Director  Mary  Zimmerman
== and ==
Administrator  Carl  Ratner

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


We met in May of 1995.  My guests had just come from a rehearsal, and were pleased to talk about how it was going.  
Portions of the interview were used a few days later on WNIB, Classical 97 to promote the production, and now, nearly thirty years later, as the company celebrates its fiftieth season, I am pleased to present the entire conversation.  Note that an interview the previous year with Carl Ratner and conductor Ted Taylor deals with The Ballad of Baby Doe.  Another interview with Ratner about The Hero by Menotti, which was given by Chamber Opera Chicago in 1989 can be seen HERE.  Names which are links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

Bruce Duffie:   I’m speaking today with stage director Mary Zimmerman, and Carl Ratner, the artistic director of the Chicago Opera Theater.  They are about to present The Magic Flute in an English translation by Andrew Porter.  This is the first of their two-opera season.  [The second opera was The Tender Land by Copland.]  Tell me the joys and sorrows of working with Mozart.

Mary Zimmerman:   The joys are extremely good.  It’s the sorrows of working with [the librettist] Emanuel Schikaneder that are more difficult than with Mozart.  The little inconsistencies in the plot were really apparent to me today.  We just ran both acts for the first time
we finished forty-five minutes agoand I felt ecstatic about the music, but was noticing a little break and meanderings in the story.  Everyone knows The Magic Flute well enough that they just gloss over those, but as a theater director they’re bothering me a little bit.  So that’s the main thing.

BD:   Being a theater director, are you working more with Schikaneder, or more with Mozart, or are you trying to strike a balance?
Zimmerman:   I’m working more with Mozart.  Carl did the dialogues, which are the same as when Chamber Opera Chicago did this opera two years ago.  So I’m really working with Ratner as well!  [Much laughter]  But the music is what’s leading me.  I take my cue off how the music seems to me.  Things are taking theatrical shape more through the music and the sound of it, even though you’re always paying attention to the lyrics as well.

BD:   The Magic Flute is a
number opera, so it stops, not for recitative, but for spoken dialogue.

Zimmerman:   Yes, though that actually decreases as it goes on.  The dialogue is scattered in Act 1, heavy at the top of Act 2, and then disappears.  The last thirty minutes has no dialogue.

Carl Ratner:   Right, it
s one continuous musical finale, even though it’s in several different scenes.  It is musically continuous at the end.

BD:   Is it easier or harder because you’re working in English?  [Vis-à-vis the biography shown at right, see my interviews with Philip Glass, and Renée Fleming.]

Zimmerman:   Oh, it’s easier for me.  I have no knowledge of the German score, or the libretto.  I’m very happy that it’s in English!  In terms of telling the story to my audience, that’s what I want, definitely.

BD:   Are you making sure that the singers can enunciate all of the diction properly?

Zimmerman:   I guess I am, except that’s more the job of Lawrence [Rapchak], our conductor.  He’s all over them on that, and to tell the truth, they’re much more precise in their diction than the theater actors I work with.  They are more careless than these performers are.  [At this point, a couple of the cats that resided at the station made their presence known.]

BD:   Sorry... we have cats all over the place.

Zimmerman:   Yes.  I was wondering if your audiences are aware of them being around.

BD:   Oh yes, they know we have cats in the studio!  [Much laughter]  We’re down to ten cats and four dogs!

Ratner:   Oh, God!

BD:   Speaking of them, The Magic Flute asks for certain animals.  How do you accomplish having them on stage?

Zimmerman:   The animals are masked, and the supernumeraries do them.  I have acting students from Northwestern who are my supers.  I’m a visiting professor at Northwestern right now, and it’s interesting because they’ve all done these animals for their freshman acting classes.  So they all gravitated instantly to the animal that they had chosen.  The production design is by John Conklin, which was first done by St. Louis Opera a few years ago.  It’s all the same props and the same design.  The production has toured all over the country for years very successfully, because it’s very simple and charming.  It
s also portable and well-built.

BD:   Conklin is familiar to Chicago audiences, especially now for his Ring.

Zimmerman:   Absolutely, and this is a chance to see early Conklin.  He was a much younger man when he designed this.  It’s a very simple single-set.  I don’t know if that’s rare or not, but it’s certainly not what’s indicated in the score.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve come to the score and the dialogue fresh this time.  How much do you feel you need to be steeped in the operatic tradition, or is it better to be completely away from that?

