An Oral History with Robert Darling
On August 27th, 2019, stage director Robert Darling 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 August 27th, 2019.
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation.
Robert Darling, stage director
Robert Darling has worked as a designer, stage director, and producer at houses throughout the U.S. and Europe. From 1977 to 1982, he served as artistic director of Central City Opera. He co-founded Hidden Valley Opera with conductor Randal Behr and formed the Alliance for New Music-Theater with Susan Galbraith and Henry Holt.
Oral History Project
Discover the full collection of oral histories at the link below.
Marc A. Scorca: I'm absolutely delighted to be here with Robert Darling, here in his home in Washington DC (a legendary home), adding to our oral history to track the incredible progress of opera in America. And I say opera in America, not American opera because it's so much more than just American pieces, as profound as that has been.
Robert Darling: I agree.
Marc A. Scorca: And thank you. We're just so happy to be here. Thank you.
Robert Darling: Well, it's terrific Marc, and also to see how OPERA America has advanced under your tutelage. It's just phenomenal.
Marc A. Scorca: It's a team effort. I walk in mighty footsteps and part of the oral history project is to make sure that we honor and continue to learn from the people who made these very, very important tracks in the snow for us. So Robert, you were a student at Yale, some decades ago. And as I said when I came in, you're part of a cluster of people who had a different image of what opera could be, or should be in America: not only new American work, which we'll talk in detail about, but also just the treatment of the inherited repertoire and how that could be more theatrically resonant than it was. When you entered the field, what was happening in opera?
Robert Darling: I entered the field when I was six or seven, or five or six, I don't know. In Woodminster, Oakland we had a wonderful WPA (Works Progress Administration) amphitheater and in, it must have been 1947-48, after the war, they began to do productions again, and they hired a company called Pacific Opera. And I had fallen in love with the young lady in my kindergarten or first grade class named Carol Boyd and Carol's father, Hal Boyd, was the producer of Woodminster Amphitheater and they were doing a production of Carmen. And so she said, "Well, we should be in the opera." So I said, "Why not?" And so I found myself at a very young age in some sort of a ragamuffin costume in a production of Carmen, which I had known only vaguely about, if at all. And suddenly we were on stage. And the stage director wandered over to me - it was one of those things where you get on stage, you sort of do a dress rehearsal and you sort of do a performance (sort of) - and he said to me, "Okay. Now your job is to walk back and forth behind the chorus." And so I said, "Oh well, okay." And so I went into the men's room and practiced walking back and forth and then suddenly found myself in the middle of the ladies smoking and the whole business of the first act of Carmen. And I was absolutely mesmerized by the entire process. But I was reflecting on that two weeks ago in Glimmerglass, when we were watching the opera, Blue. And in the end of the first act, I think (maybe the second act), they do a time forward situation, and the little boy (who was about my age wandering behind the chorus in Carmen) suddenly runs around on stage in a real statement of time passage. And I thought, haven't we come a distance? And it was absolutely beautiful, because it was exactly the right touch. It made exactly the right dramaturgical information and there it was.
Marc A. Scorca: So Carmen: were you in the children's chorus or you were just a...?
Robert Darling: No I was, as they say, a supernumerary.
Marc A. Scorca: Did you know from the time you really started going to school and thinking about your course of study, that opera was what you wanted to do?
Robert Darling: It was cemented again in grammar school, when the San Francisco Opera Guild called us all over from Oakland to San Francisco to see performances. It was again a Carmen performance. And for the introduction to the third act, I was sitting way up in the balcony and the way the lights came up and the way the dawn broke was phenomenal. So the San Francisco Opera Guild would come to our school, which they did for two years running, and offered tickets to a performance. And I had never been in the San Francisco Opera House; was absolutely overwhelmed by the space; and the place; and the chandeliers; and the tapestries; and the whole nine yards - and the performance. And I remember very clearly watching the interlude leading into the third act, and the dawn rising. It was a beautiful painted backdrop and I was gradually making out the shapes. And I thought: "It's just amazing." And I was in the balcony. And the same thing happened the following year with Madam Butterfly. And again, the whole interlude that happens in Butterfly ... and the light changes et cetera. And it was somewhere around then that I decided, "This is pretty fabulous." And I had used my papers money to get tickets to a Hansel and Gretel to bring my grandmother to. But you know, it was suddenly a magical place and a special opportunity and an amazing way to tell stories. And so it stayed with me. In high school, well even in grammar school, I was very much involved in the theater and doing project productions et cetera. And in high school in particular, those of us who were in the music program got involved ... (I know a viola player named Stan and a woman I still am in touch with who played the string bass along with me)... with supering in the operas. So I did that for many, many years. And I thought this is what I want to do. My goal in life then became to appear somehow on the stage of the San Francisco Opera. And while I did some singing in university, it became readily apparent that my profession was going to be elsewhere, although it was wonderful to be a performer. I'll never ever forget sitting in the footlights of the San Francisco Opera and watching - towering over me - Harry Horner, who was staging this production of Jeanne d'Arc au bucher and Pierre Monteux who was conducting and Kurt Adler, who was the chorus director at the time. Here towering over me were these three big men...I was certainly aware of Monteux. And I had just found out about Harry Horner. And Adler, I kind of didn't know. And they were talking in French and they were talking in German and English and it was all sort of gemisched and it was all kind of happening and it was all extraordinary.
Marc A. Scorca: So who was the general director of the company at that time?
