glass notes
Interview with R. B. Schlather, Director of the Boston Lyric Opera’s Production of “In the Penal Colony” opening Wednesday

BLO In the Penal Colony
Interview between Richard Guérin and opera director R.B. Schlather in advance of WEdnesday’s opening of the Boston Lyric Opera’s Production of Philip Glass’s “In The Penal Colony”, for more coverage check out the Boston Globe

Have you ever directed a Glass opera before?  If not, what were your considerations at the outset of directing this opera?

I’ve never directed a full Glass opera before. I directed an excerpt from “Satyagraha” with a soprano at the indie nightclub (le) poisson rouge in NYC, where I live, probably three years ago. that was a totally vivid experience live. There really is no comparison for me between experiencing Philip’s music on recording vs live. I have such vivid memories of seeing performances of his operas, of “ Koyaanisqatsi.” And this piece, “In The Penal Colony,” has totally exploded for me in the rehearsal hall, finally hearing it performed live, revealing a totally sensual, passionate, intense dramatic experience, we all are getting lulled into the creepy Kafka fantasy by this very haunting and evocative soundscape.

Big considerations for me at the outset were about the performance space and the structure of the piece. The performance is to happen at the historic Cyclorama building in Boston, a 19th century art gallery basically, and definitely not a theater (thankfully!). And I had been directing mostly baroque opera seria by Handel, so it took me awhile to switch gears and internalize the very unique style and structure of Glass’ composition, which I needed to do to judge how to install it as a site-specific performance.

Then there is the whole Kafka element – Kafka famously defies interpretation, and I really struggled to connect to the story in a single interpretation because it can be read as so many allegories. Like all great opera performances, we are juggling a mash-up of dramatic story, text, music, performer and space and it’s taken me longer than any other piece I’ve worked on to figure out that balance for this site-specific production (which I blame on Kafka, not Glass!). And now I’m a week into studio rehearsals with the great maestro Ryan Turner and three totally game, sensitive, creative performers in this cast, and the last week has been really surprising but basically on track with how we’ve conceived of the piece done in this stripped down way for the venue.

That’s wonderful that you discovered the ambiguity of interpretation. That’s a major element in Glass’s work whether it’s in his narrative or non-narrative operas: the music itself is not descriptive or judgmental. In a sense it’s left up to the viewer to take exception to that absurdity that’s played out on stage.  I mention this because it’s a common refrain in people who like working with Glass’s material. There’s space for the audience to become invested in the drama in many ways, but there’s also a number of ways the directors and singers can approach the work.  

Glass’s operas often have a social agenda/perspective, which is what makes Kafka a fascinating subject for him to have chosen. how do you feel this opera responds to the world around us? How is it relevant to right now?

That’s been the hardest part of this project – finding a single contemporary image for the piece, because unfortunately our contemporary life is pretty saturated with grotesque human rights violations. I’m always trying to land on a current image for an opera production, something that I can personally connect with, but also something the audience is going to recognize and help them immediately relate to the emotional energy of the story. Kafka’s extreme, absurd story is about a isolated penal colony, the fanatic officer who is in the grip of an unseen authority and maintaining a decaying execution machine which kills by slowly tattooing script onto the naked body, and the passive Visitor (an avatar for the reader) who witnesses this predatory unjust system, and ironic outcome (i won’t spoil it!).

My first thought after reading the score was about kids who get obsessed with violent video fantasy games, and who get so socially isolated in these fantasies that they then act out the scenarios with real guns and real death. but then i read that Kafka actually wrote “strafkolonie” because he had an existential fear about governments turning their new technologies against the bodies of their people. so his piece written in 1914 but not published until 1919 eerily prophesied much of what would follow in the 20th century, and today. The costume designer, my regular collaborator Terese Wadden, suggested I watch the recent documentary “citizenfour” about Edward Snowden’s revelation about the NSA’s collection of data, and his resulting paranoia about retaliation for his leak. this more abstract, premonitory fear about government, technology, and our privacy therefore took over in my imagination for how to portray the Visitor in this production. And as it’s emerging in the rehearsal hall, the performance is more like a dream, or a nightmare, less realistically played out, more suggestive, mysterious and scary, I think.

Did you have any revelatory moments?

The big revelation for me is the music – by which I mean finally being in a studio with the musicians and hearing it live. I have been studying the piece for about a year now, and it even turned out that the librettist, Rudy Wurlitzer, lives basically down the block from me! We met up for breakfast about a month ago but we didn’t really talk about the piece, weirdly! Then I ran into Nico Muhly in NYC who said he was working with Glass when the piece was being composed and he gave some insights on the compositional process. I also read Philip’s memoir this summer on vacation, all the time chasing a way to understand his structuring, or get into the right vibe for interpreting his composition, for staging this music, for teasing out why this piece was written, figuring out how his mind works. And now we are working on it, and I’m getting to hear it live with the singers and just a piano at the moment, but I’m completely energized by how alive the piece is, it so clearly evokes the emotions, the machinery, the mood, the setting. it’s totally entranced me, I just listen to the music and try to activate the performer’s imaginations and then see where it takes us. And the surprise has been about how sensual, erotic, passionate, and intense the character’s relationships are revealing themselves to be. And I think that’s because it’s all there in the music, i just had no idea until we started doing it how potent it would be.