Zimmerman:   I don’t know.  At times it’s been an advantage.  Our rehearsal pianist told me he has done fifteen Flutes, and he’s never seen them staged like that.  I’m not doing anything radical, but just what it sounded like the music was saying to me.  He gave me a very high compliment, saying that he suddenly sees it as obviously being that way.  The one thing I’d say about being very different is the Sarastro aria to Pamina.  Her mother, the Queen of the Night, comes in and is quite mean to her with her aria.  But we’re doing it as a Lullaby, with her going back to bed, and him singing her to sleep.  In the very beginning, when talking to Carl and Larry, that’s what I called it, and they looked at each other wondering what I was talking about!  But now everyone calls it
‘The Lullaby, and it feels natural.  It doesn’t feel forced in any way.  That’s something which was an advantage for me not having seen a lot of Flutes, and not knowing that normally he just leads her around during that scene.  On the other hand, I’m completely having to learn what the singers can and can’t do physically, and in terms of maintaining contact with the conductor.  It’s just a different world.  Its where their minds are, which is in a different place than when you work with actors.  In a way, they’re more independent artists than I normally work with.

BD:   Are you trying to get them to come to your place, or are you moving to their place?

Zimmerman:   No, I’m taking their lead, believe me.  This is the fourth Magic Flute for our Pamina, and I feel she is much more of an authority on this role, and has done it in a variety of ways.  So I try to follow her lead, and then I shape it and contribute.  Several of our singers are much greater authorities on this piece than I am, and it would be foolish to ignore their experience.  They know what works with audiences and what doesn’t, or what they have to get through in their roles.  They also know what the rewards are.

BD:   Is it going to be fun having a play running at the Goodman Theatre, and an opera running at the Merle Reskin Theater [formerly the Blackstone] at the same time?

Zimmerman:   Yes, I’m thrilled.  There’s one weekend where I have two shows on the boards together down town at big theaters at the same time.  It’s only two nights because my play at the Goodman closes on the third, and this opera opens the second.  But I’m thrilled about the thought of going from one theater to the next to see my shows.  It
s really exciting to me, definitely.

BD:   From the time that you first got the request to do The Magic Flute, how long did it take you to accept the assignment?

Zimmerman:   I was a little bit hesitant.  For one thing, there was the question of the design, and my not being able to really contribute to that because it was already conceived.  I don’t really feel so much as I’m directing it as staging it, and that gave me hesitation.  Also, there was the schedule.  This began rehearsal the morning after I opened Journey to the West at the Goodman.  So I was really terrified about that.  In fact, I turned The Magic Flute down.  I got on a plane heading to France for Christmas.  I switched planes in Philadelphia, and when I got off the plane, I called Carl back, and I told him I wanted to do it after all.  I had expected to feel relieved in turning it down, and instead I really felt sick and stupid.  How could I say no to Mozart, and how could I say no to this opera, which I felt was the one I should start with, and the one that’s helping teach me how to do?  It
s right up my alley in terms of its fantastical element, and its faithful element, and its ethics element.

BD:   Were there any major surprises once you started digging into the score and into the text?

Zimmerman:   Actually, everything is a major surprise to me!  Once I did accept it, unbelievably the Opera de Lyon was doing Flute in Paris.  It was the only opera running when I was there over Christmas, so I saw it.  Later, I watched a lot of different productions.  Northwestern’s video library has five different Flutes.  I only watched two of them, but then I went and saw a college that was using this set.  So, I don’t know of any big surprises.

BD:   Were there any big joys?

Zimmerman:   [Laughs]  There are lot of big joys.  It
s such a cliché, but the more familiar I become with the music, the more audible and visible it becomes to me, and the more I’m in conversation with it.  Tonight I felt anticipation scene after scene.  I knew I was going to get to hear this scene again.  The second act keeps mounting, and I keep comparing it structurally to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  There are a lot of similarities, such as the way Oberon and Titania are battling over a challenging child.  Also, the way you think it’s over when everyone is reunited, but then there’s the little play within the play.  To me, that is the Papageno story.  There is a huge false ending of The Magic Flute, right after the trials.  But then Papageno wanders on, and there’s that most delightful idea, which you have forgotten is comingor at least I’ve forgotten it’s coming.  The second act builds and builds and builds in a way that is really a theatrical feat of Mozart.

