Technical Director (at the time of this interview in
Deputy General Director, and Chief Operating Officer
Lyric Opera of Chicago
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
It is noteworthy that in three specific instances, Lyric Opera
of Chicago has named its top-most officials from within its ranks. To
wit, in 1980, a former mezzo-soprano, turned typist, turned administrator
named Ardis Krainik
took over from the founder, Carol Fox, and became General Director. Later,
boy-soprano, turned administrator named William Mason acceded to that position.
The third member of this distinguished group is Drew Landmesser.
As you can see, he was the technical director, and now (in 2021) is
Deputy General Director and Chief Operating Officer.
In my conversation with her, Krainik said she had had, “The
longest apprenticeship in history,” by working within the company
all that time. Mason, on the other hand, worked with Lyric and other
companies before returning to Chicago. Landmesser followed that
diverse pattern, being in Houston and San Francisco before assuming his
For my 1998 radio series presenting the backstage happenings
at Lyric Opera of Chicago (shown above), it was my pleasure to
interview several of the people who are generally unseen by the public,
but without whom the company would not be able to present Great Art night
Some of these people I was meeting for the first time, and many
of them were not used to speaking on the radio. It pleases me
that all of them quickly found it easy, and would converse with me about
their work. In the case of Landmesser, he made it clear at the outset
that he was a man of action . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: What is your title?
Drew Landmesser: Technical director.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] You direct
everything that is technical?
Landmesser: [Smiles] I direct nothing.
Titles don’t mean the same thing in lots of different companies,
but the jobs are similar in most places. I see through people.
I see through things, and we get it all done. We’re the full-service
BD: Everything that is not musical comes
Landmesser: [Resolutely] Things that
need to get done come to us. If somebody needs a picture hung,
sometimes they come to us and sometimes we do that.
BD: If the tenor needs a high C fixed, does
he come to you?
Landmesser: They have to go
somebody else to get that fixed. There’s a higher authority. I
hate to admit that there's a higher authority...
BD: [With a gentle nudge] Higher than
the technical director???
Landmesser: Even higher than that.
BD: What are some of the typical things
that you will do, or is there a typical day?
Landmesser: There are typical days, but
they are full of a-typical things. In our little world, we deal
with very good people who all do their jobs and all know their jobs,
but they’re always being thrown curves. We
take care of scenery and props, and musical instruments arriving here
and moving there, and rehearsals being taped out on the floors, and scenery
moved from one room to another, and trucks that don’t
show up, and a warehouse that leaks. All that happens here, so it’s
just about anything. If you see it, we’ve had to deal with it
probably twice, or maybe more than twice.
BD: To use an operatic term, you’re like
Landmesser: No, I’m much more soft-spoken
than he. He has a point of view. I just want to get it
BD: Do you want to get it all done right?
Landmesser: We only do it right. If
we don’t do it right, we don’t stay here. We do it right every
night. It’s what we do for a living.
BD: Do you ever get it right the first time?
Landmesser: We live most of our life on plan
W. We don’t get it right the second time or the third time because
there’s too many things going on, even if you bring the show back. For
example, Traviata is a revival for us. It’s been done. It’s
been rented. It’s been very popular. It’s been done in several
other houses in the meantime, so when it comes back to us it will be
slightly different than it was when last we saw it. Then, when
it comes back again later this season with some of its second cast, it
will be different again. Things are always changing. The
only thing permanent in life is change.
BD: What kinds of things will be different
from the fall performances to the spring ones?
Landmesser: We live in a repertory house,
and what that means to the audience is that the third Friday of the
month they come and see Traviata. The next time they’re here,
they see Ariadne. The next time they’re here, they see Gioconda.
The next time they’re here, they see Meistersinger. But
for us, what it means is that at midnight when Meistersinger is
done, we go away and come back the next morning, and we tear it all apart,
and put up a show that’s not even performing that night. We put up
a show that’s just meant to be rehearsed, and we do that while annotating
everything that’s done along the way, so that when it comes time to do
that again, we put it together as fast as possible. We have an entire
theater season that happens without a single performer on stage, without
a conductor, and without an audience. We hire people to come in and
walk through the lights as though they’re the talent. We work seven
days a week from July until September doing nothing but technical and lightning
work around the shows that are to happen, because once we get to September,
the performers arrive, and the conductors arrive, and the orchestra shows
up, and there’s no time to fool around with those little nuances.
