Before Wunderkind Peter Sellars became a Los Angeles household name . . . before there was a Music Center Opera of Los Angeles . . .
Before high-visibility opera directors visited the City of the Angels on a regular basis, stage director Christopher Alden was helping Long Beach Opera make its reputation for innovative opera stagings.
His first production for Long Beach was Puccini's "La Boheme" in 1982, and since then the 44-year-old Alden has turned out a memorable series of productions, although not all were critically acclaimed.
* Offenbach's "Parisian Life" as a Marxist screed, sung in the Backlot Theater at Studio One in Hollywood of all places.
* Offenbach's "Bluebeard" as a fleet, stylish comedy of sexual drive, presented both in Long Beach and at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Cahuenga Pass.
* Britten's "The Rape of Lucretia" as an attack on tyranny.
* Monteverdi's "The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland" with the titular hero as a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair.
For other companies, Alden has set Puccini's "Turandot" in the Fascist era it was written in, Beethoven's "Fidelio" in Nicaragua, Bizet's "Carmen" in a big city in the '20s.
He also staged the premiere of Anthony Davis' "Tania" for the American Music Theater Festival and the American premiere of Henze's "Das Verratene Meer" for the San Francisco Opera.
The list could go on.
Now the self-described "maverick" director turns to Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov," going back to the original, rarely performed version for a new Long Beach Opera staging on Wednesday and Saturday.
Expect the provocative and imaginative.
"I basically think of opera as the most unnatural of all the art forms, and I embrace it in that kind of way," New York-based Alden said as he picked over a light breakfast recently at his Long Beach hotel.
"One of the reasons I turned out to be an opera director rather than a theater director is that the American theater was mired to such a degree in a sort of naturalism or realism, and that's never been something that's interested me that much.
"I've always been interested in theater as a more poetic, expressionistic, subconscious kind of art form, and opera seems to play into that in the strongest kind of way."
Alden, his twin brother, David ("I'm six minutes older," Christopher said), who is also an opera director, and their sister Jennifer, now 38, were born in New York and grew up in a theater family. Their father, Jerome Alden, is a television and theater writer, and their mother danced on Broadway under the stage name of Barbara Gaye.
"There was never any question for both my brother and myself," Alden said. "We were hooked on theater, music and the arts from a very early age.
"I started to focus in on opera by the time I was in high school. I started listening to opera recordings, and me and my brother, we were just hit by opera very quickly.
"It seemed to be a sort of revelation to be confronted by these great artworks that combined these different artistic styles--music and theater."
He began going to the opera "sort of fanatically, sort of immediately.
"When I first went to the opera, I was just absorbing the whole medium and falling in love with it and falling in love with the great singers. It took a while before I started to focus in on the more revisionist aspects of production, and there was very little example of that in New York at that time."
But Alden had begun to think about directing while studying English at the University of Pennsylvania. Still, it wasn't until after graduating, when he went to Europe, that he encountered the work of directors who were working in new ways.
"That opened up a lot of windows for me about the direction one can take theater and opera in," he said.
The man who made the biggest impression on him was stage director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, for whom he served as an assistant, working with him from 1978 to 1982 in Houston, Salzburg and Paris, among other places.
"Ponnelle was a great sort of person in freeing opera up from its naturalistic 19th-Century style," he said.
"I learned from him to think of opera as a dream, functioning in a totally irrational way and talking on completely dream levels."
The "dream level" concept will surface in his production of "Boris."
"In a way, I'm playing this whole thing out like fantasies in Boris' own head," Alden said.
"He never leaves the stage and he sits and works through the paper piled up on his desk and goes laboriously, sitting there for the whole opera, through all of the papers that have piled up and trying to deal with the endless bureaucracy of his country.
"All these events swirl around him: his guilt about what he did to achieve power and his paranoia about the man who is going to replace him.
"On one level, that's sort of a fabulous dreamy way of talking about somebody in power fantasizing about who is going to replace him, that sort of paranoid thing. There's always somebody out there who is amassing their forces to take over your position, so the piece speaks to me in a sort of wonderful dreamlike metaphor, about power and what you have to do to hold onto that power and what it does to you."
He elaborated: "The whole idea of Boris having killed a child in order to get rid of the major obstacle to his becoming the person in power . . . on one level that is talking about what a man has to do to gain power, which is to kill innocence. I wouldn't want to call it killing the 'inner child,' but killing an innocent part of himself.
"You have to be able to do something like that to maintain such great power. You have to be able to live with it, whereas Boris is a man who can't live with that."
Alden agreed with "the received knowledge about this piece"--that "the people are the true protagonists." But he goes further:
"I think of it more in terms of being a piece about the relationship between a powerful leader and his people, and the give-and-take between the two of them: how he is at first built up by the people and then when things begin to go badly in the Russian empire, they begin to turn on him. . . . It's very much focusing on the leader as a scapegoat, destroying him, blaming him, putting all the blame on him.
"What's very tempting about doing this piece now is how the general atmosphere of the piece and the underlying feelings about Russia and the kind of empire that it is and what it stands for and the forces swirling around it--all that seems incredibly modern."
