Director Julie Taymor, who will unveil her new production of Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Hollander” (The Flying Dutchman) with the Los Angeles Music Center Opera on Saturday night, is a relative newcomer to the operatic stage.
As a visionary young New York theater artist, she first made her mark with Off Broadway experimental productions, works that drew on non-Western theater and dance traditions, with startling uses of puppetry and masks. She has confessed that much opera onstage doesn’t impress her.
“I can listen to the music in my home and imagine the most amazing imagery,” she says. “But quite often when I go to the opera and then I see it, I’d rather close my eyes, because you can’t match the music.”
Today, however--on a too-hot morning in Manhattan--Taymor’s eyes are open wide as she describes her vision of the “Dutchman.” Sitting in the airy and spectacular, but not air-conditioned, Manhattan loft that she shares with composer Elliot Goldenthal, she promises an airy, spectacular production of Wagner’s almost oppressively Romantic work. If Taymor’s previous three journeys into opera are any indication, her “Dutchman” should be unlike any other.
Taymor has, in fact, managed to become one of the most celebrated of all operatic novices. Her debut, a 1992 production of Stravinsky’s dramatically static and problematic 55-minute oratorio “Oedipus Rex,” won the International Classical Music Award for Opera Production of the Year--and this for a production seen only in Matsumoto, Japan, about as far from international opera capitals as possible. Seiji Ozawa had turned to Taymor to direct “Oedipus” only after his first choice, Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa, turned him down. Kurosawa’s painterly use of the camera, it happens, had long been a strong influence in Taymor’s stagings, and it can be seen in her video of the production (available from Philips Classics on laser disc and VHS), which took top honors at the Montreal Film Festival.
Next, Zubin Mehta, who had been introduced to Taymor’s work when she was presented the first Dorothy Chandler Performing Arts Award in theater at the Music Center in 1989, invited her to direct her second opera, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” at the Maggio Musicale in Florence, Italy, in 1993. The production so wowed producer Peter Gelb, who recently became head of Sony Classical, that he has asked her to follow in Ingmar Bergman’s footsteps and direct a movie of the opera as part of a new series of Sony films on classical music.
Then it was Valery Gergiev’s turn. The Kirov Opera’s impetuous conductor was intrigued by her production of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” in New York last winter (probably, Taymor jokes, because she had created such elaborately Baroque staging on a shoestring budget). He asked her to direct Strauss’ “Salome” for the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia. Although all the reports aren’t in yet from the June premiere (many dailies didn’t cover it; the opera magazines will publish reviews this fall), she reportedly bedazzled a Russian company and audience little used to her elaborate sense of lighting and movement, her emphasis on myth and meaning, her ability to convey convincing sexiness.
Taymor, who was born in 1952 in Newton, Mass., has a background that ranges from Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater to years spent working in theater in Indonesia; from her student years in Paris, where she daily haunted the Cinematheque, to far-flung travels and direct contact with exotic cultures. Her productions, of Shakespeare and of original works, have attracted attention--including a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant--for their wondrous accumulation of foreign and familiar cultural traditions, and for their ability to express time frames that are simultaneously antediluvian and postmodern.
She might populate commedia dell’arte with plexiglass light puppets, as she did in “The King Stag,” designed in 1984 for the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.
Or she might create an imaginative world of her own, as in “Juan Darien,” in which the Far East meets Mexican specters and a jaguar cub turns into a boy and then back again, all with the help of bunraku puppets and Bengali fireworks. This was the production, staged in the basement of St. Clement’s Church, that Stephen Sondheim called “one of the best theater pieces I’ve ever seen.”
But what makes her work especially haunting is that it is never possible to put a finger on exactly what influence is operating. Myths and cultures flow together seamlessly on Taymor’s stages. A coffee-table art book about her work, to be published this fall by Abrams, is as culturally multifaceted as one of Joseph Campbell’s studies.
But Taymor also takes pains to point out that her work is not about appropriating other cultures, though she freely borrows from their bag of performance tricks. Specific works, she says, are what define cultures--methods should be available to anyone, and any culture, that wants to master them to tell their own stories. “What people see in my work,” Taymor says, “is technique.”
She ultimately places herself squarely within the tradition of Western narrative theater. And if she uses a technique from a foreign culture, she says, it is simply because she finds it an effective way to reveal something inherent in the nature of a character or something that will best tell a story.
T he combination of Taymor’s eclectic style and Wagner’s Old World “Flying Dutchman” was almost a non-starter.
“There was a lot of struggle for me about accepting this project,” Taymor says. “The music wasn’t the problem, it was the libretto. I just couldn’t get enough out of the Senta story.”
In the opera’s story, the Dutchman, who is forced to wander the seas for eternity unless he can find a woman faithful unto death and willing to sacrifice herself for his salvation, lucks on to Senta, the young daughter of a Norwegian ship’s captain who covets the Dutchman’s treasure. But to Taymor she seemed a cliche.
