Director  Arthur  Masella

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



We met on the last day of March, 1988, just prior to the opening of The Chicago Opera Theater presentation of Of Mice and Men.  Our discussion included many details about that production, and we also spoke of other ideas and adventures Masella had encountered in his career.

Bruce Duffie:   You started out directing musicals, and now you’re directing operas.  What is the major difference between the two genres?

Arthur Masella:   [Laughs]  There really is not a major difference between the two genres.  The best way I can sum it up is by telling a little anecdote.  When I was directing a production at an opera company in New York City, I was working with the conductor, and we just got into a similar discussion about the difference between working in opera and working in musical theater.  I said,
I can sum it up very simply.  If you notice in this rehearsal room, the conductor is sitting in the center of the room on an elevated chair with the music stand in front of him, and I’m a little off to the side.  If this were a musical, I’d be sitting in the center and you’d be slightly off to the side!  He laughed as I was making light of a situation, but there is a certain amount of truth to that.  In opera, the emphasis slightly shifts, as it should, from the drama to the music.
BD:   Are you happy working in a slightly secondary role to the music?

Masella:   Sure, because any kind of musical theater is a collaboration, whether it’s opera or Broadway musicals, and in general the emphasis must shift to the music.  But during the production, every area of musical theater takes prominence at different points along the way, so I don’t think anyone or any area is really secondary.  They are all very important, but one must acknowledge the fact that the main thrust of opera lies in the music.  Of Mice and Men [the opera by Carlisle Floyd] is a great story, was a great novel [by John Steinbeck] and a great play, [adapted by Steinbeck].  Had Carlisle written terrible music for it, it would not be a great opera.  [Both laugh]  Of course, he hasn’t written terrible music!  He’s written wonderful music, and has taken a brilliant story and done it justice with his music.
BD:   Does this perhaps make the balance even more close than usual because you’re working with a strong libretto and a strong background?

Masella:   I think so.  In this instance, as most people know, the story of Of Mice and Men has great drama going on, and in a piece like this, the drama takes on much more importance than it would in a lesser story with a lesser libretto.  I have approached this piece in many ways as if we were doing the play.  It is important to me that people understand their characters, understand what I thought this piece is about, understand the relationships between the characters, and that we expressed that as best we could in addition to making great music.  I find myself giving notes to the cast at the end of each rehearsal as if we were doing a drama, because this piece very much calls for that kind of detailed attention to the characters’ relationships, etc.

BD:   Does the music add an extra dimension?  [Vis-à-vis the review shown at right, see my interviews with Alan Stone.]

Masella:   Absolutely!  [Laughs]  It always heightens the emotion!

BD:   Would you want to do this as a straight play without the music that Carlisle has written?

Masella:   I certainly would like to.  On the other hand, having now just completed directing the opera version of it, I might feel something was missing.  I might miss those moments where the music has the ability to touch us right at the heart of the emotion and bring that out in a way that the spoken word simply would not be able to do.  It would be an interesting experiment to see whether or not I felt frustrated by directing the straight play now.  Perhaps I could find other things about it, but I don’t know.

BD:   Do you encourage the singers to be extra careful with their diction?

Masella:   That’s crucial.  Anytime you’re performing an opera in the vernacular, people will be frustrated if they don’t understand what’s being sung.  So we’ve worked very long and very hard on diction.  I’m blessed with a cast that instinctively understands that, and for the most part they all naturally have very good diction within their singing voices.  We should not have much of a problem with that.

BD:   In a musical you go back and forth from something that is sung to something that is spoken.  Do you find that today’s music theater people, or even opera singers, are equipped to do that?

Masella:   Yes, not simply because more opera singers are receiving more dramatic training or understanding, more and more that they must be able to handle more dramatic situations on the stage, and not simply rely on the voice to make gorgeous sounds.  As the competition grows, and as they look around them and see more and more people who can not only produce those wonderful sounds, but do more than simply strut about the stage, smart singers are realizing that they also need other training.  In addition, in recent years, many people who are working in opera are people who perhaps initially in their careers pursued a theatrical avenue.  They were, perhaps, good well-trained singers who realized they could make that move into opera, and when they did, they went further with their training.  So, they had a theatrical base from which to work, and they brought that to their musical training.

