Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Heartbeat Opera: Reverence, Irreverence and Viscerality

An interview with Heartbeat Opera’s founders 
The Cotton Candy Machine, Williamsburg
February 20, 2016

Catching up with Heartbeat Opera's founders Louisa Proske and Ethan Heard
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Founded in 2014 by Yale School of Drama theater directors Louisa Proske and Ethan Heard, Heartbeat Opera is one of the most exciting new companies on the New York independent opera scene. Last year they had a very successful opening with the intriguing combination of KurtágKafka Fragments and Offenbach’s Daphnis & Chloé. This year they’ll be producing a ten-day March Festival at the Theater at St. Clement’s, showcasing Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, as well as three evenings of experimentation with new contemporary works.

We met with Louisa and Ethan between rehearsals on a balmy Saturday afternoon at their Williamsburg rehearsal space, the ex-Cotton Candy Machine, to chat about their vision and projects, from regietheater to baroque drag shows. We discovered that Heartbeat’s founders are not only pedigreed theater folks but also skilled musicians, who understand opera and the need for music as the central pillar of their venture, hence their close collaboration from the very beginning with co-music directors Jacob Ashworth and Daniel Schlosberg, of Cantata Profana.
Heartbeat in drag: A venerable tradition.
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
This company is extremely serious about its craft, from set design to costumes to musical arrangements, but at the same time its work shows streaks of renegade irreverence, all while maintaining a dialogue with the classic repertory they produce. Heartbeat is truly a well-rounded company with a strong core concept of stripping opera from convention and distilling it to its essence. And if all that were not enough, this venture also focuses on outreach programs spreading the opera gospel among young people, to help build the audiences of the future.
Last year's Kafka Fragments challenged audiences and performers alike.
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
How did you pick the festival model for your productions?

Louisa Proske: The festival model emerged organically in the first year because the company was founded by two directors and very quickly we had two music directors whom we invited to be part of the company. So it just seemed from the start that two productions was going to be kind of our fate. Co-directing and co-creating turns out to be a great model. Also, having two productions, it’s a great way to make use of our resources, especially in terms of the space.

Ethan Heard: The pairing of different works is also a plus. Last year Kafka Fragments and Daphnis & Chloé were as different as could be. We were showing off the different kinds of things we could do. This year, thematically, Lucia and Dido story-wise really resonate together. You have two women who are falling in love and dying of love, arguably.
Bacchants revel in last year's Daphnis and Chloe.
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
How wedded are you to the space of the stage? Does your directorial vision tend toward staging on the space of a proscenium as opposed to a more unconventional venue?  

EH: Part of it stems from our collaboration with Cantata Profana and Jacob and Dan. Last year Jacob was on stage for Kafka Fragments and in Daphnis & Chloé the band was in costume part of the show. We really want to have the musicians on stage front and center in both pieces – that’s something we want to make our signature. Also, opera traditionally has stage, proscenium, orchestra pit and then the audiences yards hundreds of feet away from the action. For Dido I want to subvert that: we are going to bring about twenty people from the public on stage for a special experience.
Cantata Profana in action.
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
LP: This is part of a larger conversation that we’re constantly having and that’s been evolving a lot over the last two years. We’re a small independent renegade opera company, what can we do that the Met or San Francisco Opera cannot do? We don’t want to be a company that replicates the same idea of opera on a tiny budget, but we want to make use of the freedom that comes with not having to adhere to these rules, like not having an orchestra pit. How can we then really make the musicians part of the action part of the process? How can we find surprises for the audience given the musicians and singers are so close?
Ashworth flaunts all the rules.
Photo credit: Christopher Ash
EH: I think a lot about reverence and irreverence. Opera is often regarded as this high-end, prestigious, elitist art form that you have to be educated to understand, you need to have a lot of money to go to. We want to reverse that concept. Every year we think about what can we do to make it more accessible, to have students and younger people come to our shows.

