This article was written in 1987 for Nit & Wit, but the magazine ceased publication and the piece was never printed.]


By Bruce Duffie


When the curtain goes up on the 33rd season [1987-88] of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Music Director Bruno Bartoletti will be conducting an all-star cast in Verdi’s Il Trovatore.  Everyone knows the music is glorious, and we all expect the singers to live up to their reputations.  But how do they move on stage, and why do they act with the gestures they use, and why does the scenery look this way instead of another?  All these details are the responsibility of the Stage Director, in this case Sonja Frisell.  She says this opera, “is so convincing, it just goes white hot.  I find it very exciting.  Verdi threw so much great melody into it, like it came to him in a gushing volcano.  It has passion and fury.  It’s great!”

Ms. Frisell made her American debut in this theater in 1969, and has returned several times since then, as well as taking charge of operas all over the world, including at the theater which means opera, La Scala in Milan, Italy.  Despite her reputation, she hates publicity.  In the opera world, we may be solidly in the age of the director and the scenic designer, but when Sonja Frisell is in charge of the production, she never wants her name set in large type. 
I hate publicity and don’t bother with it.  When I’ve seen my name in larger type than the composer, I object.  My name should be smaller.”  The way she arrived at that conclusion shows her method of understanding this grandiose art form.

“If it’s a dramatic text,” she says, “I go into that, then into the life of the author and what he believed and thought, and what caused him to write that particular play at that particular time.  Then I’ll move on to the composer’s life and thoughts, and why he chose that particular text at that particular time.”  She gets to know the characters, and makes up their past histories and futures.  “I even dream about it while asleep at night.”  Only then does she go to the piano with the score to learn the music.  After that, she puts it all away for a month or two so it can “mess around in my subconscious as I digest it.”  When she gets back to it again, the whole thing seems to take life, and she has strong feelings of knowing the people very well.  The final stimulus is when she meets the artists who will be performing the work.

Sonja Frisell was a student of the famous director Karl Ebert, and he taught her that the truth on the stage has to come through the artists.  “You have to get into their minds and convince them of what you want so it becomes theirs.”  The director has no contact with the audience and so must work through the singers.  “In the moment of performance they must produce truth, and they won’t if they’re not convinced about what you want.”

This conversation is often easy, but sometimes not.  Frisell notes that there is little a director can do with artists who are stubborn, but she has a lengthy background of dealing with the “big” and the “difficult” singers.  She says that she adapts.  “It’s like everything in life – some of them are very easy to work with and some of them aren’t.  If you want a battle, you’ll get a battle any day, but I think many singers can do more than they think they can, and they must have the confidence in me to try things.   I must establish that confidence and earn the trust they have in me.”  She notes that if you go in with the idea that you’re the intellectual and they are a bunch of fat slobs, you’re not going to get anywhere.

Frisell, unlike some directors, is very conscious of the physical realities of the singer and their vocal production.  She has learned the music from the singers’ point of view and has learned to breathe as singers breathe, so she can ask things in a way that singers understand and in a way that appears possible to the artists.  Sometimes, though, she must resort to ingenuity to attain results.  The rumors of special spots in the stage that project the voice especially well are really true, and Ms. Frisell often uses these to advantage when placing or directing movements of the singers.  She recalled a production with a famous singer.  Frisell knew the type of performance she gave, so the crafty director placed things in such a way as to gently but literally force the singer to look like she belonged to the set.

The singers are not the only ones the director has to work with.  First, if it’s a new production, there is a scenic designer.  Frisell goes to talk ideas out together, and the two work it all out.  “It’s like ping-pong between the two of you as you develop the ideas.”  I remarked that it seemed the stage director and set designer came in for the most criticism both good and bad, but Frisell disagreed.  “If it’s a wonderful evening, the singers have been absolutely brilliant and total geniuses, and we’re lucky to get out/our names mentioned.  If it’s a bad evening, somehow or other it’s been all our fault.  That has been proved to me time and time again during the course of my career.”  

