Director  Robert  Tannenbaum

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Robert Tannenbaum is the newly appointed General Director of Sacramento Regional Performing Arts Alliance which merged the operations of Sacramento Opera and the Sacramento Philharmonic.  He returned to the U.S.A. following a long and successful tenure as Professor of Opera the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Munich, Germany.  For  seven years (2001-2007), he was the Director of Production of the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlrsruhe, Germany.  For many years, he was one of the few active American directors on the European scene.  He previously served as the youngest and only American General Director and C.E.O. of  a German state theater, the Stadttheater Giessen, where he presented a year-round program of opera, musicals, plays, dance, and symphony concerts with a staff of more than 200 full-time employees and a yearly operating budget of 15 million dollars. Prior to becoming General Director in Giessen, he served as Director of Opera at the Städtische Bühnen in Münster.  

Mr. Tannenbaum has been engaged as a guest director for new productions throughout Germany, France, and the U.S.A., including, most notably: Der Traumgörge in Bremen;  Cardillac  Don Carlo, and The Mikado in Freiburg; The Rape of Lucretia in Cologne; Turandot in Kassel La Fanciulla del West in Tulsa; Idomeneo for Chicago Opera Theater; L'Italiana in Algeri in Bogota, Colombia; and Aida in Dayton.

Upon completion of his education at Columbia University in New York, Mr. Tannenbaum began a short-term apprenticeship with the San Diego Opera that became a four year association as Resident Stage Director.  In that capacity, he directed twenty operas, including Aida, Faust, La Cenerentola, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Gianni Schicchi, and the west coast premieres of Sousa's The Free Lance and Rimsky-Korsakov's Mozart and Salieri.

After leaving San Diego, Mr. Tannenbaum joined the directing staff in Wuppertal, Germany, where he staged revivals of Der Ring des Nibelungen, Nabucco, and Lortzing's Der Wildschütz.  In the fall of 1985, he went to Los Angeles to serve as Company Manager to assist the Deutsche Oper Berlin's presentations of Tosca, Le Nozze di Figaro, and Die Tote Stadt.  In 1987, he staged his first new production in Europe, von Dittersdorf's Doktor und Apotheker.  That same year, he joined the directing staff at the Cologne Opera, where he directed his new production of The Rape of Lucretia.  He also returned to San Diego as a guest to direct Rigoletto and Fidelio.

In North America, he has directed La Traviata for the Florentine Opera Company(Milwaukee), New Orleans Opera, and Merola Opera, Don Giovanni for the Orlando Opera, and Carmen and Tosca for Cincinnati Opera, Die Fledermaus for the Florida Grand Opera and for Yale Opera, and Il Trovatore for Edmonton Opera.  In addition to his duties in Karlsruhe, he has directed a production of Ein Nacht in Venedig in Linz, Austria and in Nuremberg, Germany, and Nabucco in Montreal.

As an educator, Mr. Tannenbaum has served on the faculties of the Justus-Liebig University in Giessen, Düsseldorf Conservatory of Music, San Diego State University,  Bowling Green State University, University of Illinois, and with the young artists' programs of the Des Moines Metro Opera and the Metropolitan Opera National Council.

==  Biography from Pinnacle Arts Management  

Robert Tannenbaum was in Chicago early in 1991 to direct Idomeneo of Mozart with the Chicago Opera Theater.  The conductor was Henry Holt, famous for leading the annual Ring in Seattle.  As it happened, the resident conductor of COT, Steven Larsen, who led two other productions with COT in 1991 (Where the Wild Things Are by Oliver Knussen, and Madame Butterfly), was the Chorus Master for Idomeneo.  [Note that names which are links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.]

A few days before the opening performance, Tannenbaum graciously took time to speak with me.  Some of his comments were aired on WNIB, Classical 97 to promote the production, and now I am pleased to present the entire conversation.

Bruce Duffie:   Some background, please, because I don’t know a thing about you except that you work in Cologne.

Robert Tannenbaum:   I’m an American, and after doing my training, I studied bio-chemistry.  I was going to become everybody’s favorite Jewish doctor.  [Both laugh]  I always wanted to go into opera, but my family never let me.
BD:   Go into opera as a singer?

Tannenbaum:   No.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do.  I just knew opera was a thing I wanted, but good Jewish boys don’t do that.  So, there was a tug of war, and I finally won.  I went into opera, and did my apprenticeship here in America in San Diego.  I started there on a grant from the National Opera Institute.
BD:   Doing what?

Tannenbaum:   Stage direction!  I was learning all about the opera company from soup to nuts, but then focusing on my stage directing craft.  When I got done with that, it was clear to me that the opportunities in America were limited, not just in number but artistically, so I decided that what I really wanted to do was go to Europe.  So I packed my bags and went.

BD:    With or without a contract in hand?