BD:   Do you find it harder to work with musicians who started out playing the piano, and went to singing, and are completely musically orientated rather than dramatically orientated?

Masella:   Not necessarily.  [Thinks a moment]  It doesn’t matter from which area you began.  It just finally matters what your goals are.

BD:   What is the goal of the operatic director?

Masella:   To be at all times as faithful to the musical and dramatic integrity of a piece.
BD:   [Noting the order of his words]  Not the dramatic and the musical integrity?

Masella:   No, the musical and dramatic integrity in opera.  I think you must!  As director, one could be faithful to the dramatic integrity of a moment, which might call for two actors to be facing each other, playing a moment.  But if you put them so far upstage that you can’t hear the notes that they’re singing, that would not work.  One would be foolish to have the musical integrity of a piece suffer at the expense of the dramatic integrity.  The trick is always to find the balance.  That’s the difficult part of directing opera
finding that balance when the drama and music must trade off.  Finally at the end you come up with a whole that makes sense in all areas.

BD:   There seems to be an artificial gulf between the spoken theater and the musical theater, and then another gulf between musical theater and the operatic stage.  Are we blurring the lines more and more?

Masella:   Many people are trying, and many people are accepting it...

BD:   Kicking and screaming?

Masella:   No, I don’t think so, although there will always be segments that will kick and scream and say,
Keep that out of the opera house! or Don’t bring to Broadway!  But the art forms must change and must evolve.  They always have, and they always will.  It’s encouraging to see more contemporary operas done in opera houses, and to see pieces like Sweeney Todd and Candide, and those kinds of Broadway Musical pieces being done in opera houses.  Like it or not, it is encouraging to see The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables on Broadway being commercially successful, because they are certainly stretching the form a bit, if not necessarily advancing the form.  They’re saying that we can look at the Broadway musical in a different way, and we can look at it in many different ways, and that there is no set form to what the Broadway Musical is now.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Coming back to the big topic, where is opera going today?

Masella:   For the most part, from what I see around the country, it seems that opera has headed in the direction of Philip Glass.  I’m sure an awful lot of people are kicking and screaming about that, and perhaps a great many people are very happy about that.  There is, and obviously should be, a place for Philip Glass’s operas.  Because of the financial risks always involved in mounting new productions and commissioning new pieces, the problem with opera today is that artistic directors are often scared.  They go with what seems to be hot and successful at the moment.  So there’s no problem getting Philip Glass’s pieces produced, but there’s a great problem getting many other contemporary opera composers’ pieces produced.  There should be a place in the opera house for Philip Glass, and Dominick Argento, and John Adams, and Carlisle Floyd, and any number of other twentieth century composers.  However, the opera community is not quite there just at the moment.  They’re jumping on the band-wagon a little too often, and going with what seems to be the publicity and seems to be hot, and that will be a problem for new operas.

BD:   What advice do you have for composers who want to write for the current state and the future state of the operatic world?

Masella:   There’s a tremendous lesson to be learned from people like Philip Glass, who is not simply a composer.  The day of ‘I sit in my room and just compose’ is gone.  This applies across the board, not necessarily simply to composers, but to directors and to anyone who wants to do new works in the opera world and in the commercial theater.  The days of going to your room and writing your masterpiece, and letting the world discover it, are over... if they ever existed.  Glass is not only a composer, but a business man and a promoter, and somebody who knows how to get Philip Glass’s work out to the world.

BD:   Sounds like one has to be part P.T. Barnum.

barnum P.T. Barnum, in full Phineas Taylor Barnum, (born July 5, 1810, Bethel, Connecticut, U.S.—died April 7, 1891, Bridgeport, Connecticut), American showman who employed sensational forms of presentation and publicity to popularize such amusements as the public museum, the musical concert, and the three-ring circus. In partnership with James A. Bailey, he made the American circus a popular and gigantic spectacle, the so-called Greatest Show on Earth.

Playing upon the public’s interest in the unusual and bizarre (part of the “human curiosities” movement of the 19th century that saw the exploitation of African slave Sarah Baartman and the rise of carnival freak shows), Barnum scoured the world for curiosities, living or dead, genuine or fake. By means of outrageous stunts, repetitive advertising, and exaggerated publicity, Barnum excited international attention and made his showcase of wonders a landmark.