Another collaborator in this whole process is the conductor, but Frisell thinks the director’s job is much more difficult.  While not belittling what the maestro has to do, she observes that he opens the score and the notes are all there.  “He has to interpret the notes, but the stage director stands in an empty space which we have to fill with bodies, scenery, movement, light, everything.  We haven’t got a book written for us.  We’re not exactly creating, but the unknowns are much greater for us than they are for the conductor.  We’re not the pivot that’s holding the performance together, but we’ve contributed just as much to the reality of the performance.”  These remarks, she noted later, refer to directors who are more than just traffic cops.

When I inquired how much rehearsal was enough, Frisell said it depends on the singers involved.  Apparently some learn as much in a few days as others do in a few weeks; and for a few, there’s no point in going much more than a few days because they’ll simply not absorb any more.  When is too much rehearsing?  “Over-rehearsal can kill an opera stone dead,” she says.  “For me, the danger is that things go too fast, so I’ll cancel rehearsals.  But that happens very rarely, especially as there’s not that much money around for a long rehearsal period.” 
She enjoys working with the “stagione” system, which is what we are privileged to have here in Chicago – a fixed cast comes in, rehearses for anywhere from several days to three or four weeks, then stays together for all the performances of the opera.  La Scala runs the same kind of thing, with the number of performances of each work determined by probability of selling out the house.  Popular operas run more, new or unfamiliar works run fewer times.

Frisell tries to make each opera a “voyage of exploration,” but, as she says, it depends on how flexible the singers are, and how interested they are in exploring the artistic side (as opposed to the vocal side) of their roles.  Sometimes the voyage leads to the pit.  “You always have to listen to the orchestra because it will tell you whether what the character is saying is indeed what they actually believe or mean.  Even without music you sometimes say things while not meaning them.”  She speaks of opera as “melodrama” which means the music is equal to the drama.  “It’s always been trying to get back to the truth of the words and away from the vocal ornamentation.” 

When one understands the history of opera, this idea of getting back to the truth reappears often.  Even today, creators are striving for it.  Frisell has done some new works, and finds them exciting because of the possibilities they have written into them which are available nowadays.  But she also enjoys operas which date back even 300 years.  “We are more inquiring today in terms of repertoire, and are more interested in the values of the music of the past.”  She applauds the musicological research that is being done, and notes that like a new work, doing a revival means, “you have nothing to rely on, so it’s up to me to create something that stands on its feet and has dramatic value.  I tend to think that if the performance is good, it carries the public.  We have to decide if the public is going to learn about the opera before coming to the performance, or if we’re in the fast entertainment business.  I don’t think that opera is like turning on a television set and having a drink before you go to bed so your mind can unwind.  One presupposes it’s an art form which a certain amount of preparation is expected of your public.”  To Frisell, opera is the highest form of art there is.  “It combines so many elements, the challenge of trying to make it something whole and valid and true is the greatest challenge that exists in the entertainment world.  And if you can bring it off, you have almost moved out of yourself into another dimension for a moment.  But if you’re going to just cater to the audience’s tastes, I don’t think you’re going to achieve that aim.”
For Sonja Frisell, directing is a compelling obsession, but she wouldn’t describe it as fun.  “It’s something you can’t live without because you were born crazy and you got into it.”  But she’s still doing it, so she must be happy to have made the choice.  She tries to be home half the year.  “I can’t do more than 5 or 6 shows a year and still do the necessary research and preparation.  You need to renew yourself in order to have something to give.  If you’re directing all the time, you’re exhausting whatever you have.  That refers only to me, and not to any other directors.  In a way, singers can do more than directors because they don’t have to know as much as we do.  They’re only exploring one role and not looking into a totality and all the implications and the background of it in the way we have to do.
  Often, when the singers arrive at the first rehearsal, they’ve only just learned all the notes and expect everything to be spoon-fed to them.  This all changes, however, if they’ve done the opera before in other productions.  But I get a lot of young singers who want absolutely everything from me, and don’t even want to use their own brains.  But it’s not fair to generalize because there all are types in all categories.”