LP: At the same time, we don’t want to be a company that just dumbs it down to the lowest possible denominator. That’s not how we think of it. Like this conversation in the theater world of making Shakespeare “accessible.” We definitely want to challenge people and show them where are the places where we can pull them in, but not at the expense of quality.
The classical music experience that takes you places.
Photo credit: Christopher Ash
Louisa, what is your take on Lucia?

LP: I’ve been obsessed with this opera since I was a girl and I saw it in a very traditional production. I’m haunted by the music. The story itself is so insane, if you treat it naturalistically it just does not work. He shows her a letter and then two seconds later she’s convinced that her lover has betrayed her – it does not make sense! But it’s the craving for this extremity of emotions and this absolute love that makes sense on a much more weird and visceral and imaginative level.  

Heartbeat workshops Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
Very early on I thought about inventing a framing story where this girl is restrained and tied up in an institution, possibly an asylum. She is listening to the radio, to an old recording of the opera and starts to imagine, starts having hallucinations of the story in her brain. So the plot is filtered through this oppressed person who needs extremity, color and imagination. There’s a beautiful Octavio Paz quote which states that the man who, in shackles, closes his eyes and dreams of freedom, will set the world on fire. The imagination of someone who is tied down having this combustible energy and explosiveness, I wanted that as part of the storytelling. The story of Lucia is always done as if she’s this wistful, frail, feminine heroine from the start but I think the music suggests that she’s absolutely wild and unfettered and daring and anarchic. A sort of Emily Bronte romantic heroine, with all her good and bad sides.

Ethan, what is your take on Dido?

Heartbeat's March Festival 2016.
EH: I’m drawn to the baroque. There’s something about the symmetry, the structure, the elegance, and the way passion is expressed in a more composed way that I really enjoy. What I love about Dido is that it has the high and the low in a Shakespearean way. It has this supreme elegant and transcendent final aria that is one of the most devastatingly beautiful pieces of music, combined with the mischievous bawdiness and naughtiness of the witches. It’s this image of Dido on the precipice looking down and then she falls in glorious rapturous love and she plummets down into this horrible tragic end. And that fall to me is so juicy and dramatic and delightful. Dido is a Cleopatra, a Queen Elizabeth and has taken a man into her bed, potentially a second husband, and her honor is at stake. Also what is so fascinating about this opera is that the witches are a force of chaos and malevolence that could mess up anyone’s life. There’s something about the human spirit that enjoys this sort of shadenfreude thing.

What about the COLLABORET feature you’re adding as part of the festival? How does it play into your vision of producing both classics and contemporary works?

EH: We’re calling it a co-lab-o-rey. It’s a mix of collaboration, lab and cabaret. Again this shows how the practical and artistic shape each other. We had three dark nights and saw that as an amazing opportunity to bring some friends and artists in to share and develop relationships. I would love the COLLABORET to become a workshop to funnel new ideas. It’s a chance to try things and I’m looking forward to the eclecticism of that and hopefully also to bring in new audiences.
The festival calendar runs from March 10-20 in Hell's Kitchen.
LP: It’s also an attempt at defining the festival more as a festival, involving artists who are not part of the two main productions and, also, an opportunity to get a sense of new collaborations that are shaping up, both for the audience and for us. We’ve rented this space that’s significantly bigger than last year, so we’re asking ourselves what can we do to expand our audiences. Last year it went incredibly well and we basically sold out. We feel we’re ready to expand but, still, it’s scary!

How does COLLABORET fit in what you see as the future of Heartbeat?

LP: In terms of our main season event I have a feeling that this festival model will last. There will always be two productions and then some ancillary events. There’s hopefully an aerialist duo coming as part of one of the shows that can be part of our next drag show in the fall (think: flying opera singers with wigs and wings!). It seems exciting to invite them to the COLLABORET and see what they do. For really big ambitious projects, if you have a workshop you get a sense of the ideas and what they can be – you learn so much by just dipping your foot in the water. Heartbeat is an ever-expanding idea. This summer we’re bringing Heartbeat to the High Line, our drag show will be on New York’s biggest runway! That’s a new thing that may develop into something even bigger in the future.
Baroque lends itself to the drag in this year's benefit.
Photo credit: Russell Rowland
EH: For me opera is music, storytelling, dance, theater, all the genres coming together. It can have electronic sound, it can have ballet. I would love to do Donizettis and Purcells and Verdis but also new work.

