‘I don’t direct opera, I direct theater. My take on opera is that dance and acting are inseparable from the music; opera is a matter of complete immersion,” says Marc Verzatt in a telephone interview during a rehearsal of Charles Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette,” which he is directing for New Jersey Opera Theater (NJOT). Verzatt’s college major was drama. His first post-college job was as a member of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. His instrument is flute. “Romeo et Juliette” can be seen in McCarter’s Berlind Theater on Friday, July 20, and Saturday, July 28, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, July 22, at 2 p.m. Steven Mosteller conducts.
In addition to “Romeo et Juliette,” NJOT’s season of fully-staged opera this summer includes Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Magic Flute” and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.” New this year are early matinee family performances at 1 p.m. of “Pirates” on Saturday, July 21, and “Flute” on Saturday, July 28, preceded by 11 a.m. pre-performance activities with performers. NJOT has also scheduIed concerts of opera scenes and free master classes.
New Jersey Opera Theater was incorporated in November, 2002. Its name was often confused with that of Opera Festival of New Jersey, which gave its last performance in 2003. During the last year NJOT briefly borrowed the name “SummerFest,” the title of a long-running series of summer concerts, no longer in existence, under the auspices of Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts. In recent months NJOT has been calling itself “New Jersey Opera.”
Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette,” along with Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” are probably the best known of the more than three dozen music dramas based on Shakespeare’s 1595 play. Gounod’s version was an immediate success after its Paris premiere in 1867. Director Verzatt readily explains that both the dramatic structure of the work and Gounod’s thorough understanding of his audience contributed to its triumph.
“Gounod does a fantastic job of shifting mood,” Verzatt says. “The vibrant opening ballroom scene is followed by a nocturnal duet. Violence and love alternate throughout the opera.” Comparing Gounod’s Shakespeare-based “Romeo et Juliette” with his Goethe-inspired “Faust,” Verzatt says, “Gounod gets Shakespeare more than he gets Goethe. In Shakespeare characters are swept up in the passion of their own feelings. People burst onto the scene with a great display of emotion. There’s not a note of ‘Romeo’ that’s not perfectly spot on. The opera is a masterpiece.
“It’s amazing that Catholic Gounod understood Protestant Shakespeare so well. You never stop being Catholic. I know,” continues Verzatt. “Gounod was writing for an upper class Catholic audience, and he knew how to make his audience comfortable. He put the wedding scene early in the opera so that the upper class conservative Catholic audience would know that it’s OK if Romeo and Juliet sleep together. The same people were scandalized by ‘Carmen.’ The opera ends with Romeo and Juliet singing ‘God forgive us.’ That was a recognition that Catholicism forbids suicide. Anybody with any brains in business would take pains to see that the audience would take their work to its heart — look at ‘Spiderman 3.’”
Gounod’s “Romeo” follows Shakespeare’s story quite closely. Romeo and Juliet, the children of feuding families, fall in love. Friar Lawrence secretly agrees to marry them. Juliet has been promised in marriage to the nobleman Paris. On the morning of their wedding Friar Lawrence gives her a sleeping potion that will make her appear to be dead. When she wakes, she will be united with Romeo. In despair, thinking that Juliet is dead, Romeo takes poison and dies. Juliet kills herself with Romeo’s dagger.
Verzatt sets the opera in 14th century Verona, just as Shakespeare did. “It’s a pretty standard interpretation,” Verzatt says. “I’m not good at updating.” Still, he reduces Gounod’s five acts to three.
“My work is interpretive, not creative,” Verzatt says. “The composer is creative. I’ve directed Shakespeare; it’s unlimited. But Gounod got there first. Through his music he says, ‘This is how the person feels, here’s the tempo, here’s the character’s blood pressure rate, I phrased a word a certain way, so I want it to be this way.’ The conductor and director have to figure out what the composer meant.
“My code of honor is loyalty to the composer,” Verzatt continues. “I go to the score. It doesn’t always reveal itself. My job is to look for what is meant. I believe that the whole piece is motivated by what people say, do, and feel. I don’t do conventional blocking where you say, ‘Stand here, then move there.’”
