Director Harry Silverstein
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Harry Silverstein has been the Director of DePaul Opera Theatre since
1990 and instructs singers in performance techniques. Mr. Silverstein has
professionally directed over 100 productions of 45 operas on 4 continents,
including such theaters as Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera,
English National Opera, and companies in England, Northern Ireland, Germany,
The Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, and Brazil, as well as more than
15 American companies including Lyric Opera of Chicago, New York City Opera,
Dallas Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Washington National Opera and Seattle
Mr. Silverstein has staged many contemporary works including
premieres of works by Philip
Glass, in all 6 Glass operas, as well as many works from the standard
operatic repertory both for professional companies and for DePaul Opera
Theater. Internationally known for his Mozart interpretations he has directed
9 different Mozart operas for companies ranging from San Francisco to Northern
Ireland. Recent projects include a new production of Magic Flute
for San Francisco Opera with visual artist Jun Kaneko, which was recorded
for video release and was the subject of a book now in its second printing,
and Rigoletto for San Francisco Opera which was simulcast to an audience
of 30,000 at AT&T baseball park in San Francisco. The Magic Flute
production was seen at Washington National Opera where it was simulcast to
20,000 people at National's Park.
A frequent judge for the Metropolitan Opera National Competition,
Mr. Silverstein served on the staff at Lyric Opera Chicago and Houston
Grand Opera, and currently serves as Board Chair of Opera Festival of Chicago.
In March of 2001, I had the pleasure of speaking with Harry Silverstein.
It was during the rehearsal period for The Good Soldier Schweik,
presented by the Chicago Opera Theater. Immediately following the
performances, the entire cast went into the studio and made the recording
which is shown below. Needless to say, his ideas of staging and interpretation
were reflected in the audio presentation.
Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.
Bruce Duffie: You’re at DePaul University?
Harry Silverstein: I run the opera program at DePaul,
and am an associate professor in the school of music.
BD: Do they give you enough time to do outside projects?
Silverstein: They are extremely generous with me,
and have given me the freedom to do essentially one project in each quarter.
It turns out that this year I had such busy winter that they were
generous enough to give me a leave of absence for the winter quarter, and
this will be the third project in that time period.
BD: Does this alter whether or not you accept things,
if they will fit into your time schedule?
Silverstein: Oh, absolutely.
BD: Are there some things that you have to pass on?
Silverstein: You can be sure, and very, very much
to my dismay.
BD: But not enough to make you leave DePaul?
Silverstein: No, certainly not.
BD: Let’s talk a little bit about the project at
hand, The Good Soldier Schweik. Were you enthusiastic about
accepting this particular opera from the Chicago Opera Theater?
Silverstein: Absolutely, and for several reasons.
I was attracted to the piece, and very much attracted to the opportunity
to work in a venue in Chicago. I was quite interested in the opportunity
to work with Brian Dickie, so it had an awful lot going for it.
BD: Did the fact that it is a Chicago area composer,
however long gone, enter into it at all?
Silverstein: In its own way, to be sure. I was
acquainted with the nature of the piece, because one of my colleagues at
De Paul, Donald DeRoche, who is the Chairman of the Performance Department
and conductor of the wind band, was very well acquainted with The Good
Soldier Schweik Suite, and had always felt that this was a project that
perhaps we could do at DePaul. So when it came up with Chicago Opera
Theater, I thought this is really grand. [A recording of the Suite
is shown below, near the end of this interview.] I did the research
on the piece, and found that the composer, Robert Kurka was from the Chicago
Robert Kurka, of Czech descent, was born in Cicero, Illinois
(just outside Chicago) on December 22, 1921. He attended Columbia University,
but was largely self-taught in composition, studying only briefly with
Otto Luening and
Darius Milhaud. After graduating from Columbia in 1948, Kurka taught at
the City University of New York and Queens College, served as composer-in-residence
at Dartmouth College, and composed to growing acclaim.
He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1951, after completing a chamber
symphony, a symphony for brass and strings, a violin concerto, four string
quartets, two violin sonatas, and several other works. An award from the
National Institute of Arts and Letters came the following year.