Eager to change his image from promoter of human curiosities to impresario of artistic attractions, Barnum risked his entire fortune by importing Jenny Lind, a Swedish soprano whom he had never seen or heard and who was almost unknown in the United States. Dubbing Lind “The Swedish Nightingale,” Barnum mounted the most massive publicity campaign he had ever attempted. Lind’s opening night in New York City, before a capacity audience of 5,000, and her nine months of concerts across the United States earned immense sums.

The Times of London echoed the world press in its final tribute: “He created the métier of showman on a grandiose scale.…He early realized that essential feature of a modern democracy, its readiness to be led to what will amuse and instruct it.…His name is a proverb already, and a proverb it will continue.”

:   He has some of those qualities, as did many well-known and famous artists throughout eternity.  The lesson from that is that not only should the composer write what one believes in, but one must spend a certain amount of time and attention learning how to get that to the right people so that it can be done, because finally, if it sits on a page in your room, it’s there but it hasn’t been seen.  My advice is that however one can, writers must learn to get their work out to the right people in the right way, so that they have a chance of having it produced, or find ways of producing it themselves.  People like Andrew Lloyd Webber have done that in another whole area.  He not only wrote pieces that are incredibly commercially successful, but he promoted them in a way that he would almost guarantee that, or at least give them the best chance.  He wrote his pieces and, of late, there are recordings of them before they ever get to the stage, so that people become familiar with the material, or that hits are produced, and theater managements are more willing to take a chance on mounting those pieces.  That is a very smart mentality, I think.

BD:   Should a composer look to write hits?

Masella:   Not necessarily!  A composer should look to write what he or she believes in.  The mistake that a composer might make would be to say,
This the most brilliant thing in the world, and if I simply write it the world will discover it!

BD:   It works once in a million times, and everybody thinks that it’ll happen to them.

Masella:   I think that’s true, and I’m as guilty of this as anyone else.  Anyone in the arts feels that if you do your best work, and it is quality work, the world will reward that, and I’m not sure that’s always the case.

BD:   What should be the reward for hard work?

Masella:   More hard work!  [Both have a huge laugh]  The reward is the continued opportunity to do what you want to do.  That’s the ideal reward as far as I’m concerned.  If one directs a good production of a piece that you’re in love with, the reward for that should be a call that says,
Would you like to direct a wonderful production of another piece you’re in love with?  Then, if the financial rewards and recognition go along with that, that’s certainly the icing on the cake.  But finally, what we all want to do, whether we’re directors, or composers, or performers, is to do more of what we love to do.

BD:   What happens when the reward of directing a great piece that you love, is the invitation to direct a great piece that you don’t love?

Masella:   Then you have a dilemma, because it’s always difficult to turn down work.  You have a choice, and for myself these days, I’m feeling that my choices are becoming more and more,
“No thank you, because it can very frustrating to direct something that you’re not in love with.

BD:   What is it that you look for in a piece that makes you decide you will do this, or you will not do that?

Masella:   First you must like the piece.  When you sit there and listen to it, it must do something to your creative energies so you will say,
This is wonderful!  I’m excited by this.  As an audience member, I would like to see this.  Secondly, you need to feel that now you have to put it on the stage.  I have to try to make magic, so what is it about this piece that I can interpret, and then how can I contribute to it?  Do I have something to say, and do I want to say that in this piece?

BD:   Do you ever come upon a piece where everything has been said, and you can bring nothing new to it?

Masella:   [Thinks a moment]  No.  Even if it’s the ten-millionth production of La Bohème, somehow there’ll be something you’ll find in it that you can say in a slightly different way.  Now that one thing may not be enough reason to go ahead and direct it, but in any art form there’s always something to discover.  I don’t care how often it’s been done.  One just has to be sure that there are enough reasons.  You might want to work on a three-hour piece for one moment perhaps, and that
s all...  [Both laugh]

BD:   What advice do you have for other directors; maybe young ones coming along who want to get into the field of directing?

Masella:   With the state of the art right now, the best advice I have for someone, however they can do it, is to find a way to actually direct.  I understood that when I was very young, and the minute I decided that I wanted to be a director, I started to direct.

