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Video Published: 19 Oct 2022

An Oral History with Rhoda Levine

On February 23rd, 2022, director and choreographer Rhoda Levine sat down with OPERA America's President/CEO Marc A. Scorca for a conversation about opera and their life.

This interview was originally recorded on February 23rd, 2022. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Rhoda Levine, director, choreographer

Rhoda Levine has directed and choreographed on and off-Broadway, on London’s West End, and for both CBS and NET. She directed numerous productions for New York City Opera, including the New York premieres of Die Soldaten, From the House of the Dead, Of Mice and Men, and The Life and Times of Malcolm X. She has served on the faculties of the Yale School of Drama, Juilliard School, and Curtis Institute of Music, among other institutions.

Oral History Project

Discover the full collection of oral histories at the link below.


Marc A. Scorca: I always start by asking: who brought you to your first opera?

Rhoda Levine: Who brought me to my first opera? Oh, I can't remember, but I didn't see opera as a child. I just went to the New York Philharmonic to the Children's Concerts. So opera was nothing in my history.

Marc A. Scorca: Do you remember what your first opera experience was? Or the first time you saw a performance and you thought, "Wow, this art form has something to offer."

Rhoda Levine: Well, it wasn't like that. I started working with Kirk Browning, the television director, and he insisted that I work with him at the NBC opera. And that's how I discovered opera.

Marc A. Scorca: At the NBC opera. Those were some wonderful performances.

Rhoda Levine: They really were.

Marc A. Scorca: So was Kirk the one who brought you into stage direction, as a career?

Rhoda Levine: Yes. Well, I was a choreographer and he led me in a road to stage directing.

Marc A. Scorca: And how did that work go? As a choreographer, you are moving people and as a stage director, you are moving people. Was that a hard transition to make from choreography into stage direction?

Rhoda Levine: Not at all. It was easy.

Marc A. Scorca: And was your first stage direction work in theater as opposed to in opera? Or did you start out in opera?

Rhoda Levine: I think it was in opera.

Marc A. Scorca: But of course you've done a lot of theater as well.

Rhoda Levine: Yes I have.

Marc A. Scorca: Is there for you a big difference directing theater from directing opera, or is it more the same than different?

Rhoda Levine: No, it's similar, but the timing of an opera is based on the music and in theater it's based on the freedom of emotional timing.

Marc A. Scorca: Do you prefer the freedom of theater or the constraints of opera that are dictated by the timing of the score? Is there one that makes you just feel more creative as a stage director?

Rhoda Levine: They both make me feel creative. I was just blessed.

Marc A. Scorca: Now Rhoda, when I think about it, you are a pioneer in being a woman stage director in opera, even today. And there are more than there used to be, but there aren't as many women working as stage directors in opera as there are men. Did you encounter barriers in your career because you were a woman director?

Rhoda Levine: Not that I know of.

Marc A. Scorca: I noticed in your biography that one of your associations that was the longest, with a single company was New York City Opera, where you directed from the early 1980's until the mid 1990's. I counted up 10 productions, but there were probably more. What was it like working at City Opera in those days?

Rhoda Levine: Oh, it was wonderful. And Beverly (Sills) was wonderful and very supportive of everyone who worked there. It was joyful.

Marc A. Scorca: And what made it wonderful and joyful?

Rhoda Levine: Well, it was doing something you loved with material you loved, and that was the joy of it. And Beverly was wonderful. She was so supportive; she was really a great, great lady.

Marc A. Scorca: What made her supportive? How did you know that she was behind you?

Rhoda Levine: Because she was curious about what you did. She believed in your talent. And she believed in the company. She was just a wonderful woman, and she had great problems in her family. And I have enormous respect for her.

Marc A. Scorca: You are so well known for the production of The Life and Times of Malcolm X, and you must be happy to know that it is coming back in a multi-company co-production and going to The Metropolitan Opera.

Rhoda Levine: I know. I'm so delighted. It's about time.

Marc A. Scorca: Tell us about creating that work. And I know that you were a constant advisor to Tony (Davis). What was the experience like?

Rhoda Levine: Well, Tony is so gifted and the company was so gifted that it was like doing an opera with incredibly gifted people about a very important man, Malcolm.

