Director Arin Arbus Discusses Her Operatic Debut
By Albert Imperato
The young American theatre director Arin Arbus will direct an opera for the first time when she leads a new production of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia at Houston Grand Opera in February 2012.
Arbus is the associate artistic director of Theatre for a New Audience, a classical off-Broadway company. She has made headlines in past seasons with her compelling direction of three Shakespeare productions, including her 2009 Othello, which received six Lortel nominations, and returns to direct the Taming of the Shrew for the company in March. In recent seasons she has also gained attention for her work leading a theater company of inmates at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in upstate New York; according to Arbus, it was her work there that re-ignited her passion for directing and storytelling.
In her notes for the new production, Arbus observes:
“Lucretia was first performed in 1946 – after World War II, after the Blitz, after over 300,000 Britons had died. As his homeland was reeling from this devastation, Britten was working on Lucretia – which attempts to harness song to human tragedy. Undoubtedly, as he wrote this opera about personal sacrifice and grief which gives way to political development, Britten was thinking of England’s own attempts to grapple with those very issues.”
“On one level, the opera is deeply political. Lucretia’s rape and subsequent death are widely known as the events that provoked the Romans to revolt against the occupying Etruscan forces, which ultimately led to the establishment of the Roman Republic. The story is both mythic and intimate. I hope to preserve these inherent ambiguities. We will set the action in Rome in the historical period, but we won’t be literal or historical in the design.”
In the brief conversation that follows, Arbus discusses her feelings as she takes on her first opera production.
A brief conversation with Arin Arbus:
Q: How did the opportunity to direct Britten’s Rape of Lucretia at Houston Grand Opera – your debut opera production – come about?
AA: After seeing my productions of Othello and Measure for Measure at Theatre for a New Audience, HGO’s previous General Director, Anthony Freud, contacted me and invited me to direct Britten’s Rape of Lucretia in Houston. He knew that I'd never directed an opera before and convinced me that it was not as terrifying as it seemed.
Q: What about the opera first struck you and made you decide to accept the invitation?
AA: I was knocked out by the music the first time I heard it. I was attracted to the complex characters that are both archetypes and psychologically complex beings. I responded to the political ideas that are rooted in the opera — ideas about occupation and revolution. I was moved by Lucretia — a woman who has the courage to refuse to accept things as they are. And I was intrigued by the dramaturgical structure of the piece, which in some ways frustrates and provokes more than it satisfies.
Q: What kind of background do you have in music? Did you ever direct a work of musical theater, or any other works with a strong element of music?
AA: All of the straight plays I've directed have had music in them, but I’ve never directed an opera or musical. This is new territory for me.
Q: Do you have classical music in your background?
AA: I'm no expert – but I sang classical music in choirs for eight years during high school and college.
Q: And was classical music something you heard in your household growing up?
AA: Yes, there was music in the air. Both my parents are classical music lovers. When I was a kid, my dad played piano in a room directly below my bedroom. I grew up with the music of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and others wafting through the floorboards.
Q: New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini recently wrote that even the most accomplished theater directors sometimes get intimidated when working in the realm of opera, thus blunting the impact of their productions. Do you find yourself feeling any more trepidation, or special anxiety, preparing for your work on your first opera than you might be feeling if you were getting ready for some other theater project?
AA: Well, I find everything in life rather anxiety-inducing – so that's nothing new! Sure, doing an opera makes me nervous because I’ve never worked in this form before. There are many unknowns. But there’s certainly something very daunting about doing Shakespeare’s plays, all of which have been interpreted famously many, many times by great artists. I guess, in some way, I'm attracted to things that provoke anxiety — challenging projects, new situations, and new forms of expression.
Q: Your work with a theatre company of inmates at Woodbourne Correctional Facility – a medium security prison in upstate New York – has gotten some attention. In a feature in the New York Times by Kate Taylor you said, “It’s while making theater with this group of prisoners that I feel the most free.” How might your work in a prison impact this Britten project?
AA: Through my work in prison I have grown a great deal as a person and as a director. The men I've worked with have taught me about myself, the world, Shakespeare, and performance. In a certain sense, I think it was in prison that I found my own voice as a director.
The practical realities of working in prison have also been influential. Because there are a lot of limitations - no sets, no lights, primitive sound systems, makeshift performance spaces, minimal costumes and props - we are forced to create theatre without razzmatazz. It's a kind of theatre that relies on nothing but the essentials, which relates to my work at Theatre for a New Audience.
Jeffrey Horowitz, the Founding Artistic Director of Theatre for a New Audience, and I often return to the question "What are the essentials of this piece?" Working in this way has been extremely important for my development as a director. It has helped me to clarify my own theatrical values that I bring to this production of The Rape of Lucretia.
I love going to new places and working with new people. I feel very lucky to collaborate with prisoners, classical actors, and now, with opera singers. I learn a great deal from my collaborators and that certainly impacts the work.
Arin Arbus is associate artistic director of Theatre for a New Audience, a classical off-Broadway company, where she directed Macbeth, Measure for Measure (nominated for the Lortel Award for Best Revival), and Othello (which scored six further Lortel nominations). In 2009, the New York Times described Arbus as “the most gifted new director to emerge this year.” She was a Playwrights Horizons directing resident, a Williamstown Workshop Directing Corps member, a member of the Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab, and is a Drama League directing fellow and a 2008 Princess Grace Award recipient. Arbus has directed at the Intiman, Hangar, and Storm Theatres; the Working Theater; Theatre Outlet; FringeNYC; HERE Arts Center; the Juilliard School; the New School for Drama; and Williamstown Theatre Festival Workshop. In association with Rehabilitation Through the Arts, she also leads a theater company of inmates at Woodbourne Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in upstate New York. In spring 2012, Arbus will direct The Taming of the Shrew for Theatre for a New Audience. A New York Times feature on the director, from February 2010, is available here.
Houston Grand Opera presents Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia (new production)
February 3–11, 2012
Michelle DeYoung: Lucretia
Rory Macdonald, conductor
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