BD: You have to be done?
Landmesser: We’re done.
BD: But you have to do it again each time.
Landmesser: We’re done and we’re ready to
begin again, because nothing is permanent, but change. We’ll
leave the show assuming that the same person will come through the door
on the downbeat of the fourth line of the music on page forty-two, and
that they’ll slam the door on the next bar. But if they don’t when
they get here, we’ll change that, and then we’ll change the lights. The
stage managers will change the cue, and that will happen, and then the
prop-guy will come to catch the chair they throw at different times. All
that will change when slightly different things happen. When the
cast changes, different things happen, and when the director leaves town,
many different things happen.
BD: Should you tell the directors that?
Landmesser: They know that. Some of
them come back a month later just to check, but we’re there every night
checking. We have somebody from the lighting department, somebody
from the technical department, and the stage director’s assistant each
night who sit in the theater. We don’t sit actually in the theater
because we’re too rowdy to do that, but we sit in the back of the theater
making notes, and trying to make corrections if something goes wrong
during the show. Hopefully, no one ever sees anything go wrong,
but if something happens, we’re there with the staff to change that,
and to adapt to that, and to correct it for the following night.
BD: Is your allegiance to the stage director,
or to the conductor, or to the composer, or to the audience?
Landmesser: To the art. Our allegiance
is to the piece. I don’t say this disrespectfully, but sometimes
the director is gone, and something needs to be changed. Sometimes
something has to change.
BD: Just in order to make it work?
Landmesser: Just in order to make it work.
Maybe we could never make that exit work right, and now it needs
to work, and they figured that out. It might be two shows after
the director leaves, and it’s such a subtle change that maybe no one notices,
but we would take the opportunity then to call the director and say we’re
going to change this. Most often, we do things like loose some smoke
because the chorus and the principals hate smoke. There are little
things like that, but mostly just things to make sure they work better.
BD: So, you’re constantly making sure they
work, but also making improvements?
Landmesser: Generally speaking, the things
that improve are musical, and in the ensemble, because the longer the
group stays together, the longer they work together, the more comfortable
they feel in the roles, which they can’t really feel comfortable with by
BD: Even though they’ve been together for
Landmesser: Some of them have been together
for twenty years. They’re old friends. These people don’t
meet for the first time here. They know each other, and they pick
up where they left off. That is a remarkable thing about theater
people — we have people we don’t
speak to for ten years, but when they come in that stage door, it’s
like they were here last night at midnight, and now they’re here at eight
a.m. starting again. Friendships don’t end when someone leaves two
weeks after opening night. We’re always friends, and we’re always
colleagues, and we just keep going. So, things just keep maturing
and growing. They were changed in that they mature and grow.
* * *
BD: How long have you been with Lyric Opera?
Landmesser: Forever. This is my eleventh
season. I came in June of ’87.
BD: Where were you before that?
Landmesser: I was in Houston from 1980 until
’87, with Houston Grand Opera.
BD: Doing what
— more technical directing?
Landmesser: I was the technical director
at Houston Grand Opera, and before that I was the technical director at
Texas Amphitheater. Then, the two merged.
BD: How does one train to be a technical
Landmesser: Technical directors are different
in each company, and in some ways the company trains you to be what
they need you to be. Sometimes it is without words. There’s a
void in the company that needs to be filled, and the person fills it. Sometimes,
the personality fills it, and other times their expertise fills it. The
person’s expertise needs to grow to accomplish that.
BD: So, you have to fill it, or your position will be
filled with someone else?
Landmesser: No, you have to fill it, and
if you don’t quite know what to do, or if it’s something that you’ve
not experienced before, you still know what to do with that. Generally
speaking, you’re working with colleagues that are your friends, and
they are helpful. If you don’t have something, your friend has
that special something that they can bring to it. We work as a
team. I can’t do what I do without the master carpenter. If
I can’t do what I do, or he can’t do what he does, we turn to the head flyman.