Tannenbaum:   That’s right!  I studied German, because the directors are the power-circle in Germany, and if you’re going to get in as a foreigner, you have to speak the language really, really well.  Basically I traveled all over the country, talking to people, trying to get a job.  Out of all the interviews, everything was very positive, but I got no work.

BD:   That is what singers do.  They go over and audition all over the place, and finally land in a house.

Tannenbaum:   That’s right, and that’s what actually happened to me.  But the job I actually got was because I had an American singer friend who was doing his first Wotan in Die Walküre in Wiesbaden.  I knew him here from America as a bass-baritone, and he was moving into the Wagner Fach.  I went to see the premiere, and his wife was away singing something somewhere else, so he had nobody to escort him to the opening night party.  He asked me to come, and I didn’t want to go, but he finally talked me into it.  At that party I met my future boss for my first job in Germany.  So I stayed because of the opportunities.  There are so many opera houses, and there is so much going on.  I’ve been in Europe now for seven years.

BD:   You say you learned your stage craft in San Diego, and then went to Europe and perfected it?

Tannenbaum:   I don’t think you ever learn directing.  It’s a natural talent.  You learn how to deal with people, and the nuts and bolts of putting operas together including scheduling and co-ordination.  But directing, is like painting.  You have a skill for it or not.  You learn how to refine it, and you become guided in one way or another, but it’s not possible for somebody to teach you how to develop that eye.

BD:   When did you decide that you wanted to manipulate what you saw on stage?

Tannenbaum:   When I saw the discrepancy between what I saw at the Met and what I heard in the music.  I realized this something else.  The composers were writing an emotional story.  They were basically sketching out an emotional landscape with their music, and what I was getting on the stage was an art form which basically separated music and emotion.  It was giving you the emotion in certain pre-organized doses.  You knew that the emotion being portrayed was supposed to be pain, and you knew what it looks like because you understand the language.  But when the opera is over, you can go out and have lamb chops.  It was a nice experience, but you didn’t really feel anything.

BD:   You wanted to see it more as a total art work?

Tannenbaum:   Yes!  I know what I thought when I heard the music at home, and I know when I listen to a Puccini opera I hear all of the different feelings that he is manipulating and trying to make me feel.  I just was shocked at what I didn’t see, and what I knew could be there.

BD:   When you got over to Germany and they started offering you contracts, were you thrown into big productions or small productions at first?
Tannenbaum:   At first, it was take one step back to go two steps forward.  They said they were very impressed about the fact that I’d directed here in America, but this is Europe.  I was going to start as an assistant again with a pitiful salary.  But in my first contract, because I’d had enough experience in America, they gave me a production to do.  There was no money for it, which saved them quite a bundle.  I did an opera called Doktor und Apotheker by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf.  Somebody saw it and really liked it, and offered me another job.  Then somebody saw that, and that’s how it continued.
BD:   Does it remain this way, that you’re only as good as your most recent production?

Tannenbaum:   People who hire you, especially Intendants [General Directors of Opera Companies] know you have a certain reputation for the sort of work you do.  Most are prepared for you to have a dip, and if something goes wrong they do not really count too much against you.  It’s your overall approach.  Certain people are looking for certain things.  The guy who’s looking for a cosmetic opera production
something that looks pretty but doesn’t have much contentwill not hire me.  Those who like the work that I do, which is very intense and very emotionally focused, are not going to hire a great interior decorator.  That’s not what they’re about.  So, you find your niche.

BD:   Are you under contract to one house, or a couple of houses?

Tannenbaum:   I started out in Cologne, and decided I wanted to move.  So I went freelance, and I’ve been working in many houses.  I’ve worked in Bremen, Freiburg, Kassel, and starting next season I will be Oberspielleiter des Musiktheater in Münster.  That means I’m basically running the opera there, and I’m going to do that for 1992 to 1994.  Then in 1994 I’ve already got an offer from Kassel, which is the state theater of Hessen, to do the same job for them for two years after that.  So, if I live through all of this, I’ll be busy!  In these jobs, I’ll run the opera house.  Every major city has three theaters.  There is an opera house, a play house, and a ballet.  The Intendant is the big cheese running all of the three different companies, but each company will have its own artistic director.  I’m the artistic head of the opera.

BD:   Is it good to have a dramatist as head of the opera, rather than a musician?

Tannenbaum:   Different companies have different philosophies.

BD:   Does this city have a General Music Director?

Tannenbaum:   Yes, there’s an all-music director of Münster.  For each city, the power-base is different.  It all depends upon the Intendant
, the gentleman who’s running the opera, and what his focus is.  Does he want an experience that’s weighted on the musical side, or does he want an experience that’s weighted on the dramatic side, or a balance? You’ll see different things in different houses.  In Münster, where I am now, it’s a good balance.  Both sides are being served.