LP: We really strongly feel that we want to be able to do everything from Purcell to contemporary. There’s something about specialization that has infected the culture. There’s this notion that as an artist you only do this one thing. That feels unhealthy and constraining.
Heartbeat strikes a Kafka-esque pose.
Photo credit: Christopher Ash
One of your stated mission objectives is to “distill opera to its essence,” what’s your special touch to achieve that?

LP: A very collaborative, horizontal, joyful, rigorous process that we bring to each piece. We bring excellent musicianship. That’s a big pillar of the company and that is why we have a resident ensemble. We’re extremely picky in our casting and we look at the whole performer from dramatic capacities to the voice.

EH: We’re also building a team of designers who can make magic happen with small budgets. We’re interested in creating a whole world. For me, collaboration includes designers and instrumentalists and that’s a defining characteristic of Heartbeat. Our music co-director is recruiting friends, people who want to create something new and be in the room with us for long periods of time.
Proske and her choreographer Chloe Treat consult during rehearsals.
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
There’s a booming independent opera movement right now. How do you see Hearbeat Opera fitting into it?

LP: When we founded the company everybody was wrestling with NYCO having closed its doors. How do you make opera that’s viable and exciting and relevant and present in our century? How do you really reach out to new and younger audiences and excite them with this art form? Our conversation is about what if you strip away what you feel like is decorative or elitist or tacked-on over the ages, the sets and costumes and conventions that haunt these pieces, the way it’s always done? How do you arrive at a place of telling these stories in a way that feels here and now? And this does not necessarily mean updating them.

Heartbeat's Opera Outreach.
Photo credit: Heartbeat Opera
We’re developing our outreach program. We went to talk to high school girls about opera and that was so rewarding and rich and successful that they will come to see Dido and Aeneas. We brought mezzo-soprano Kristin Gornstein, she started singing this aria from Bellini’s Capuleti and it was really a magical moment. There were forty kids and when she first started there was a little bit of laughter, this uncertainty rippling through the group and they were a little freaked out. They really had not heard this kind of voice before. And then as the song went on they were drawn in. Opera singers can create such magic. It’s part of opera. It’s not pedestrian but yet there’s this human essence in the stories and this experience of sound. It was so wonderful to see the trajectory of these kids who went from freaked out to so confident with it in just a forty-minute session. This work just needs to be done, it needs to happen all over the country. You just need a direct approach that’s not talking down but really leveling with young people about what this is.
Daphnis and Chloe, March 2015.
Photo credit: Christopher Ash
EH: If you look at the names of the other independent companies, Loft is a space, Onsite is a space, Prototype it’s about the newness. As our name suggests, Heartbeat is about the humanity of it, the inside, the vibration and we’re really interested in the experience of human beings making opera mean something in the world. That’s partially our theater backgrounds, the experience we had in the opera practicum at Yale where we were playing like kids with opera singers, and it felt so different than the Met. When you talk about opera education, so much of it is being in a small room with singers and feeling the humanity of that.
Heartbeat Opera's Winter Friend-Raiser.
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
Let’s say that in six months a very generous donor decides to give Heartbeat Opera $500K, what do you do with the money?

EH: I would ask would you like to give a million? Free tickets!

The stars of the show.
Photo credit: Christopher Ash
LP: I think immediately about 5 seasons, it allows us to plan for the next five years. I don’t know if anything fundamental would change about our festival model. Paying our artists better would be very high on the list. We have a strong desire to pay people so that they can live and pay rent during the time that they work for us and don’t have to work at bars at night because they’re giving their souls and hearts and talents to us and that’s such a huge conversation just in the arts as a whole. Then I would expand the outreach program, really take seriously the mission of bringing school kids and young people in and growing new audiences. And then, passion projects! I want to do a Pelleas et Melisande site specific – with the audience sitting amid the landscape. I so badly want to do a Heartbeat Mozart, maybe a Don Giovanni or Figaro, although we need to be at a place where we can do more rehearsals and have a bigger band to meaningfully do Mozart.