If our prop man, Tommy Gilbert doesn’t show up for work one year, then
we’re all in trouble, and it’s because we are a team. We are a team,
and we work together. There’s no one person that’s the boss, and
there’s no one person that takes orders. If Tommy Gilbert tells
me we need to do something, and he’s right, we do that.
BD: It sounds like you coordinate everybody.
You have your finger on the pulse of everything that needs to be
done, and make sure that all of it does get done.
Landmesser: I like to make people talk to
each other because that’s how we get things done. What I do, how
I train, and what I know has more to do with talking to people. It
is what I’ve learned at school. I had wonderful mentors. When
I was in undergraduate school, my mentor was Klaus Holm. He was
the Broadway and opera designer that worked with Donald Oenslager, who
designed hundreds of operas and musical theater pieces in the ’50s
and ’60s. Hanya Holm was Klaus’ mom and
she worked with Mary Wigman. Hanya was one of the old dancer-influencers
in Germany, and was also an opera director. She was the original director
of Baby Doe, and worked in Central City a lot. Hanya and Klaus
influenced me greatly as I came to graduate school, and then I got into the
theater world. The opera world took me away from the theater world,
and this is where I got to Houston. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle knew. We
were best friends and great buddies. I did want to leave Houston, but
we just opened a brand new opera house down there, and I spent four years
with them. When Bill [Mason of Lyric Opera] called, and when Dwayne Schuler, [the lighting
designer] called, it was all very tempting, but it was when Jean-Pierre
said that I should go there, I knew it was for me. We had many good
things we could do there together. Then Jean-Pierre died that summer,
so all the good things we were meant to do together we’ll have to do some
other time on the next stage, because in ten, or fifteen, or twenty years,
we’ll still be friends.
BD: [Mildly concerned] You don’t see
yourself living beyond that?
Landmesser: I just live hoping my life continues.
Seasons blend. I don’t know how long I’ve been here, and
I don’t know how long any of us have been here. We just always have
been here, and we’ll always be here. Jean-Pierre is still with
me, and he’s still with Bill. He influences everything we do, just
as Solti will at the
Chicago Symphony. There are people that will influence you forever,
and maybe someday we’ll influence somebody else with what we do.
BD: I hope so. Do you feel that you influence
the audience by getting all of these things done, so that it’s presented
each night for 3,600 people?
Landmesser: We try not to think of it in a
personalized way, but in a team way. I have to believe we influence
what the audience sees. We want them to see something that is
so polished, so clean, so professional that it’s unlikely. When
they see Phantom and they can see into the wings, they can see
things happening. They see something wiggling, or they see something
askew. For us, that’s hard on the tenth performance of an opera
that opened a month and a half ago. It’s hard because in the meantime
you’ve rehearsed and opened three other operas. There’s a lot of
work going on on the stage, with what’s hanging in the air, what’s sitting
in the wings, what’s being rehearsed, what’s marked, where the lights
were focused before, and so forth. It is hard to keep re-creating
that, because it’s a new show every time. It’s not like some theater
or opera house where you have one opera on stage, and it’s been there
for two months. That’s a very easy show to put on stage because
it never moves, it never wiggles.
BD: Would it be easier to do something
like Phantom, which runs eight times a week?
Landmesser: It would be easy and it would
be mind-numbing. I think that’s what purgatory must feel like.
I mean no disregard for Mr. Lloyd-Webber, but not only is the music
not what I’d like to hear for the rest of my year, but it’s the same
mood over and over and over again. What’s exciting about what we
do is that every day is a different challenge. It’s the same piece
of Gioconda that has to move to that same place on the mark on
the floor in the third act, but what’s in the way today is a little piece
of Ariadne that wasn’t there when we opened the show. Ariadne
comes and goes, and then Gioconda goes, and then something else
affects Ariadne. It’s a constant challenge.
* * *
BD: You mentioned the music. You’re
involved in technical stuff, so do you get involved in the music at
Landmesser: Of course I’m involved. We
all are involved in the music. If you take it at the most simple
level, there’s music that covers a scene change.