BD:   Is this your first opera per se?

Zimmerman:   Yes, it is, not even per se.  [Much laughter all around]  Exactly, period!

Ratner:   But she’s doing a wonderful, wonderful job!

Zimmerman:   Although, to tell you truth, every show I’ve ever directed I’ve had music composed for it.  That’s how integral I’ve always felt music is to the theater.  I know how much it must match a particular production, and how much it forms the soul of any theatrical production that I’ve ever done.

BD:   Well, this is why I said per se, because I knew your productions had so much music, they’d almost be operas.

Zimmerman:   Yes, but not operas, even though they had an operatic quality.  The way I’ve directed in the past is that there’s a lot of movement, sometimes to music.  The first thing I ever directed had no words in it, so there’s been a visual-audio coordination in a lot of my work.  The work I mostly do is not straight plays taking place in living rooms.  They are more psychological spaces, so I do have experience working with music in my pieces.

BD:   When another opera company asks you to direct something, will your immediate reaction be ‘yes’?
Zimmerman:   [Laughs]  Only if Larry and Carl came with it.  [Much laughter all around]  They were so excellent tonight, and I said to them, “You’ve ruined my life because now all I want to do is direct opera!”  They were so fabulous, and my heart was so held by them this evening that I was really breathless, and really, really moved.  It’s been an enormous education every single day.  I’m not just saying that.  It really has been.  I feel like I’m directing my first play.  I know I’m making the mistakes that I made when I directed my first play, and I know that I’m being a little timid like I was back then.  It’s a whole new frontier for me, but they’re teaching me a lot, and through my sheer innocence in the world of opera, there have been some new things.  They are just little touches, little shapings of scenes that are fresh, even for the people that have done fifteen Flutes.

BD:   Is there any parallel for you with the trials that the two couples go through on the stage?  [Gales of laughter]

Zimmerman:   As when you’re doing all plays, your life seems to suddenly mimic them.  You have a sense of a journey, but no, it hasn’t been a trial.  It has been very sweet.  The great joy of it for me are the Three Spirits, the Three Children.  They are real-life children, and it’s a testament to the ability and range of human beings that these three teenagers, with their glasses, and their braces, and retainer plates, and big scruffy clothes, are just so angelic when they sing.  They’re unbelievable.  The chorus, too, is full of a bunch of guys who are rascals.  They probably would like to be home watching the ball game, but then they start to sing, and it is magic.  We really have an over-qualified chorus.  They’re really great, and very sweet, and very involved.  Their investment in the piece is something that surprised me a little bit.  Everyone’s very excited, and that includes being in the big old theater.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Tell me just a little bit more about your background in terms of how you came into theater?

Zimmerman:   I did plays ever since I was a child.  I was even a child actor.  Then I went to Northwestern, and I went back to graduate school in performance studies.  Even though I was studying acting as an undergraduate, I never thought I would be an actor.  I just didn’t think I was commercial enough.  I just didn’t think it was going to happen, but I loved it.  Then in graduate school I started to direct performance pieces that I was making up.  I felt as if I discovered something that I could do, and that I really enjoyed.  I once asked a group of actors at what age they knew that is what they wanted to do, and I got anything from age five to age eleven.  Some of those people are drawn to it pretty early on.  I’ve actually had fun asking the opera singers at what point they knew.  I wondered when people started saying to them that they had this extraordinary voice and should train it.  Some said from age nine to fourteen, but a lot of people said they were told not to train their voices right away, because that might ruin them.  They were told to wait until they were seventeen or so, and then start training.

BD:   You never had any idea of doing operas until you were asked to do this one?

Zimmerman:   I actually had thought of opera.  All directors like to try opera because it’s such a visual medium.  I was attracted for a couple of reasons, but I didn’t really think of it until maybe two years ago.  In a weird way, I never thought of myself as a director because I always made up my own pieces.  I thought of myself more as a writer who then just directed her own work, or did my own adaptations.  I still have a hard time thinking of myself as a director.  I don’t know if I fit with that picture with myself.

BD:   Does it help that this Magic Flute has been adapted slightly?  Would you feel as if you were in more of a straight-jacket if you were presented with the score and had to do it exactly that way?

Zimmerman:   Oh yes, absolutely, I’m sure!  The changes that have made are ones that were done in the Chamber Opera Chicago production a couple of years ago, and Carl and Larry have been happy with those.  So we’ve retained them.  I’ve done just slight reworking of some of the lines.  The staging, the moving around is really what I’m in charge of.

