Opera News
August, 2008

Twin Peaks

MATT WOLF talks to David and Christopher Alden, two stage directors who aren't afraid to be unconventional — or controversial — in their quest to bring the subtext to life in opera.

A Third Reich Flying Dutchman that referenced the title character as a wandering Jew… a Lucia di Lammermoor featuring a doll-like heroine whose brother, Enrico, has decidedly wandering hands… a Mazeppa with a chainsaw massacre. When it comes to seizing upon the subtext of any given opera, the almost-identical-twin Alden brothers have long made a habit of going for broke. For years, their take on both mainstream and offbeat repertory has found them pigeonholed as the bad boys of opera. As they approach their sixtieth birthday in September of next year, one can't help but wonder whether such sobriquets any longer make sense.

In an era of Peter Sellars and Robert Wilson, Calixto Bieito and Robert Lepage, it's not as if director's theater begins and ends with David and Christopher Alden. Could it be that the twins' unusual professional alignment has shone an outsized glare on the two men? Or perhaps it's that the jeers over time have been more than compensated for by hurrahs.

In separate interviews in separate capitals (David at his London base in Islington toward the north of the city, Christopher in the capacious downtown Manhattan loft that he has had for years), both brothers readily discuss the controversy that has beset them throughout their careers, neither one in the least precious or combative. David seems the more wry (and fleshier) of the two, as he sprawls on the living room sofa, sun streaming in through picture windows on an unusually bright April morning. "That's a good question," he says, when asked whether he and Christopher represent the Venus and Serena Williams of opera. "I'll have to get to know you a little bit better before I can answer that." Christopher is more soft-spoken, his speech more elaborate, his answers shaped in thoughtful paragraphs that speak to the consideration he gives even his wildest efforts. The difference between them in conversation may once have been borne out in their productions, as David throughout the 1980s went straight for the jugular. Recently, though, their roles seem to have shifted somewhat — a fraternal relay race with the baton of outrage continually being passed.

Few productions of late have been as exciting as David's massively acclaimed English National Opera Lucia, which took a Covent Garden staple long beloved in London as a vehicle for Joan Sutherland and pared it back to reveal a piece in thrall to child abuse and the hint of incest. That explains our first sighting of Anna Christy's child-woman, Lucia, perched atop a cot, an innocent adrift in a cruelly adult world. "I think it's sort of a dying art, if you like, actually dealing with the language on the same level as the music," says English conductor Paul Daniel, who this past winter worked with David on Lucia and commends the director for tugging images and ideas from the text, not imposing some conceit upon them. "That's what we all try to do, and for me it's vital, and it's what makes working with David so special. He knows exactly where the consonants go and where the clarinets play. I'd put him right up there in the top list of directors who know their texts and their music inside out."

If the Alden brothers' attempts to rid operatic stage direction of complacency can be described as a journey, it has sometimes been a lonely one: audiences and critics have not always followed in the direction in which they have tried to lead. Christopher's 400th-anniversary production of Orfeo last year for Opera North, with its atmospheric nod toward New York's onetime Warhol underground, prompted Anthony Holden in Britain's Observer to let rip with terms such as "dire," "a travesty," "a fiasco" — all of which have been applied to David's work, too, including, for starters, Mazeppa and the subsequent ENO A Masked Ball. Christopher points to his whoremongering, sexually unbridled Lyric Opera of Chicago Rigoletto in 2000, which was dropped more or less immediately upon opening, as "my own Mazeppa." The Chicago Tribune's John von Rhein called it "Rigoletto as reimagined by Larry Flynt." To its director, "The production was an attempt to get back to the dark patriarchal world of powerful dark men and the relationships to the women in their lives, who are to various degrees disenfranchised."

Such attacks represent the price paid for an approach that doesn't pay much heed to whether or not the critics come to the table. "The critics in England are a little more simplistic in terms of what they can read visually," says David, who argues that with Lucia, for instance, "I didn't put in a lot of visual puzzles or complicated visual stimuli." He adds, "Critics are a reflection of where the art form sits," which is why David finds both the work and the reaction to it far more stimulating in Germany for the most part. "All that negative press is simply there to be endured, and sometimes relished, on the road toward truth." As Christopher explains, "My brother and I have, in the last few years in the U.K., done [standard-rep] productions that have got a very strong negative reaction, and we've also both done Janá č ek productions, which have been received rapturously with critics and audiences. Maybe it has to do with people's expectations. It's O.K. to do that kind of work when you're doing a Janá č ek opera, but it's not O.K. when you're doing a Monteverdi opera, which should be a beautiful relic from the beautiful, distant past. I think personally it shows a greater respect for a piece from the past if you don't just show it to an audience in a sort of friendly, lovely, flattering way, but if in fact each time you do a piece from the past, you respect it enough to try and make it as meaningful and challenging and disturbing as it was the first time."

