Director  Linda  Brovsky
== and ==
Conductor  Joseph De Rugeriis

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


In early March of 1986, I had a double-interview with director Linda Brovsky and conductor Joseph De Rugeriis.  Both were with the Chicago Opera Theater for their production of Lamico Fritz by Mascagni, which, like other productions, was under the artistic supervision of Alan Stone.  I had met and interviewed De Rugeriis four years previously, and that conversation (along with a photo and biographical material) can be seen by clicking the link.

My two guests worked well together, and their verbal rapport came through nicely.  As usual, part of the conversation was aired on WNIB to promote the production, and now, in late 2023, I am pleased to present the entire encounter.

Bruce Duffie:   Is Lamico Fritz at all like Mascagnis most famous opera, Cavalleria Rusticana?

Linda Brovsky:   Not at all, other than it has some incredible music.  Fritz is very light and very sweet.  It’s a sweet love story, where there is no conflict other than the person’s internal conflict.  There’s no villain.  There’s no death, no blood, and no gore.

BD:   [With a wink]  Then is it really an opera???

Brovsky:   [Laughs]  We hope so!  It’s about people who are just normal and pleasant.  They’re not kings or queens, or living at a great distance from us.  It’s about a landowner who falls in love with one of the peasant girls, and it takes them three acts to make the commitment to say I love you.  Of course, they’re their own worst enemies because neither one of them can admit their love for the other, so they have to go through all sorts of Sturm und Drang [storm and stress] to get to that point.

BD:   Does this relate to people in the 1980s who are having trouble making commitments?

Brovsky:   Oh, I think so.  In fact, a couple of times in rehearsals, when I’ve given them an image, the cast has said yes, they can relate to that.  They plug into their own memories.

BD:   Is there anything special that you have to do to make it relate to the audiences of today, or can you just let it play itself?  [Vis-à-vis the biography shown at right, see my interviews with Thea Musgrave, and Lowell Liebermann.]

Brovsky:   No, it doesn’t play itself.  Mascagni wrote gorgeous music, but unfortunately for today’s audiences, they’re used to MTV and Star Wars.  They’re used to action-packed dramas, and L’Amico Fritz has a lot of internal monologues, a lot of thinking-music, and leaves a lot to the director’s imagination.  It was based on a French novel by Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian that was very popular in the 1880s called L’Ami Fritz.  Everyone knew the novel, so they didn’t have to fill in the details.  It would be as if we made an opera about the TV series Dynasty.  We all know how Joan Collins is to be done!  There’s no question about that.  Unfortunately for those of us who weren’t around a hundred years ago, we have to figure out things, such as what they are serving at the dinner party, and what is happening in this music.

BD:   Are audiences that come to opera today too influenced by movies, and gimmicky television?

Brovsky:   I don’t think it’s so much gimmicks as it is that they expect a certain amount of realism, whether it be in effects, or in emotions.  I don’t think audiences today buy twenty minutes of people saying,
I love you!  I love you! I love you! while they are standing apart from each other, and never look at each other.  They expect the intimacy that a television set or movie screen brings them.  They’re more demanding as an audience.  They’re not content just to accept bad scenery or bad acting just because the music is pretty.  They want it all to work with the entire production.

BD:   But are they willing to accept good scenery in the theatrical sense, rather than what is on their screens?

Brovsky:   I think so.  In fact, in a certain way in some of the productions recently, they’re willing to accept less scenery, whereas in the verismo days, the 1900s through the 1920s, where a house had to have every single wall, and the windows had to be framed, now you see a lot more skeletal scenery.  Audiences are willing to accept more of the illusion of the house.

BD:   How much do you get involved in the designing of the sets?

Brovsky:   In this case, quite a bit because the production was built for the Chicago Opera Theater, and I came to the meetings.  I flew in in November, met the designers, and we have been in very close contact ever since.  So it’s really a total conceptual thing with all of us working together.  One of the issues was a swing.  I had a visual image of a swing for the love duet, and the designers kept objecting.  I said that my grandparents had a swing in their garden, and that’s what is appropriate.  But it was a technical nightmare for the Athenaeum Theatre to come up with a swing that could work on stage.

BD:   Are you hanging it from the fly system above the stage?

Brovsky:   They’ve actually designed the most complicated steel structure I have ever seen within the tree.  It’s an engineering feat that went into this tree, and it will look like a tree with a rope hanging off of it.

BD:   How close a connection is there between the director and the conductor in working on a production such as this?

Brovsky:   I
ll let you answer that!  [Much laughter]

Joseph De Rugeriis:   It is real close!

BD:   Too close?

De Rugeriis:   No, it
s just right.  It has to be really close.  The relationship between the conductor and the director is the most important because we’re talking about an art form where there’s drama in the music, and the music has some kind of a dramatic meaning.  There is also the language.  The text has a certain music, and a certain rhythm, and a certain sound even if we don’t add the notes.  So working with a director very closely is what really needs to be.  The movements going up-stage or down-stage are timed to the musical phrases and the pauses that are necessary to let the text be heard and understood.