BD:   Did you direct plays or did you direct musicals?
Masella:   I directed musicals and plays in a very small setting on a university level.  But I was doing it, and when I turned professional, I suddenly started getting paid to do that in the professional arena.  I realized that there wasn’t that much of a difference between what I was doing as a professional, and what I had done before.  This was not necessarily in the quality, but in the method.  The techniques and all the things that I had learned in that tiny little situation applied perfectly to this new situation.  In addition, the cliché is you never know who’s watching, and that has invariably been proven true to me, and to many other people when you least expect it.  Something you have done can have an effect upon your career.  You might suddenly get a call, and they want to hire you to do a production.  That is terrific, but it comes from understanding what you want to do, and somehow finding a way to do it.  The other piece of advice I would have is that it’s very important to apprentice yourself in some way.  That has become a lost art these days.

BD:   Did you do that?

Masella:   Yes.   My apprenticeship was with Harold Prince.  I sought him out, and said that I need to learn from him.  I was fortunate, and I got that opportunity.  When you surround yourself, or when you are around people who are doing it for real, and doing it in an adventurous way, that rubs off and your standards are raised.  The way in which you look at things changes.  You pick up things that become natural to you, and you carry them with you when you go on to direct.  That’s as important as actually doing it.  For a while, being around people who are better than you are is important, because it forces you to stretch in ways that you can’t stretch in a vacuum.  If you look back, ninety-nine per cent of the great people in any art form were not simply inspired by certain people, but they were around them.  They worked with them.  They were there in the midst of it, and then they cut those cords, as they should have.  Sondheim had his Oscar Hammerstein, and Prince had his George Abbott, and Jerome Robins had his George Balanchine.  They are where they are because they were around great people at the start of their career.  Then they began to think that they were better than those people, and they became different, and moved on.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you approach a piece and get working on the direction, how much of it is simply what you want to do, and how much of it is feeding off of the actors and singers that you have to work with?

Masella:   I’m a great believer in seeing that as a collaboration.  I very rarely come into a situation and impose my ideas upon a cast.

BD:   But I assume you bring some ideas about the show.

Masella:   I certainly do.  My particular approach to directing is different from other people’s approach.  It is as personal as the particular director.  I’m going to let everyone know what we’re going to be doing.  I’m prepared, and if no one has any ideas, I’ll have all the ideas.  I will come in with a very specific framework of the way in which I think a scene should be staged.  On the other hand, I will allow that to change over the course of the day, or week, or the course of a five-week rehearsal period.  As we sit down in a rehearsal studio, I begin to get to know the personality of the actors, or the singers.  I begin to see where my ideas may have been wrong for that particular person.  The collaboration of two or three or five minds, including the conductor, certainly yield something much better than I originally thought.  That’s what rehearsal is about.  Rehearsal is not simply,
This is what I want to do, so now you do it.  Rehearsal is about discovering.  That’s the fun, and that’s the best part of it all.  Once rehearsals are over, there’s no more fun for a director.

BD:   Hopefully there’s fun for the audience.

Masella:   I hope so, and certainly there’s fun for the performers and the conductor.  But very often, if you speak to performers in the right situation, they also adore the rehearsal process because it is a time of discovery.  It’s a time of trying things out, and refining.  That can be very rewarding, as rewarding as taking the applause at the end, because it’s personally rewarding.  They see themselves growing as performers, and they feel good about that.

BD:   This opera is going to run for seven performances.  How do you keep the fourth and fifth and sixth ones as fresh as numbers one, two and three?

Masella:   Certain pieces have a life of their own, and this is one of them.  Anyone who performs this piece is committed to it.  You can’t avoid that.  One gets involved in it, and stays involved in it, so I have no concern whatsoever about the integrity of this production.  Particularly with this cast, all of whom are terribly committed to the piece, we could do seventy performances, and the seventieth performance would be as tight as the first.

BD:   Really???

Masella:   Yes, simply because the piece is so well structured, and the people are so committed to it.  They feel it’s important to maintain the integrity of it.  This is not the kind of piece that one wants to play around with over the course of performances, so I think it’ll stay pretty tight.