“This woman who’s got no identity” is how the director describes her. “Her whole person is to be the savior of a guy whom she knows nothing about. She’s just doomed.”
Not happy with a mindless 19th-Century heroine, Taymor turned to the Dutchman, who is often interpreted as the composer himself. “I kept thinking about the notion of this artist who is at sea, misunderstood, never finding a port,” she says. “And then I thought that that’s very interesting if you think of Senta in these terms as well, as a mirror image of the Dutchman.”
Making that sort of connection is clearly what fuels Taymor’s layered productions. Once she gets going on a topic--as a talker or as a director--the associations just seem to flow.
In this case, the result is that Taymor has made Senta an artist too. In the libretto Senta falls in love with a portrait of the Dutchman; in this production, she paints that portrait, and paints herself into it. “In this way,” Taymor explains, “she creates her own destiny.” The Dutchman as artist must fulfill his vision, however impossible that may seem, and so now must Senta who becomes allied with him.
But that solution still didn’t quite do it. Taymor wasn’t done struggling with the extreme Romanticism of Senta’s sacrificial love.
What she went looking for, she says, was “the essence of absolute passion, which is very hard to find in our cynical society. I’m not saying that it is not there, but in a society that is self-aware, a society in which females have gone beyond living through other people, there is the expectation that you can live as your own person.”
Where Taymor found absolute passion is in adolescent girls, the kind who become fanatic about Frank Sinatra, the Beatles or Brad Pitt. “There’s an age when females are so consumed they become obsessive, like the girls in the film ‘Heavenly Creatures,’ ” Taymor observes. “I too remember it well, the age of innocence and purity but also a time of sexual awaking.”
Yet Taymor acknowledges that no operatic soprano with the mature voice necessary for Wagner can impersonate such a young girl. So, typically, she has added her own layer to the production, with the introduction of a second Senta, this one a dancer, who will actually represent Senta as part pre-pubescent girl, part angel (and maybe a touch Tinker Bell). This second Senta will move through the water--the “Dutchman” is a water opera and the stage floor will appear liquid--and she will move through the air. She will fly.
In fact, Taymor’s production will do away altogether with the usual notion of the “Dutchman” as a “heavy” opera with hulking ships that never move. Taymor’s desire is for light and space and movement and flight. And she wants “not just normal flying but risky stuff.” So she has brought in Los Angeles choreographer Daniel Ezralow, who is responsible for a flying ghost chorus (enacted by more dancers) as well as for Senta darting here and there.
Even the Dutchman will have a dancing double. Taymor reveals that she has always been captivated by the image of the Wandering Jew Ahasuerus, who was one of the sources Wagner used for his libretto.
“I love all the complications around the idea of an old man who can’t ever come to rest until he’s redeemed by the angel or by this young woman,” she says. “Like the little girl, the old man can show up at any point. There’s a hard bench on the water, and every time this old man goes to sit down just for a moment it slips out underneath him. When we think of a park bench we think of a beautiful moment of peace. But, here, there is no rest for the weary.”
The profound requirement of the opera, as Taymor interprets it, then becomes the need for reconciling the opposing spirits of the Dutchman and Senta, who come to seem like symbols for water and sky. So George Tsypin, the set designer who is noted for his work with Peter Sellars (he made the “Pelleas and Melisande” sets last winter) and who has collaborated with Taymor on all of her opera productions, has produced skeletal ships, ships that come apart, can move in unexpected angles and can have their parts separated. They are ships whose very essence can be abstracted.
For the Dutchman’s boat, Taymor has suggested something resembling a Scandinavian death ship that is carried on the backs of the ghosts of the mariners. She describes it as “a very simple, extremely primitive wooden boat that’s part skeletal; the ghosts carry it on their shoulders like pallbearers, since the coffin is the image of the death ship in all seafaring cultures. It can move anywhere; it suspends and it turns. For lack of a better word, it is used as a puppet, because it has an active presence.”
S eemingly unfazed by the heat, Taymor has by now become increasingly animated in her explanations as draws deeper and deeper into an endless flow of associations. The ship becomes a treasure-trove, and undersea treasure comes alive. At one of the lighter moments, fish--actually entities that are part object, part fish--appear as if out of a Hieronymus Bosch panel. Flying doves and sea gulls create a landscape.
But then, suddenly, theatrically, she breaks off. There’s more, of course. But theater is the world of surprise. And for Taymor, whose roots are ultimately deeper in raw theater than they are in symbols and their explanations, opera must be theater. Otherwise she might as well close her eyes.*
“The Flying Dutchman,” starring Franz Grundheber and Ealynn Voss, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. Saturday and Sept. 12, 15, 18, 21, 27, 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 24, 1 p.m. $15-$120. (213) 972-8001 .