Verzatt is constantly mindful of the listeners. “If you forget that the audience is there, you’re doomed,” he says. “The audience has to go ‘Ahhh. Ohhh.’ Theater has to be directed for the enrichment of the audience, for enriching the human spirit.”
In his 50s, Verzatt was born in East Orange to a family that he describes as solidly unmusical. His father worked in industry; his mother worked for the Dean of Students at Newark Rutgers. “I was an aberration,” he says. “My mother’s sister was a theater aficionado and lived in the east Village. She took me to see Julie Andrews in ‘Camelot.’ She became my mentor when I was a kid, once she saw that I was interested in music, literature, and art.
“The rest of them had no musical idea other than light FM,” Verzatt says of his family. “They didn’t advocate my going into the arts but they didn’t stand in my way. I was the middle child and they left me alone. My older brother and younger sister were too much of a handful for them to pay much attention to me.”
Verzatt started studying flute at age eight or nine. “For a while, people thought I was going to be musician,” he says. “But I couldn’t see myself following a career where I would have to be sitting in a chair. I needed to get up and move around.”
Today Verzatt continues to play flute. “I do it for my own enjoyment,” he says, “and for what it opens up to me in artistry and craft. It’s good that I play a wind instrument because I work with singers, who use their breath to express themselves.”
He remembers a turning point in his life. “One night Joan Sutherland [the legendary soprano] showed up on TV. I didn’t know that the human voice could do that. I thought, ‘This is what the flute tries to do. I asked for Sutherland recordings every birthday and Christmas. I wanted to dance at the opera because of her.
“I was kind of a fat kid and my parents had me take dancing lessons for six weeks one summer. At the end of the summer, I was offered a partial scholarship, which turned into a full scholarship.”
Verzatt says he got interested in opera through Gilbert and Sullivan. “My aunt had a book of Gilbert and Sullivan librettos. I was fascinated. Because of my English and Irish background, Gilbert and Sullivan seemed like a natural.”
Verzatt graduated from Rutgers’ College of Arts and Sciences in Newark as a drama major. During his college career he studied dance at the Garden State Ballet, which was located in Newark at the time.
“The first job I ever auditioned for was dancing at the Metropolitan Opera, and it was the first job I ever got,” Verzatt says, still somewhat amazed. “I went directly from college to dancing at Lincoln Center.” He was on stage with Sutherland during his second year at the Met.
“In opera, dancing and acting are a direct response to the music. It’s not true that you study ballet to learn how to dance to music. I responded to music directly. I was already a musician when I started ballet.
‘I draw a tremendous amount of inspiration from Matthew Bourne,” Verzatt says. In 1995 Bourne choreographed a revolutionary version of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” for an all-male cast. “Bourne has an unlimited vocabulary of movement and is a complete collaborator,” says Verzatt.
After several seasons at the Met Verzatt left to learn about production as a stage manager with the Cincinnati Opera. Beginning as an assistant stage director for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, he was soon appointed acting coach and stage director of Lyric Opera’s young artist program. He made his professional directing debut at Opera Columbus. For Boheme Opera he has directed “Rigoletto,” “Il Tabarro,” “Gianni Schicchi,” and “Il Trovatore.” In 2006 he directed “Cherubin” for New Jersey Opera Theater.
A member of the Yale University faculty, where he teaches acting and opera, he lives in Stamford, Connecticut, and is in the process of moving to New Jersey. He joins the faculty of Westminster Choir College of Rider University in the fall, where he will teach acting and movement, and give opera workshops.
This summer the public can see the finished product of Verzatt’s work by viewing his “Romeo et Juliette.” In addition, the public can get a behind-the-scenes feel for his work by visiting Westminster’s CoOPERAtive program in July, where Verzatt coaches interpretation. For a schedule of CoOPERAtive recitals by emerging opera performers visit www.rider.edu.
Romeo and Juliet, Friday, July 20, 8 p.m., Sunday, July 22, 2 p.m.; and Saturday, July 28, 8 p.m. New Jersey Opera Theater, Berlind Theater at McCarter, Princeton. Conducted by Steven Mosteller, directed by Marc Verzatt. $52 to $59. 609-258-2787. Pre-performance lecture at 7:15 p.m., Friday, July 20. For a full schedule of New Jersey Opera Theater events this summer visit www.njot.org.