American Directors Bring Fresh Visions to Europe’s Opera Stages
Last summer, American directors headlined three of Europe’s most prestigious opera festivals.
In Aix-en-Provence, France, you could see the New York-born Ted Huffman’s take on “L’Incoronazione di Poppea”; the Connecticut native Lydia Steier’s spin on “Die Zauberflöte” at the Salzburg Festival, in Austria; or “Lohengrin” at the Bayreuth Festival, in Germany, staged by Yuval Sharon, the visionary leader of the Detroit Opera, who hails from a suburb of Chicago.
This would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. Until recently, there were few recognizable American directors working on Europe’s major stages. It was a short list that included the avant-garde directors Robert Wilson, 81, and Peter Sellars, 65, and the Alden brothers, David and Christopher, both 73.
Now, a new crop of American directors, most under the age of 50, is gaining an unlikely foothold on the continent and leaving its mark on the opera scene.
Germany is a launchpad for many. “More young artists from all over the world are coming here,” said Amy Stebbins, a Berlin-based opera director and librettist from New Hampshire. That’s hardly surprising, she said, given the numerous opportunities there for training and employment. Not only does Germany have more than 80 full-time opera companies; the country’s free education system — including music education — and the availability of paid internships make breaking into opera comparatively democratic and egalitarian.
In Germany, even provincial opera companies have the wherewithal to put together full and challenging seasons. Ambitious artistic directors are eager to discover new musical and dramatic points of view.
“They’re always on the lookout for kind of new voices and different voices,” said Louisa Proske, the associate artistic director of the Halle Opera, in eastern Germany. Proske, a native Berliner and a co-founder of Heartbeat Opera in New York, said many German directors take “a very intellectual approach” and that “what can be attractive is this kind of propensity to storytelling that I think is more in the Anglo-Saxon tradition.”
One house that has been particularly instrumental in luring American directors across the pond is the Frankfurt Opera. Both Huffman and another New Yorker, R.B. Schlather, worked at the company’s alternative venue (where Sharon also directed the German premiere of Olga Neuwirth’s “Lost Highway”) before graduating to the main stage.
“Both of them, I feel, come out of the tradition of Bob Wilson,” said Bernd Loebe, the Frankfurt Opera’s artistic director, adding that he sees them as directors who “want to escape this superficial approach to opera” that is often found in the United States.
Loebe said he wasn’t interested in “the cliché of old-fashioned opera: beautiful sets, beautiful costumes.”
“I want to see a link between music and drama,” he added. “I want directors who are interested in the music.”
Here’s a closer look at three American opera directors who are leaving their mark in Europe.
Ted Huffman may well be the only American to graduate from singing in Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte” as a child to directing a new production of the work at one of Europe’s major opera houses.
Huffman’s love of music was nurtured by singing Bach and Handel in a church choir. As a child growing up in the suburbs of New York City, he also auditioned for, and landed some, children’s roles in Broadway shows and at the Metropolitan Opera.
“I spent a lot of time as a kid being exposed to all of this,” the 46-year-old director said. “And I think, you know, it got in my system, in a good way. It didn’t let go.”
In his early 20s, he and a friend founded the Greenwich Music Festival, an innovative music event in Connecticut that ran between 2004 and 2012, where he directed several productions, including Hans Werner Henze’s “El Cimarrón.”
Yet despite the festival’s success, he didn’t feel that there was much room for him to realize his directing ambitions on a larger scale.
“I quite consciously didn’t go the more traditional American route of assisting in big houses and kind of learning that way, because I felt like that was a kind of trap for directors to learn a system of making work on existing sets with existing costumes,” he said.
After taking part in the Merola Opera Program, in San Francisco, in 2010, he shipped to Europe on a career grant from that institute and picked up his first assignments in London, including an acclaimed staging of Maxwell Davies’s “The Lighthouse” in 2012 for English Touring Opera.
In the decade since, Huffman has become one of Europe’s most in-demand young opera directors, praised for his ability to coax psychologically complex performances from his actors in visually distinctive and uncluttered stagings. He has staged “Die Zauberflöte” in Frankfurt, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Berlin and “Madama Butterfly” in Zurich.
Writing in The New York Times, Zachary Woolfe named Huffman’s “Poppea” at Aix one of last year’s musical highlights, calling it “a vivid, spare staging” and praising the director for guiding “his youthful cast in scenes that were genuinely sexy.”
Along with reimagining the classics, Huffman champions new opera, most significantly as a director and librettist for the British composer Philip Venables. To date, they have worked together on “4.48 Psychosis” (2016) and “Denis & Katya” (2019), both of which have been staged in Europe and America. Their latest collaboration, set to premiere at Aix in July, is co-produced by the Skirball Center at N.Y.U.
“One of the most exciting things about Europe is that for a longer time there’s been a mandate to produce new work,” Huffman said. “I think that there’s a huge sea change happening in America now,” he added, referencing the Metropolitan Opera’s recent commitment to staging more operas by living composers. It’s one of the reasons, he said, that he’ll continue to divide his career between the United States and Europe for the foreseeable future.
Lydia Steier wanted to direct opera ever since she saw Milos Forman’s Oscar-winning movie “Amadeus” as a child growing up in Hartford, Conn.