Strange, because Mussorgsky's most popular opera has a very tangled history. He first wrote it in 1869 as a seven-scene work, but this version was rejected by the selection committees of the Imperial Theaters because it lacked a major feminine role. Mussorgsky dutifully complied by creating a new Polish Act, which contained the prominent role of the Polish princess Marina Mnishek.
But at the same time he underwent a rethinking of the whole, extensively revising the earlier score and adding new scenes.
The revised version was produced at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg to an enthusiastic reception. Even so, it was a 1908 version re-orchestrated and revised by Rimsky-Korsakov, who had conducted the premiere, that went on to make the opera known internationally, thanks to Diaghilev's production that year in Paris.
Rimsky-Korsakov actually created two versions, but the story gets too complicated to pursue. . . .
At any rate, a movement began around 1975 to return to Mussorgsky's original version, as Alden is doing--although not entirely.
"It's a much tighter piece than what he finally ended up with," the director said. "When you do it without the Polish Act, it becomes this much leaner, tighter piece which focuses much more on sociopolitical aspects and doesn't veer off into this kind of grand opera romantic mode.
"I don't think I've ever seen a production of this opera that I didn't feel was not sort of mired in a kind of epic, historical pageant mode, which is a series of sort of pictorial visualizations of these different locales in Moscow, which I've always felt just cloud the issues and don't allow the true brilliant psychology and sociology of the piece to speak directly to an audience.
"This production is an attempt to strip away those things and just get down to the very simple basic human realities of the story."
Long Beach will use a performing score in English made in 1975 by British musicologist and conductor David Lloyd-Jones. At press time, no decision had been made about whether to use supertitles.
"We're actually debating that, even as we speak," Alden said. "The original idea was not to since we're performing it in English. But as we work on it, we're wondering whether in a theater of this size how much of the text it's really possible for the singers to put across. So we're now debating the possibility of using supertitles.
"I've been thinking about the piece for a long time and it's been working there somewhere inside me, in my head, and over the years, I'd buy recordings of it, listen to it, go see different productions of it. I've been working on it subconsciously for years and years and years. So when we decided to do it here, it didn't take me too long to arrive at these particular ideas."
Fortunately for Alden, Long Beach Opera General Manager Michael Milenski has agreed with his views. "Michael has always promoted the kind of work that I do and has been interested in doing opera in an unconventional way," Alden said. "I've always felt relaxed in working here."
In fact, he describes his 1983 production of Britten's "Death in Venice" for Long Beach as a "watershed" event in his life.
"That's a production where things really started to come together for me, stylistically," he said. "The piece itself had a lot to do with that. It was very inspiring in a lot of different ways--the way it's written aesthetically and the themes that it deals with. It was very liberating to work on that piece."
Although both he and his brother are stage directors, they have worked together only once, in staging the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas for Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony in 1992. Christopher Alden also supervised a 1986 Long Beach Opera revival of his brother's production of Verdi's "Don Carlo" for Milenski's other opera company in San Jose.
"David's always made his career more in Europe than I did," Alden explained. "He connected up into the British opera scene quite early on, and his most groundbreaking work has been done in England and Scottish Opera and English National Opera. But it's been a parallel kind of career. We're both interested in the same kind of work."
Alden's own work has had its fair share of detractors as well as supporters, but that doesn't faze him: "I don't think there is such a thing as a 'traditional' production," he said. "The theater is of its moment and evanescent, and by nature, it's a live art form which is about what's happening here and now. The whole idea of traditional productions comes more from music critics' fond memories of when they were falling in love with the art form of opera, how it was done back then-- 30 or 40 years ago--some sort of wistful desire for things not to change but to stay the way that they were back then.
"The whole idea of talking of traditional productions of theater is absurd and impossible. Theater has to develop. It has to reflect the times that it's performed in."
He conceded that "you have to be faithful to the piece that you're working on and its traditions and the traditions that it's talking about and its time and what it says about what was going on in its time.
"But you also have to be as faithful to the audience that you're performing the piece for, and make it live for them as powerfully as possible. It's a balancing act. Different eras are involved in performing a work of art from a past era."
Music critics, he believes, are "not necessarily qualified to talk about the kind of theater that I do. They're too narrow-minded and they haven't been exposed to the kind of theater which is of interest to me. They do it from a sort of narrow-minded musicological perspective, which often doesn't have a lot to do with the kind of work I do."
Dance critics, he says, are "much more open" to the style he works in: "They've been trained to deal with this less literal, more open, abstract kind of style and can understand the work that I do and accept it better. The kind of work I do has always been much more accepted and fostered in Europe than it has been in America."
But even if Alden agreed that his career could be described as "a battle," it is "a healthy battle," he stressed.
"It's about always jutting up against more traditional ideas about opera. It's exciting to be in that kind of a place where you're a maverick. It's an exciting stance to take. That's always been quite a large part of what I do--breaking stereotypes and shocking people."
* "Boris Godunov," Terrace Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Michael Devlin will sing the title role; Steven Sloane will conduct. Wednesday, 8 p.m., and Saturday, 4 p.m. $22-$60. (310) 596-5556.