Robert Darling: Gaetano Merola.
Marc A. Scorca: So it was still Merola, and someone you had some acquaintance with?
Robert Darling: No, I didn't really know Merola at all. I mean, I saw him. And the most impressive person, at that point, was Robert Watt Miller, who was the chairman of the board and the president. And he always appeared in a grand opera cape and a top hat. And at every opening you could find this man there. When I was at Woodminster, at a very young age, the smell of damp cement and makeup and eucalyptus ... because California was very, very impressive in my head. And at the San Francisco Opera, the supers certainly, and the chorus also, and the makeup artists are all in the subterranean basement. So it also has this kind of smell of dampness and makeup and it's embedded in my head.
Marc A. Scorca: In retrospect now, looking back at over decades of experience, what was the opera like that you were introduced to? You talked about painted flats. My guess is that painted flats dominated scenic design and that stage direction was rudimentary? Do you recall?
Robert Darling: The thing that was most remarkable about this period is that when I was a super, it was a transitioning between Merola who then collapsed conducting Un bel di in a Butterfly performance at Stern Grove. And I was vacationing at Yosemite, and the news came out with this story that Kurt Herbert Adler had taken over the company. And what he started to do was then introduce stage directors and designers. And he had a great idea (which I told him it was later on), and he knew it was. He had hired Wolfram Skalinski and Leo Kurtz to design a unit set so that he could do away with painted flats; so that he could do a lot of productions but not break the bank. His idea was: "I have all of these things I want to do. How can I do these things?" And so Skalinski and Kurtz came up with a frame for the Opera House stage where you could change the profiles on the black floor flats (the legs), and you could introduce some sort of wonderful piece of sculpture in the middle of it and do the performance. Not a lot of scenery, not a lot of fuss. And it was revolutionary. So suddenly they could do Jeanne d'Arc au bucher. They had a wonderful cast, mixed of Hollywood artists because Harry Horner was a Hollywood director. But they also could begin to focus on "What in the world is this piece trying to say?" And "How do you say it?" And I remember the Jeanne d'Arc performance, which Monteux conducted, was brilliant. But it also was difficult because the chorus was a commentator - it was like the Greek shows. When the Camerata figured out opera, they went back to the ancient Greeks and they decided, "Well, this is what they did": they sang and they commented and they told a story in between some protagonists et cetera. And there was a sense from Horner certainly, that that's what they were going to do. Adler also had another stage director, Paul Hager and Paul was a German director and he kind of was getting on this bandwagon. He wasn't a Hollywood director necessarily. So Adler, very early in his tenure at the opera built a stable of directors and designers who were beginning to look at opera beyond painted scenery.
Marc A. Scorca: And of course, maybe you had a conversation with Mr. Adler about this, but where did he gain his ideas about what opera could be?
Robert Darling: His family, of course, fled Germany and the Nazis from Austria. And when he was growing up (and we did talk about this a couple of times) he worked with (Max) Reinhardt in the theater in Vienna. This was again that revolution that occurred in theater - it was happening in the '30's, in a very, very strong way. And then Brecht and Weill were very, very much an influence. So he carried that with him. His first job I guess in this country was the chorus job at Chicago Lyric. Carol (Fox) was just sort of reviving that company in the '40's; '50's.
Marc A. Scorca: '50's, mid-'50's.
Robert Darling: And then Adler took the San Francisco job and he would go back and forth initially. He would work San Francisco. They would do all of the staging for the operas: all of the operas in the summertime. And then he would go to Chicago and they would do that. And then he would come back and do the season after the Symphony because the Symphony and the Opera shared the Opera House. So it meant that you had to have the opera season followed by the symphony season, followed by the ballet season because there weren't enough venues for those three giant organizations.
Marc A. Scorca: So it's interesting the story you tell...and we are in the course of our work for the anniversary, looking at some of the founding stories. And while Mr. Adler wasn't the founder of San Francisco Opera, he kind of re-established it in a new way after the war - and the indebtedness we have to European immigrants who came in and started so many of our companies and brought with them a contemporary sense of what was going on in Europe, theatrically.
Robert Darling: After I had gotten Adler to hire me, several years after being a super: then I was doing a lot of work, particularly on the west coast, but across the country. And we talked somewhat of the Austrian mafia: that group of fabulous men: Moritz Bomhard in Louisville. And when Moritz came over, he was in the army and was stationed at Fort Knox or something, and he decided, "Well, I kinda like Kentucky." So he stayed there and put together an opera company. The wonderful man who skipped across the southern tier of the United States spawning opera companies: Walter Herbert, ending up in San Diego. It was somewhere in Louisiana, and then Baton Rouge, and then Houston and then San Diego. And in every place he launched an opera company. And what's his name in Oregon? So that there were a number of people, who saw beyond what was the practice at the time, which was: we would hire a Stevenilo Italian guy and Stevenilo had this reservoir of costumes and hang-it-up Pete Klaus scenery in New York. And you would hang up the scenery; the chorus would sort of know what it was they were singing about, and you would have a dress rehearsal in which the stage director and the stars would come in. And there we were.
Marc A. Scorca: Sort of concert opera in front of some drops, essentially.