BD:   You’ve done a number of world premieres.  How is that different from doing an established piece?

Masella:   Certainly the biggest difference with a world premiere is that you don’t really know what you have.  With an established piece, there’s a track record.  You know how the audience is going to react to certain moments, how the audience is going to react in general to the entire piece, and from the point of view of the material, it’s been tried out.  With a new piece, you’re always guessing.  It’s always just the opinion of the director, and the composer, and the conductor.  So you put that on a stage in front of an audience, and one never knows what the reaction is going to be.  On the other hand, there is something incredibly exciting about creating something new, and being there at the moment the very first time that an aria has been sung in public, and staged, and lit, and reacted to.  But that’s scary!  That’s a very precarious situation, and one wonders what’s going to happen.  While I was working on Argento’s Casanova,  which was a world premiere, I felt in my heart of hearts that this was a piece that the audience was going to love.  It was funny, it was sexy, and it was romantic, and I thought we had created the right atmosphere.  It looked great in the rehearsal studio, but until we did it, one can’t bet on the reaction of the public.  You just take your chance, and fortunately with that particular situation, the audience reacted very much in the way that we all expected that they would.

BD:   What do you expect of the audience that comes to a new piece for the first time?

Masella:   I would hope that audiences would come to new pieces to discover something new.  That’s not often the case, and that’s unfortunate.  Very often, audiences come to new pieces ready to compare.  They feel it’s sort of like this piece that they know, or it sounded a lot like something else, or it’s not as good as that other one, and that’s unfortunate.  The only time I can think of that audiences had an open way of approaching new pieces may have been in the 1940s when they went to the new musicals on Broadway.  From what I hear and have read, every premiere had the potential for the birth of a great event.  If audiences were to approach new pieces in that way today, it would be incredibly exciting, and more fair to the people who are creating the pieces.  I like to go to new pieces, and think it would be wonderful if twenty years from now I was able to say that I was there that night.  I would love to have been at the opening nights of La Bohème, and The Magic Flute, and South Pacific, and all those great works.  When I go to new pieces, I hope that I’ll be as surprised as those opening night audiences were for those great pieces.

BD:   And yet, you’ve been at the opening nights of Casanova, and Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures.

Masella:   I have been at many opening nights, and it rarely happens that one knows that it is a piece which will live forever.  But it is valuable to approach each one that way, because you go in with excitement, and with an open mind, and with the ability to be moved in the way you should be moved.  Very often, people sit there and say,
“Show me what you’ve got, and let me see what I think, and how it compares to other shows.

BD:   Is the public always right?

Masella:   No!  But the public is not always wrong.  It’s the critics who are not always right and not always wrong.  I don’t know what gives it longevity, but finally something makes a piece great and allows it to live forever.  I don’t know whether that’s more in the hands of the public, or more in the hands of the critics, or more in the hands of the artists down the road who choose to rejuvenate it over and over again.  It’s obviously some sort of a combination of all that, and I’m sure there are many, many, many
great pieces that are not living.
BD:   They’re just languishing on library shelves?

Masella:   Perhaps.  There are many pieces out there, many operas and musicals and works of art and many books that are just sitting there waiting to be re-discovered, or really discovered for the first time.  I don’t know what it is that allows a piece to just spring out and become one of the standards in any field.  Initially, it certainly is popular success, with people wanting to see it.

BD:   Do these kinds of things that you have directed transfer well to the television?

Masella:   [Thinks a moment]  Certainly a piece like Of Mice and Men would.  It would be the courageous and wonderful television producer that decides to put it on television as an opera, because it is such an intimate piece about the relationships.  I had always hoped that Casanova would get there, and we came very close to doing it for television.  That would have been a piece that would have translated well on television.  Our particular physical production would have translated well.  On the other hand, it is a very tricky situation to take a stage piece and put it on television.

BD:   If you know it’s going to be on television, do you perhaps direct it slightly differently?

Masella:   I think I would.  I have an interest in directing for the camera, whether it be on television or films.  I approach my theatrical pieces in a rather cinematic way at times.  If I were doing Of Mice and Men for television, I would not simply take the production from the Athenaeum Theater [shown at right], and set up three or four cameras out in the house, and film it.  In the best of all possible worlds, one would slightly re-conceive the theatricality of it so that one that could capture that on television.

