Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Mounting the Big Shows: A Conversation with Director Lee Blakeley

September 15th, 2015

Lee Blakeley’s production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” is performed by the San Francisco Opera seven times during September, 2015.

The following conversation took place at the Santa Fe Opera, whose facilitation is deeply appreciated.



[Director Lee Blakeley; resized image of a Roy Tan photograph, courtesy of Lee Blakeley.]


Wm: Please relate how you came to be interested in staging opera and musical theater?

LB: When I was a 13-year old in high school in the Mirfield parish of West Yorkshire in England, I became interested in becoming an actor. I was encouraged to develop my interest in  drama, and that became what I wanted to pursue in higher education.

I was accepted into the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, based in Glasgow. My main study was drama but I also got a vocal training in the music school.

Once you chose your area of academic emphasis you had to take a certain number of electives in that field for your degree. Since I believed I had done a lot of acting, I wanted to do something else, so I took a position with the Citizens Theater of Glasgow.

Wm: You were there during a famous period in its history.

LB: Yes, I was there during the “triumvirate” of Giles Havergal, Robert David MacDonald and Philip Prowse. I worked with the company’s casting management.

Then I went back to the academy to fulfill my academic course in directing. But there was an administrative error. They had assigned all of the actors to other directing students.

However, they did have a position to fill for the director of the Gustav Holst opera “The Wandering Scholar”. I had not thought of directing opera, but I had success with it, and it turned out to be a career-changing assignment.

Wm: Early in your opera career, you assisted the Scottish director, Sir David McVicar. How did that association begin?

LB: One of my acting mentors suggested that David McVicar and I get to know each other’s work. I met David in the early 1990s. I worked with David during my finals, assisting his direction of Handel’s “Semele”

Subsequently David and I met again at ENO where I was temping in the Box Office and  invited me to work with him as his assistant, then things snowballed. Soon I was also directing on my own. In 2001, I did a high profile piece – the world premiere of an early cantata by Handel, “Clori, Tirsi and Fileno”, about a love triangle between shepherds.

We transformed it into a modern urban setting about a woman and two men, there was some blurring of the sexuality of the male characters, we performed it at London’s popular gay club Heaven. 

[Below: Rusalka (Helena Kaupoya) sings to the moon (acrobat David Greeves, suspended right); edited image, based on a Wexford Festival production photograph, courtesy of leeblakeley.com]

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Wm: What do you consider your “breakout” productions?

LB: The first production that really mattered to my career was a production of Dvorak’s “Rusalka” that I directed at the 2007 Wexford Festival. This was my first time working with Bryan Hymel, who was the Prince.

[Below: The Prince (Bryan Hymel, left) converses with the Foreign Princess (Iveta Jirikova, right); edited image of a publicity photograph for the Wexford Festival; edited image, based on a Wexford Festival production, courtesy of leeblakeley.com.]


LB: Then I had success mounting a new production of Judith Weir’s “A Night at the Chinese Opera” at the Scottish Opera in 2008.

Wm: Weir’s opera had its American premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in 1989. We’re getting close in time to the first of your productions that I reviewed, the 2010 Santa Fe Opera production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”.  Was it your new production of Weir’s opera that first brought you to the attention of the Santa Fe Opera?

[Below: A scene from Lee Blakeley’s production of “A Night at the Chinese Opera”; edited image of a production photograph, from leeblakeley.com.]


LB: Somehow, my name came up in Santa Fe, although I don’t know how. It was in 2008. I was invited to meet [Santa Fe Opera’s Director of Artistic Administration] Brad Woolbright in New York, and then we went to Saint Louis for additional meetings with Charles MacKay.

Wm: None of your previous work had the gritty realism of your “Butterfly” production. What inspired it?

LB: Not quite true. I did quite a realistic Merry Widow set in 1939 for the Vlaamse Opera so it was there in my work.

I generally try to follow the logic of the text and music. However, we started with the idea of setting the work between 1903 and 1905, and then tried to figure out what it would have been like living in a Nagasaki neighborhood at that time. Of particular relevance was the electrification of Japan which happened in my production during the time that Pinkerton was absent.

We realized that as a social outcast who was very poor, Cio-Cio San could not have lived in the luxurious settings that you often see in “Butterfly” productions. Once we began to pursue that line of reasoning, the production seen in Santa Fe evolved from it.

[Below: A scene from the 2010 Santa Fe Opera production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Wm: I understand that your production of “Butterfly” for the Los Angeles Opera in April 2016 will be based on the Santa Fe production.

LB: Yes, although there will be some revisions to account for the stage in Los Angeles. In Santa Fe you can use the sky as a back drop, not the case in LA.

Wm: In the year before you first came to Santa Fe, you began your collaboration with the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris with Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music”. How did that relationship first come about?