Robert Darling: Yeah, it was instant opera. You've totally said it. Instant opera. And it was: lurch from here to there. And several years later, I was doing a performance in the theater company: Theater of the Living Arts in Philadelphia. And I had my business in New York, but I commuted down to Philadelphia and I stayed in a hotel in Philadelphia, wherein there was a performance suddenly of Faust with Beverly Sills. And the Valentin was in the room next to mine and he proceeded to die the one afternoon I had to take a nap before my technical rehearsals that evening, so I had Valentin dying over and over and over. It was amazing. But then I went to the dress rehearsal to see what was going on. And the artists were left on their own to sort of wander around in front of the chorus who were told to sort of stand here and there and get on and get off. And it had nothing that we would think of as theatrical veracity. And certainly working as much in the theater as I was doing, it just didn't make any sense at all. And Beverly at the end of it - I'll never forget - she was supposed to die on this pallet of straw and the light was focused beside the pallet of straw onto the stage. And so she gradually crawled, dragging some straw with her, so that it would be somewhat logical. And that's the way it was.
Marc A. Scorca: What was the first opera you directed?
Robert Darling: Flying Dutchman.
Marc A. Scorca: Where?
Robert Darling: It was initially in Kansas City. The Lyric Opera of Kansas City did a production of Dutchman. I was working with Russell Patterson and Russell was conducting. At that performance, he was also trying out a new venue, which had been built as a kind of masonic temple space/theater. And then it had fallen on hard times and it'd become a porn venue. And I'll never forget, when I walked into this; when Russell said "You got to come down, we gotta look at this place." And we wandered in and the rug was down and your feet would stick to the... I mean, it was terrible. They got it cleaned up in time for the performance, and we did Dutchman.
Marc A. Scorca: In English? Because at that time Kansas City did everything in English.
Robert Darling: Yes, it was in English. I had done some work with Wieland Wagner in '64, I think: '64 or '65. I was in Bayreuth and was very impressed with what he was doing with it. He and his brother Wolfgang were put in Dresden to be safe during the war. But anyways, Wieland had a wonderful way of getting with the actors and he would lurch around the stage. So my production of Dutchman was highly influenced by Wieland, I must say. But there were about five, six years where I launched that ship in different cities all around the country, every fall.
Marc A. Scorca: The same production?
Robert Darling: It was virtually the same production.
Marc A. Scorca: So before the OPERA America effort to get companies to co-produce, still, there was some sharing and productions moved around.
Robert Darling: Well, what opera companies did, (like Kansas City), is that they would rent it and then they would amortize their costs with these rentals. I did that with several productions. And also when I was at Central City, we ended up renting productions. I did a Central City Butterfly, which we did several different places.
Marc A. Scorca: Of course, it's still part of the business model today. So you and American opera: very early on you were supporting, producing, advocating for new American opera. And where was that advocacy in you? Where was that born for you?
Robert Darling: Well, this was a little bit later. I had always been interested in, "What do we really say when we are storytelling?" And I think that artists give immediate feedback to the audiences; to the country; to the culture of where we are, but they speak in code. And so the importance of keeping that dialogue going, always seemed a vital thing. When I started undergraduate school, I was a student of composition and string bass. I was in the music department at San Francisco State. I had gone in high school regularly to USC, in the mountains of Idyllwild. They have a summer program in Idyllwild. And so I would haul my string bass down to the mountains and play away. And when I was there, we did a performance of Moby Dick. Not the one that you know, but another performance of Moby Dick. And I had a singing role in it and it was very interesting talking to the composer about what he wanted to do. That must have been, I don't know, in the '50's at some point. And I still have a recording of that performance with me squawking on it, but I thought, "You know, this is great. How do we really do it?" And it was cemented to me many, many years later when I was living here, when there was a big festival at the Kennedy Center and they were featuring the Russian Kirov Opera. And the Kirov Opera was doing a season of Russian opera. You know, War and Peace, and Tchaikovsky Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin, and Mussorgsky Boris Godunov et cetera. And I thought, "That's amazing. If I were to produce a festival of American opera, what would it in fact be? It would be Porgy and Bess of course, but what else would it be?" It was interesting right now at Glimmerglass to see how Showboat has so many resonances today with our problems that are still there: that still need to be talked about. I was astounded to find that the miscegenation laws, which Oscar Hammerstein and Kern were fussing over in the '30's, were on the books until the '60's. It is impossible to think. And yet those issues of our original sin, if you will: we're still reckoning with it. And I think that as artists in the theater; as storytellers with music, it's our responsibility to find ways to tell the stories, in a way that is really telling. The Blue was interesting that way. But it occurred to me long ago that: how do we support American works that really grapple - honestly grapple - in a very legitimate way, with telling stories of importance?
Marc A. Scorca: So, how did you get into the flow of new American work? You were a stage director and ... through networking? Or did you have a composer you really wanted to work with who began working with you?