Her mother encouraged her interest by taking her to the Connecticut Opera, but the stiffly traditional productions there left Steier unfulfilled. “I was always just confused by how the emotional brutality of this kind of music was actually sort of nullified by seeing it onstage,” Steier said.
Now, of the American directors of the younger generation, Steier, 44, is arguably the most firmly entrenched in the European opera scene.
In recent seasons, she has staged two new productions of “Die Zauberflöte” at Austria’s prestigious Salzburg Festival, “La fanciulla del West” at the Berlin State Opera and “Les Troyens” at the Semper Opera in Dresden.
“Lydia is unbelievably honest about what she has to say about human behavior,” said Laura Berman, the American-born artistic director of the Hanover State Opera, where, in 2019, Steier directed an acclaimed production of the religious potboiler “La Juive” that played with antisemitic stereotypes in ways rarely seen on German stages.
“I suppose it’s sometimes quite cynical, but it’s very funny at the same time. And she exposes racism and narcissistic behavior in society,” Berman added.
Steier never set out to work in Europe. In 2002, a Fulbright fellowship brought her to Berlin to conduct research about the city’s three opera houses. Afterward, she interned at the Komische Oper there, which led to her taking an assistant position at the house, accompanying productions by innovative directors, including Calixto Bieito and Barrie Kosky.
In 2009, she assisted Achim Freyer on his production of “Das Rheingold,” the first part of the “Ring” cycle in Los Angeles. (Freyer’s assistants on the tetralogy also included Yuval Sharon.) A year later, also in Los Angeles, she directed a production of “Lohengrin” that remains her most significant American production to date.
That same year, her directing career took off in Europe with an acclaimed double bill of “Pagliacci” and Busoni’s rarely seen one-act “Turandot” (which predates Puccini’s more famous setting) in Weimar, Germany. She became a fixture at opera houses across the German-speaking world, including the Komische, where she had shows in back-to-back seasons, and at Theater Basel, in Switzerland, where her 2016 production of Stockhausen’s demanding “Donnerstag aus Licht” was voted the year’s best performance by the German magazine Opernwelt.
Around the same time, Markus Hinterhäuser, the incoming artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, saw and was impressed by Steier’s intimate production of Handel’s oratorio “Jephtha” in Vienna. He offered her “Die Zauberflöte,” one of the festival’s key works. Her 2018 production, and the considerably revised staging she presented at last summer’s festival, took a cue from the 1980s cult film “The Princess Bride.”
“Millennials and Gen X are known for having an openness and a preference for ironic and edgy humor,” Berman said. “I think that somebody like Lydia has maybe a more unabashed approach to European culture than a European might have.”
Berman, who was in charge of opera at Theater Basel when Steier directed “Licht” there, said that audiences tend to respond to Steier’s inclusion of pop cultural references “in a very kind of brazen way.”
Despite her accomplishments on the continent, however, Steier said that work in the United States has been elusive. “It has always been the ambition of mine,” she said, “because I think there’s a lot of what I’ve done that would actually sort of shine a new light on what to do with the standard repertoire in the U.S.”
Unlike Huffman and Steier, R.B. Schlather, 37, is a rare American opera director whose innovative stateside work has attracted international attention.
In five years, Schlather went from directing experimental productions at a gallery space on New York’s Lower East Side to working at one of Germany’s leading opera houses.
Schlather’s performance-art re-imaginings of Handel’s “Alcina” and “Orlando,” staged in Lower Manhattan in 2014 and 2015, led to an invitation from Loebe, the artistic director at the Frankfurt Opera, to put on another work by the German composer, “Tamerlano,” at the company’s alternative venue, the Bockenheimer Depot, in 2019.
“My manager at the time told me that Bernd Loebe was really interested in me and how they have this old warehouse-like space and that he was looking for directors who were thinking more about site-specific work,” Schlather said, “and I said, ‘Fantastic, absolutely. Sign me up.’”
That confidence paid off when his stark production, set in a prison camp, was a critical and popular hit.
Two years later, Schlather debuted on Frankfurt’s main stage with Domenico Cimarosa’s “L’italiana in Londra,” a 1778 work that lies far outside of the standard repertoire. Once again, it triumphed. A critic in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper called it “the rebirth of the Frankfurt Opera out of the spirit of comedy.”
When Schlather returned to Frankfurt last year, it was not with a rarity, but with “Madama Butterfly” in a daringly stripped-down staging that left much to the viewer’s imagination.
“There was no cliché of ‘Madame Butterfly,’ like these terrible romantic productions we have seen,” Loebe said, comparing aspects of it to classical Japanese theater. “It was very clean and clear.”
The production was so successful that it will return for eight performances between May and July. And Loebe has invited Schlather back to work at the house during the 2024-25 season. (Like Huffman, Schlather is keeping one foot in the States: In October, he will direct a Handel opera in Hudson, N.Y.).
“I love working in a place like Frankfurt, where there’s such a diversity of repertoire and you can see the most obscure thing and the most popular thing always in an interesting point of view,” Schlather said, adding that the house has given him opportunities that he would be unlikely to get in the United States.
“He took a big leap of faith on me,” Schlather said of Loebe. “So I think I really lucked out by being what he was looking for, or what he was open to.”
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