BD: How loud is that music?
Landmesser: We better get it done under
it. If we are making too much noise, we better tell the guys to
move that piece in a different way. The guys have to pick that
piece up and carry it, rather than drag it. Or, we don’t use a hammer
for this scene change. If there is no time for the steel curtain
to come down, the music effects everything you do, but mostly what it
affects is it affects your spirit. We have stagehands here who
are not typical stagehands. These are people that love the opera.
You can have stagehands that will make their change, and then will go and
finish the book that they started, or work on a crossword puzzle. But
some of them will sit in the wings and listen to the aria that’s about to
be sung, and their jaws drop as far as ours because it’s beautiful. How
can you not be affected by it? That’s the reason why most of us are
here. It’s not just the scenery, and the fact that the scenery here
is fifty feet tall as opposed to twenty feet tall someplace else. A
single piece generally will weigh ten thousand or twenty thousand pounds,
as opposed to something weighing just two hundred pounds. When you
stand there and watch what’s going on, you listen to it. You take
the time to take it all in, like the audience member is taking it all in.
There’s something spectacular and moving going on in every one of us.
BD: Does this at all influence who you hire
— someone who really likes the opera,
rather than someone who doesn’t care about the opera?
Landmesser: It influences who stays here.
It is clearly their choice, but they can’t make it through a season
unless they really like it. The proof of that is that so many people
end up in relationships with some of the other people who are in the same
business. Maybe that’s because you only ever get to meet those people,
but we have stagehands that are married to choristers. We have ballet
people married to ballet people. We have choristers married to choristers,
and I’m sure there are other relationships we can’t mention because we
don’t know about them, or don’t want to know about. But the thing
that hold us all together is that this art form is the most magnificent
art form. You can go to the Chicago Symphony and have beautiful music,
but there’s nothing else going on besides the beautiful music. They
try to do these little things in concert, and they try to make it look like
they are as good as we are, but this is an art form to beat the band. I
mean no disrespect, but here you have ballet, you have dance, you have
movement, you have color and light and scenery and costumes and props.
Sometimes you even catch the smell of what’s going on on stage.
It’s just like Chicago is different than
New York. New York smells like garbage and urine, while Chicago
smells like chocolate! That’s what makes Lyric different from the
CSO. The symphony is fabulous, but Lyric smells and lives that.
When you walk out of Lyric, you’ve experienced that moment in that person’s
life. Pagliacci lived in you for a moment. When you
come out of the CSO, you’ve been impressed by the music, and the power
of the music. Here, you’ve lived it. If you don’t come out
of here some nights weeping, we need to change the genre. For the
opening cycle of the Ring I sat in the house, which is the first
time I’ve done that in about ten years. I felt the whole audience
with me, holding their breath for a moment. You couldn’t let your
body make any noise to interrupt the sound, or the thing that was happening
on stage in front of you, because it’s just way too powerful.
BD: [Somewhat surprised] Are
you not needed backstage once the curtain goes up?
Landmesser: What would I do? What could
I do that the crew couldn’t do better? If something happens backstage,
I run. That’s one of the reasons why I usually sit in the booth
at the back of the theater with my staff. We all sit in booths
so we can make quick escapes. We don’t want to even sit by the aisle,
and have to go through the door because this is disrupting. We
sit in the booth in the back where we can hear it, we can see it, and
we’re witness to it. I confess to having blasted through the door
to run backstage as fast as I can, but there’s very little that the
crew has not already taken care of by the time I get back there. But
usually, it’s just personal excitement that I run back there for.
BD: Is there ever a night when everything just
Landmesser: There are many nights
when everything just goes right. There are some nights that are
just too beautiful to describe. You know what I mean. How
lucky can a person be to be able to work here and be repeatedly exposed
to those nights? Sometimes we’d sit there in Susannah [shown
at right, with Samuel Ramey and Renée Fleming],
and it’s just the music, the sound; or to be enveloped by the Ring
Cycle and to live through it. I imagine the audience members
at that time, and how much they must have felt of the excitement in the
moment, and the joy of the music, and the sights and sounds, and what
was going on, and how exciting it must have been. That’s like the
father’s joy of the birth of a child. We, on the other hand, experience
the mother’s nine months of labor, because we had four years of labor
bringing that child to the stage. So, on some nights, what’s gone
right is that a year before has gone into getting it there. Some
teams work so well together. I can’t even tell you how many beautiful
moments I’ve sat in the theater without an actor, or a singer, or an orchestra.