Marc A. Scorca: I noticed in the background material that I read that some of your other important productions include Lizzie Borden; Of Mice and Men. These are works that premiered and then kind of went away kind of in the way Malcolm X premiered, and went away only to come back. And as Lizzie Borden did in the wonderful production, that was actually telecast, or Of Mice and Men of Carlisle's. Why is it that works premiere, disappear and then come back to us?

Rhoda Levine: Well, because in this country, the arts are not supported by the government, as they are in Europe. And so I think it's difficult for people to get funding for contemporary works and that's too bad. It's very sad. That's why I loved working in Europe, because you could do so many wonderful pieces. I wish we could do that here in this country. I wish the arts were supported.

Marc A. Scorca: You worked in the Netherlands a lot. After New York City Opera, your Netherlands association was one of your longest associations.

Rhoda Levine: Yes. And Belgium. And Spoleto in Italy with Gian Carlo (Menotti).

Marc A. Scorca: What was Gian Carlo like?

Rhoda Levine: Oh, he was wonderful. And he was so open to ideas. If you brought an idea to him, he said, "Okay, let's try." I really was so blessed to know these people.

Marc A. Scorca: Do other general directors come to mind who had that same openness to ideas? People you really liked working with?

Rhoda Levine: Yes. I would say Hans de Roo at The Netherlands Opera, uh, and the people in Brussels. They were so supportive, so curious, but they of course were supported by the government, unlike here (where) we are not. It's very sad.

Marc A. Scorca: And of course that certain government support enables you to be bit more experimental, a bit more adventuresome. Now you also worked with a lot of composers: Anthony Davis, Robert Ward, Carlisle Floyd, Jack Beeson, Jake Heggie. They're all so different. They're all such great composers and very different people. As a stage director, how do you adjust to the personalities of your composers?

Rhoda Levine: Well you do, as you adjust to people in life. It's just very simple. They're them; you are you and you shift and you try and focus on their interests and what it is they're hoping to achieve in doing their piece. It's wonderful.

Marc A. Scorca: I wanted to have you talk for a moment about Play it by Ear. it combines opera and improvisation, and if you think about opera, one of the last words that comes to mind is improvisation. What did you do with Play it by Ear?

Rhoda Levine: We spoke to the audience. We tried to find what their interests were. And then we would immediately create an opera based on what they told us and the people in the company were brilliant. And I do wish that more schools would teach improvisation. I think we teach young people to be obedient rather than imaginative. And that's very sad.

Marc A. Scorca: And in experimenting with improvisation, you felt that the individual artists grew as artists?

Rhoda Levine: Because they begin to trust their own imagination; not mine, but theirs. And then they can contribute when we direct a classical work and it's more of a dialogue with the director, than a director being a director. And it's much more interesting.

Marc A. Scorca: Now you have taught at Yale or Juilliard. Did you try to bring this improvisatory perspective into your work at the great schools?

Rhoda Levine: Yes; they absolutely loved it. They had fun. So much of educational work is not about fun. It's about being obedient. And I don't believe in that.

Marc A. Scorca: I'm interested in this dichotomy between being a student and being obedient and being creative. Did you start out as a young artist being obedient, and break out of those constraints? Or were you born improvisatory?

Rhoda Levine: I was just liberated and had fun. I was not obedient

Marc A. Scorca: Is there a common thread for those seeking a career, as stage director in opera? A common thread of advice that you would give them?

Rhoda Levine: Well, I think it's about listening to the material that you're doing, and basically listening to the actors who are going to perform; listening to their responses, not just being a dictator. Very important.

Marc A. Scorca: And how about advice for young singers? What advice would you give them?

Rhoda Levine: To keep pursuing what they wanna pursue, and if they have to do other things in order to do that like I did... You know, I worked. I was a waitress. I did all kinds of things, and I think those jobs add to your understanding of human life.

Marc A. Scorca: As you think back over decades of your work in opera, are there particular companies you enjoyed? Projects that mean more to you than any other projects? Are there some favorite moments of your opera work?

Rhoda Levine: Well, I love The Netherlands Opera and I love New York City and Beverly, and she gave me a chance to do things no one else would do, like The Life and Times of Malcolm X. And she was very responsive, which is in this country difficult, because unlike Holland and Belgium, where I worked a lot, and Scotland, they're funded by the government. We're not funded, so that people can be a little more courageous in some of their choices.

Marc A. Scorca: Rhoda. Thank you. It's just so important to capture these minutes with you; to chat about this amazing career that you've had.