BD:   Will you do all of your work in the season at that one house, or will you still go out to other places?

Tannenbaum:   In the contract I have to do three new productions this season, and that’s it, along with my administrative duties.  In America, doing a production means coming here, renting the sets from City A, getting the costumes from City B, and doing two weeks of rehearsals.  When I’m doing a new production in
Münster, it’s a year-long development process, which requires work with set and costume designers, and building the work step by step before you even start the rehearsals.  Then, there is a six-week rehearsal period.  Next season I’m doing six, and that’s two too many.

BD:   Why are you doing six?

Tannenbaum:   Because I’m a bit of a workaholic, [laughs] and I love the work I do.  There’s nothing else that I do that makes me happier.

BD:   I assume you will get to the point that you won’t ever want to do six again in a year.

Tannenbaum:   But at that point, they’ll probably pay me double what they’re paying me now, so I’ll have no problem affording, from a financial point of view, to do just four.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Is it at all strange being an American living in Germany?

Tannenbaum:   Yes, it’s very strange.  The first thing you have to do is get used to the German way of thinking, and it is very different.  It’s a very different world.  This may sound silly, but the weather is very different.  You’re living in a country where most of the year it’s raining, and the temperature is 50º F.

BD:   You’re at the base of the Alps?

Tannenbaum:   Yes.  It’s funny...  At the base of the Alps in Bayern and Bavaria, the weather can be a little bit more fluctuating, and nice, and also bad.  But in the central northern part, you’re basically living in a climate where for ten months of the year, from November to August, the chances of it raining and being between 50º F and 55º F are very good.
BD:   I hope you like that climate.

Tannenbaum:   No, I hate it!  I really do.  The work is wonderful, but you asked me about living in Germany.  It’s this climate, this oppressive low cloud-cover, this wet, uncomfortable weather that makes people the way they are.  I’ve learned a lot about the Germans after living in their climate.  You make a great adjustment in terms of learning how to live with your neighbors.  In America, we take for granted the concept that we have personal freedom.  Here, you see people walking down the street wearing purple hats, or snow boots in July, and you might think that they’re weirdoes.  But every American basically feels inside of them that each person has the right to live the way they live.  We shrug our shoulders and say,
“So what?  But in Germany, you don’t feel that.  You feel that people are very much concerned about what other people do, and they have a concept of collective responsibility.  The line between collective responsibility and sticking your nose in other people’s business is very thin.  When I first went to Germany, I saw little old ladies in the street yelling at someone for crossing the road on a red light.  When parking your car, a little old gentleman who is walking on the street will stop and watch you to make sure you don’t touch other cars.  These are little things, but it’s indicative of a way of life that’s so foreign to us.  You really have to be willing to put up with that for the artistic benefits that you get by living there.

BD:   Are you becoming inured to it?

Tannenbaum:   [Thinks a moment]  I hope not!  The theater community tends to be a little bit more liberal, so hopefully I’ll always retain that sensitivity, and I hope it will always bother me a little bit.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Who decides which operas you’re going to do?  Is it you, or you in conjunction with the music director?

Tannenbaum:   We choose a repertoire, and there’s not a sense of pressure from the audience.  The audience expects lots of Puccini and Verdi, and in America you base a season on what you feel you can sell.  In Germany, you base your season upon a concept, and that concept does not have to be connected at all to ticket sales.  
Münster was very much a modern house before I got there, doing modern pieces, interesting and unusual pieces, and sort of neglecting a lot of the Italian and French repertoire.  I love doing that stuff, so in the seasons we’re planning there will be even more in that direction.

BD:   Does the city want to be moved in this direction, or are they going to resent your coming in and changing things around?

Tannenbaum:   No.  There’s not a real sense of financial cultural politics in Germany.  To the bureau of culture, there’s no real stake in whether we do popular operas or less popular operas because they don’t need more money than what a 40% full house every night would bring.

BD:   They’re going to cover your losses?

Tannenbaum:   They’re going to cover the loses.  That’s the way the budgets are worked out.

BD:   It’s almost a mind-set?

Tannenbaum:   It’s a mind-set!  It’s mixing civil service and art together, and coming up with some sort of program, some sort of concept, some sort of theory.  You’ll see that in some cities when they choose who they’re going to pick for their opera house.  He gets picked by the Intendant, so the city has very little say about what sort of crazy person the Intendant picks for running the opera!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Can I assume they’re pleased that they actually have you?

Tannenbaum:   Oh yes, they are.  They’re very pleased to have somebody who works internationally.  It’s really funny...  When I lived in New York ten years ago and wasn’t directing operas, I was waiting on tables and just being one of a half dozen talented American directors who lived in New York.  So, my market value was pretty much in the basement.  But when I moved to Europe, I got a foreign flavor for the Europeans, and I also have a foreign flavor for the Americans.  That does a lot for your PR image.  I know that sounds very self-serving, but it’s true.  I have to understand that natural tendency in order to make my career work.