BD:   But if you were doing a piece that didn’t have dialogue, you would not be able to rewrite any of the lines.

Zimmerman:   That’s absolutely true!  On the other hand, all those restrictions are also things that liberate you.  There are structures in which you can play, and they take a burden off of you.  I had just come off of Journey to the West, which is a play that I wrote in rehearsal.  So, I was rehearsing eight hours a day, and then going home every night to write the next day’s material.  That was so unbelievably grueling.  Flute has been cast for me.  It’s been designed.  The score is there, and the pace is set by the conductor, not by me.  He’s controlling the rhythm of it, and I’m following that lead.  All of that has been a great relief, and that’s partly how I came to agree to do it, even though it came right on the heels of something else.  I knew that the piece was set, and that I was in good hands.  There were a lot of structures for me just to fall into.  If it was only singing, and nothing I was familiar with, I might have it found more imposing.

BD:   So, you would have turned down Götterdämmerung?

Zimmerman:   I have no idea!  [Much laughter]  I can’t even imagine anyone asking me to do that.

BD:   It’s nice to know what you can do and what you can’t do.

Zimmerman:   Yes, or to find out.

BD:   [To Ratner]  As the artistic director, why did you ask this untrained and untried person to do this opera?

Ratner:   It was interesting, because last year, as you know, we did Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict [see my interview with director Marc Verzatt and Larry Rapchak] and, because of the Shakespeare connection there, we looked around in the community to see what theatrical directors we might want to get involved in that project.  Mary was one of the people that we considered, but the timing did not work out in terms of the scheduling.  Then this year, when we were thinking about The Magic Flute, it wasn’t our first idea to go out into the theatrical community.  But I remembered so vividly Mary’s wonderful production of The Notebooks of Leonardo at the Goodman Studio.  I liked the qualities that the production had of the sense of play, and of the mesmerizing ritual which was not distancing, but still very human and very involving, and I thought that was just the kind of style that The Magic Flute required, and I imagined it was a wonderful match of director and opera.

BD:   How much are you involved in this, since she is directing and Larry Rapchak is conducting?

Zimmerman:   He gives constant notes, constant!

Ratner:   No, no, no!  [Again, much laughter]  I sneak up there every night.  During the day, between running payroll, or meeting with the choreographer for The Tender Land, I watch what Mary’s doing.  I’ve been so happy about it that I’ve hardly had to be involved at all, except trying to make sure that the right people are there at the right time for her to direct.

Zimmerman:   He has to round up my supers, which we still don’t entirely have...

Ratner:   ...we need a couple more...

Zimmerman:   ...and my Papageno kids, and things like that.

BD:   Is it going to be more difficult when you are directing The Tender Land yourself?

Ratner:   It’s going to be more difficult for the simple reason that we go into The Tender Land rehearsals on Monday, when we will still be in technical rehearsals for The Magic Flute.  So I will have to be doing double duty there.  It is going to be quite a challenge just in terms of my physical resources.  All of the different things that you do require different parts of your brain, so in a way it’s refreshing to go from directing to doing administrative work.  It definitely keeps you alive, but it
s going to be quite a lot of work.

BD:   You have to keep it all together before it all falls apart!

Ratner:   Exactly!

BD:   Is there any danger of it falling apart?

Ratner:   No, I don’t think so.  We didn’t have to do that last year because we didn’t have overlapping productions.  But I’ve done that in the past, and it’s definitely a challenge.  But I don’t think it’s going to be a problem.

BD:   Have you watched some of Mary’s stage rehearsals?

Ratner:   Yes, I have, and it’s very exciting because Mary is both extremely respectful of the piece, and at the same time she brings an entirely fresh point of view to it.  You see these scenes that you
ve seen X number of times, and you see them in a slightly different way.  It still contains the essence that you’re expecting, and yet it opens your eyes to the various ways that it can be brought out.
BD:   It’s set from another angle?

Ratner:   Yes.

BD:   But never a wrong angle?

Ratner:   I wouldn’t say so, no!  [More laughter]

Zimmerman:    The singers tell me if it’s a wrong angle!  I’ll see the looks of consternation in their faces if I’m going down some wrong path.  They know that the climax is coming a few bars down the road, and I’m having them make a big move right before that.  I’m very respectful about their experience with the music, which is vast.
BD:   Do you ever wish that Mozart had moved a climax just a little bit earlier?