LB: I was asked to go to a meeting with a team from Théâtre du Châtelet where they wanted to talk about staging “A Little Light Music”. At the end of the meeting, I was asked by the Châtelet’s general director, Jean-Luc Choplin, to direct the show.

Soon afterwards, we started casting the show. We used a mix of voices. Some were opera singers, some artists from Broadway and London’s West End, some film stars. We were able to mix their skills together to produce a rich show.

It’s definitely a balancing act when working with an interdisciplinary cast but I see it all as same church different pew.

Wm: Your series of highly successful productions of Sondheim musicals and other works from Broadway has had a big impact on Paris, that had historically ignored American musicals.

[Below: a scene from the Lee Blakeley production of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” at the Théâtre du Châtelet; edited image, based on a production photograph from leeblakeley.com.]


LB: I think that broadening the canon of works is important for the ongoing relevance of opera. I’m pleased that the efforts of Jean-Luc in introducing these musicals that have proven to so popular. The point is that the French have been starved of musical theater. There was no outlet for them to see these works. Sondheim was unknown in France and hadn’t had a professional production until our “A Little Night Music.”

In America, an appetite for Sondheim’s works already exists. Mounting an opera like “Sweeney Todd” at the Houston Grand Opera and the San Francisco Opera provides an opportunity for adding operas to the performance repertory that will be immediately embraced by the American public.

[Below: A scene from the Lee Blakeley production of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” at the Théâtre du Châtelet; resized image, based on a Marie-Pierre Noel production photograph, courtesy of Lee Blakeley.]

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Wm: It has to be a special challenge to mount works that are written to be miked in a traditional opera house.

LB:  Any house whose acoustics are designed for unmiked voices presents a challenge when microphones are introduced. It requires an extraordinary effort by the sound engineers to get things right, and what they have to do differs from house to house.

Wm: In my recently posted conversation with Santa Fe Opera general director Charles MacKay, he noted that your next Santa Fe Opera production, Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” was the largest ever created for the Santa Fe Opera stage, so taxing the company’s resources that it inspired their recently conducted capital outlay fundraising drive.

This is another opera that, like the Santa Fe “Butterfly”, you approached realistically.


LB: “Pearl Fishers” was a big show. It’s an opera that is difficult to do. As with “Butterfly”, we determined that even with its exotic elements, we would keep it reality-based.

Therefore, we concentrated on what the East India Company was doing in Sri Lanka and particularly how the integration of the Sri Lankans into the company’s economic concerns impacted the indigenous culture.

I said earlier I followed the logic of a piece, “Pearl Fishers” doesn’t have the same moment to moment logic as Butterfly so I created some scenarios to deepen the relationships and context of the piece.

Wm: There are several operas, including Delibes’ “Lakme”, that would benefit from productions that approach the impact of colonialism and Western intervention in Asia realistically, the way you have done in “Butterfly” and “Pearl Fishers”.

LB: I agree. I believe that you can approach an exotic opera and still keep it real. But if you allow its exoticism to be merely decorative, then you lose the realism.

In design meetings with Jean-Marc Puissant, who designed both “Butterfly” and “Pearl Fishers”, we referred to this as ‘Death by Chinoiserie’

[Below: A scene from Lee Blakeley’s Théâtre du Châtelet production of Sondheim’s and Lapine’s “Sunday in the Park with George”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of Lee Blakeley.]


Wm: Your next assignment in Santa Fe was quite a change of pace, having you create a new production of Offenbach’s “Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” starring Susan Graham to open the 2013 season.

LB: I’m happy working in different mediums. For comedy, however, you have to consider the audience and the venue in deciding how to present it. There are so many different ways to mount comedy, and we want to find the right path.

We wanted to be very playful, so used a lot of visual gags. You have to use the skills of your cast.

Wm: It was quite a spectacular feature to have Kevin Burdette as General Boum skipping rope throughout Boum’s big comic aria. That was Kevin’s idea, wasn’t it? There’s probably no one else on earth who could do it.

LB: I believe that, as a director, I need to be open to different suggestions from the cast. I try not to be precious about where the big ideas come from.

We had already given Kevin a lot of toys, like the parallel bars and the skipping rope was an extension of the exercise theme at the top of the show.

[Below: the soldiers fall into rank in front of the Grand Duchess (Susan Graham, right, in gold top and black hat); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Wm: We are speaking a few hours before the opening of your new production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” here in Santa Fe. What are your thoughts on that opera?

LB: “Rigoletto” is a relentless piece. It is dark and brutal and  it takes place in an aggressive society. For many reasons, I’ve set the action in mid-19th century Italy, around 1850 during the Risorgimento. This is a period of time in which corruption and abuse of power is rampant.