BD:   You’ve become an exotic personality.  Do you then bring any of this exoticism into your stage direction, either here or there?

Tannenbaum:   In both places.  What I bring to Germany is the fact that in America we usually do operas in two to three weeks, and we never waste time.  Time is money, and we learn how to work with a tremendous sense of discipline.  The average German opera director has six weeks of rehearsals, twelve to eighteen stage rehearsals, the chorus is available for weeks on end, and maybe at the end they’ll get some sort of product.  They’re amazed at the direction and discipline that I can bring to stage directing, and that I can do an opera of a very high quality with two separate casts in a shorter period of time.   On the American side, it’s a different story.  Here in Chicago I was hired to do a new production, and was expected to bring those qualities of being able to develop a look to the show.  I hate to say this, but in general, in America a good opera stage director is a good politician, a good psychiatrist, one who doesn’t get in everybody’s way very much, and who gets the job done on time.

BD:   Is he just a traffic cop, and happy to be one?

Tannenbaum:   He’s a happy traffic cop on a certain level.  There are some people who do not fit that mold, but that is truly the exception not the rule.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   How do you divide your time between Europe and America?

Tannenbaum:   Most of it is in Europe.  This is my third production in America.
BD:   How did you come to the attention of Alan Stone and the Chicago Opera Theater?

Tannenbaum:   Alan heard about me many times from work that I did at the San Diego Opera, and through other people who had worked with me.  When he was looking to do the season, my agent suggested my name to him, and it started the ball rolling.  We started talking, and he decided I was the right person for the project.

BD:   Have you had enough time here to work?

Tannenbaum:   Oh, yes.  The standard American formula of two or two-and-a-half weeks from when the artists arrive until the premiere, is too short.  In Alan’s company, it’s three-and-a-half-weeks, and that extra week is just exactly what you need to get the right musical and dramatic cohesiveness, and not waste anybody’s time.  It’s just the right mixture.

BD:   How big a house do you have in Münster?

Tannenbaum:   A thousand seats.

BD:   That’s about what you have here.

Tannenbaum:   Yes.  What’s wonderful about the Athenaeum [shown in photo at right] is it’s so intimate, and people who will come to see the Idomeneo will see it up close.  In a house like this, you can really direct or you really can’t, because you’ve got the audience basically staring down the throats of the singers.  So you’re either going to develop a persona that has something to say, or you’re just going to be an opera singer.  People are going to see that much more than at the Lyric Opera [which has 3600 seats].

BD:   Is there a particular secret to directing Mozart?

Tannenbaum:   Yes.  The secret to directing Mozart is to focus on the emotional structure of the piece, and how Mozart brings that through to the music, and not to focus on the classical structure of the drama as being your guiding light.  Operas were written 200 years ago, we have a tendency to see them the same way as we see a painting in a museum, which looses the sense of life.  We think that opera of the classical period means it must be classic in terms of the approach to emotion, but that’s not the case, and particularly with an opera like Idomeneo.  There is an incredibly varied and deep emotional substance to the piece, and if you think with your ears instead of your eyes, you will come close to directing Mozart properly.  Many people just think that Mozart wrote stories about counts and countesses, and princes and kings, and we tend to use that to create a very stilted regal image.  The term
regal means unemotional, and Mozart was a very emotional person.  You can hear that in the music, and when I allow myself to focus on that, I get all the answers about the piece.

BD:   How many ideas do you get from the librettist, and how much is from Mozart?

Tannenbaum:   I’d say the librettist 10%, and Mozart 90%.

The libretto of Idomeneo was adapted by Giambattista Varesco (1735-1805) from a French text by Antoine Danchet, based on a 1705 play by Crébillion père, which had been set to music by André Campra as Idoménée in 1712. Mozart and Varesco were commissioned in 1780 by Karl Theodor, Elector of Bavaria for a court carnival. He probably chose the subject, though it may have been Mozart. The work premiered on 29 January 1781 at the Cuvilliés Theatre in Munich, Germany.

The libretto clearly draws inspiration from Metastasio in its overall layout, the type of character development, and the highly poetic language used in the various numbers and the secco and stromentato recitatives. The style of the choruses, marches, and ballets is very French, and the shipwreck scene towards the end of act I is almost identical to the structure and dramatic working-out of a similar scene in Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride. The sacrifice and oracle scenes are similar to Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide and Alceste.

Kurt Kramer has suggested that Varesco was familiar with Calzabigi and therefore the work of Gluck, especially the latter's Alceste. Much of what we see in Varesco's most dramatic passages is the latest French style, mediated by Calzabigi. It is thanks to Mozart, though, that this mixture of French styles (apart from a few choruses) moves away from Gluck and France and returns to its more Italian (opera seria) roots. The singers were all trained in the classical Italian style, and the recitatives are all classically Italian.