The idea of using translations presents a tricky question.  That Khovanshchina here was in Russian without supertitles, and was a huge success both times.  Then the San Francisco Opera brought it and used the supertitles and it was again the huge hit of the season.  She did a production of the same opera in two different Canadian cities, one in the original with supertitles, the other in English, and the reactions from the public were about the same.  She couldn’t say which one was better. 
She has contracts for several years in advance.  It’s a good feeling because working as she does “freelance,” it’s nice to know you’ll be earning some money.  However, the pressures and political complications often work against your doing your best work at the biggest theaters.

So where’s opera headed today?  “In one way,” she says, “opera is healthier than it’s ever been before.  It’s reaching a wider audience than it ever has.  On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s reaching that audience as a valid dramatic experience.  People buy records for big voices, and sit and listen to their stereo sets.  Or you have opera on TV, which is mostly from the Met where the sort of stand-and-sing variety of show seems to be favored.”  But there are advantages, and one is that singers think more about their figures and try to be more credible.  That’s because of the influence of the screen – both large and small. 

Frisell has worked in film, but wouldn’t choose to do an opera that way because she misses the interaction with the live public.  “The technical possibilities are fascinating, but the fact that the singer isn’t actually singing but working in playback introduces a calculation that makes ‘live’ performances very difficult to produce.”  Then there’s the public, which, Frisell says, can totally change the course of the performance.  “The mood of the audience has an interaction with the stage that you can feel the moment the curtain goes up.”  But she doesn’t expect anything from the paying customers.  She just hopes that they’ll enjoy themselves. 

Emmy Award winning director Sonja Frisell is widely regarded as one of the foremost stage directors working today. Regularly engaged by the most important European and American opera companies, Ms. Frisell has mounted productions for the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, Covent Garden in London, La Scala in Milan, Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janiero, La Fenice in Venice, Teatro Comunale in Bologna, Teatro dell'Opera in Rome, Teatro Regio in Turin, Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels, Geneva Opera, Paris Opera, Bregenz Festival, Teatro Liceo in Barcelona, Festival of Montepulciano, Houston Grand Opera, Washington Opera, Seattle Opera, Canadian Opera Company, National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Dallas Opera, Greater Miami Opera, Opera Company of Philadelphia, Montreal Opera, Ottowa Opera, Calgary Opera, Edmonton Opera, Tulsa Opera and Manitoba Opera.

Recently Ms. Frisell directed a production of 'Salome' for Arizona Opera and will return to La Scala for 'L’occasione fa il ladro'. In previous seasons, Ms. Frisell has directed productions such as 'Don Carlo' in Chicago and Washington DC, 'La Gioconda' and 'La Cenerentola' at La Scala, 'Un ballo in maschera' in Bologna, 'Maometto II' and 'Khovanschina' in San Francisco, 'La forza del destino', 'Otello', and 'Die Zauberflöte' in Washington DC, 'Elena da Feltre' at the Wexford Festival, 'Turandot' in Trieste and Calgiari, 'Eugene Onegin' with the Arizona Opera, and 'L'italiana in Algieri' at Covent Garden, San Francisco, and in Verona.

A protégé of famed director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Ms. Frisell received an Emmy Award in 1990 for the television broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's production of 'Aida', a production that will be seen in the MET's High Definition cinema broadcasts in the fall of 2009 with Violeta Urmana, Dolora Zajick (also seen in the original Emmy-winning broadcast), Johan Botha, Giancarlo Guelfi, Roberto Scandiuzzi, and conducted by Daniele Gatti.

-- Bio and photo from the CAMI website 

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone.  This article was written early in 1987 for Nit & Wit Magazine, but was never used due to tthe demise of the publication.  It was slightly re-edited and posted on this website in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here

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.