel.

"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

postcard abbreviations."

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

Postcard From Morocco. $22 to $70. Opening Saturday,

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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