Letters between Mozart and his father show Wolfgangs dissatisfaction, primarily with the excessive length of the text. Varesco resented the many cuts and changes that Mozart demanded, and insisted that his original text be published in full, which Mozart used as an excuse for cuts he made without the librettist's approval. In a letter from Mozart to his father, who acted as a go-between for him in Salzburg, Mozart notes Varesco's admission that he had "not the slightest knowledge or experience of the theatre."

BD:   That’s interesting for a stage director to come mostly from the music.

Tannenbaum:   Any music lover has a feeling for music.  When you listen to a Mahler Adagio, the emotions and the pictures that are conjured up inside of you are vast, and if you can tune into that, you will understand the piece much, much better.  To direct, you have to have that gift.  You have to have that love inside, and that connection with the music, or else you’re lost.

BD:   When you’re directing this opera, or any other opera, do you have the audience in mind as you create all the stage directions?

Tannenbaum:   Generally not.  [Laughs]  Audiences expect what they are trained to expect, and unfortunately in America, opera audiences are trained to expect a detached quasi-emotional experience with enough room to feel unpressured.  In reality, music is a very personal and direct experience with a lot of intimate contact between the listener and the music.  If I try to cater to the audience’s needs, or what the audience is used to
having space and detachment from a pieceI won’t serve the piece well.  I tend to do stuff that’s very intense, and it sometimes makes people uncomfortable because I don’t leave them any room to separate from the piece.

BD:   Is there any chance that you expect too much of the audience?

Tannenbaum:   I think so.  I’ve directed operas where a scene has been so intense that the audience hasn’t watched it.

BD:   [Surprised]  They turn away, or they’re blown away?

Tannenbaum:   They turn away.  I did a production in Germany of The Rape of Lucretia, which is basically written on a classical theme.  But I did the piece in a modern-day situation, and really dealt with all the emotional and psychological problems of rape.  Many audience members just couldn’t watch what was up there on the stage, but that’s a totally separate problem
not being able to deal with emotion as it’s presented in music.

BD:   But is that something Britten would have approved if he had seen your staging?

Tannenbaum:   [Sighs]  I don’t know.  When I watched, I felt what they were doing.  What they were feeling was really in the music.  I can’t answer that question.  I didn’t know the man, but I just feel that it’s very important to make the emotional statement.  If the audience can’t deal with the intensity and closeness of the statement, that’s not a signal for me to do it differently.  I just have to accept that somehow.
BD:   How much do you want the audience to just accept?

Tannenbaum:   I would love it if they just wanted to see that, but I always get disappointed very much when I do something that really has touched me, and that I know is right, and the audience response is emotionally evasive.  It upsets me, and I always feel a little let down because I have an idealized vision in my head of how I want an audience to respond.  But I may be dealing with an audience of men who have never hugged their sons, or who have communicative problems with their wives.  So how can I expect them to relate to my piece on a higher level, or more intensely than they relate to their own families?

BD:   Should opera be for the tired businessman who has been knocking his brains out all day?

Tannenbaum:   There are some people who think that is the aim.  There is as certain value to entertainment, and opera is entertainment.  But you can edify and uplift an audience at the same time.  The answer to your question is to look at opera in America.  You’ll see that, yes, opera in America is based upon entertaining your audience with the minimum amount of emotional involvement.  I’ll always be a black sheep of opera.  I don’t expect in ten years for the calls to come streaming in from the Metropolitan Opera, or Chicago Lyric, or San Francisco, because I’m not sure that I do the sort of opera they need.

BD:   But is it the sort of opera that regional companies need?

Tannenbaum:   I think so, yes.  I may not be able to get that because people in America tend to be very conservative about what they see.  So when I do a production here, I maybe can’t get sets and costumes that have the same punch as I can in Europe, but I can do a staging that makes me happy.

BD:   You say you may not get the offers streaming in from the Met or the Lyric.  Will you expect the offers to start streaming in from Munich and Vienna?

Tannenbaum:   [Hesitantly]  Yes, but those houses will allow you to do a visually trendy look.  You can be as ‘crazy’ as you like, but you still can’t get around the system of maybe five days of rehearsal with your premiere cast, and by the time the seventh performance comes around, the cast that’s performing has nothing to do with the people you’ve worked with.  I feel very lucky right now to be on a level in Germany where I can direct the singers I know are going to sing the entire run. They’re all very highly qualified... most of them are Americans!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Do you speak English in rehearsals then?

Tannenbaum:   Yes.  It makes some people upset, but I speak in a language that I can best communicate with the singer, whether they’re German, or Italian, or American.  I feel lucky to be able to work on that level, and if I went to Munich I could do a crazy Traviata instead of a traditional Traviata.