Christopher cites the inevitably controversial Aida that he recently directed at Deutsche Oper Berlin, a staging in which the German capital was itself consciously evoked in Andrew Lieberman's design. "I feel as if, were Verdi to come to my production of Aida, that he would be flattered and happy to know that people were still taking a piece like that seriously and not just presenting it as something from a museum." Aida, Christopher explains, "is a piece about an intense fascist, religious-fundamentalist kind of a world, and that was my inspiration in a time when religious fundamentalism has made a big reappearance all around the world." This kind of comment invites one to think that Christopher is merely teasing something innate from the material that has been allowed to lie dormant. "My whole career has been about coming up against this dichotomy in opera and pushing the envelope and provoking and disturbing and insulting people," he says, "along with doing work which another part of the public sees as fascinating and engaging and an essential part of theater."

David, in turn, speaks of a desire "to bring these pieces to life, with whatever it takes to do that. I do feel as if I'm treating the pieces with great respect and great reverence, so that they can be as disturbing and confrontational and intense for the audience now as I assume they were when they were first performed." That modus operandi holds true whether David is referencing his now-legendary ENO "chainsaw" Mazeppa from 1984, which tackled the grimness of the piece head-on, or that Lyric Opera Rigoletto from Christopher, with what he terms its "dreamy Jungian view" of a title character living a compartmentalized life, not least sexually. "What you're wanting to do," says David, "is match the genius of the piece, and if you can do that clearly and strongly, it's very exciting."

Neither man particularly feels that he's doing anything new, and it seems significant that the word "deconstruction" never passes their lips. Interpreting an opera's subtext has always been there, to greater or lesser degrees. As evidence, David launches into a synoptic history of the German theater in which he remains steeped, while Christopher points to the work in Russia of Vsevolod Meyerhold and an Expressionistic embrace that both men still hold dear. "It's just that people suddenly in the past twenty-five years have begun to think in these terms," says Christopher. "Obviously, there is a strain of thought that opera is not just about directing from a naturalistic point or a realistic perspective but about looking at it from a Dada perspective, as it were — how do you get at reality? Is reality about some straight-on depiction of life? Obviously not."

Perhaps the times are finally proving to be more compatible with the Alden brothers' vision. David's Lucia, with those giddily ripe theatrics and its horror-style hold on an audience, has led the recent sequence of shows responsible of late for shifting critical and public perception of the previously beleaguered ENO, where the director returns in the new season to direct Peter Grimes. His Jenu°fa at the same address won Olivier Awards last year for best production, and for its star performance from Amanda Roocroft, who remarks admiringly of her director, "He makes you work very hard and think very hard, but he lets you off early, which is cool."

Christopher had his own ENO triumph in 2006, making his house debut there with The Makropulos Case. The curtain rose slowly and deliberately on that show, as if keeping time with a heroine who is herself 327 years old. Its visuals were cool and grey; against them, Cheryl Barker's youthful Emilia Marty gave off a seductive if ultimately lethal heat. That in itself expresses the love of contrast and contradiction on which the twins' productions thrive.

There was never much eyebrow-raising about the Aldens' avidity for culture when they were growing up. "We were fortunate enough to be in this family where it was really the only thing you want to do," says David. The pair grew up in Manhattan, steeped in showbiz, albeit of a more commercial sort. Their father, Jerome Alden, was a playwright; their mother, dancer Barbara Gaye, was hoofing on Broadway in Annie Get Your Gun while pregnant. (The twins also have a sister, who is six years younger.) The result was "a nightly serenade in the womb from Ethel Merman," notes Christopher, smiling. Both men remark, deadpan, that this kind of in utero experience "explains a lot." From an early age, they frequented both the old Met and the new, loving the works and the singers but often feeling that what they were seeing onstage fell short of the mark. In what Christopher sees as "a sympathetic rebellion" to the Broadway that their parents called home, they opted instead for "this odd, ridiculous, sort of highbrow brand of showbiz" — namely opera. It helped, says David, to have a mentor of sorts in Frank Corsaro, the theater and opera veteran whose landmark 1966 La Traviata for New York City Opera David evokes to this day. "It was just the way Frank directed the scenes. He did them for real, like theater, with an erotic reality that was special. He was a great inspiration to me, and it wasn't only that show — it was a whole series of shows that were just very well-directed."

