When it comes to the plot of Giuseppe Verdi's opera Il Trovatore - which revolves around a love triangle, murder, and revenge - audiences are advised to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the music.
A new production at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City aims to enhance the storyline through animated digital projections.
Improbable plot challenges
In Il Trovatore, the cast of characters includes Count di Luna, the father of two sons. One son, Manrico, a troubadour, was kidnapped as an infant and raised by the gypsy Azucena. This gypsy's mother, accused of witchcraft, was thrown into a bonfire – as was Azucena's own infant son, by mistake. Leonora, the love interest of the Count, is in love with Manrico (the Count’s long-lost son).
The Marx Brothers spoofed Il Trovatore in their 1935 film, A Night at the Opera.
"It’s not a very linear story. A lot of the important action takes place off-stage, sometimes years before where we are arriving to the story," says stage director Kathleen Smith Belcher. "And some of the main characters are dead and we never see them. So that makes it really challenging."
Taking inspiration from fantasy and surrealism
Kathleen Belcher, who lives in Liberty, Missouri, is on the directing staff at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. She’s directed productions at opera companies around the country, and assisted with the world premiere of John Adams’s Dr. Atomic in San Francisco; she’s also worked with directors ranging from Woody Allen to Julie Taymor.
But when Belcher was first approached by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City to take on the role of stage director for Il Trovatore, she says she had a panic attack. "Because it is really difficult, notoriously difficult as far as a stage director perspective because there are so many dramaturgical problems with the story," she says.
Belcher says Il Trovatore requires singers who can take on the demanding roles – as well as an approach to tell the story in a clear, concise way. For the Lyric Opera of Kansas City's production, she was inspired by the expressive paintings of el Greco and the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones.
"I happened upon Game of Thrones and got sucked into it. And (I) liked the grittiness of it," says Belcher. "In a way, it’s the way I want to tell (Il) Trovatore; it’s these people in extreme locations and extreme situations, but with a realistic bent to it. So we wanted to take those images and sort of meld them together."
Starting fresh, with a different vision
At the Kauffman Center - before the cast, chorus, and supernumeraries even take the stage - a dry tech rehearsal sets the lighting with the scenery, and in this case, the animated digital projections designed by John Boesche, who sits at a long table with stage director Kathleen Belcher, as the cues are called for the opening of the show.
"An interesting part of this production is that it’s round two for me," says Boesche, who worked on Il Trovatore for the first time about a year ago with Opera Carolina in Charlotte, with the same set. But he says with a different director, there’s a very different vision. He says he had to let go and start fresh, working closely with Belcher to realize some of her key ideas.
"One was the idea of the moon, occasionally as a symbol of love, but a moon becoming red and orange and sanguine, so referring to some of the blood that passes in the story," says Boesche. "That very orange-red moon becoming an owl’s eye, so for the character of Azucena, who’s created some witchcraft in this, as if she’s looking over all the proceedings of the opera."
Backstage, there are six projectors and a technician with a laptop, monitoring the digital imagery. A tall castle remains still as swirling dark clouds streak across the sky. Boesche says it’s the script that drives the design elements in theatre, but in opera, it’s the music.
"Being able to think in musical terms, rather than strictly narrative terms is what makes a difference," Boesche says.