Chatting with Chas

Chas Rader-Shieber_sml
We welcome back Chas Rader-Shieber to direct this year’s Giasone. Here’s your chance to read his thoughts about all things Pinchgut, Cavalli and opera... naturally!

When the invitation to direct Cavalli's Giasone came, it was an easy decision to want to take on the project. First, it tells a terrific story with some familiar elements, as well as some new thoughts about our intrepid hero. Second, regardless of the many locations and fantastical events – ranging from a battle to grab the Golden Fleece from a fortress guarded by monsters, to a woman being thrown from a cliff into the sea – it is essentially a story about fidelity, and the resilience of the human spirit. That said, I think it's always better to err on the side of making theatre about people and their emotions, rather than about places and events. Audiences really want to know more about themselves, not watch a travelogue.

One of the hallmarks of this opera is the way that Cavalli and his librettist have managed to mix the dramatic elements of Isifile's story (an abandoned woman, on the verge of madness over her lost husband) and the more comic side of the adventure (with a conniving Medea and an oversexed Giasone). It's really a wonderful romantic drama, held in the arms of a charming and slightly risque comedy; and it's a very loving embrace! I just love the proximity of the drama and its associated element of danger, to the lightest, sweetest comedy. There's a kind of electricity and theatricality to that juxtaposition.

Right now, we’re in the midst of the design process, where one can’t avoid the really delicious possibilities for creating a physical production that will allow the emotional story to be told. The big job at hand is finding the right look and feel for the production to allow both sides of the storytelling to work well. How do we show all the locations for the story, from sunny shoreline, to terrifying shipwreck, to the crowded streets of the big city? How do we make sure the audience knows the remarkable people who inhabit this world; who they are, and “how” they are? Finding the answers involves lots of research, discovering inspirational images to work with and, more than anything, taking our cue from the music itself.

Erin Helyard has created an edition of the score that hones the plot down to its most essential and beguiling moments. It gives us a great starting place for defining these characters clearly and efficiently.

At last, come November, it will be a matter of joining my ideas with those of the cast members playing the roles. I love the collaborative element of working on a piece like this one, leading the cast, but responding to their ideas and motives. And then there’s the simple unadulterated glee of knowing that I’ll get to return to Sydney, and more important to Pinchgut, which represents for me, the very best kind of opera-making; collaboration, community, and a spirit of joyousness.

Working with Pinchgut in 2008 for Charpentier’s David & Jonathan was a really, really amazing experience for me. The opera itself was like a beautiful puzzle to work through. The whole company/family of Pinchgut was on board in such a profound way, and although it wasn’t the most cheery of operas, the process of making the show was so lovely and happy.

When I first approach an opera, it usually starts the same way each time – listening to the music. That’s where the first inspirations come from. Then it’s about studying the story itself, and determining a point of view. Without a strong point of view, one isn’t giving the composer and librettist the attention they deserve. Operas are alive today for the audience sitting in the seats today, and it needs to be made for them.

As for the rest of the process, it’s ever changing. That’s the fun part! Certainly, it involves study, research, and preparation. Then in rehearsals it’s about responding to the cast and conductor, who have a whole set of intriguing ideas of their own that they bring to this crazy final part of the process. It’s always re-exhilarating to start rehearsals, as it really shakes up the thoughts you’ve had swimming around in your head for so many months of preparation!

And on opening night? …it’s mostly about excitement and fear. One hopes that all the work pays off in an immediate way for the audience, but of course, there’s no way of really knowing (hence the fear part!).

I fell in love with opera as a kid, and like most good romances, I couldn’t really tell you why or how. It just happened! I went on to study scenic and costume design in college, as well as directing in graduate school. By then, I knew I had to be a part of the art form.

I think that being introduced to opera in a chamber setting at Opera Theatre of St. Louis back in my hometown was very important for me. It has always informed the way I make opera even in a large venue. I love the intimacy of how opera can work. The big spectacle is fantastic, but it’s the sweet, small emotional spectacle that really intrigues me.

I try never to create an opera alone; it doesn’t produce such good results! Most often I think of having to find a common goal with a lot of other people, and try to guide the “ship” that direction. But I do believe that the ultimate goal of the theatre is to make the audience feel more human on their way out of the theatre, than they felt on the way in.

I approach singers and audiences with respect. Singers aren’t puppets to do one’s bidding. They inspire me every day with the ideas that they bring to the process, so I’m very dependent on smart, savvy singers. They deserve attention!

And the audience is the reason any of us do what we do. Opera without an audience is just a very expensive rehearsal. Not every opera will speak to every audience, but the goal is a noble one. Just to trying to “humanize” is a good thing. It’s a little bit like Giasone himself; he can’t be all things to all women, but he certainly gives it a good try!