So directing beckoned for the twins, who cut an early swathe very deliberately on different continents. Christopher flirted initially with a life onstage, appearing in the ensemble of Two Gentlemen of Verona, the 1972 Tony-winner for Best Musical, alongside such fellow unknowns as Stockard Channing and Jeffrey (now Jeff) Goldblum. But, he says, "Once I got the opera bug, there was no going back. Other forms of theater just sort of paled in comparison." Christopher's early career included ongoing gigs at Opera Omaha and Long Beach Opera. At the latter, in 1982, he directed a Death in Venice that he calls his first "modern" staging — Benjamin Britten's opera set not in Venice but amid the bleak sterility of Aschenbach's Munich.

David spent time at Opera Omaha as well, before decamping to Europe in the mid-1970s amid the feeling that he could be "bolder and more visceral" abroad. That decision led him preeminently to Germany and then to London, where he was integral to the burgeoning young Turks movement that flocked around ENO during the 1980s, alongside two other notable Davids, Pountney and Fielding. "David [Alden] came with a different take on doing opera than English directors of that period," Fielding told me in May. "It was a way of reinterpreting the material that strips the text back to basics, that reveals the bare bones of the piece, as it were."

To date, the brothers have worked together only once — on a semi-staged Mozart project for Daniel Barenboim in Chicago, in which David was asked to do Don Giovanni, Christopher Le Nozze di Figaro, and the two were to collaborate on Così Fan Tutte. "But," says David, "I let [Christopher] do it." It's hard to imagine their competing intelligences not chafing in the workplace, not least since colleagues speak of both men singing along to the score in rehearsal.

Such heavily text-driven approaches require singers who can risk the possibility that the production in which they're singing may be met with hostility. Of his German Aida in March, Christopher says, "I think the singers felt very supportive of the production and had a sense of the essential absurdity of their being cheered and the production team's being booed, since we were all working together to give the audience a visceral experience." This despite a soprano in the title role, Annalisa Raspagliosi, who came to rehearsals clutching a book, In Poter di Jesu (In the Power of Jesus), even as Christopher was making his case for Verdi's profound ambivalence toward the Catholic church. The director smiles. "We got over that quite quickly."

Christopher recalls an experience when his 1998 Glimmerglass Opera production of The Mother of Us All was restaged at New York City Opera, with Lauren Flanigan replacing Joanna Johnston as Susan B. Anthony. "It wasn't the easiest way to do a revival of a production I had already done, and I think it just came down to Lauren questioning a lot of the assumptions of the piece and how it had been directed and performed the first time." That said, he says he is happiest when "coming up against a singer who has a very strong personal commitment to the piece they're performing, even if that means I have a lot more debating to do in the rehearsal process." David cites his unusually pubescent Lucia, American singer Christy, as "a perfect example of a modern lead singer. Anna is a prima donna, but a modern prima donna, and she was able to collaborate completely with me, and to be very open."

Perhaps the passing of time has lessened David's need to shock in the same way. "It was exciting at the time blasting all that stuff wide open," David says now, "but I think, personally, that I've lived way beyond such [bad boy] names." Sure, he can still be playful. One thinks, for instance, of his summer 2007 La Donna del Lago at Garsington, where, on a rain-soaked evening, I sat among an audience chortling at characters reading Country Life or sporting Doc Martens. But his prize-winning Jenu°fa was properly searing, its modern industrial setting virtually an Alden signature, alongside, in this case, a scalding depiction of infanticide in a boldly lit world hell-bent on the erasure of life. David places Janá č ek among a trio of composers (Handel and Cavalli are the others) "who are currently my favorites to direct — although Verdi, Wagner, Britten, Donizetti aren't bad either." His Santa Fe production of Handel's Radamisto opened in mid-July, two months before his Covent Garden debut in September with Cavalli's La Calisto. "This is the first time the Opera House has invited me," he says, musing that his lengthy association with ENO may have exempted him from consideration in the past. But don't expect either show to be decked out in modern dress. "I've decided not to set everything in the twentieth century any more. That's become a cliché, almost a knee-jerk reaction."

Christopher admits to "Verdi kind of looming now as for me a great challenge" and continues to see sense in modern updates, provided the results "engage an audience as strongly as they are in any piece of theater or a movie or whatever." One feels from both men the abiding mantra, by way of E. M. Forster, to only connect. "I respect other people's feelings that for them this is not what art is about," says Christopher. "But I'm only interested in art that sticks its neck out and stirs things up and has something very personal and intense to say about life and the world that we live in. That's the kind of art that interests me, and I don't think that I can get there every time I do it, but when I get there, I know it." And, despite — or perhaps because of — the resultant clamor, so do we.