But for Ms. Zimmerman, the fourth time may be a charm. If she never quite found her footing in the rigid conventions of bel canto, there is more in common with her theater work in the later, dreamier, more epic “Rusalka.” Ms. Zimmerman’s concept for the opera, conducted by Mark Elder and starring Kristine Opolais, Brandon Jovanovich, Eric Owens and Jamie Barton, evokes both Romanticism and the receding flats of classical theater; the costume silhouettes evoke both the French 17th century and the Victorian era.
“I feel I’m at the core of what I’m interested in and have been all my life,” Ms. Zimmerman said of the piece. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
This is really, so long after “Metamorphoses,” you going back in the water.
I think if I had not had my fill of water, as it were, if I’d never done that, we might have started from a point of real water, because it’s so beautiful. But in repertory, it’s literally nearly impossible. So we started from the woods, the fairy tale woods, the hidden woods. If you read the instruction in the score, it does say “Woods and a meadow by a pond,” even if people tend to put the pond really front and center.
Was it a work you had wanted to do?
Peter [Gelb] suggested it for me. I was going to do “Pearl Fishers,” but sometimes finances are such that if there’s a good production around, it’s easier to just borrow one. [Penny Woolcock’s production of that Bizet opera came to the Met in 2015.] When he broke that news to me, he said, “But I’d like you to do ‘Rusalka’ instead.” I’d seen Renée [Fleming] sing it live in HD, and I was working with her on “Armida” when she was doing it here. So I knew it a little bit, and when he suggested it, I felt it was right for me. The thing that was heartbreaking was that it was in Czech. That was and remains the most intimidating thing about it, for a theater director especially. Where they’re saying this and that, but you don’t know the exact word.
How do you view the piece? What’s your take on it?
When I started studying it, I noticed this entire opera is at night, every single scene. In the middle of the night, you don’t know what time it is. Time is at a standstill, and it’s hard to give a sense to the audience that things are going somewhere. So I want to activate the story so it feels we’re moving through space and time. We wanted to amplify the sense of transformation and things actually happening, of the plot actually going somewhere.
“Rusalka” is an opera that, in Europe at least, has been the focus of a lot of directorial intervention. Have you avoided that?
I always want to lean toward the story that’s there. She is still a water spirit, and her father or uncle or spiritual father is still a water gnome. There are still those imaginary creatures, but with very real and serious problems. I’m not putting it in Paris, and she’s not a prostitute or anything like that, but it doesn’t ignore the sort of gender politics in it, which are really there.
Your work at the Met, especially that “Sonnambula,” has been heatedly debated by audiences and critics like myself. Do you see this “Rusalka” as a way to prove yourself?
I take each piece as it comes and respond to it as I do. I’m just doing my job as I see my job. I actually like “Sonnambula” the best. The second time we did it [in 2014], it was kind of loved. That’s not an uncommon switch in the world of opera. The idea of the traditional holds sway until there’s the new traditional, and the radical always feels outlier until through time it’s shaped into the traditional.
The main difference between directing theater and directing opera is the opera audience and its knowledge of the text. That knowledge goes back to childhood, and it’s an oral knowledge, often from recordings, accompanied by an imagined virtual perfection, or that virtual perfection is a production they saw as children. And that’s wed to the music in the heart and mind. There’s a longing for how we first experienced it or how we experienced it virtually by listening to it — disembodied and therefore divine — and any materialization of it is, by definition, incorrect, at first.
I don’t have disrespect for this. It’s part of the form, it’s part of the obsession. Part of the love is that love of the past and the old and the repeated.
The constraints are so different than in theater.
Mike Nichols came to see the open dress of “Armida” and said, “When do you open?” I was like, “In four days.” And he said, “Oh, so you still have time to make cuts.” And I had to tell him we can’t make any cuts.
But there’s something great about the assignment of it: “This is the score, and you have to make the story work within that and bend to it.” To amplify the music, illustrate it in some way, to make it visible.
You had success with an adaptation of Disney’s “The Jungle Book” in Chicago in 2013. What’s happened with that project?
The movie was made. [Disney released a live-action “Jungle Book” film last April.] It was sort of known, but Disney’s divisions are very separate. And word came down that they were rebranding it through this new movie, and everything about the musical will stop. That’s fine with me, though I would have liked to continue it and make it better.
And what about “Metamorphoses,” which still lingers in the minds of many theatergoers?
I got to New York and got an email from one of the producers saying, “We think it’s time for a revival.” And I just don’t think so. The company [Lookingglass Theater Company of Chicago] revived it a few years ago, but we just did it at home. And we took it to Arena [Stage in Washington] because we’d never done it in the round. That was something new; that was a reason to do it.
I like to make new things and keep making things. I don’t think it’s going to happen. I don’t want to. It belongs to the past in a way for me. It’s a treasured memory.
So what is next for you?
I’ve never done this, but next year I’m going to try to take a year off, not just from teaching [she is a professor at Northwestern University] but from directing. Because I’ve had three to seven openings a year every year since my late 20s. I’ve worked a lot since I was young.