BD:   Would you want to do a crazy Traviata just to be crazy?

Tannenbaum:   No, because it would be a perversion of the art form.  The Met says,
Let’s put up pretty decorations, and have different casts every night that do their own opera gestures.  We’ll light it very beautifully, and that’ll be fine.  In Munich or Vienna, they’ll say, “Let’s put up strange-looking sets, and have chic-looking costumes, and still get the same tired Italian guests that the Met gets.  But then you put them in a modern package so you’ve got instant opera à la modern style.  So you’re still conning your audience, but the con is very well thought out in the big European opera houses.  It’s just got that extra added attraction of the yellow pyramids, or the flagellating nuns.  But it will be the same tenor with the stony face, who sticks his hand out every time he sings.  It will be the same at the Met as he’ll be in Vienna.

BD:   I take it you don‘t want to do this?

Tannenbaum:   I have no desire to get anywhere near that form of opera.

BD:   Then it’s the second-line German houses which will give you the most opportunity to do what you want?

Tannenbaum:   There are some directors who are not known in America, who do get the opportunity to do their form of work in the large German opera houses.  These include people like Harry Kupfer, or Günther Krämer, who is unknown here, and is a very fine director in Germany, and Alfred Kirchner, who is at the Burgtheater.  [Brief biographies of these three directors are shown in the box at right.  Regarding other names mentioned there, see my interviews with Krzysztof Penderecki, Dennis Russell Davies, Aribert Reimann, Zubin Mehta, Hans Werner Henze, Michael Gielen, Claudio Abbado, and James Levine.]  There’s a straight theater playhouse in Vienna, that does a lot of opera, and there are a half a dozen people who have developed enough clout, so when Vienna calls and asks them to do a piece, they say yes, but only with four weeks of rehearsal with the entire cast there.  They also want the cast hired for the first two runs of performances.  That way they can basically set down certain guidelines to ensure their artistic product.  But those people are few and far between.

BD:   It sounds like it has to be almost a festival situation.

Tannenbaum:   Oh, it has to be to have all of the requirements that go along with it.  I would be honored to do something like that at some point, and I’m hoping it’ll come, but only with those requirements.  Other than that, I think I’ll stay away.

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BD:   Are you getting enough outside work?

Tannenbaum:   Yes at this point.  I’m thirty-four, and that’s considered a baby for opera direction.  Everybody you meet says,
“Oh, my God, you’re so young!  Opera directors have got beards and have professor titles.  I did have a couple of transition years, but this season and next I’m totally booked.  I couldn’t take any more work even if I wanted to.  Next season I’m doing just one opera in America, but I’m doing three operas in Germany.  I’m also doing an opera in Japan, and an opera in Nice, so I have enough work for next season.

BD:   Do you make sure that you schedule enough time just to sleep?

Tannenbaum:   I have to, otherwise it doesn’t work well.  [Both laugh]  It’s funny... when you’re on a schedule, you promise yourself you will never finish an opera, get on the plane, and start rehearsals the next day.  You say,
Never, never, never, never!  But what happens is the calls come in for that season, and you get a show you really want to do, and you have to get on the plane, sleep on the plane, and go to the next rehearsals.  Next season I finish doing a production of Eugene Onegin in Münster, then I get on plane, fly to Nice, and start doing The Abduction from the Seraglio.

BD:   That is a complete change!

Tannenbaum:   Right.  Then, I leave after the dress rehearsal, and come back to America to do La Fanciulla del West.  I cannot even stay for the premiere.  I have to leave after the dress rehearsal, and fly back to Germany to open the opera season in Kassel with a new production of Turandot.  I don’t want to do that, but there it is in my schedule.

BD:   When do you start thinking about each particular opera, and plotting where people are going to go?

Tannenbaum:   My process starts between one and two years before we actually start rehearsals.  If you really conceive an opera with a visual dramatic concept, the piece stages itself.  As you decide, you listen.  I’m one who listens to the music a lot.  I know all these operas!  I’m doing Turandot, and I know this opera like the back of my hand.  As a kid, I got student tickets to the Met for every Turandot from the great to the bad.  So I know what the piece is.  But then you start thinking, and you listen to the music again, and you get ideas.  You have to allow yourself a little bit of free-rein to free-associate for a while.

BD:   Do you do this while you’re working on it, or do you wait until you have the principals on stage?

Tannenbaum:   If you’re a good opera director, you have all of this done beforehand.

BD:   Doesn
t that put each singer in a straight-jacket?

