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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 5, 2000. All rights reserved.

Six Characters’ A Fun Crossword Puzzle

E-mail: ElaineStrauss@princetoninfo.com

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

of Musicians."

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,’

not `Rosenkavalier.’"

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

or actor."

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

unravels."

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

new trend.

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

Six Characters in Search of an Author, Opera Festival

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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