Even those moments were beautiful. We’d make a scene change in a
rehearsal six months before the cast would arrive, and something so beautiful
would happen. Maybe you’d never get to re-create that. There
are some times when, after the audience is emptied and the crew goes to
strike the set and get ready for the next day or that night, they’ll take
out the fire curtain [seen in the photo below-right], they take out
the house curtain, they’ll take out one of the sound doors in the back,
and they’ll open the doors to find maybe a trailer is backing in off of
Washington Street. You can see clearly through one entire block of
Wacker Drive, and the sound comes blasting through the middle of that.
It’s beautiful. I’ve never shared that to anybody else. These
are good times and good people. This is a great place to work.
BD: Would you ever want a composer to call
for that effect in a scene of his new opera?
Landmesser: You could call for it, but I
don’t know if you can do it. It’s hard to get the same thing to
happen two nights in a row. That’s the goal, but it’s hard to do
that. It’s hard to hit a high C two nights in a row.
BD: That’s right, but that’s what they’re
paid the big bucks to do.
Landmesser: That’s what they love to do.
They take the big bucks just because you give it to them. That’s
why we do it. I swear to God, I haven’t opened a pay stub in ten
years. I just trust that they’re paying me. I know that I’m
here because of what I do, not because of what they’re paying me.
BD: You deposit the check and don’t look
at the total?
Landmesser: It’s an online deposit, and
I haven’t looked at it in 10 years. [Pauses a moment] I hope
they’re paying me...
BD: I’m sure you would find out immediately
from your creditors.
Landmesser: [With a smile] Somebody
would have known. Somebody would have told me.
BD: The feeling I get from everyone is
that it’s a joy to work here. They’ve worked here for years and
years, and amazingly, yours is one of the shortest careers here.
Landmesser: I am, and it just means I have
a long time to go.
BD: I assume you’re looking forward to being
here for 20, 30, 40 years.
Landmesser: Oh, boy...
BD: [Slyly] Should I tell everyone
there was a look of abject terror on your face?
Landmesser: No. You shouldn’t tell the
terror. We don’t look at calendars the same way. The Lyric’s
calendar doesn’t even begin on a Sunday like everybody else in the world.
We begin on a Monday, because that’s when all the union contracts
begin. The union contracts for the orchestra, the stagehands, and
everyone all begin on Mondays. We don’t keep track of time the same
way. I guess we’re closer to an academic year than a calendar year.
If you ask me when my son was born, it was at 12:30 in the morning
on the night of the first day of the Salome rehearsal in 1988. Now,
what the heck that means to anybody else I don’t know, but we gauge the
experiences in our life by what was on stage at that time, not by the year,
or the day, or the season. [Note: BD’s
second marriage took place on the day of the Met broadcast of Elektra
with Birgit Nilsson,
Leonie Rysanek, Mignon Dunn, and James Levine.] Half
the stagehands here don’t get to see their house from the time the leaves
are green until the time the leaves are gone, because somebody else is
raking them up.
BD: Since you’re here all year round,
you don’t guest at other houses?
Landmesser: No. You visit other houses
during the shows, or in meetings, but I don’t guest in another house.
BD: When you go to another house, do you look
to see things that you’d like to do here, or things you want to be sure
never to do here?
Landmesser: Yes. There are some
very good houses, and there are always things to notice. Maybe
they’re not even aware that there are things that are meant to be taken
from those houses, but there are wonderful houses here and there and
everywhere. There are some unfortunate things going on in the world
of opera right now, but there are also some great things going on.