Tannenbaum:   No!  It’s a very fine line of how much to plan and how much not to plan, and you learn after a while.  You conceive an opera to build a set.  Some people who get a contract as an opera director, will call the set designer.  He will make a lovely-looking room, and the stage director will think,
“Yes, you go there, you there, you sit here, you stand here.  But if you’re not thinking in that way, you grow a space in your mind and maybe what you then build for a set will not look like a room.  Maybe it will be just two rows of chairs.  Maybe the set will do things in response to your dramatic ideas.  A lot of audience members don’t know any of this, but they will feel the difference.  If you put a pretty room on stage with a door left, and door right, and a bed in the middle, and a screen, they’ll feel that this person goes here, and that person goes there.  Occasionally you see an opera where the room that you’ve seen in front of you is a natural outgrowth of what’s happening in the piece.  But that’s very rare, and that’s what I try to do all the time.  It’s hard, and you have to force yourself not to plan certain things in order to not put the singers in the straight-jackets.

BD:   You mentioned that you had seen many performances of Turandot, and know the opera backwards and forwards.  What happens when you come up against an opera you’ve never heard?

Tannenbaum:   I need the music.  So what I will very often do on a score I don’t know, or a score where there is no recording, I will hire a pianist, and we’ll play and sight-sing it.  I need to have the music, so I’ll work on getting myself some musical framework, and develop from that.  Or, if it’s a composer that has done other pieces, I’ll go hear something else so I know what he does with orchestration, and what his colors are like, because I need that.  Without the musical framework, I’m a little lost.

BD:   Do you find it better or worse to come upon a new work rather than one that you know intimately?

Tannenbaum:   It’s easier to come upon a new work because nobody has any perceived expectations!  You don’t want to be inventive for the sake of being inventive in Turandot, but you want to find a visual idea that will give the story the way Puccini wrote it and composed it.  But it will have a new look, and show a better understanding, and that’s very hard.  I talk sometimes with other stage directors, and it’s very easy to sit down with a bottle of whisky and come up with a crazy idea for an opera.  This is where you put the clouds, and this is where you put the flagellating nuns.  That’s easy, but to really try to bring out the inner qualities of an opera in a new way that is still true to the piece is very, very hard.

BD:   Do you only work with established works, or do you work sometimes with brand new works?

Tannenbaum:   It’s a mixture.  When I leave Chicago, I’m going back to Germany to do a piece by Alexander von Zemlinsky called Der Traumgörge, which means
Görge the Dreamer.  It was written in the early 1900s.

BD:   It’s not a new work, but it’s an unknown work.

Der Traumgörge (Görge the Dreamer), Op. 11, is an opera in two acts and an epilogue by Austrian composer Alexander Zemlinsky. The libretto was written by Leo Feld based on the fairy tale "Vom unsichtbaren Königreiche" by Richard von Volkmann and the poem "Der arme Peter" by Heinrich Heine.

Zemlinsky began composition of the Märchenoper (fairy-tale opera) in 1904 and completed it in 1906.

Der Traumgörge was intended for performance at the Vienna State Opera (then known as the Vienna Court Opera), where Gustav Mahler, a mentor of Zemlinsky's, was musical director. Mahler had encouraged his younger colleague to compose the opera following the success of Es war einmal which Mahler had premiered in 1900. In 1907, the same year Der Traumgörge was scheduled for performance, Mahler hired Zemlinsky to be an assistant conductor. Shortly thereafter, however, Mahler abruptly resigned and his successor, Felix Weingartner, dropped Der Traumgörge from the schedule, even though the work had already gone into rehearsal. Zemlinsky himself then resigned in protest.

Zemlinsky moved on to other compositional projects and, deciding that Der Traumgörge needed revision, made little effort to further promote it. The original performance materials were discovered in the archives of the Vienna State Opera in the 1970s, a period of renewed interest in Zemlinsky's music. This led to the opera's belated premiere at the Staatstheater Nürnberg, Germany, on 11 October 1980.

Tannenbaum:   It’s an unknown work, and it was never performed in Zemlinsky’s lifetime because the Nazis refused to perform music by Jewish composers.  He died in New York, in Larchmont, in horrible financial circumstances, and I did the first complete staging of the work.  There was a staging which was very severely cut in Nuremberg in 1980, but in 1988 I did the first full complete version of this opera, and I’m doing it again in Münster when I leave here.  So, that’s a piece, for example, that had no real history, and I was able to really take a fresh look at it.

BD:   What about a brand-new opera that has never been done before?

Tannenbaum:   I did one once.  If I’m stuck with an opera that has really second-rate music, I’m personally in trouble.  There are some stage directors who can really just fantasize, and be disconnected from the music, and come up with incredible things.  When I go see those operas, I wish I could do that, but I’m not that sort of person.  There are a lot of mediocre modern operas.

BD:   Do you have any advice for composers of opera today?

Tannenbaum:   Oh, yes!  Don’t be afraid of being emotional versus being formal.  When you find a person who is in touch with their emotions, and emotion in music, then you have a great composer.  I can deal with many different styles.  It doesn’t have to be traditional, like Argento.  You can have a composer who writes in a very modern musical style, but still is emotionally very true to music and to text.  That’s what I’m looking for, but in general it is so hard to find.