Wm: “Rigoletto” was written during the time that so many of the Italian states were in a reactionary phase following the 1848 revolutions throughout Italy and Europe and were very sensitive to any negative depiction of a royal person. Interestingly, the censors eventually approved the opera being set in Mantua, because the historical ruling family of that principality had long been extinct.

LB: We know that Verdi was a nationalist. But I also wanted to center attention on the very interesting father-daughter relationship. I wanted to be sure that Gilda was shown as a real person and not two-dimensional.

Gilda is not a child, but is a young woman. Like so many young people who are overcontrolled by their parents, she wants to explore the other side of the fence.

I think as an audience we can romanticize some of the female characters in opera and in doing so deny them their real voice, which is why I wanted truthful experience for Gilda.

[Below: Rigoletto (Quinn Kelsey, left) comforts his daughter Gilda (Georgia Jarman, right) who has suffered rape; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Wm: What are you thoughts producing operas at the Santa Fe venue?

LB: We have tight deadlines here in Santa Fe. Time management is at a premium and you have to share the stage with one or two other shows so you have to be efficient in your working process.

I can’t say that I love being up in the hours between midnight and dawn, working on lighting and other technical matters, but it’s our only option and there is a camaraderie in those sessions as everyone is in it together.

There are a lot of big, expensive forces the company deals with, so it is of paramount importance that the directors are able to hit their marks and be ready whenever a product is needed from them.

Wm: I reviewed your Théâtre du Châtelet production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” on its Western Hemisphere premiere in Houston and will see it again this Fall at the San Francisco Opera.

Just like your “Pearl Fishers” was the biggest production ever performed in Santa Fe, your “Sweeney Todd” was the biggest production ever to appear at the Houston Grand Opera. I imagine that moving a big production between theaters creates issues.

[Below: British actor Julian Ovendon as George in Lee Blakeley’s Théâtre du Châtelet production of Sondheim’s and Lapine’s “Sunday in the Park with George”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of Lee Blakeley.]


LB: We believed that the production needed to have the mass it does, to give a sense of the teeming 19th century life in London. Châtelet’s stage is wide and very deep, giving us the opportunity to show life in London in the distance.

When we took it to Houston, we had to make some changes. The slide from Todd’s barber chair to Mrs Lovett’s pantry was a very tricky piece and we moved from an electric to a manual system.

I like working on a big scale however it’s not the only thing I do!! I was very happy working at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis, because working in the round provides fantastic opportunities for the performances.

For all that I can create large scale works I think my focus is always on the human drama on stage and the individuals with whom I’m working.

Wm: You clearly are an advocate for performing musical theater in an opera house. Do you find directing musicals is different than directing traditional operas?

LB: In Britain, the English National Opera, Opera North and Welsh National Opera are all doing musicals, as are several important American companies. It certainly is a way to bring new patrons into the opera house.

Obviously, I don’t have a problem with opera companies performing musicals. As long as it works and the musical and dramatic standards are equally high , I can think of no reason why not.

[Below: A scene from the Lee Blakeley production of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” at the Théâtre du Châtelet; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of Lee Blakeley.]


However, one should not underestimate the work that musicals require when they are performed by opera companies. The Broadway theater expects to devote a considerable time to create and refine a production.

The opera house expects musical theater productions to be created on opera house schedules. There are no two week previews in tour cities to get things right so we have a fixed opening when it needs to be ready!

Wm: I expect to see more of your Sondheim and other musicals appearing in on this continent, but what traditional operas are you interested in mounting?

LB: One of my other musicals is coming the USA next year to the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The next project I’m rehearsing is “Kiss Me Kate” at the Châtelet. But there are a lot of traditional operas I would find interesting.

[Below: Susan Graham as Anna with the children in a scene from the Lee Blakeley production of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” at the Théâtre du Châtelet; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of Lee Blakeley.]


I would love to do some Massenet operas. Also, I want to return to baroque opera, such as my recent experience with Handel’s “Richard the Lionhearted” at Opera Theater of Saint Louis. It had been ten years since I last did a Handel opera.

I’ve done Rossini’s “Il Turco in Italia” and absolutely loved it, so there is a lot to explore in the genre, we found a great deal of heart in the piece. Also, I’ve not done any Puccini other than “Madama Butterfly” I’d quite like a date with “Tosca”.

Wm: Puccini has secured a big following among directors and audiences. However, what seems to me to be missing at the present time is a lot of interest in the verismo composers who were Puccini’s contemporaries.

LB: You’re right. And I love verismo operas. At the end of the day they are about real people, with human stories.

Wm: I look forward to seeing anything you do. Thank you for your time and good luck on tonight’s performance.

LB: Thank you!





Tags: William's Conversations