A little divertimento

Special to The Times

Could Marthe Keller be a person who does not perform in front of cameras or onstage? As she strolls into the Shutters hotel lobby in Santa Monica, with her perfect sculpted features, great bones, square jaw and lofty stature, the answer seems obvious: Not a chance.

But as the Swiss-born actress-director takes her place at a restaurant table overlooking gray skies and a sandy beach, little fuss occurs. Perhaps that's because she herself is focused on matters other than glamour -- first and foremost, staging Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" for Los Angeles Opera. The production, starring the much-touted Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and conducted by Julius Rudel, will begin an eight-performance run Saturday.

"Forgive me if I'm not so clear," she says in a distinctively rich, throaty voice and continental accent. "I've not slept for weeks." She has just kept a 10-day deathwatch, it turns out, helplessly observing her mother, rendered paralyzed and speechless by a stroke. "All I could do was be there to see the tears rolling down her cheeks."

The day after the funeral, Keller flew here for "Lucia" rehearsals and found no succor. For one reason or another, half the cast had not arrived. Instead of plunging into work as a distraction from grief, as she had hoped, she had nothing to do.

"Opera is a different world for me," she says. "I was raised up with companies" -- the prestigious Berliner Ensemble, for instance -- "where we all knew each other and how to work together at the deepest level and with plenty of time." That's a far cry from the hurly-burly ways of opera: cast members getting into town late, leaving early, taking traffic-cop direction in place of more considered guidance and, with luck, still managing to meet at the cadence. "It's not where I come from," she adds. "But one should never judge. Everybody is a mensch in his own way."

Her order arrives -- salmon with artichokes -- and Keller brightens.

"Maybe the omega-3 fish oil will help," she says cheerily, while recounting how Placido Domingo, whom she has known for many years, called her 10 days after Sept. 11, 2001, to ask whether she would consider directing "Lucia" for Washington Opera. The tenor is general director of both that company and L.A. Opera.

"I was in New York then" -- she has homes there and in Paris -- "and so shocked that I wanted to escape life. This became an escape." Not that her calendar was empty; she continues acting onstage and in European films, 60 to date. But in fall 2002, after finishing one of them, she went to D.C. to stage the "Lucia" that Angelenos will see.

"Did Placido ask which opera I might want to do? Are you kidding? It doesn't work that way. Unless, of course, you are a very famous director." And although her preference runs to 20th century works -- "Jenufa," "Wozzeck" -- she took on the assignment with gusto. She read and reread the Walter Scott novel on which Donizetti's opera, with its heroine's famous mad scene, is based; boned up on bel canto tradition; and explored how she could remove the barnacles from the rusty ship without damaging its seaworthiness, how she might persuade the cast to abandon stand-and-sing or lurch-and-stagger histrionics.

To do that, Keller likes to impart to her singers a sense of place.

"In Greece, they have gods. In Scotland, they have ghosts," she says, referring to the locale of "Lucia," with its moors and heather, short days and long winter nights. "So I went to nature -- fog, rain, darkness, wind -- all this for the atmosphere that influences Lucia.

"She's very excited by fear. Raised like a boy, with men all around her, she's a strong woman, a fighter, not a victim like in the book.

"I see her capable of being livid, with the blood draining out. Did she go mad because she killed her husband? Or did she kill him because she was mad? We don't know."

To help focus audiences' attention on such psychological probing, Keller has banished kilts and bagpipes and moved the opera's setting forward to the pre-Raphaelite era, circa 1848, emphasizing naturalism and simplicity.

But on this day three weeks from the opening, she's eager to have the whole cast together.

"In my life," she says, "the question is always more important than the answer. The process is better than the result."

Learned discipline in Berlin

When she was a girl, Keller's father bred racehorses and ran an equestrian school outside Basel. She hoped for a career as a dancer, but a skiing accident when she was 16 ended that idea. ("I had no natural turnout anyway and was too tall.") Acting beckoned -- a Stanislavsky school in Munich. And within a short time she had joined the Berliner Ensemble, to become absorbed in Brecht and experimental theater.

"That was where I learned discipline and hard work," she says.

Meanwhile, her striking beauty attracted modeling agents and movie directors, and before long she was starring in films by such auteurs as Claude Lelouch ("And Now My Love") and Philippe de Broca ("The Devil by the Tail") and then in Hollywood with Dustin Hoffman ("Marathon Man") and Al Pacino ("Bobby Deerfield"). She lived with Pacino for seven years. The two remain friends.

But marriage, no.

"Because I don't believe in divorce. And if I married, there would inevitably be a divorce." Keller does have a son (his father is De Broca). "He's 29, and older than I am," says his 58-year-old mother, laughing.

Her natural humor helps explain why European movie directors often feature her in comedies. In American films, on the other hand, "I always die," she says. "Maybe because of my accent and the whole Marlene Dietrich femme fatale thing. The 'she's not one of us' factor."

Keller has never been an outsider among Europe's cultural elite, however. At a 1997 news conference for a recording based on her success with the speaking role in Arthur Honegger's oratorio "Jeanne d'Arc," featuring Seiji Ozawa and the French National Orchestra, someone, impressed with her theatrical finesse, asked if she would consider directing opera. She said no. That continued to be her answer to similar questions over several years. Finally, when the director of the Strasbourg Opera invited her to stage Francis Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites," she asked two good friends, Vienna Opera's Ioan Holender and the Aix-en-Provence company's Stephane Lissner, what she should do.

" 'Jump to it,' they said. 'Nothing to lose.' And it was little Strasbourg, not Paris with all the world watching. So I did it. And the experience -- with a great cast made up of fine singing actors, not stars -- brought heaven to my life." It also brought her a French critics award for best operatic production of the year.

'Don Giovanni' next

And the revival in London six months later?

"It's like this: You have a cat. It dies. Someone buys you another. The new one is perhaps better, smarter, more beautiful. But you still think of the first one."

No doubt there will be other revivals, even if Keller is unsure how much opera she wants to commit to. "It's good to come out of the light," she says, referring to acting, "and go to the shade" -- directing. Since the Strasbourg success, she says, she's received many offers from noted companies.

But when the Metropolitan Opera's Joseph Volpe called her and announced himself on the phone, she thought it was a friend playing games and hung up. Later, she agreed to consider his offer: a new "Don Giovanni" with baritone Thomas Hampson and James Levine conducting.

"Since even the great directors have trouble with it," she reasoned, "I'll just be one of the many. So OK." And she promises that at her production's premiere, in March, she will "honor Mozart with a staging that is as honest and profound as I can deliver."

"I come from a world that starts with a big K," she says, referring to the German word Konzept. It's "a place where directors want to shock because they've had culture so long they're bored with it. So I've seen stagings where 'Traviata' is played inside a car and 'Carmelites' in a phone booth and Don Carlos awaits a pizza delivery that comes too late."

Keller does not believe in taking that kind of license. The key to her inspiration is to find real-life relevance. If she cannot do that, her option is the door.

"My big luxury is being able to say no," she says resolutely. "With money, one has that freedom."

*

'Lucia di Lammermoor'

When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 30, Dec. 4, 12 and 17, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 7, 14 and 20, 2 p.m.

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave.

Price: $25-$170

Contact: (213) 972-8001

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