Brovsky:   We don’t agree on every single point.  It’s a collaborative effort, and you find ways to do things together.  Joseph will watch what I stage, and will tell me he can help if he speeds up the tempo just a hair.  That will make the moment happen.  Likewise, if there’s a musical moment the singer isn’t singing, I can tell them to pick up the book in that rest.  Use that space!  Use that emptiness!

De Rugeriis:   Depending on what the music is about, it all focuses on that page of the score.

BD:   How slavish are you to the score?  Do you ever want to add a little bit here or there, or twist it just a little bit?

De Rugeriis:   I had the great fortune of preparing this opera with Mascagni’s assistant, a man called Giuseppe Morelli (1907-2000).  This is not my first time doing this opera.  I did it ten years ago in San Francisco, and just before doing it there, I was in Barcelona prompting.  Morelli [shown in the photo below] was one of the conductors, and I said that I was doing this opera, and he told me it was one of Mascagni’s favorites.  Then we started really talking about the Mascagni style, which is very different from the Puccini style.  The stretches and pauses are all things that Mascagni wants, but didn’t quite notate.  They were done right from the beginning, and it was the way he felt it.


BD:   Do you have to feel it the same way that Mascagni did?
De Rugeriis:   I really think it’s a good way to feel it.  I don’t have any qualms with what he really wants, because he really does compose it that way.  There are ritards that aren’t quite written, there is a special feeling at the end of a phrase, as well as the space between the pick-up and the new phrase.  It’s the way I Iearned it from Morelli, and it still feels right, even ten years later.  There’s a certain way about it that is right, not in a fixed sense, but if it’s not done that way, it protrudes and doesn’t feel comfortable.  It feels very natural this way.  We all feel that there’s a certain naturalness to the way it sounds.

BD:   When you did it ten years ago, was it in Italian or English?

De Rugeriis:   It was in English, with the same translation, by Francis Rizzo.  The cast had tenor Vinson Cole [in his professional operatic debut], and a very young Leona Mitchell, if you can imagine it.  I also had another very lovely lady stage director at that time, Rhoda Levine.  [She would direct Der Kaiser von Atlantis of Viktor Ullmann with the Chicago Opera Theater, and the world premiere of Orpheus Descending by Bruce Saylor with the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists.]

BD:   You could get a real déjà vu out of this whole production.

De Rugeriis:   Not really because I did something that I think is important.  I started from scratch with a clean score.  I don’t really think this is what I did before.  I want to redo it, because it’s a different director and a different cast of people.  I came to it very spontaneously, and a lot of it’s changed.

BD:   [To the director]  Is this your first time with this opera?

Brovsky:   Yes, it is.  With almost any production, the challenge for the director is that you come with a set of ideas, but then you see your cast, and some things are okay, and other things will be a problem.  You work with who you’ve got.  I’m very fortunate because the cast here is excellent.  They’re very young, and they’re very willing to try things.  But in being very young, you have to nurture.  You don’t force, and you don’t assume that they’re going to read your mind.  When artists get to a certain level, they start filling in the blanks themselves.  In this case I have to lead them to it.  I don’t necessarily fill in the blanks, but I help them to discover how to fill the blanks.

De Rugeriis:   I actually agree with all of that, and it’s the same from the musical point of view.  But one of the things I also find that happens in that process is that sometimes I’m able to get a singer to do what they think they can do.  There’s a whole trusting-process that’s happening quite wonderfully in the rehearsals.  Even as recently as last week, some of the cast members said at first they didn’t think they could do something, and now they are able to it.  There’s a whole lot of growth...

Brovsky:   ...and an expansiveness...

De Rugeriis:   ...right, an expansion that’s happening, and it’s wonderful.

BD:   Would that work if the cast included Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti?

Brovsky:   It depends on also the rehearsal situation.  If you are working with international artists, you usually do not have the time or commitment that you have at Chicago Opera Theater.

BD:   How much time have you got for rehearsal?

Brovsky:   We have a total of three weeks staging time...

De Rugeriis:   ...and an additional week of music.  So it’s a four-week rehearsal period.

Brovsky:   Often for international artists, they may fly in three days before, so you don’t have time to get into those ideas.  It’s basically,
“This is where you stand, this is where you sing, this is the idea, and let them go!

BD:   But, as you said, they’ve already filled in the ideas.

Brovsky:   They have, and it’s a different kind of working.  They are also more secure in themselves.  Our tenor, Jonathan Welch has lost 160 pounds in a year.  He looks fabulous, but he’s got those old feelings of how it was to move as a fat man.  Today, he finally realized he would hold his hands some place because that’s where he held them when he was fat.  Now it just looks silly.  We have watched him discover how he can move, and how his body works.  No one ever asked him to act before.  He was the mountain in the corner, and suddenly he’s the leading man acting, relating, and running around the stage, and it’s a whole different world for him.

BD:   Have you noticed any change in the voice after losing that weight?

Brovsky:   It’s better!

