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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 5, 2000. All rights reserved.
Six Characters’ A Fun Crossword Puzzle
The music of Bizet’s "Carmen," the opening
production of the Opera Festival of New Jersey’s 2000 season, has
seeped into the very fiber of American culture. Junior high school
clarinetists and trumpeters blow its themes at annual concerts, and
amateur sopranos and tenors take on its arias in local musicales.
Not so with the music of Hugo Weisgall’s "Six Characters in Search
of an Author," the third of OFNJ’s four summer productions.
The 1959 opera, based on Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 play "Six Characters
in Search of an Author," opens Friday, July 7, at McCarter Theater.
The libretto for "Six Characters in Search of an Author" is
by Irish playwright Denis Johnston. Barbara Day Turner conducts the
production, with scenic design by Ron Kadri, and costumes by Patricia
Hibbert. Among the cast of 14, Rosalind Elias, last seen at OFNJ as
the Old Baroness in Samuel Barber’s "Vanessa" in 1997, returns
to play the role of Mother, and Robert Orth, whose credits include
"Harvey Milk" at Houston Grand Opera, makes his OFNJ debut
in the role of the Father.
Albert Takazauckas, who directs the Weisgall work that is widely known,
by reputation, but rarely-staged, has become an Opera Festival phenomenon
in his own right. Director of a succession of new and modern works,
he has helped build OFNJ’s strong reputation in this department. Most
recently recognized as the director of the festival’s highly successful
1999 production of Dominick Argento’s "Postcard from Morocco,"
his credits date from 1993 when began his association directing Peter
Maxwell Davies, "The Lighthouse." This was followed by Benjamin
Britten’s, "The Turn of the Screw" in 1995; Stravinsky’s "The
Rake’s Progress" in 1996; Samuel Barber’s "Vanessa" in
1997; and Mozart’s "The Marriage of Figaro" in 1998.
Thus Opera Festival has repeatedly engaged Takazauckas’ for relatively
new operas whose tunes the American public is unlikely to be heard
humming in the shower. Weisgall is an American composer who died in
1997 at age 85. Eager to learn his take on Weisgall during a telephone
interview from Takazauckas’ home in Oakland, California, I quote from
the Weisgall entry in "Baker’s Concise Biographical Dictionary
Weisgall’s music, "constitutes the paragon of enlightened but
inoffensive modernism," it reads. "He is a master of all musical
idioms and a bungler of none. His intentions in each of his works
never fail in the execution; for this reason his music enjoys numerous
performances, which are usually accepted with pleasure by the audiences
if not by the majority of important music critics."
There is a long silence. Finally, Takazauckas says, "I can’t say
that I agree or that I don’t. I’m not cunning enough to create that
kind of a statement. It’s a lot of syntactical droppings. It’s a word
salad. Maybe his agent wrote it."
We may not have learned much about Takazauckas’ reaction
to Weisgall, but we’ve learned a lot about Takazauckas. The qualities
that permeate his directing pervade his comments: he is thoughtful,
analytical, imaginative, inventive, playful, and terse.
Is the music accessible? "That’s a hard question," Takazauckas
says. "I’ve been sitting around with it for months, so I can hum
it. But the first time the audience hears it, it might be a tad difficult.
It’s somewhat like Richard Strauss — but the Strauss of `Electra,’
As a director Takazauckas is interested in the entire vehicle. He
calls Weisgall’s opera, which received its premiere in 1959, "a
tremendous piece of musical theater. "The transition from play
to opera is very smooth," he says. "It’s highly complex because
it comes from Pirandello, and Pirandello is basically a philosophical
writer who uses plays rather than essays. He’s a Wittgenstein writing
for theater. He was into objectifying thought processes. In Pirandello’s
mind you don’t ask somebody to marry you. You cast that person to
be your wife in the improvisation called `Existence.’ You don’t get
divorced. You fire them from the play. To Pirandello life was theater
and every daily meeting a small play to which we are either audience
The story of "Six Characters" opens as a company is rehearsing
Hugo Weisgall’s new opera, "Temptation of St. Anthony." A
family of six strangers, saying that they are characters in an opera,
ask the opera director to bring them to life. What follows is a drama
based on the interplay between reality and artistic invention. Lapsing
into ambiguities and surreal moments as the stage characters impact
the "real people," the opera raises questions of existence
and meaning. Among the devices used are what Takazauckas calls "an
opera within an opera within an opera."
"The piece mocks opera and shows the complacency of the opera
company being broken," Takazauckas says. "The characters come
in and tell a story grittier than reality. The interior story of the
six characters involves incest, murder, and suicide. The story is
meant to be shocking, and the vehicle is shocking. You don’t have
to add to it — the images are already pretty scary as the story
Takazauckas calls working on "Six Characters," "a fun
little crossword puzzle. You have to knit it together."