What has been your experience in New York in terms of audience? There’s that stereotype of opera as geriatric. What type of public have you been attracting so far and/or are targeting?

Catering to the theater crowd.
Photo credit: Christopher Ash
LP: Because Cantata Profana is lodged in the chamber music world and Ethan and I are really placed in the theater world (and in his case in the musical theater world), already we bring in people who do not necessarily go to the Met as much. So there’s a strong chamber music crowd and a strong theater crowd. Beyond that, we are carefully building a following. The fundraising drag shows have been successful at attracting people, even passers-by in the street because of the storefront location. It’s very much like a grassroots movement putting together our audience and animating them to come back. I would say it’s a really mixed crowd and we try as hard as we can to get younger audiences.

Cantata Profana is your resident ensemble, how did that collaboration start?

LP: Cantata Profana is led by Jacob and is an ensemble with a lot of flexibility. They have one leg in baroque music as that’s Jacob’s consuming interest. Both our music co-directors are Yale music people and Jacob having such a strong opera background said “if you guys are forming an opera company we would love to be your ensemble.” And that’s just such a fortuitous thing that happened very quickly within a month of us founding the company, before even the first workshop. 

Something for everyone.
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
Jacob is an impresario a great music director, a great player, but also someone who has a lot of feeling regarding whom to hire for a project, with a huge rolodex of musicians in New York and surroundings. And Dan is a genius arranger and a great composer and player, with this ability to adapt scores like the Donizetti, which we could never do (and would never want to do) in its full orchestration. He’s thinking of it in terms of how can we actually reinvent the score to give people a completely new experience with the same music they know. Using the same notes but instead of a harp we’re using a vibraphone and when she enters the mad world there will be an electric guitar, so it’s like really creating a new sound world in very much the spirit of and in conversation with Donizetti. So it has a leg in faithfulness and a leg in irreverence.

Musicians gone wild.
Photo credit: Christopher Ash
What’s the best thing you saw this last year?

LP: I am a student of Willy Decker. Even if I don’t think the revival at the Met recently was as strong as the original, seeing his Traviata was an amazing experience. I think it is one of the most important productions of the last century. On a very large scale, it’s doing what we want to do with Heartbeat, which is take a piece that we all know so well and strip everything away and point to this one thing and then kind of let the whole production evolve out of that. In this case, this idea of a woman on the verge of death and what that means and how she is spiraling into a face-off with her own mortality. It’s taking this piece that we associate with jewels and big costumes and parties and saying, “No, it’s about this, actually. For me it was such a revelatory moment.
Stunning theatricality.
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
That brings us to our last question: where do you draw the line with regietheater?

The drag benefit.
Photo credit: Heartbeat Opera
LP: Oh god, I wish we had more time for that question because it’s a really complex and long answer! I partly left Germany because I was at a point where I just had enough of regietheater. It’s not that great geniuses are the problem, but it’s all the B and C versions of people who think they can reinvent something with a lot of money but actually have very little of something real to say. Having spent a lot of time in the UK and then the US, I now miss the freedom of that theater culture and also the funding frankly. For my taste I think a conception always has to come somehow out of the center of the piece or out of the piece itself. I’m not so interested in someone just using a piece as a sort of meaningless canvas to write their own thoughts on, but without any real dialogue with the original work. Or the other version of the German regietheater that 85% of the time I find really problematic is to do a piece out of a real hatred for it. This happens a lot, like let’s show how conservative Goethe really was and ridicule him and vomit all over it. Sometimes it can be interesting, but most of the time it’s just like once you’ve seen that you’ve seen it. There always needs to be something in the piece, even if it’s not the thing that the ten directors who came before you have found, that really connects with the human concern of yours, and you work from that.  If that’s missing then I get bored really easily.

- Lei & Lui

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