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BD:   Being an American working in Germany, do you try to bring a few American operas over there?

Tannenbaum:   I want to!  There are a couple of pieces that I do want to bring.  One of the things I want to do next season is a John Philip Sousa opera called The Free-Lance, that I did in San Diego in 1983 or ’84.
BD:   Is it an opera or an operetta?

Tannenbaum:   He called it a lyric opera, and it’s a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful piece.

BD:   Will you do it in English or in German?

Tannenbaum:   In German.  I already have a crazy German who translates.  You’re going to love this... he translates XXX-rated novels from English into German to make ends meet [both laugh], and he is very funny.

BD:   You had better double check it to make sure he didn’t slip in a few double entendres.

Tannenbaum:   [Laughs]  I know!  Thank God my German is good enough.  But I did a new production of The Mikado last year.  It was the first production of a Gilbert & Sullivan in Germany in fifty-five years.  This is mostly because the translations are awful, and this man did a wonderful translation.  The production was a big hit, so we’re already working on the translation for the Sousa opera.  There are a couple other operas that are done here that I would really would like to do in Germany, including Thomas Pasatieri’s The Seagull, and Robert Ward’s The Crucible.  They would be wonderful.  Another piece that would be very interesting to do in Germany, that’s not known, is Conrad Susa’s Transformations.  I also want to do Samuel Barber’s Vanessa in Germany.  These really are our mainstay pieces, and they need to be seen.

BD:   You really do have wide-ranging taste.

Tannenbaum:   Yes, and I hope I can bring some of these things over.  It’s hard to sit down with the committee.  I’m the American.  There’s myself, and the Intendant, and all of these people, and I’m selling them a John Philip Sousa opera.  So I bring in the music.  I’m a good salesman, but it’s very interesting to be the only person there wanting to do a John Philip Sousa opera!  It brings some interesting situations.

BD:   Good luck with the Idomeneo here in Chicago.

Tannenbaum:   Thanks.

BD:   [Noting the financial problems of the COT, which are discussed in the interview with Alan Stone]  I assume it’s all paid for?

Tannenbaum:   Thank God, yes.  We’ve got the money, but that was a scare.  We were in the middle of rehearsals already, and we didn’t know about the money.  We were thinking we were going to have to pack up and go home.  But there’s been a tremendous showing of support, and real understanding for what Alan Stone is doing with the company to keep it going.  So, we’ve made it for Idomeneo.  Whatever happens with the rest of the season, we’re just hoping and praying that they can continue, because it is something special.  The company is really an alternative to Lyric Opera.

BD:   I see it not an alternative, but more of a complementary option, or a pendant.

Tannenbaum:   Yes, it’s a real pendant because Lyric does very different things than they do here, and the COT is as necessary as Lyric for Chicago.  It’s really important, and can serve all people’s tastes that way.

BD:   I hope you’ll come back to the Chicago Opera Theater in future seasons.

Tannenbaum:   I’d like to.  Alan and I already talked about it, but there’s the financial question, and if the season’s permitted, then sure I’d love to come back, and I think he’d like to have me.

BD:   Do you get paid in dollars or in Deutschmarks?

Tannenbaum:   In dollars, in dollars.  [Both laugh]  But it’s really a labor of love, because the money that the Chicago Opera Theater can afford to pay doesn’t approach a standard fee that I’ll get in Europe.  It
s not even close.  If I was doing this for the money, I would have listened to my grandmother’s advice and remained studying to become a doctor.  I don’t think anybody’s in this business really thinking about money.

BD:   Now that you’re in it, and you are making a success of it, are they pleased and proud of you?

Tannenbaum:   Oh, yes!  It is as bitter-sweet... my mother passed away seven years ago, and I wish she could see what is happening now, because I know she would have been very proud.  My father has been very supportive in retrospect, but when I was leaving school and not wanting to be everybody’s favorite Jewish doctor’s son, I wish I would have had more support from that side of the family when I was making the switch.  But I didn’t.  I did it on my own.

BD:   Has he gone over to Germany to see some of your productions?

Tannenbaum:   No!  Being Jewish, my father and his (second) wife have real problems with coming to Germany.  I understand that, and I respect that.  The world is different there now, and I could not stay there if I didn’t feel comfortable.  But I really respect their experiences, and what they can and can’t do.   But it’s sad.

BD:   I assume you have invited them to Chicago.

Tannenbaum:   Yes, and I’m hoping that they’ll be able to come.  When I do this show in Nice, it will give them a chance to actually come and see something that I’ve done in Europe.

BD:   [Musing]  My son, the stage director!  [Both laugh]  You look a little like James Levine.

Tannenbaum:   That’s what everybody says.  People say we look like brothers.

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© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 8, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two 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.