The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Production Countdown

—– Đọc bài tiếng Việt —– 

The directing and staging of an opera involve the realization of numerous complicated concepts both concrete and abstract whose genesis starts with the stage director. Before any piece of wood is cut, any piece of fabric sewn, or any brush inked, stage director is one of the very first to plunge into the work. What is the story really about? What is the best rendition of it? What should the atmosphere feel like? Etc. It is the “etc.” that intrigues any serious opera lovers. They enjoy the behind-the-scenes tour as much as they appreciate any communication the stage director is willing to ‘reveal’ before the performance. You read here first: Stage Director Vince Liotta exposing “Lady Thị Kính.”

What are the challenges and joy of directing a world premiere?

The challenges are that you never know what you’ve got until you get there, and there are no answers because nobody has found them for you – so you have to find all the answers. In a way it is a lot more intense and a lot more work because nobody has ever done it. So everything you do you have to figure out. On the other side, that is exactly the joy of it. Nobody has done it. This is all new territory and you’re going to be the first one who gets to make a statement about it. That’s great. That’s so much more interesting in many ways than making another statement about something which is then always in reaction. If I do La Bohème, whether I say so or not, in reality it is a reaction to every La Bohème that I know because it is what I would do instead of what I know has been done. With a new work, it is not a reaction to anything. It is what I think should be done, what I have discovered, and I am making an original statement about it. Not like being a composer – composers make original statements all the time because they start out from something that wasn’t there and make something there, that hardly ever happens to directors unless you’re doing a world premiere. Effectively in terms of production, it wasn’t there. When I get done with it, for better or for worse, it is there. And anybody who does it ever again will have to do it because I did this and put it there. That is a good feeling, the joy of really getting to create something as supposed to recreate something.

What is the process of pondering-discussing-researching like?

Pondering-discussing would be the process and more, perhaps, than researching. But basically it is pondering-discussing and then everybody goes and does whatever research they need to do. And then you ponder and discuss some more. In this case, the research came before the pondering and discussions because I went to Việt Nam specifically to have some sampling of the culture. But from now on with the designer, we’re going to talk. I’ve been thinking, he’ll think. He’ll go out to do some research, I’ll do some more research and we discuss again.

Could you talk about your vision and the designer’s vision?

The process is, in a way, hierarchical and in a way, isn’t. Basically my job is to articulate what I think. Where it is I think we want to go, let me put it that way, which is what my vision is. The designer’s job is to take that idea of where we want to go and figure out how to put that into a visual world, how to put that into a world of clothing, how to put that into a world of lighting, and then using their own way of expressing that in that world. So that is where their vision comes in. But it is like a vision that gives rise to other visions that give rise to other visions that hopefully if they’re all going back and relating to the last vision when you get there, it will look like one thing – a tree with branches and not several separate bushes.

vince liotta-3
Photo: IU Opera Theater.

Does your work involve with any hands-on matter?

No, the designer’s does. One of the things that happens in working with the designer is: if I make a picture, I’ve already made the designer think about it in a certain way. If I make him think in a certain way, it is not his design, it is my design. What I have to do is make him think about the process of designing it, then he has to think about what it looks like. Then he comes back and says, “This is what I think it looks like. Do you think that’s what it looks like?” Then I get to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ That is the way it goes back and forth. This way the designer can have his vision without my saying: “Here, this is what I want it to look like” because then you don’t have a vision. You don’t have a tree with branches – what you have is a single stalk on which everybody is somehow clinging. That is not the best work either.

Working with a living composer, what do you expect the role of the composer in the production to be?

It is a very difficult thing because the fact is that when a composer writes a work it is like their baby. And no one likes anyone else dressing their child. It is a bit of a challenge in a sense that you have to find a way to get the composer to trust that you are working in the best interest of making his work the best work. The more closely that you work in developing the work with the composer, the less that becomes a challenge. But the challenge is to make the composer trust that what you are doing is in the best interest of his best interest so that you can do your job and everybody else can do their jobs. In a hierarchical of things, the composer is not the director, the composer is not the designer. And all of these people have a right to have a vision and to express it. So that is the challenge of working with living composers. On the other hand, having a living composer there is really nice because you can turn to him and say, “What did you mean?” and get an answer that you don’t have to second guess.