Robert Darling: I was drawn, of course, to composers since I had studied that. And so I was interested in John Corigliano and Conrad Susa. And I remember Conrad, who was a very close friend (because we started out in Shakespeare), and Conrad did umpteen-gazillion incidental music to various Shakespeare theater pieces. When I graduated from Yale and went to New York and had set up my studio, one of the first jobs I had was with the American Shakespeare Festival (or something) in Stratford, Connecticut. And Conrad was doing that music and we often just would talk because we lived around the corner from one another in Manhattan. And so we talked: "Well, what do you want to do?" And I thought, you know, "He's done all of these incidental pieces and he writes theatrically. He should be doing opera." In my imaginary season of the great American operas, I think his Black River is absolutely one of the seminal pieces. It has found some performances, but not many as it should. It needs now to be taken up again and really given its due. I did a performance of it on the west coast in a small theater in Carmel Valley. And Conrad was very supportive of the production. We would find people after the performance wandering off into the field and just sort of staying in the moment of the end of that piece. It tells the story of three women and their life in escaping a small town experience, and how do they embrace, and are they repelled by this small town? And it ends with the one woman whose child drowned in the black river. And there's this wonderful... Richard Street wrote the libretto...image of the child falling into the river and his hair flowing out like a fan. And she reaches into the water and the sunlight comes on the water and he disappears and it is a beautiful image that recurs through the piece. Clara, at the end of the piece: she goes down to the river, douses herself in kerosene and burns up and there's this immolation scene. And during the immolation scene, it becomes a trio for the other two women: the step-daughter of Clara and this remarkable character, Pauline L'Allemand, (who introduced Lakme to American audiences and had put together a little touring opera company and carted (it) around the Midwest. It was a true story of this woman). And Conrad and Richard put this into the piece. It is the kind of richness in a kind of simultaneity that only opera can do. And with what we can now do physically with the productions and the way the lighting world has changed, it should be a spectacular performance. Certainly the end of the piece with those three women singing and the chorus coming in and all - you lose a kind of critical thinking and you become absorbed, and the music carries the idea that you then recursively come back on and you think through, "What does that mean? Did they escape? What was the town? What was the experience of small town America?" I think it's a piece that is very (much) at the center of what America was in the last century. I don't know if we know what the center is right now, but, in any case, it's one of those strong pieces.
Marc A. Scorca: Are there other pieces from those early exploratory years of American opera that stand out for you?
Robert Darling: I think what the Ford Foundation did in the 1950's is extraordinary. When I was living in New York, the New York City Opera was at the Mecca Temple and they were doing Carlyle Floyd.
Marc A. Scorca: Those great American seasons.
Robert Darling: And they would have some remarkable pieces. I think Of Mice and Men stands out. And I remember staging a performance Of Mice and Men, the opera and the play in repertory. I will never forget the experience. You know, you have a first reading and you haul the actors in and the actors read and they read ..."What do you think, Lennie? Shall we go?" You know, blah, blah, blah. We'd done this through the whole first scene, with the singers and the actors both there, and the actors had their deal with the first scene. Then I said to the opera singers, "Okay, well we just have enough time, let's read through the first scene." So they all stood up with their music stands; stringing their throats and all of that. And launched into the opening scene Of Mice and Men. Well the actors were blown out of the theater. And it occurred to me: "That is amazing, because the process of staging a play and the process of staging an opera are the exact opposite." When you stage a play, the role of the director is not only tell them to go up right and down left, but to encourage the actors to write the music; to put in the pauses; to figure out the tempi; to use the momentum. And it's the actors who are making the music honest. And that's the task. With the singers, it's exactly the reverse because the composer and/or the librettist has sat down at his studio and decided that this is where the fermata goes. This is allegro; this is going to be slow; or we're going to accelerate at that point. He imagines how the text is going to move along and what the rhythm is; and what the melody is; And if he has done his work brilliantly - think the second act of Traviata, for example - the way the elder Germont paces his singing in that; the way Violetta answers in that. Or even better, there's a wonderful fermata before "Ah, fors' è lui" in the first act of Traviata. And Verdi puts a fermata. And who was the singer at the New York City Opera production? Frank Corsaro staged it. Wonderful.
Marc A. Scorca: Was it Patricia Wise?
Robert Darling: Thank you. Exactly. Pat Wise was singing Violetta and she came to that fermata; and she looked at the audience; and she looked at the mirror; and she looked at the flowers. And the audience kept sitting on the edge of their seats. And then finally, finally the note came out. Well, it was the most wonderful thing in the world of course, because Pat could fill those spaces theatrically.
Marc A. Scorca: So many people have told me about that moment.
Robert Darling: Well it was one of the great, great moments. Because like my "Aha" at that first staging rehearsal of these two performances of a play and an opera on the same subject (when I realized the tasks were different), I realized that the tasks for the performers are also very, very, very different. When we were doing instant opera, there wasn't time to get that. But even so, you know, that performance that I was decrying of Faust: Beverly was beginning to understand what the work is, and (Dominic) Cossa and all of those wonderful people at the New York City Opera were beginning to know what they had to do. And of course, we've all known that for some time - what the task was - but to get the performers to make it absolutely part of who they were.
Marc A. Scorca: I did an interview a week ago with John Conklin. We spoke about the fact that I was going to see you and he was very happy to hear that. Is there enough time to direct the plot? But then, is there actually enough time to direct with the opera is really about?
Robert Darling: Correct.
Marc A. Scorca: And John would argue there still isn't enough time to direct what the opera is really about.
Robert Darling: John and I were both at Bayreuth together at the same time and we were very much involved. We had both worked at Williamstown Theater Festival. And at Williamstown, the opera would be the constant thing behind our banging and hammering and sawing. And so they would bring up the Nibelungen and every now and then we got to strike the hammer with the Donner. After I was at Bayreuth, I went and spent a fall and spring in Berlin with the Felsenstein company. And Felsenstein would just take forever to direct a show. So his Carmen: it was like six months of staging. The Brecht Theater was also in East Berlin, so Felsenstein was given that luxury on the communist side of the curtain to do it in East Berlin. But there were enough people who knew what was going on in West Berlin and Felsenstein, who lived in West Berlin, would drive from West Berlin to East Berlin in his car and he would wave himself through Checkpoint Charlie. Otherwise you would have had to go into the Bahnhof, and go through the ordeal of getting off in East Berlin.