So I’ll be without the perpetual pressure of something I’m supposed to be doing and finishing and see if whatever is inside me wants to express itself in some different way. We’ll find out.Continue reading the main story
Asked to describe Natalie Dessay to someone who’d never heard of her, one could say that she was France’s answer to Kate Bush. Both of them blessed with an elfin physique, mercurial temperament and an ethereally high vocal register, they also share a determination to plough their own furrows in defiance of fashions and trends.
Except that instead of writing and performing her own pop songs, Dessay has been a globally celebrated opera star, electrifying audiences for two decades with her intensity and individuality in roles varying from Donizetti’s tragic Lucia di Lammermoor to the insouciant Zerbinetta in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. And while she’s much too off the wall to be described as a conventional diva, she has dimples of iron and a very particular way of pronouncing that important word “non.”
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Two years ago, Dessay suddenly announced that she was giving opera up, and non, she wouldn’t be taking the normal path of writing a self-congratulatory memoir, sitting on competition panels and passing her secrets on to students in a conservatoire. “Have pity on me!” she moans satirically at the thought of such a fate.
Leaving opera hasn’t been a wrench. “It was the right time to stop,” she says. “I had done what I had to do. My interest had ended.”
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Behind this emphatic statement is the knowledge that she pushed herself to her limit by embarking on the demanding role of Violetta in La Traviata in 2011; had she persevered, she could have faced a recurrence of the nodes on her vocal cords which threatened to bring her career to a juddering halt between 2001 and 2004. Fine surgery saved her then, and now she can dismiss the episode with a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. Ten years on, however, she has to be more cautious: perhaps opera has given her up as much as the other way round?
She doesn’t altogether deny this. “To be Violetta was wonderful, but it wasn’t really meant for my voice,” she says. “I struggled with the music, it was torture. Still, after I have been that fantastic character, what else is there? I am 50 now, I can’t sing Wagner, and I can’t go on playing crazy young girls.“
“I don’t have regrets – opera is wonderful – but I never found partners on stage who wanted to explore the dramatic aspects as far as I did. I worked with many really talented people, but not people like me. I would change the way opera is performed if I could: it needs much more rehearsal than it gets, but rehearsal is too expensive.
“So it’s a relief not to be in that business any longer. Now I feel I am more in charge.”
Now, Dessay has gone where she has always wanted to go before she got lost in the Byzantine halls of opera – towards “pure theatre and pure music,” as she puts it. The journey began last spring when in one of Paris’ most prestigious theatres (the Athénée Théâtre Louis Jouvet), she turned to her speaking voice and earned rave reviews performing Und, a 70-minute monologue by the radical English playwright Howard Barker.
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But she’s not turning her back on the more classical repertory entirely, and tonight she will pay one of her all-too-infrequent visits to London, where at the Barbican Centre her seductively smoky soprano will weave its way through subtle French mélodies by Fauré and Duparc drawn from her deliciously cool new CD Fiançailles pour rire (“Getting married for a laugh”) – an object lesson in how to give this elusive music rich but subtle meaning.
Next April, she will embark on another fresh challenge when she leads a new production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical melodrama Passion at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, taking the role of Fosca, a repellent older woman who mesmerises a handsome young soldier. “She is meant to be very ugly,” explains Dessay who is anything but. “So much more fun for me to act!”
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She admits to being “nervous” about singing in English for her upcoming role in Passion. “What attracted me to it? It’s something new to me, a musical that is not really a musical. I don’t worry so much about the dialogue, because I have a very beautiful speaking voice – much more beautiful than my singing voice, I think – and if I show a bit of an accent, that will fit fine with my conception of Fosca.”
Behind Dessay’s unstoppable ego and determination to do things her way is the supportive figure of her husband the operatic bass Laurent Naouri, with whom she has two teenage student children, both of whom have inherited their parents’ musical bent. Naouri is her rock, she admits, and whenever their schedules permit, they enjoy working together on recital programmes. “No, we don’t argue, ” she says. “We just share.”
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Partly because of her commitment to her family, Paris has always been the centre of Dessay’s career, and she enjoys a movie-star level of fame in the city – something that she says she can take or leave.
London, on the other hand, is somewhere she has never quite cracked: she sang only two roles at Covent Garden (one of which, Marie in Donizetti’s comedy La Fille du Régiment won her an Olivier Award), turning down a lot of its other offers because she would accept only new productions and the longer rehearsal periods they entail, and she seems to have blotted her copybook at the Wigmore Hall too. “I sang there once. It was very nice, with a good acoustic, but they never ask me back. I complained about the lighting and I don’t think they liked that. “
Perhaps the English find her habit of making her feelings plain a bit disconcerting. “I did some master classes with Laurent at Aldeburgh last summer. I told them not to be frightened of themselves, to explore their imaginations. But I also said that personality is something you can’t teach. You either have it or you don’t.” She should know.
Natalie Dessay sings at the Barbican Hall on Friday; her new CD Fiançailles pour rire: Mélodies Françaises is released on Erato