Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Director’s Perspective: Kenny Leon talks about the differences between directing theatre, film, and opera.

Kenny Leon directed the world premiere of Margaret Garner at Michigan Opera Theatre, Cincinnati Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Broadway directing credits include Radio Golf (four Tony nominations), Gem of the Ocean (five Tony nominations), and the Tony-award winning A Raisin in the Sun. He recently directed the film version of A Raisin in the Sun, which aired on ABC in February 2008.

Kenny Leon will direct the Chicago premiere of the opera, Margaret Garner, which will grace the Auditorium's stage November 1-9, 2008.

As a Director, I have been blessed to work in many different venues with much varied material. I’ve directed from classic theatre, to drama, to comedy, to musical reviews, to film, and to opera. While they all share some aspects in common, each genre presents new challenges and opportunities to explore the artistic realm. In a film, for instance, the musical score is added at the end of the movie in post-production. In opera, you begin with the music and work to fit the story into the music.

In theatre, the focus is on the storytelling and the acting. In opera, the focus of the production is for the singers to hit the notes and sing to the best of their ability. The challenge that I faced in doing my first opera was that most of the singers had been trained to have the music and vocals be the most important (and really, only) priority of the show. They had a tendency to “park and bark,” if you will.

But the idea behind having more stage directors do opera is to get more of the acting into the singing, which creates a more fluid story. When I did Margaret Garner, I had the privilege of working with Denyce Graves, who is a born actress. She’s a singer, but she’s an actress. So when you see the production, you will experience wonderful singers, but also singers who are acting. My job as a Broadway director is to facilitate telling the story. I ask them to move and interact with the set and props, yet still expect them to hit the notes. It’s trying to integrate those two worlds – of singing and acting. It’s been very exciting for me but also very challenging. Most opera singers I’ve worked with embrace that idea, but they are still concerned about hitting that note. And the audience is paying their money to hear them hit that note. But I’m confident that they can hit that note and do the blocking and do the movement and keep it real. If we succeed, it’s a much more powerful art form than almost any other because music is so universal. With the flow of music, people are willing to forgive a lot, so you can say much more with music than you can say with drama.

I really do love opera, but I still need to balance it with other art forms. In the opera world, everything is exaggerated. To the extent that even on Opening Night, they told me to go out and take a bow after the show finished. And I was like, “What? I’m not taking a bow!” As a Director, I’d never taken a bow before. But after I did…I was like ‘That feels pretty good!”

Opera has also taught me something about being in the moment. In theatre and film, I’m always telling actors to be in the moment. Don’t be ahead of it. Don’t be beside it. Be right there engaged in the person you’re talking to. And if you can’t engage the person you’re talking to, then you can’t engage the audience. With opera, you totally have to be in the moment. When you have the perfect note, with the perfect costume, with the perfect set – then that’s a beautiful moment. Those moments add up to two and a half hours, and that’s an amazing lesson to learn about being in the moment…quality time shared in the communal experience that is live theatre.

Learn more about Margaret Garner.

Hurry - limited seating available! Click here for tickets.

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