In 1952, he began an opera based on Jaroslav Hasek’s satirical novel
The Good Soldier Schweik, but had difficulty securing rights to make a libretto
from it, so instead worked his sketches into the orchestral suite that
has become his best-known composition. Eventually he proceeded with the
opera, but he was stricken with leukemia as he worked on the score. He
was able to finish it sufficiently before his death in New York on December
12, 1957 – ten days before his 36th birthday – that composer and arranger
Hershy Kay could prepare the work for its premiere, given with considerable
success by the New York City Opera on April 23, 1958. The declaration
accompanying an award Kurka received from Brandeis University on May 5,
1957 (seven months before his death) proved sadly ironic: “To Robert Kurka,
a composer at the threshold of a career of real distinction.”
BD: As you got more and more into the piece, were
there any big surprises?
Silverstein: That’s a really broad question, and that’s
always the nature of directing a piece. It unfolds, oh, like a flower,
and I’m always tremendously surprised by what reveals itself to me as a
result of first studying the piece, and then actually getting the chance
to work with the performers.
BD: I assume that this is one of those times that
the more you got into the piece, the more you found in it, and the more you
BD: You don’t have to mention names, but are there
times when you get into a piece, and you realize there’s less and less
Silverstein: [Laughs] I’ve been very fortunate.
Perhaps it’s just my interest in the art form, but I really do find that
quite a bit reveals itself to me as I go along in the work. Opera is
such an extraordinary undertaking. Most artists are very serious about
their art, and these are projects that people have been working on often for
a number of years. There’s always an interesting complexity to it as
a result of the tremendous amount of thought and effort that the composer
and the librettist have had with putting the piece together. Even pieces
that people consider to be unsuccessful, or less interesting, or less exciting,
all have their own personality and characteristics. I really can’t
say that I’ve had the experience of working on a piece to bring it to life,
and not being able to find something interesting in it.
BD: You trust the composer and the librettist?
Silverstein: Oh, I do.
BD: You’ve done well-known works such as La Traviata,
and now you’re doing a rare piece. Is it different working with the
singers because of their different levels of experience and expectation?
Silverstein: Oh, it’s spectacularly different.
Not only do the singers bring significant experience and predisposition
to a performance of the pieces they have done before, but they also know
that the audiences will have those preconceived notions. So we’re
really required to have very good reasons for doing things that fly in the
face of people’s expectations of often-done, extremely well-known pieces,
whereas works that the audience are not acquainted with keep that pressure
on the performer and the production team.
BD: Is it somewhat like working with a world premiere
because it is unknown?
Silverstein: Essentially, we’re certainly approaching
it that way, even though it’s had a previous production . I’m
sure it was excellent, since it was done by Frank Galati. [The
conductor was Steven
Larsen, and like all productions of the Chicago Opera Theater, it was
under the artistic direction of Alan Stone.]
BD: I enjoyed it when I saw it.
Silverstein: I’m a great fan of Frank’s, but that
pressure I see is following him, to be sure. However, it really is
our feeling that, for the most part, the public will be approaching this
piece as though it were new. All of our performers and other artists
on the project are new to the piece, so the feeling is the same feeling that
we have when we’re working on a premiere. [This new production would
be conducted by Alexander
Platt, with sets by John
Conklin. The producer of the recording (shown at right)
was James Ginsburg.]
BD: Is it your goal to get it across to the public?
Silverstein: I think so. It’s certainly how
I have always approached it. We all come together in the performing
arts — ‘we’
being the performers and the public —
and we’re there in order to have a shared experience. No
matter how much work we’ve done as a group of performers and the original
creators of the piece, as well as the lighting and costume designers, if
we’re not able to create an experience that we can successfully share with
the audience, that’s based on ideas that have been created by this work, then
without question it’s failed. Our work absolutely fails if we can’t
speak to the public.
BD: I hope that you rarely fail.
Silverstein: We succeed at different levels.
[Laughs] This is the most generous way to express for us all. I’m
always surprised by the opening night audience to find that there are things
that we’ve done, and that we think are so clear and so well done, sometimes
aren’t appreciated in that way. Then there are other things, especially
in a comedy, where an audience will laugh and surprise us, and other moments
where we thought we were just hilarious, and we really didn’t succeed in
BD: Then do you go back and tinker with it, or do
you just hope that the second-night audience will react differently?