Marc A. Scorca: With all of this experience in Europe and the United States, your sensibility about the theatrical value of opera ... then you became artistic director of Central City Opera in 1977. What was it like to bring all of this into an actual artistic director role at an opera company?
Robert Darling: Well, my first season, I was overwhelmed by Central City Opera. When I was at Yale, I was assistant to Donald Oenslager, a great designer. He had designed The Ballad of Baby Doe first performances in Central City. And then they bought it at New York City Opera, and he added some yards and yards and yards of scenery to make it fit. So I had known that. And in studying in theater and design, Oenslager was assistant to Robert Edmond Jones and Jones of course in the '20's and '30's, had figured out a whole new way of approaching theater design. And Jones was the first artistic director of Central City. So I felt I am following in the footsteps of many heroes. Certainly Robert Edmond Jones was a hero. And his wonderful little teeny book that's called The Dramatic Imagination was a bible that I believed in. He talks about how you inspire the audience to unleash their dramatic imagination as they are experiencing the opera, which of course Aristotle talks about. You have to engage the audience in such a way that they add to the experience that they are seeing. So all of those things were true. So Central City was celebrating 100 years of the Opera House. And it turns out that these Welsh and Cornish miners who found themselves in the 1870's in this funny little mining camp...I mean, Central City is the central city of about six mining camps. It's a mining camp. But it was a fairly prosperous mining camp: lots of gold and they touted themselves as the richest square mile in all that Colorado Wonderland. And when Colorado was being proposed as a state, they seriously considered making the capitol Central City, which was a preposterous idea. It's 8,500 feet in the air, and it's in a ravine and the biggest decoration are the dumps (the mining slag heaps) from that period. But anyway, they had staged a performance of one of the components of the English Ring, which is The Bohemian Girl. And they thought this thing of opera, this is pretty fabulous. So my first season...I had told the board one of my goals is to have more live composers than dead ones on our roster (which I did achieve, fortunately). And at the same time to honor the great tradition. So we started with The Bohemian Girl, which is a wonderful, but rather klutzy piece, "I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls" being its hit tune - and a pop singer had taken that on in the period, so that tune was known in a different setting. And then, I wanted a new piece. Henry Mollicone approached me with this grand outline of a libretto, which John Bowman had done for him, based on The Face on the Barroom Floor, which is one of the Central City legends. And it is a legend. And it was based on the poem about the Alaskan gold rush. I knew that the board wouldn't go for a three-act new opera. No way. So when Henry came and saw me, I said, "Henry, I want you to see something." And so we went to the Face Bar; we looked at the face on the barroom floor, and I said, "Why don't we do an opera in here? We'll just stage it in here. What do you think?" Well, he was crestfallen. He said, "Oh my God, my grand opera." And he had done another one act piece at Lake George, I guess. And he was crestfallen, but he said, "Okay." And so he wrote this (work and) when he turned in the score, it was everything I could ever want in American opera or in any kind of an opera. It told the story in an operatic way, in 30 minutes. Brilliant kind of storytelling. And does flashbacks and all of those things that you can only do in a live performance on stage. And, as you know, it became so successful and was the most performed opera for about 30, 40 years.
Marc A. Scorca: Do you realize how back to the future that is in terms of companies finding alternative performance spaces; composing shorter works; mixing it up with a traditional opera. That you were doing in 1977/78 what a lot of companies are doing today?
Robert Darling: When we bought this house (in DC), as a matter of fact, I had been trying to get a company in California to do projects. I had had great success with San Francisco. My first show there was L'elisir d'amore. And so my high school dream of doing something on the stage had come true. When you walk out onto that stage and 3000 people stand up and are shouting... And I told Adler, I said, "You know, Mr. A. this is the musical comedy hit of 1847 - why don't we do it that way. That's how we should do it." And Lotfi was staging it. And so I designed it as if it was a Broadway show, which it is, of course. And it was in their repertory. They hauled it out every three or four years...for 35 years it was on the stage in San Francisco. Until it was nothing but two rags and a stick.
Marc A. Scorca: So there we are: Central City, San Francisco, taking a fresh look at the work based on some of your tutelage in Bayreuth and Berlin. Are you pleased with how American opera has flowered in recent years?
Robert Darling: Well, I think it was last fall... Here, I still work with the Alliance for New Music Theater and they have a project called "Out and About" in which we take people, who are not necessarily opera goers but theater people and some of them just studying, to various performances of music theater around our region, which is quite rich. We have 90 professional companies and many of them do music theater pieces. And we went to a performance of Taking Up Snakes at the Kennedy Center in the Terrace Theater; one of their new pieces. And I was aware of how my face was aching, as I sat through it because I was so pleased at what was happening on the stage with this new piece. It was exactly everything that you could say. It was vernacular. It was an odd look at a community that I don't have any connection to, but yet it was very, very honest. The musical writing - the color in the orchestra was simply sensational, including when the orchestra was at one point instructed to whirl these hollow tubes around so that you get this "woooooooooo" kind of sound. And, of course the shape of this thing they were holding was sort of like a snake. It was a very, very intense piece. And I thought, "Well: it's happened. Here we are in the Kennedy Center and it's happened." Now, when it comes to the end of that piece, I want it to be Elektra. I want the musical utterance to expand my understanding of the moment. And it didn't quite do that. But hey just as, you know, Black River Creek: there are wonderful moments in Black River, but at the end of it, in that enormous ensemble and choral scene and trio, you have a tapering off and a moment of reflection. The end of Taking Up Snakes: the woman has finally expiated her life with her father, and all of this other stuff goes on. And you want her to have a musical explosion. And it's conceivable that it's there and it just didn't happen in the performance that I saw. But I was so thrilled with that performance in that production because it was very simple. There was, what... Three sticks and an old chair on stage. It wasn't an elaborate production. And yet this musical storytelling was absolutely on target and legitimate. It was real. They were not faking it in any way. And I thought, "Well, isn't that wonderful because it's happened."