BD: Are you optimistic about the future
Landmesser: I’m a pessimist. I’m not
an optimist, so that’s a hard question. The future of opera is not
dependent on what I can do to help it. I can only make this the
most perfect event for the viewer, the most exciting, the most relaxing,
the most entertaining evening that I can bring to them, and I depend on
the five hundred people who feel the same way as I do, from David, the
guy that empties the trash cans backstage, to Sam Ramey. We all
have to feel that same way about it, but frankly, will Kraft be generous
to us next year? Will Aon be generous to us next year? Will
American Airlines be generous to us next year? Those are the reasons
why we’re still going to be here. We’re going to have to get it
from the government. We’re not going to be able to support it by
ourselves. We depend on the generosity of others to make it really
happen. What we can do is fight to maintain the quality of what
we put onstage. People respect us enough to come back year after
year after year after year. We are now ten years with over 100% of
tickets sold. [With a wink] How long have I been here?
BD: [With mock sincerity] You’re talking
full credit for that???
Landmesser: [Laughs] Maybe it’s
a coincidence, but I’d like to think that people come back because I
do my job as well as I can, and people that work with me do their jobs
as best as they can, because the guy that sees the show on the tenth performance
deserves to see the same show as the guy who sees the first show of that
BD: I would think the first show would not
be quite as good as the third or fourth show.
Landmesser: From an ensemble’s point of
view, or from the orchestra’s point of view, that might be the case,
because they can get a little bit more polished. Certainly, there’s
an excitement about that opening night, but maybe they can work on their
blending a little bit, or fix that musical note here, or a passage there.
After meeting with the maestro, and having sung these two or three
performances, they realize that if they attack this a little bit differently,
or take a breath there, that they can do something even better. But
for the orchestra, maybe in the middle of the run of Mahagonny, they
might’ve had twelve hours of Meistersinger rehearsals, and the brass
has been blowing their brains out. It’s hard, and they’ll come back
that night and do Ariadne or Traviata beautifully after they’ve
been pounding away at something else. It’s the
same for us. In the week before we open a show, we spend extensive
hours working on that show, to make sure scene changes go as tight as possible,
making sure that a piece of scenery passes or lands exactly where it’s supposed
to land, and the prop comes there, and the light change happens there.
We make sure all those are coordinated beautifully. Then, either
the night after the dress rehearsal, or the morning following the dress
rehearsal before the opening of that show, another show will land on
the stage that hasn’t ever been there, and that affects me. A naturalist
would tell you that you can’t walk into the forest and view the animal
life without affecting the animal’s behavior. Neither can one opera
coming on stage not make an effect. It affects the show before, and
it affects what goes on here. So, we have to just make that transparent
so that no one in the audience can know it. No one in the audience
can know that for four months, people will enter from stage-left, but now
they must enter from stage-right. Some piece of scenery is now there
and we can’t get rid of it. It is too big, so it has to stay there,
but the audience can’t know that. You know that, but they can’t.
* * *
BD: What one or two shows were the easiest
to get up, that just flowed immediately?
Landmesser: The ones I did when I first got here. Shows
are getting harder and harder and harder. Shows that seem easy
are not always easy. In the repertoire, sometimes we would take a
show that’s either physically less demanding, or less demanding to the chorus
or the orchestra, and stick it between two shows that are very, very difficult
so that you have a little breathing room. However, the restraint
you put on that easy show can make it just as hard as the hard shows. We
have a beautiful Barber of Seville that John Conklin gave us [shown
in photo at right] that came us to us in a roundabout way, because
we were supposed to do a different production. For that production,
the costumes caught on fire, and we ended up building a new production.
It’s a wonderful little production, but it’s very tricky. It’s
got a lot of little bits and pieces that have to be done really well. But
it’s small, and we thought that would maybe be the key to what’s still easy
to do. We also did a pretty big renovation of the opera house a few
years ago. They doubled the space on stage to store props and scenery,
and made great rehearsal opportunities and facilities. It also changed
the lighting around a lot. But in general, scenery keeps getting
bigger and bigger. It’s more and more real. It’s three-dimensional.
There’s very little painted scenery anymore. If there’s any
painted scenery, it’s way upstage, and everything in front of us now becomes
very real. The big pieces of scenery are impossible to store, so
shows that are small are easy shows, just because they’re small.