Silverstein: [Laughs] It’s
a little bit of both. For the most part, when operas come to performance,
we have done what we can in order to express what we have to say with the
piece. I don’t necessarily find it disappointing that an audience’s
view of what we’ve done will be different than ours. It isn’t necessarily
a disappointment to me that I laughed about something in rehearsal, and
my audience doesn’t, or that I felt something really wasn’t particularly
funny, but my audience does. It’s instructive for me, and gives me
ideas for projects that I will go after in the future.
BD: You’re learning all the time?
Silverstein: Oh, I hope so! The most exciting
part of what we do is that there are always opportunities to learn more.
That famous old phrase says that the more I do, the more I discover what
I don’t know. Certainly that’s the case for me now. Fifteen
years ago, I really felt pretty confident about what I did, but now I find
that I recognize how hard I have to work.
BD: Is it still satisfying?
Silverstein: Oh, without a question! Much more
so! I’m definitely better at what I do now than I was before.
* * *
BD: Do you come to rehearsals completely prepared,
or do you explore everything with the singers and the actors?
Silverstein: Hmmm. That begs the question of
what you are thinking of when you say ‘completely
BD: Then how much preparation is there, and how much
Silverstein: There’s a sense that some people have
of stage direction, and there are people who approach it with a book in
which they’ve written everything that they expect the performers to do
over the course of the performance. They want them to walk three steps
downstage, and then hold up their left hand, and turn in and look... That’s
never been how I’ve approached the art form. I like to have about
a year to work on a piece. Over the course of that year, I like to
learn everything that I can about how it was constructed, what is was based
on, what was happening in the time-period of the composer, and what was
happening in the time-period in which the piece was set. Then I see
how the score inspires me, and given the nature of this inspiration of the
score, I look how the text was scored in order to tell a story, and in order
to express the most important theme that we can find in the work.
Then, loaded with all of that knowledge, I work with designers to create
a context in which this story can successfully unfold. Then I take
these visual ideas and thoughts that I have about the piece, and work with
the performing artists who invariably (and hopefully) bring a significant
number of ideas of their own. Then we join together all these ideas
in order to make a cohesive performance that tries to tell a single story,
based on the need to communicate a particular theme.
BD: You are the stage director. How much does
the music enter into all of this once your movements have been accomplished?
Silverstein: For me, the music is the most important
thing. For us, clearly the difference between a performance of the
Lyric Theater or the Musical Theater, and the legitimate theater is that
there’s a subtext which is constantly there. That has been created
by the person who tends to be the genius of the work of origination, and
that genius is constantly expressed to us by the way they’ve scored the
piece. So, I try to stage the musical score based the way we use the
text, and on the way I’ve been inspired by the musical score. That’s
constantly updated and elucidated by the nature of the very important things
that a conductor brings to an opera. I will often arrive and have
many of my ideas changed in a positive and interesting way, by the way that
the conductor conducts the piece.
BD: Do you do some straight theater, also?
Silverstein: I have, but not very much. Opera
seems to be pretty much the whole thing for me. Once you become a
part of it, it just grabs you and won’t let you go! I certainly love
it. I would admire the opportunity to do theater, but when I have
three opera projects in a year that will fit into the time-frame that I
have, right now that tends to be filled up pretty quickly, and well in advance.
BD: Do you always enjoy the opera?
Silverstein: I love it when it’s good, and I detest
it when it’s bad.
BD: How long have you been in Chicago?
Silverstein: Nearly eleven years now.
BD: Always with DePaul?
Silverstein: No. When I was very early in my
career, I was on the staff at the Houston Grand Opera, and then the Lyric
Opera of Chicago brought me to Chicago in order to work as a staff assistant
director. My family loves it here, and I was lucky enough to find
employment at DePaul.
BD: Good. We hope you’ll stay around for a
Silverstein: I hope so, too. It’s a great place.
---- ---- ----
© 2001 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on March 5, 2001.
Portions were used in an article
which was linked to the Chicago Opera Theater website that month. 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.
* * * *
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
who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.
You may also send him E-Mail with comments,
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