Marc A. Scorca: And I hear some core values for you about quality of storytelling; the simplicity; music really taking the audience to a place it wouldn't get with just the words alone: you have some key values as to what defines a successful piece for you.
Robert Darling: Well, I think that's the nature of it. We have been blessed in this city with some really remarkable performances. Last spring, the Shakespeare Company did a performance of The Oresteia. Several years ago, we found ourselves in Athens and we walked into the Theater of Dionysus; and the Athenians in the fifth century would traipse off once or twice a year into the theater to get some stories that would inform them as to who they were. And The Oresteia was the only one that we have all three plays extant. And Michael Khan staged it at the Shakespeare Theater in such a way that you touched the expiation that happens at the end of the piece wonderfully. And I could understand how the Greek audiences would wash themselves in that feeling of cleansing that happens at the end of that piece. And of course The Oresteia has generated so much of the operatic literature, I often have told people: I studied history through opera and I know what happens through opera.
Marc A. Scorca: You were part of the OPERA America meeting in 1983, where they decided that they would start a program to support the creation and production of American opera. Was that a radical thought that we should be supporting new opera systemically, or was it very much in the ether and in 1983 it just coalesced around a program design?
Robert Darling: Well, I think it was in the ether, because we did Face on the Barroom Floor in '78, and Conrad had written at that point a couple of pieces. As a result of Henry doing The Face on the Barroom Floor, he got a commission from San Francisco Opera. We had all lived through the period of the Ford Foundation in the '50's and '60's. So there was now quite a large repertoire of American pieces. I think for many of us - Wesley Balk; a lot of us who we're talking about - how do you make this real? I had been on some of the arts panels at the Endowment and I will never forget a meeting we had. Conrad was on the panel with me and Stephen Sondheim and we were talking about how do you develop pieces. And we said, "Well, you need to have workshops and blah, blah, blah." And this all fed into what OPERA America ultimately did. And Stephen said, "I want all the bells and whistles and I want to take it to New Haven and stand it on its feet before an audience and find out what I got." I said, "Well, okay," knowing that that would never happen in opera because it's not going to happen. The different model, totally, than the Broadway theater at the time. And then, it was maybe a year after that, that suddenly I hear that something called Sunday in the Park with George is being tried out at a little off-Broadway theater on 42nd street, way off-Broadway. And I thought, "mm-hmm," so the message came out. It was ether. It was the group of people. One of the great things that the Arts Endowment does, I think, (and I don't know if it still does this), but one of the great things that it did was to put people as disparate as myself and Stephen and Conrad and Wesley into the same room. And we would wrestle with: what is the idea here and how does it move forward here, and so forth. And I can't see Passion or A Little Night Music and not think that Stephen wasn't somehow inspired by some of those pieces. And that's what Menotti felt also in the '50's and '40's, when he was doing The Consul on Broadway. I mean they thought that's where it belonged. As did Weill. The Threepenny Opera, in Berlin, in the '30's was where it belonged: in the popular theater. And that seemed to me one of the things we needed to work on, to get to that. Because how do you make it so that it is seen and thought about in the way that the ancient Athenians thought about their society as reflected in these gigantic musical tragedies?
Marc A. Scorca: A number of people have already in my interviews mentioned Wesley Balk, who of course I did not know. I know of him through Ben Krywosz. You've mentioned him; John Conklin mentioned him. Tell me a little bit about Wesley Balk.