What part of your experience is beneficial to this project?

Interestingly enough, I think first of all the fact that I’ve studied a lot of art history. And also I’ve studied a lot, I’ve read a lot, I’ve been involved with a lot of ethnologists and cultural anthropologists. Those things, especially when dealing with new works whether it is about Vincent van Gogh or Lady Thị Kính, are really important factors because you are trying to find ways to talk to people about culture, about sensibilities. So everything that I’ve learned is important. When I was in college I had a minor in philosophy. I think that is important. I think all of those things are important. I have to say technical skills are technical skills and obviously one has to have them. But I don’t think the technical skills are what allow you to approach new works or works that are outside of your own frame of cultural or historical reference. That is not what does that. What does that is what you have learned as life lessons. That is what I think has helped me most with any production, especially in new productions.

Is your vision for the opera going to change when the premiere time is coming near?

I think it will evolve again because the work evolves as we are getting more and more towards getting it onto the stage.

iu opera mac
Photo: IU Opera Theater.

What do you want people to expect when they come to see the opera?

Their expectations should be to take what is in front of them without any pre-expectations. That’s really the most important thing about any theatrical work but especially with new works. You cannot, as an audience, come to a new work and decide before you walk in that, this is going to be good or bad, this is something I like or don’t like, this is going to be something I understand or don’t, this is going to be culturally correct or culturally different. What you have to do is take what is before you. You have to walk in, in so far as possible, with an open mind, and I literally mean an open mind: open to what you see.

That is the most difficult thing to do.

Of course it is. But that is what I would hope the audiences do because if any member of the given audience does that then they get the full experience. In the end, it is not about Will they like it or not like it, but, at least, experience it as those people who made the work wanted you to experience it, and not the way you think you should experience it. It is just as bad to come with the expectation that “Oh, I’m going to love this” as “Oh, I’m going to hate this,” because “Oh, I’m going to love this” could easily turn into, “Oh, but I don’t love it quite as much as I thought I would” any more than “Oh, I’m going to hate this” can turn into, “Well, I’m not allowing myself to like it because I’ve decided I don’t like it.” That is really not the way you get the best experience. But if you really want to enjoy new works, works that haven’t got history to them, that is the only way to do it because every new work is a surprise. Just as I don’t know what any of the answers are going to be as director, the audience has no idea where this is going to end up, until it’s over, because you have not seen it before and no synopsis in the world can tell you what the experience watching it on the stage is like.

The Vietnamese version of this article has been printed and published online by the Viễn Đông Daily News. Read my online Vietnamese version

–> Stage Director Vince Liotta to decode Lady Thị Kính (part 1 of 2)

Bio: Stage Director Vincent Liotta has been both a professional stage director and a dedicated educator for more than 40 years. He is currently chair of the Opera Studies Department in the Jacobs School of Music where he teaches stage directing, acting, and operatic literature. As a stage director, he has been involved in creating many world premiere productions. Most recently he conceived and directed the much-acclaimed premiere of Vincent by composer Bernard Rands and librettist J.D. Mc Clatchy for the IU Opera Theatre.  Among other notable premieres in which he has taken a creative lead are Cayote Tales by Henry Mollicone; and Too Many Sopranos by IU composer, Edwin Penhorwood. His professional projects have been seen on four continents including Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Puccini’s La Boheme in Seoul, Korea; the eastern European premiere of Bernstein’s Candide for the Romanian National Opera in Cluj-Napoca, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, as well as La fanciulla del West at the Canadian National Opera in Toronto. Mr. Liotta’s operatic repertory covers the entire history of opera from Cavalli to John Corigliano. In 1993, Liotta co-founded the Utah Festival Opera. In addition to directing, Liotta has authored and translated works for the musical theater include a new libretto for Victor Herbert’s operetta, Naughty Marietta, and Viva Verdi, an original biographical evening about the life and work of Giuseppe Verdi. He has done new English translations for The Merry Wives of Windsor and Orlando Paladino in addition to a new libretto for The Merry Widow. For many years, he has collaborated with Harold Prince on productions of Turandot and Don Giovanni as well as the world premiere of Willie Stark.

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