BD:   You’d take advantage of the possibilities?

Masella:   Absolutely, rather than simply trying to frame that proscenium on a nineteen-inch screen.  It’s not the same thing.  The camera has many other things to offer.  The trick is to capture some of the theatricality that you had in the theater, and put that on that screen.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you optimistic about the whole future of the opera business?

Masella:   I think so.  Opera has grown tremendously.  I would encourage opera companies to take more risks, because then audiences would be forced to take more risks, and that can only be good for opera.  It would allow different kinds of directors to come in with different ideas about particular operas, to encourage new works, to find new ways of doing old works while at the same time preserving the traditions of the old ways of doing certain works.  There is a place for all of that, and there should be a place for all of that.  I don’t think any one of those areas should be abolished at the expense of the others.  At times, opera companies and commercial theaters across the country play it a little too safe, and abolish one thing at the expense of another.

BD:   When I read operatic criticism these days, many column entries are devoted to the scenery and the direction, and it’s almost at the very end, in the last paragraph, that by the way, so-and-so sang and did very well.  Is that the right perspective?

Masella:   It's the decade of the director in opera, but their decade will end, and it’ll move onto someone else.  It’ll soon be the decade of the singer again, and then it will be the decade of the designer, and then it’ll be the decade of the composer, and it’ll finally come back to being the decade of the director.  I don’t know why that happens.  I guess people need change, and they need to focus on different things.

BD:   How closely do you collaborate with the designer in a new production?

Masella:   Incredibly closely.  That’s essential.  I involve the designer or the design team as early as possible in a new production.  At times, the composer is writing with some specific visual ideas in mind, and that’s the best kind of collaboration.  The ideal collaboration would be,
“Here’s the piece we want to do.  Here’s the composer, and here’s the director.  We’ll bring this design team in.  Let’s all talk about that for a while!  Now go write it, and then come back periodically and have meetings and play what you’ve written.  Let us talk about how we’re going to realize that on the stage, and how that will affect what you will go back and write, or re-write.  Those are the wonderful kinds of collaborations.  That rarely happens, but any variation on that is acceptable.  [Both laugh]

BD:   In the end, is directing fun?

Masella:   Yes, and treacherous!  [Both laugh]  It is often great fun.  It is very difficult work, very hard work.  I require a great deal of preparation for a production.

BD:   Can a piece ever get over-rehearsed?

Masella:   Sure!  Pacing is a very important part of putting a production together.  You can over-rehearse a piece, and the actors can get to a point where they are ready to give their all two weeks before you open.  If that happens, by the time you open, it’s stale.  Part of the skill that a director has to acquire is understanding how to pace a production, how to pace a day, and how to pace individual actors.  Certain actors can put out more at certain times.  Various actors require different things from a director.  So in order to put out those things, you’re always a bit of barometer, always taking a measurement of what’s going on in the room, and then adjusting each of the individual elements.
BD:   It seems like a terribly delicate balancing act.

Masella:   It is.  It always is, because there are so many balls in the air that you have to juggle at all times, from the production elements, to the actors, to the conductors, to the composer, to your particular ideas, to the props.  You have to somehow make sure that they all stay up in the air.

BD:   Do they?

Masella:   Something always slips!  [More laughter]  You always have to bend down and pick something up every day.  But that’s your rehearsal period, and hopefully by the opening night they’re all up in the air.  When they are, it’s magic, and when they’re not, it’s semi-magic, and when they’re all on the floor, it’s a disaster!

BD:   I hope you haven’t had too many disasters.

Masella:   No, but everyone has worked on productions that you’re less proud of for various reasons.  It might be that your work was not good, or the situation was not good, or particular performers were not right in particular roles.  I have had a number of productions that I’m glad I did them, but I’m glad they’re over!  [Laughter]

BD:   Do you have any good stories about scenery falling, or something like that?