"It’s such a journey," he says. "What Weisgall sets up
as real is the opera company working on an opera. Then you see the
other story of the characters; it’s less padded and more honest. There’s
confusion between the [characters] in the opera troupe and the real
people. The characters have no names; they’re called father, mother,
stepdaughter, and stepson. The [real] opera singers are known only
by their voice, or their function, like stage director or manager.
It cleans the slate of making it personal. Even the chorus is only
titled by the deadly sins they play."
Born in New York City of a Lithuanian father and a Calabrese mother,
Takazauckas has lived in California since 1985 (U.S. 1, July 7, 1999).
His directing career is divided almost equally between drama and musical
theater. Although the balance is lately leaning towards opera.
As a director of musical theater Takazauckas is comfortable with the
avant-garde. "If we want to keep opera in our diet we have to
expand. I’m always happy when a new opera is written. And I’d like
to see an electronic music opera," he says. Takazauckas is also
at ease with American musical classics, and standard operatic repertoire,
although until the last year his activity with the operatic standards
was somewhat spotty. His 1999 Mozart offering for OFNJ suggested a
During the past 12 months, Takazauckas has directed, for the first
time, the often-presented "Rigoletto," "Carmen," and
"La Boheme," as well as a "Barber of Seville." "I’m
getting more involved in 19th-century music," he says. Asked what
took him so long to get around to directing the standards, he simply
says, "Nobody asked me."
"Working with 19th-century opera," he says, "opens up
a whole new experience. It’s both positive and negative. It’s lovely
how audiences embrace and love these pieces. Nobody disputes their
quality. But when I get together with the cast, I’m the only one who
hasn’t done them before."
Besides his forays into operatic standards, Takazauckas
has ventured into theatrical life in Russia, though his experiences
there were not exactly what he had originally planned. His "Pal
Joey," intended to bring the show whose best known tune is "Bewitched,
Bothered, and Bewildered," to Siberia’s Novosibirsk in December
and January failed to materialize. However, Takazauckas visited Russia
and returned with vivid impressions of Russian theatrical life, and
some street-smart observations.
Takazauckas holds the Russian bureaucracy and politics responsible
for the failure to mount "Pal Joey." "I met lot of theater
people," he says. "It’s a difficult world to deal with. The
complexity of the repertory system prevented putting anything on.
All these plays are running at the same time and you couldn’t get
a handful of musicians to perform on a regular basis." Nevertheless,
he thinks that Russia, where musicals earlier than "My Fair Lady"
are unknown, has audiences eager to see vintage American musicals,
as well as the plays of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill.
"Every time I went to the theater or opera, it was packed to gills,"
he says. "Plays start at six, and operas at seven, so audiences
are home early. The acting in the theater was amazingly good. In opera
I sometimes felt that I was watching the acting of the 19th century.
It was flat and stiff. But audiences adored it."
"Russia is in transition," Takazauckas says. "There were
tie-ups at customs and immigration. There’s no idea of hotel service
yet. There’s bad food and mystery meat. You always have to bargain
for a cab."
Takazauckas, we learn, during this, our fourth annual interview in
conjunction with his work with OFNJ, is, besides being a theatrical
director, also a painter and graphic artist. His work is shown in
galleries in northern California.
"I seldom talk about it," he says. "I’m not ashamed of
it — just slightly embarrassed. I do it for me. Sometimes I think
I like to direct so I can paint." He describes his pictures as
"anthropological" rather than decorative. "For a long
period I did a lot of chairs. A chair is an invitational object. The
phrase `Come in and sit down’ is used all the time. I’m saying in
my pictures, `Come in, sit down, and take a look at an object that
you usually pay no attention to.’"
Perhaps Takazauckas looks at a theater piece the same way he would
like viewers to look at his pictures. He’s in a position now to continue
his exploration of "Six Characters in Search of an Author."
His version of the opera is essentially complete. But he hasn’t put
his hand to the play yet. "Doing the opera made me want to do
the play," he says. "It’s not popular. But maybe I could bring
it back and show the audience what an original mind Pirandello has."
— Elaine Strauss
of New Jersey , McCarter Theater, University Place, 609-258-2787.
Opening night includes pre-performance wine tasting at 7 p.m., plus
post-performance party. $22 to $82. Friday, July 7, 8 p.m. Additional
performances are Wednesday, July 12, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, July 16, 2
p.m., and Saturday, July 22, 8 p.m.
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