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Music for the Eyes

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

The wooden riverboat El Dorado sails slowly toward its destiny, carrying a cargo of yearning souls floating in a realm unmoored from space and time.

The stoic vessel is a spare and geometric craft, void of unnecessary detail, formidable yet fragile. A crescent moon in a square box hangs by visible wires in the sky. There is no foliage to be seen, and yet the fecund jungle feels dangerously near. We are on the Amazon, of course, or perhaps any mythical river anywhere.

Los Angeles Opera, 1997, “Florencia en el Amazonas” by Daniel Catan.

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An epic series of surrealistic images evoking civilization from 10,000 BC through the year 2092 materializes over the course of three acts. A scientist-philosopher in a wheelchair. A spaceship and crew. A regal yet somewhat askew 15th century court chamber. The Statue of Liberty. A wheat field. Totems of the 20th century and its voracious hunger for inquiry. And finally, a miniature of the planet Earth, bearing the deathbed of explorer Christopher Columbus, ascends slowly into the ether above.

Metropolitan Opera, 1992, “The Voyage” by Philip Glass(CQ).

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Towering neoclassical facades in hues of gray and black lean menacingly inward, defining a twisted and steeply raked pathway for the hero’s passage. Claustrophobic, Expressionistic and bleak, the village reconfigures for each part of the story but is ever foreboding--a nocturnal labyrinth that’s as much psychological as architectural.

Los Angeles Opera, 1991, 1994 and 1999, “Don Giovanni” by Mozart.

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Wildly different though these worlds may be, they are all the work of L.A.-based Robert Israel, one of the opera world’s preeminent designers. Israel is putting final touches on both sets and costumes for a new production of Vincenzo Bellini’s “The Capulets and the Montagues” (1830), which opens at L.A. Opera on Wednesday. In addition, an exhibition of his designs for the stage opens Oct. 30 at Patricia Faure Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica.

His influential sets and, frequently, costumes of the past 30 years have made their mark in 70 productions--primarily in opera, but also theater and dance-theater, and his designs are included in the collections of such prestigious venues as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

His career has been so wide-ranging, in fact, that the common denominator may not be readily apparent. “What attracts me is the individual work,” explains the gentle and erudite designer, 60, during a conversation at L.A. Opera’s downtown costume shop. “I like things that are mysterious and enigmatic and have a quality of ambivalence about them. They might not always be the most popular thing, but those are the things that appeal to me because I think that those are the things that are, in a way, the most real. I don’t like things tied up in neat packages. It’s too simple a solution. I don’t even like solutions. I like problems more than I like solutions.”

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If you’re in the market for kitchen sinks, kitschy troll wonderlands or fussy Hollywoodian faux-grandeur, Israel is not your man. His style is marked by elementally strong and arresting visual statements, and an undeniable intelligence. The look may vary, but it is always eloquent and operatic. What’s more, it is often controversial. Love it or hate it, Israel’s work lingers in memory long after you’ve left the opera house.

While Israel has designed a wide range of standard repertory works over the years, he is particularly associated with new operas. “I find it more exciting, generally speaking, to do new work because it’s more in touch with what we are on one level that won’t be denied,” he says. “What’s nice about new things is they have an edge of the contemporary rather than a patina of history and an acceptance.

“To go into a performance of ‘Don Giovanni,’ on one level, you always know what you’re getting,” he says. “The music may be done poorly or well. It may be sung well. It’s poorly designed maybe, or not. But you’re still getting ‘Don Giovanni.’ Going to a new opera, it’s a surprise, and I love that.”

Israel is probably best known for his collaborations with Glass on the operas “Satyagraha,” “Akhnaten” (for which he also wrote a section of the libretto), “The Voyage” and “Orphee.” And the designer has also worked frequently with such noted talents as Martha Clarke, Jonathan Miller, David Pountney and Francesca Zambello.

His previous designs for Los Angeles Opera include “The Fiery Angel,” 1987; “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” 1989; “Don Giovanni,” 1991; “Florencia en el Amazonas,” 1997. And in theater locally, Israel’s design for Robert Brustein’s “Schlemiel the First” was seen at the Geffen Playhouse in 1997.

“The Capulets and the Montagues,” which is seldom produced these days, is not typical fare for Israel, but the choice to update the action from the 13th century to Italy in 1910 (attributed to Los Angeles Opera general director Peter Hemmings) suggests the need for a designer with Israel’s ability to portray modernity with clean and strikingly evocative visual gestures.

As the book-lined walls of his home studio suggest, Israel is a designer who typically concerns himself with all of the languages in which a work speaks--verbal, musical and visual. Yet this makes working with a composer such as Bellini, who isn’t known for his librettos, a challenge.

“This is an earlier version of the Shakespeare story, but what’s really of ultimate importance in the Bellini for me is obviously not the libretto,” says Israel.

“Unfortunately, the libretto has phenomenal holes in it because it’s [mostly] a vehicle for this beautiful music.”