Zimmerman:   There’s only one spot that I make fun of old Wolfgang, and that is the very long introduction to the Armed Guards scene.  I couldn’t believe how long it is, and they’re all laughing at me because it’s musically sophisticated.  Larry went through a whole thing about how it’s paralleling this and this.  He didn’t realize I was joking when I asked if we could cut it.  I was completely joking because he’d just gone through five minutes of explanation of its sublimity.  It comes at just the moment where you want a big push
and you’re about to get itbut first you have this very grim and darkened stage, with two very stern guys coming down singing in octaves.  It’s very beautiful once they start, and somehow the delay makes it pay off.  But I am someone who is trying to fill the stage, and my assistant who saw it today for the first time, turned to me during that moment and asked what was going on.  He felt that like someone had forgotten to come on stage, and they were just vamping!  [Much laughter]

BD:   After all of this sophisticated music, you might find a letter saying they needed that much time just for the stage mechanics.

Zimmerman:   Absolutely.  As a person of the theater, I understand that this is how art gets made.  But sometimes the art is smarter than the artist, and it does turn out to be that no one can imagine it now without that moment.  That does happen, but I am someone who makes theater pieces herself.  For instance, right now in Journey to the West, there are moments when the narrative figure talks at great length.  I don’t really want him to be talking at a great length, but they are madly changing costumes back stage, and it’s the only thing we can do.  So, you’re right, it very well might be something like that.  Then sometimes I wish there was a bit longer of a tag to get people off, but as I grow to know each number, I’m more in love with it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Why The Magic Flute?

Ratner:   There were several reasons.  First of all, Mozart has figured very prominently in the entire history of the Chicago Opera Theater.  Così Fan Tutte was the first opera that the company did when it was the Chicago Opera Studio, Inc.  [COSI]  Mozart has also been by far the most frequent composer whose works has been programmed.  The Magic Flute is the only remaining major work of Mozart that had never been done by COT, so it
s time had come.  Also, in deciding that we were going to move downtown to the Merle Reskin Theater, we wanted to present a work that would be a gala opening for our downtown offerings, and it seemed to fit.  It was a good opera to see in the summer at a downtown theater, and one that would make people want to come and take a look at our company in its new home.  I think it was a good choice.

BD:   Have you been able to put the fact that it was the Blackstone Theater into your advertising, so people know where they’re going?

Zimmerman:   Yes.  It had such a long history as the Blackstone Theater, but people are gradually beginning to learn the new name, and certainly we try to use both names.

BD:   How difficult was the decision to have two operas this year, as opposed to three in previous years?

Ratner:   It seemed a logical choice.  We had only done two last year.  The company had done three most seasons in the past, but it seemed right for our first season downtown in the new theater.  We also had to run in somewhat compressed time because of the availability of the theater.  So it seemed like it might be over-ambitious to program three works along with this move.  Also, The Magic Flute is a very big opera.  You don’t realize how big it is because each scene may only involve two or three people, but there are many people and many threads and demands that run through it.  It just seemed like we wanted to not spread our resources too thin, and really give The Magic Flute the kind of production that we wanted it to have.

BD:   Have you wiped out the deficit?

Ratner:   Yes, the company has no long-term debt.  It’s gone, and in the last two seasons we’ve had a balanced budget.  Financially the company is in very good shape.  Of course, we can always use more donations...  [To read more of the history of the Chicago Opera Theater, including it difficult times, see my interviews with its founder, Alan Stone.]

BD:   Why The Tender Land?

Ratner:   The Tender Land also definitely fits into the history of the Chicago Opera Theater, which has always been committed to twentieth century American operas.  But most especially, this is a classic American work, like Susannah, and Of Mice and Men, [both by Carlisle Floyd], and The Ballad of Baby Doe [by Douglas Moore] that we did last year.  The Tender Land definitely fits into the format of Chicago Opera Theater, and the things that COT stands for.  Plus, as often as possible we want to give our audiences the chance to see something they haven’t seen before.

BD:   Thank you both so much for continuing this fine tradition, and for speaking with me today.

Ratner:   Thank you.  Its always a pleasure.

Zimmerman:   Yes, thank you.

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© 1995 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on May 23, 1995.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB five 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.