Robert Darling: Wesley and I were both at Yale together in the early '60's. And he was interested, as a stage director, and he became intensely interested in the performer as a means to tell the story, and freeing them. Because at the time, certainly in the world of musical theater, you would have performers who knew that they had to stay the lines, like they were in a play and they knew that they had to be able to bring the song out and they had to sing it in a certain way. And there were certain ideas of performance that were all there. But in opera you had to sing it beautifully and you had to sing it now more beautifully. And if you could really sing it beautifully, you could... But the Patricia Wises of this world were very few and far between. And that riveting moment in Traviata still lingers in my head. And Frank Corsaro understood that, as a stage director, he could get that. Wesley, when he started working with singers at the University of Minnesota - even when he was at Yale - we would talk about "What is the essence of acting in opera?" And it wasn't rudimentary. You had those outstanding singers. The woman who did Lady Macbeth must've had that when Verdi wrote that scene for her. She had to be able to do that, you know? But there was a different style of acting obviously. So how do you get at the truth? When you see Lotte Lenya do a production of Mahagonny and she sings that amazing song, or Threepenny or something, she had a voice that was compelling but you wouldn't say beautiful. And it wasn't the only thing making the story. And Wesley was trying to figure out: how do you open a performer to really free themselves enough to use the music beautifully, but to be honest in what you do about it. And what has been remarkable in this 60-70 years saga is seeing performances like Taking Up Snakes, or seeing the end of Blue at Glimmerglass, where the people are so real, you can connect them to whatever your experiences are bringing into the theater at that moment. And the woman who did the Julie in Showboat, when she comes to that terrible moment when she's down on her luck in the second act: that's a remarkable scene of course. And Wesley was about finding answers to that. I did Three Sisters on Broadway with a remarkable cast, which was Actors Studio-performed production and Lee Strasberg was staging. There was one actress who was in the second act of fires happening and whatnot. And so we were staging it. And the lighting director was trying to do it with little inkies and she was speaking to him and she was saying her lines. And we would do it one way and he would say, "Okay, great." And then we'd stop and he would focus the light there and then we would go back and she would do it the other way. Well, it was driving him crazy, but of course the Actors Studio was saying that there's multiple ways to do this and you do it. Now that could be taken care of with where we are technically in lighting. But at that point, it was a big pain in the neck. We had 35 little inky three inch fresnals to light that scene. Wesley felt that it was more objective than that. While the subjectivity of the moment does play a role, the actor - if they really are rigorous about their instrument; about their whole body as they perform: - you could school them in such a way that they could be rigorous in the application of that. And that's what all of his exercises on his works really went towards finding that ability in making it possible for the performer to be free enough and to be knowledgeable enough that they could, in fact, easily do that. And he spent his life figuring that out. It's quite a remarkable thing.
Marc A. Scorca: You've talked about Wesley Balk, Kurt Adler, others. As you think back, and here we are telling the 50 year story of opera's progress in this country (50 years arbitrary as it corresponds to our own anniversary), are there other people you particularly admire for what they have brought to the art form; what they've brought to the field?
Robert Darling: Well, there are many, as you said earlier when we were talking: it is a collaboration. So it's working with all of these people. I have had the very good fortune of working with some wonderful people; wonderful singers; wonderful technicians. My first show - the L'elisir performance at San Francisco - they didn't hire lighting directors. The stage director sort of said, "Yes, well that scene is happening over here, and yes".... And as having done shows on Broadway at that point, I said, "But who was your designer?" And the notion of designing was not even understood. So people like George Pantages, who was the lighting technician, technically at San Francisco, also began to figure out how do we really do it with artistry? That is another separate story: what has happened in lighting. So that now the technical things...When I was at Yale, Stanley McCandless had figured out that the lens of the lighthouses could be collapsed down and would be very, very good as a theater light. And so he took out a lot of the glass of a Plano convex lens and smashed it into a little disc that could be used in a fresnel lamp. And that was his great contribution. And he used to talk about having a joystick and he would push it this way and it would be more red than yellow. Then he'd push it this way it would be more blue. Or he would push it down and it would be more intense and he would pull it back and it would be less intense. Well, that's what we can do now. It's extraordinary. There were many, many people. Stan Dufford, who was a wonderful wig and makeup man. I remember sitting with Stanley at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and watching him weave a wig and put in bright blue strands next to bright red strands just as the highlight of how he was going to dress the curl. Phenomenal things. And each of these people approached their craft with intensity and rigor and in a way that I think anybody does in any kind of a profession, but you think of it in theater storytelling, you think "My, okay." Kurt Adler of course was a phenomenon. He was difficult and what have you, but he knew what he was seeing and what he was doing. In terms of the progress of opera, John White at City Opera was an interesting pioneer.
Marc A. Scorca: I had the honor of knowing him.
Robert Darling: When I did Dutchman at City Opera in '76, John sensed what the performance was trying to do and what it could do. And Julius Rudel (wonderful conductor) was doing the performance. And we had paced the rehearsals perfectly, so that everybody was just on the brink of having it be sensational. We came to the dress rehearsal. There was a frightening accident at the dress rehearsal, which fortunately didn't hurt anybody, but I had put a scrim bobbinette at the front of the stage so that we could do projections on it (which were not what you can do now, but they were projections.) And the curtain went out on the Steuerman standing center downstage on this raked stage of the ship. And the front curtain picked up the bobbinette pipe and it started pulling it up as it went out on the dress rehearsal and then it came crashing down. And fortunately it didn't hit the Steuerman, but it was terrible. And it was a presage, because after that dress rehearsal, the orchestra went on strike for a month and a half or something, and all that careful preparation and all that preparation that Julius had done, just was thrown out. And then we had like two days to get it back before the premier. But John White was so wonderful and he came up and said, "Robert, I see what you're attempting." Fine. Okay, great. And of course, John Crosby and Bob Herman. You know what is interesting, at the beginning of OPERA America, is these people who, in their little ways, laid a groundwork for such a remarkable resurgence of real opera, not instant opera. But, Russell Patterson, in his way, was doing great work. And the notion of singing in English: Henry Holt, and he worked with OPERA America. And they had even at The Met how to program all of those performances and those translations, G. Schirmer's translation. Ruth and Thomas Martin. You know, we could make fun of them, but that was a way of the vernacular happening. And I worry a little bit. I think Lotfi's projected titles are remarkable. But I now get feedback from Henry Mollicone; for instance, in (a) new piece, he wants to make sure (even though it's sung in English) that they have surtitles. And I think that's a wrong route. I think the language and connecting the language and when we do it in a small theater, something like the Hidden Valley Opera, when we did the Black River there; or when we did Mice and Men there. The fact that you could really see and understand that the words (and the words are beautifully set), is not to be taken back by switching your eyes and seeing, you know. When I did a Pagliacci for the Utah Festival Opera in Logan, the Pagliacci, I wanted to use ... we were doing it in English and Italian. But the prologue, I thought, how can we do this in English and Italian? And so we used the texts projected sometimes onto Canio's body and sometimes in the scenery, so that the words became a kind of projected part of the action. But I think that there's something to be said for hearing the musical moment and the texts simultaneously. While they had surtitles for Blue up at Glimmerglass, the libretto was brilliant. It's wonderful. The text is just wonderful. The same thing happened with the text of Taking Up Snakes. So I think that we can't lose sight of the power of hearing and seeing. Because when it's in a decent size theater, that's the legitimate thing. When you see it in a film - and one of the other great developments of course is - as I do often sit in Gettysburg and watch The Metropolitan Opera on the big screen - and it's brilliantly done. It's a different medium: absolutely different. But there, the texts and the projection titles and all of that fits together because you're right there. In seeing Passion recently at Signature Theater, or Little Night Music, the text can be understood. And that's what Stephen mostly intended. But he also wanted the voices to be amplified because that was an aesthetic that he wanted. So both of these things I now think we are wrestling with. The acoustic sound is absolutely paramount and fabulous. But what you can do in the subtlety of a voice using the modern amplification is also quite remarkable.