I get all my energy from the music. I’ve been going to the opera since i was about 5 years old, and I studied voice and piano and double bass up until college, when my focus shifted to art history, but I’ve always been musical and always had a feeling for shape and space and color and theater, and always needed music to give me the energy to create what I make. The reward with this piece is getting away from the recording and working with the music live and being so surprised by how it’s all playing out now that I’m in the room with the performers.

When you were working the piece, did your ultimate approach fall into place organically or was there something of a consensus among yourself and those working on it that you needed to take the opera in a certain direction?

I’ve learned from watching it that the most rewarding experience comes when there isn’t a lot of information coming from the stage, so you as an audience viewer have to really focus and commit and figure out your own interpretation. It’s very rigorous to do so as a viewer, but the people who have come in to watch and gone with it have really been moved by the piece and performers, often without being able to articulate why. it’s the culmination of text, music, visual, sound that produces an undeniable punch.

I try not to force things too much in rehearsals. I’m already walking in with a performance architecture and costume and lighting that have been predicted by the designers, so my process becomes about activating the performers to connect to the environment we’re forcing on them, basically.  We’ve been extremely lucky the company has given us a great amount of time in the studio to rehearse the piece, so we’ve had the time to slowly work through the piece and let the performance emerge as we all connect more and more to character and space. And now we’ve moved into the Cyclorama and are about to start working on the set (a monumental 115-foot wide space) and i can already tell that I want to keep getting deeper into the first half of the show just to keep stripping away my “directing” so it’s more about the performers and their own internal, personal connection to character in this unique space. Less “directing.” More alive, more disorienting, more dreamy.

Can you speak to some of your directorial decisions, like whether or not to show the machine, the specifics of the venue, etc.?

My designers and I decided immediately not to depict the machine – I think actually I had decided that even before reading the score! To me, in the theater, we could never make a piece of scenery that would be as terrifying and macabre as Kafka’s description of it, and indeed the machine exists only in his fantastic description. Similarly, it should be thus for the audience. It’s also the “Jaws” principle – talking about the shark is scarier than seeing the shark. The challenge has been to then carry that over into the rest of the show, how much – in a libretto full of description of setting, character and action – do we visually reproduce? Then there’s the massive, circular room of the Cyclorama, a 19th century brick building with a elegant metal dome and clerestory windows and a modern, circular, white gallery wall creating an internal circle. Most present is a massive Buckminster Fuller sculpture that hangs in the center of the space, a hovering monolith. I was inspired to think of this space as an art gallery, which conjures up images of early Glass performances in downtown NYC galleries, packed with people sitting around. I started thinking about his contemporaries – people like Richard Serra and Dan Flavin – and the ideas of minimalist art, moving away from fictive or illusory representation, and installing commercially available materials in a space to draw the viewer’s attention more to experiencing the space itself. So we’ve installed a massive square footage of steel decking across half of the circle to create a monumental horizon line, lofting a rectangle of it to suggest a gallows or a viewing deck or an execution bed, and the resulting negative rectangle hole in the decking a kind of gaping grave.

Up against the circular gallery wall the structure suggests a deserted arena, or the valley where the executions happen in Kafka’s fiction. The costumes grew out of looking at pictures of Serra in a jump suit splashing lead, so here the officer’s uniform is a kind of jumpsuit in an un-human, larger than life scale based on Irving Penn images of laborers, the visitor is dressed in a white cotton t-shirt based on Edward Snowden sitting in his hotel room bed in “citizenfour”, an Everyman who looks like he could have wandered into this nightmare from the streets of Boston, or out of the audience. The third character is the most interpretive. I wanted to avoid being negative or xenophobic about the third man, described in a discriminatory way by the other characters, and wanted to land on something more mysterious, elegant and otherworldly that could allow the performer (the beautiful ballet dancer Yury Yanowsky) to become variously the prisoner, the old commander, and the new commander. So here we are in this monumental, bare landscape, with these three figures. And it’s allowing me to explore my interest in stripped everything else away and focusing in on performers, their physicalities, and what they create when they sync up text and music and body to produce real emotion. Here also the audience experience can be equally about this unique space, where the copper dome, industrial HVAC, hanging Buckminster Fuller all eerily suggest the described elements of the unseen torture apparatus.

In the Penal Colony, November 11-15, 2015


Music by Philip Glass
Libretto by Rudy Wurlitzer

Wednesday, Nov 11, 7:30pm
Thursday, Nov 12, 7:30pm
Saturday, Nov 14, 7:30pm
Sunday, Nov 15, 3pm
The Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts

Sung in English

Nowhere else but in Philip Glass’s chilling and darkly comic two-character opera can audiences explore the breakdown of civil society in 90 minutes. Adapted from Franz Kafka’s dystopian short story, In the Penal Colony is a pitch-black fable about crime … and a very unusual punishment. Featuring Glass’s signature driving music and his fierce sense of theater, this Season’s Opera Annex will be a uniquely intimate and innovative production that will leave an indelible mark.

Conductor  Ryan Turner
Stage Director  R. B. Schlather
Set Designer  Julia Noulin-Mérat
Costume Designer  Terese Wadden
Lighting Designer  JAX Messenger
Surtitle Designers  John Conklin and Allison Voth

The Officer  David McFerrin
The Visitor  Neal Ferreira
Soldier  Yury Yanowsky


All photos below are of Neal Ferrerira, David McFerrin and Stage Director R. B. Schlather. Please credit Eric Antoniou for Boston Lyric Opera © 2015

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