Masella:   I’m pretty fortunate in that respect.  I’ve not had many disasters.  Casanova had an interesting performance in Minneapolis.  There’s a scene in the second act on the middle of the lagoon, and Casanova takes his crazy old lady out in his gondola.  We had a wonderful effect where a scrim came in, and the stage filled itself with mist.  Then this gondola came in.  It looked as if Casanova was rowing or poling this gondola from upstage left to the center of the stage.  Then he’d make a turn and glide down towards the audience.  It always got nice applause when it happened correctly.  One night, something happened where it made the turn and then got stuck.  It couldn’t come down stage.  [Starts laughing, and continues as he relates the story]  So Julian Patrick, who was playing Casanova at the time, threw the pole down.  Fortunately there was three feet of mist on the stage.  So he climbed out of the gondola and slipped down to his knees, so it looked as if he was sinking into the water.  He then pushed the gondola down the stage, and climbed back in and went on with the scene.  After seeing that, I thought that’s almost a better effect, but we couldn’t count on the mist being in exactly the right spot at the right time.  We’d have to hide the fact that he was really walking on his knees half way down the stage.  Fortunately, I haven’t had too many scenic disasters, but it certainly happens all the time.

BD:   Is Casanova coming back again?

Masella:   I certainly think it will be back.  It was just given for the second time this past season at the New York City Opera, and I know that Beverly Sills is interested in repeating it again.  I don’t think it’ll be this season, but perhaps next, or the season after that.  It’ll be a production that will stay around, and it should.  It’s a wonderful opera.  It’s a piece which deserves to be done around the country, and there is some interest in it, fortunately.

BD:   The trick is getting people interested in new works.

Masella:   Yes.  Opera companies are interested in premiering new works, but they’re not necessarily very interested in doing the second or third performances.  There isn’t the notoriety and the publicity that goes along with a premiere, and that’s unfortunate because there are so many pieces that are premiered and are never seen again.  They deserve to be seen.  It’s fortunate that a piece like Of Mice and Men has had a life, and will continue.  That’s simply because the Chicago Opera Theater and other companies all over the country are willing to produce it.  

BD:   Are you coming back to Chicago?

Masella:   I hope so!  I’d certainly like to come back to the opera company, and to the other opera company.  I was at the Goodman Theater and saw a production there.  It was the first production I’ve seen there, and I would love to work in that gorgeous little theater.  Chicago seems to be alive with theater and music and dance, in a way that New York was ten years ago.  There were lots of little productions going on all over the city, and getting the kind of exposure that they deserve.  New York has in recent years gotten a little jaded, and the experimentation has gone out of it.  Off-off-Broadway theaters have gotten to be off-Broadway theaters, and the off-Broadway theaters have gotten to be Broadway theaters, while Broadway theaters have gotten to be a bit like Las Vegas.  Everyone’s trying to be safe and produce the commercial hit, rather than try to do what they want to do, and are interested in doing, and experimenting a bit.  It seems to me that Chicago is interested in trying new things, and that’s good.

BD:   One last question.  Thinking about television and cinema, do you ever feel frustrated that you can’t use those techniques the same way on the live stage?

Masella:   I do.  People are using them more and more these days, but they’re very expensive to produce,  That’s simply the problem.

BD:   Can we keep getting people to come to the live theater when they can rent a video?

Masella:   [Thinks a moment]  I’d like to believe yes, but I think no.  You can’t compete with the techniques of the modern video and film technology.  It’s dazzling.  The
boob-tube can’t remotely compete with the energy of an audience being dazzled by a brilliant performance on the stage, or the incredible rush of a full orchestra behind a tenor hitting a glorious note.  You’ll never get that on a television screen or in a movie theater.  All of us have become a lazy public, myself included.  It’s easier to rent that video and pop it in the machine, and sit at home.  It takes much more effort to walk down the steps, and get in the car, or get on the bus and go to that theater, and take a chance that you’re going to experience something magical.  I hope we’ll stop being so lazy, and get back to taking more chances, but we won’t unless we’re enticed.  Our responsibility as theater peoplemusicians, or performers, or directorsis to somehow find ways to entice the audiences out of their living rooms.  That’s my responsibility.  The public’s responsibility is to force themselves to take the chance every once in a while.

BD:   Thank you for coming to Chicago.

Masella:   Thank you for having me here.

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© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 31, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB five days later.  Permission was also granted to Carl Ratner for use in the dissertation Chicago Opera Theater: Sandard Bearer for American Opera 1976-2001.  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.