Consequently, it falls to the director and designer to fill in those gaps. “For me, getting at the work is not finding the period that it’s set in,” Israel says. “It’s finding the meaningful qualities in the libretto and music that resonate. Sometimes what the director and designer do has absolutely nothing to do with the word. The director’s going to have to make it felt physically, so anything they have to convey has to be conveyed with a certain kind of physicality and an environment that is conducive to that physicality. That’s what the designer and director do together.”

Working together is one of Israel’s strengths, say his collaborators. “Bob’s approach to design is unique,” says “Capulets and Montagues” director Thor Steingraber. “In spite of his immense intellect, he puts reason and logic aside in an attempt to get at the emotive core of the piece. He creates a novel visual language and then forges a world for the opera which might otherwise seem unlikely.”

“Bob knows the difference between designing for the stage and interior decoration,” says composer Catan, whose “Florencia en el Amazonas” premiered in Houston in 1996 and will be revived there in March 2001. “He is never tempted to do the latter, and he never confuses the two. A common pitfall is to use design as a pulpit from which to tell the audience what’s good and what’s bad. Bob is never that simple-minded. He gives you a rich visual context and lets you explore it freely.”

“Florencia en el Amazonas,” inspired by the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, called for a lyrical setting capable of accommodating several dramatic trajectories.

“The plot of ‘Florencia’ dealt with the many facets of love, and Bob was able to create a very effective visual metaphor for my opera,” Catan says. “He designed a boat that could make a 360-degree turn on the stage. As it turned, the boat constantly transformed itself, shedding fresh light on whatever it touched and on each aspect of the opera.”

Israel’s appreciation for the collaborative process is one of the reasons he enjoys working on new operas so much. “One of the advantages you have in new work is you get to talk to the composer and the librettist,” he says. “One of the disadvantages you have is you get to talk to the composer and the librettist.

“It’s my job as a designer to interpret the work,” he adds. “Some composers don’t want to see their work interpreted. They want to see it only as they see it, which is incongruous--from my point of view, anyway--because if one doesn’t interpret, there’s no conception of an individual point of view.

“The composers and librettists that I love to work with are composers and librettists who tell me the way they see it and then are delighted in innovation, or in someone else who sees it with consideration but can show them something they didn’t exactly anticipate. The two composers I’ve worked with who have been the most generous are Daniel Catan and Philip Glass. They not only want to say something themselves, they want to help you visualize it.”

Such collaborators are all the more essential in a medium such as opera. “Then the whole piece builds on something that’s inherent in all opera, and that is that each individual opera is bigger than any expert, and no one can be an expert in all areas. Consequently, everyone has to be leaning on everyone else,” Israel says. “Anyone who thinks he or she knows all about opera is full of crap. It’s just too big. It encompasses too many disciplines.”

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Israel lives in Brentwood with his psychologist wife, Randi, 15-year-old son, Alexander, and a gray grande dame of a poodle named Agnes. One of two children born to a doctor and a homemaker, he was raised in Detroit and developed an interest in opera as early as high school, when he first recalls listening to Wagner.

Israel received his bachelor’s degree in design from the Pratt Institute in New York in 1961 and his master’s in fine arts from the University of Michigan in 1963. He began a teaching career almost simultaneously with his designing career and has been doing both since the mid-1960s. He was a professor in the drama department at UC San Diego from 1977 to 1989, and has been on the theater faculty at UCLA since then.

His first opera was Robert Kurka’s “The Good Soldier Schwiek,” for the Minnesota Opera Company at the Guthrie Theatre in 1966. Israel was teaching at the nearby Walker Art Center at the time, and when the production received positive reviews, his designing career was launched.

His early interest in the German canon has been put to good use over the years. He designed a controversial “Ring” cycle for Seattle Opera in the mid-1980s and, more recently, Wagner’s “Rienzi,” in Vienna in 1997. Also in 1997, Israel designed Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” for the Metropolitan Opera. And last year, he created the sets and costumes for a new production of “Tristan und Isolde” in Copenhagen.

“I think the reason German romanticism appeals to me is because, in a funny way, I see it as a beginning of the contemporary dilemma,” the designer says. “I think it leads to a separation of people and a recognition of the other, and ultimately, the 20th century dilemma of how we contend with a point of view that is more involved with questions than answers.”

Indeed, Israel believes the way a work speaks to the cultural moment is of prime importance, no matter whether it was composed this year or centuries ago. The key is choosing which works to revive and when.

“Octavio Paz wrote an essay on ‘Moby Dick’ as a capitalist tract,” Israel says. “It’s certain that Herman Melville never saw it that way. It doesn’t matter. Great works are relevant, are meaningful, when they allow for that jump, that fresh take. When they don’t have that fresh take anymore, they need to be put away for a while.

“The question is not whether we should be putting on Shakespeare,” he says. “The question is, ‘What is born in us as interpretive artists that makes us need to put on Shakespeare?’ I think there are times for putting on certain things, and other times for not putting them on, and that does not necessarily mean that they’re eradicated from the masterpiece list. It means that sometimes they’re difficult for that particular time. The source is ‘I want to put this work on because it’s meaningful for us today.’ That’s the question to ask.”

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“The Capulets and the Montagues,” Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. Wednesday, Oct. 20, 28 and 31, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Oct. 23, 1 p.m. $27-$146. (213) 365-3500.


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