De Rugeriis:   Yes, the voice is better, and that is strange because normally it’s the reverse.  But in this particular case, it’s a whole sense of well-being that has relaxed him vocally, so there’s much more bloom and much more ease.  Jonathan was one of the first apprentices we had at San Diego Opera when I was their music administrator, and the change not only in his whole physical appearance but attitude towards music and staging, is quite remarkable.  He seems so settled and committed, and once he knows where he’s going, and how he wants to sound, it is very effortless and quite thrilling.  It’s wonderful to see.

BD:   Who is your Suzel?

Brovsky:   Suzel is a wonderful soprano by the name of Cristen Gregory from Canada, and she too hasn’t had that much experience.  She came being very timid, and now she lights up the stage.  She is someone who also had just taken off with the nurturing of the directing and conducting.  We try to know when to pull back and when to push, and basically instill confidence in the artists, because everyone of them can do it, even if they don’t know they can.

BD:   It’s your job to bring it out?

Brovsky:   Yes, and to say when it’s all right, or to try that again because it wasn’t quite there.

BD:   Can a piece get over-rehearsed musically or dramatically?

Brovsky:   Yes!
De Rugeriis:   Absolutely!  Again it goes back to that relationship between the conductor and the director.  I’ve enjoyed so much the interplay with Linda.  There are ten days left, and we’re not peaking yet.  We’re still very much in the process of rehearsing, which is nice.  We could not open tomorrow.  We need the rest of that week for running it, and gauging the continuity.  We’re just in a really wonderful place, which doesn’t always happen.  Sometimes you get there too soon, and then it gets very labored, and somewhat boring because we’ve already gotten there.  Then we have to try to ease away from it, and it becomes a very difficult maneuver to get the energy back for the opening night.  The interesting thing is I feel we’re moving steadily.  It’s not too fast and it’s not too slow.  It’s very steady towards the opening, and that’s a very wonderful feeling to have.
BD:   If it was completely rehearsed would you start canceling rehearsals?

Brovsky:   If we had another week in the studio we’d start to cancel rehearsals, but the first real run-through with the cast is a couple days from now, and then we
ll have the first real run-through with the chorus and principals.  Then we have a day off, after which they’re in the theater, so it’s a whole different ball game.  Suddenly the chair that was so easy to pull out weighs twenty pounds, and they might not have the support theyre used to when theyre swinging in the air.  Perhaps a line on the floor is now a wall, and they find out they can’t cross it.  A couple of days later they have lights and costumes and wigs to deal with, and finally they get the orchestra.  After that there is an invited audience, followed by another off day, and then they open.  So we want it ready in a couple days because there’s enough added during the next week to give them plenty to worry about.

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BD:   Do you direct other things besides opera, such as straight plays?

Brovsky:   I have, but primarily I do opera.

BD:   [Asking as a question]  Which is more fun?

Brovsky:   [Responding as to a statement]  Which is more fun!  You’re right.  Music and dance are what led me to opera.

BD:   [To the conductor]  Have you also done symphonic concerts?

De Rugeriis:   Yes, but very little.  I need the stage to really come alive as a performer and as a musician.  I hate to use the word, but the concert hall is a little boring.  I need the visual to bring out what I want aurally in an orchestra or singers, which is why the director is so valuable to me.  I come to opera with a great love of the theater.  It’s interesting that Linda comes to theater through music, and I come to music through the theatrical aspect.  When I go to New York, for example, I don’t go to the opera at all.  I go to plays...

Brovsky:   ...and I’m the one at the symphony.  [Bursts out laughing]

BD:   I hope it goes very, very well.  Will you stay through the whole run of performances?

Brovsky:   No.  I’m going to stay for two performances, Saturday and Sunday, then I fly to New York, in time to make a production meeting on another show I’m doing this summer.  I have auditions that week, and then I’m in St. Louis.  

De Rugeriis:   We’ll call her Wednesday in St. Louis, and tell her if the audiences were lively or somewhat dead.

BD:   How much do you play off the audience?

Brovsky:   I don’t use the audience as a judging factor.  Usually I know if it’s good or not good.  There can be a dead audience, and it’s not that they don’t like it.  They may love it.  You may get the rave review of your life, and very little happened in the audience.  Or the audience can scream
Bravo! while you’re sitting there knowing it was not the best.  I certainly direct so the audience has an enjoyable evening.

BD:   But your work is preparatory.  [To the conductor]  You’re there with the audience behind you.  Do you feed off them?

De Rugeriis:   I have to admit that I do, but I’m not quite sure how I do it.  When I enter the pit, I can sense if they’ve just come from dinner, and there is a kind of heaviness.  Particularly here, most COT audiences have a sense of wondering what’s going to happen.  Maybe that’s because I don’t really enter the pit here.  I have to come through the audience, and that’s helpful in a way.  Suddenly they see me coming in from the side, and going to the center.  So there’s a certain edge here which I really do like.


:   There is more anticipation?

De Rugeriis:   Yes.

Brovsky:   For a director, you
re usually numb by the opening night, and grateful that the audience is there.  You hope they respond favorably, but after that, you’re gone.  I don’t see how the run goes, so I hear it from the conductor and the cast which nights worked best.

BD:   Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

Brovsky:   It
s been great.

De Rugeriis:   Certainly!  It
s nice to see you again!

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© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 5, 1986.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB four days later.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.