BD: You say the scenery is real. Is
Landmesser: Am I real? Yes, opera is real.
Why it would not be real? If you go to the theater, you’re
supposed to suspend disbelief. You come to the opera, and we’re required
to make you forget that you’re disbelieving. We take you in. We
pull you. We trick you. It’s not like a circus. It’s
not like a soap opera. It’s like a really, really good book. Charles
Dickens writes stories that aren’t real, but are
they fiction? Who cares? Maybe the circumstances aren’t
real, but maybe they are. When Violetta dies, are you not moved by
that? That’s a real emotion. So, that’s real. To me, that’s
real. It’s always real.
BD: What show has been the most difficult for you?
Landmesser: We’ve had a couple of difficult
individual shows. Un Re in Ascolto [by Luciano Berio] was quite
involved. Ghosts of Versailles [by John Corigliano] was
quite involved. Rake’s Progress [by Igor Stravinsky]
was quite involved.
BD: Is that because these are relatively
new operas, or just because of their complicated staging?
Landmesser: Both. In the case of Ghosts
of Versailles, the composer and the director and the designer had impossible
requests to make. Colin Graham and John Conklin came up with some
solutions for that. They’re flipping through generations and locations
like [snaps fingers]. Whoa! Time warp. But you do it
through the magic of the theater. You’re not moving from here to there,
but you are moving from here to there. Then, you begin to forget
a couple of things. You’re not hampered by thoughts of not really
being there. You take it for granted, and you go there.
The Magic Flute is not exactly new, but it is pretty tough if
you get enough animals on stage. By far, and specifically for Chicago,
I think the Ring Cycle was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and
not just because it’s the Ring Cycle. We
began playing it and planning the renovation almost at the same time.
The Ring Cycle was essentially a unit set. Each of the four
operas happened within the same environment, and yet we did plan it knowing
that six years from then, when we finally got to put it together, that
on a Monday morning we’d be rehearsing Act One of Walküre,
and that afternoon we’d be rehearsing Act Two of Götterdämmerung,
and in the evening we’d be rehearsing Siegfried. To flip
back and forth among those operas is hard. Then, imagine in the middle
of creating all of those shows that everything from your stage floor
to your curtain to the window above you, everything you’ve touched, everything
you felt in that space, every light in the building, every electrical circuit,
every doorway, every particle backstage has changed. It didn’t
change overnight, and it didn’t change all in one summer. It changed
gradually, one after another. So, even when we bring back something
that we’ve done the year before, the basic set was in a different place
in a different way. That was fun. That was great fun.
BD: Do you look at every new show that comes in as
Landmesser: Yes, but some more than others.
That’s what makes my life great. That’s what makes my job great.
It’s like every day is starting over again. Some days you
win, some days you don’t, and I know that the fellows on stage and the
rest of my staff feel the same way. Some days you really get
a lot of accomplished, so you get that and you grab it and you win.
Then some days you fail miserably, but you have another day, and after
that you have another day. Or, if not, you have a lesson you’ve learned
for the next show. As any of us who have been around here for many
years can tell you, there are things that you just know. Then, you
see something new. A young designer will come up, or a young director
will come up and say they’d like to do this. You swallow hard because
you know that it’s wrong, but you’re part of their support. You’re
part of what makes their vision come to the stage. So, you try that.
BD: Wouldn’t it be better to save them a
lot of pain and discovery-time?
Landmesser: That would be naïve. No,
it’d be worse than that. That would be being stodgy, because their
brilliance is in the discovery. What if he’s right? I’d
rather spend a little time trying to make it happen, or taking what I know
and taking what he wants to try to make it happen.
BD: I assume there are at least a few times
that you do find that it does work.
Landmesser: Yes, or they would have fired
me by now. It’s the fresh blood, and it’s
their blood that makes us great.
BD: Thank you for being part of it. I hope
you’re here for a long time to come.
Landmesser: Okay. Thanks.
---- ---- ----
© 1998 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on September 10, 1998.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following month, and again
in 1999. This transcription
was made in 2021, and posted on this website
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
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.