Marc A. Scorca: Or modern sound design.
Robert Darling: Or modern sound design. Yes. We now have sound design; the word means "marking out." So it means thinking through. And we also think through with a dramaturg, the idea of the piece. What really is behind that piece today as we're watching it today? What is behind Violetta? Are we talking about woman's place in society? The courtisan could do that this way? And is that what we want to see?
Marc A. Scorca: My last question for you: we are using 2020, which is our anniversary year, and half in joke, half seriously, using 2020 vision. Looking ahead, what avenue (or avenues) do you wish to see opera explore that it hasn't yet explored?
Robert Darling: Well in terms of what we're seeing in contemporary pieces in America, we have been exploring the everyday lives of people in an interesting way, that was taken up by Verdi in Violetta in a way that hadn't been to that point. But there are some big themes out there that really can only be done by a music-theater. One of the other pieces that I think perhaps should be on the radar screen is A Quiet Place, the Bernstein piece. I think that the direction that we are being led by things like Hamilton - as an American opera - many works is what opera is and that is a very key place to go. So the future, I think we've got some very strong pointers. If you take the big power that opera holds, that are thinking of serious music theater, I would call it serious music theater. And the opera, the Italian word is convenient, but we can't lose track of the vernacular in such a way. But we need to take the high road and see what are the big arcs that can inform the culture; can inform the people in a very rigorous way. And we have to apply it, so everything speaks (and in opera certainly everything speaks). And over my lifetime, the work has been to make sure that the shadow that's over there in the corner doesn't distract when the leading lady wanders into it. Or that the glass on the table really does say something about where we're supposed to be. So that everything has an importance, which in the theater is critical because we do condense a lot. And you say a lot with what the costume is. Or you say a lot with: you know, we talked about the little boy running down stage and knew that that was the passage of years of time. And that's where the form excels. The spoken theater excels in creating in our heads an imaginary place. The music theater excels when it drives idea and thought out of the ordinary space into some other world that may inform us in a positive way. And that's what I think all of the job is. I mean, I think that's what our work is: is to inform us of a new possibility. So as we go into the future, I want us to tackle some big themes as well as not lose track of the small themes. A piece like Taking Up Snakes is, on the one hand, a very precise examination of a very odd piece of American culture, but it's also taking up a very big theme of where we are in society. Quiet Place talks about the American family experience in an interesting way and by contrasting it with Trouble in Tahiti, Bernstein is doing it in a very unique way so that that comes through. Black River tackles the small town experience; the escaping of the small town experience and the myth of America with the [indecipherable] scene in the original story: always sail upstream. It's kind of against all odds; we're going to do the impossible and sail upstream. But that was a pioneering American mythos and we now have got to open and explore the original sin of America. There's a television thing on Jamestown and the director does a beautiful thing when the enslaved population marches into it one season in, and in the middle of the next season, you suddenly get this idea of enslaving people and you see it ricochet through what we now know are the attitudes of those characters. And it corrupts it. How do we as music theater people explore that very difficult situation?
Marc A. Scorca: Robert, I'm just so honored to have this chance to talk to you about looking backward; looking forward; looking at our joy and our responsibility. You've been at the heart of opera in America for many, many years and I really want to thank you for letting me take this time in your dining room to chat with you today.
Robert Darling: Well, it has been a great and wonderful experience, Marc, and congratulations again.
Marc A. Scorca: Thank you.
Robert Darling: I really think that when those folks were putting together a notion of OPERA America: Glynn Ross and Adler. I remember being in Adler's office when he called Bing at The Met and he said, "You have to be here. You have to do this." And he was right. We had to do it, and I think it's happened in a large part because of the collaboration of all the opera producers. And it becomes much more than waiting for The Met to tour through town. The individual voices that are now being heard from Seattle to Florida, up and down the country, is also a great credit to the aspirations of the National Endowment for the Arts. Because Nancy Hanks, in the very first years of the Endowments, said "What we've got to do is strengthen the institutions." And currently we are tearing down institutions, but the strengths of the institutions enables a lot of other things to happen.