5 Questions to James Darrah (Artistic Director, ONE Festival)

When it comes to the words “trailblazing” and “influential” in terms of directing new opera, James Darrah‘s name is never far. Darrah is spree-like directing the new theatre and opera world’s most talked about productions. From Missy Mazzoli’s operatic adaptation of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves for Opera Philadelphia and the Prototype Festival in New York to the direction and design for a music video for mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato on her new album In War and Peace on Warner Classics/ Erato, Darrah is creating the look and feel of new opera for a generation of opera-goers.

Darrah is also focusing his creative energy, as artistic director, on the upcoming ONE festival and artists’ residency as part of his ongoing collaboration with Opera Omaha where he directs a new production of Proving Up by Missy Mazzoli in a co-commission with Washington National Opera, Opera Omaha, and New York’s Miller Theater. Taking place April 6th-22nd, 2018 in Omaha, Nebraska, the ONE festival includes over fifty multi-disciplinary performances, installations, conversations and explorations. This festival marks Opera Omaha’s continuing realization of becoming a beacon for community building, non-traditional venues, contemporary opera/performance – along with standard repertory not only to other presenting organizations in the Midwest but with the movers and shakers in the contemporary opera scene across the country.

What drew you to taking on the artistic director position with the ONE festival and your work with Opera Omaha overall?

In truth, the AD position and the festival as a whole grew out of the work we were all doing in Omaha already. My debut with the company was after Roger Weitz became the Opera Omaha General Director. We had worked together when Brian Dickie had given me my first productions with Chicago Opera Theater and Weitz was then the General Manager. His proposal to me in 2014 was what a young director always dreams of hearing: come up with titles and casts that interest you, delve into some repertoire that is exciting for the company but also for your team of designers, and work to create an annual new production together. It wasn’t possible to resist such an invitation.

We started with a new production of Handel’s Agrippina in 2014, and the result grew into an annual residency of sorts…a period of time where we gathered singers, designers, and artists together (often people I was meeting in other projects in other cities that I wanted to collaborate with) to delve into making a new piece. It wasn’t much different from operatic business-as-usual at first, but I think that the city itself has some interesting artistic energy and resources that enabled the work and our time in the city to expand and take on a new life.

I noticed after two years of projects in Omaha that I had a closer relationship with key people on the board, supporters—donor functions even felt more like dinner with a friend than I was accustomed to. I ran an artist collective/company called Chromatic with Peabody Southwell from 2014-2016 that was a collective of 11 artists. Our first three productions with Opera Omaha were Chromatic’s formative years and helped establish Omaha as an artists’ residency. What started as an insular group of like-minded artists (scenic designers, costume designers, singers, dancers, etc.) worked well for a trilogy of productions. Southwell and I eventually dissolved Chromatic and moved on from the idea of an inward focused “collective,” and I have since tried to broaden the creative focus and creative family for Opera Omaha with Roger Weitz. I’m interested in Omaha being a place for collaboration, new and emerging artists of all mediums. Other art forms have artist residencies—why shouldn’t opera?

Roger approached me about becoming the Artistic Director of this new festival format by initially acknowledging that it was a way to grow but keep doing the work that seemed to be very rewarding—it felt less like something new, and rather something more inclusive, more expansive and more in line with what we felt the strengths of the company to be as a retreat, a place to make meaningful work, experiment and not worry about failure or success—but test new ideas, new partnerships. I want the festival to be focused on delivering an exciting product in the Omaha community, but to the larger artist community, I think it needs to be the place where an artist from any background is prompted to program, dream, create and make something of their own choosing. We’re programming operas, certainly, but also prompting interesting artists to make something personally meaningful and share the results.

Proving Up will be the second Missy Mazzoli opera that you have directed. Can you describe what it is like to have a ongoing relationship with a composer and their works when it comes to your direction?

I love working with Missy and her librettist Royce Vavrek. In addition to the expected daily rehearsal room/ staging process—we’ve always talked about the piece candidly and openly from the first moment. It’s incredible to be in a room with both of them because you get a sense of opera as a living, relevant, current art form. Missy is a real dramatist–she always has the pulse of what she’s trying to convey at the ready. She watches rehearsal not as a silent observer, but as a true collaborator…invested in story.

Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek

Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek

There is a strong commitment to eclectic, diverse, and unconventional projects in your portfolio. Do you choose those projects in alignment with your own professional mission, or do they come from a more external source?

I’m always interested in slight challenge or something that seems daunting, and I’ve always been drawn to music. If I’m totally obsessed with the score, I consider it a worthwhile endeavor. To that end, it’s a personal mission to take varied projects, try new things, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that some of the projects are also driven by an external source, as well. For example: I’ve done seven wildly different productions with Michael Tilson Thomas in the past five years, and every single one has been an idea of his that has taught me something entirely new as a director and often simultaneously humbled and thrilled me as a musician.

Do you feel as though American audiences, from coast to coast and all points in between, have a concept of what’s new and different in contemporary opera?

Good question, and I’m not sure. Opera is such a community art form and to me not a national form—it matters to the people that are actually going to see the live productions in the community. Sure, the larger opera crowd professionally keeps track of “who” and “what” and “where” in the business…but I think each city I’ve worked in has been completely different.

In terms of contemporary opera, I saw the audiences in Philadelphia completely be open and ready to parse Breaking the Waves and celebrate what Missy Mazzoli, Royce Vavrek, and I did with the material, and Opera Omaha audiences have literally high-fived me on the street about how much they felt “this guy John Adams rocks” (after we did his opera A Flowering Tree). No one I spoke to in Omaha had parsed who Adams was—what mattered was that they loved his music, his story, his opera. In Philadelphia, it was the same thing–people were absorbed into the story and the music.

I sometimes catch myself talking in interviews about opera almost as if I have deep problems with it, or I spend time defending the need for abstraction and ambiguity in art–but I’ve come to realize I often am actually talking about what I view to be the useless traditions: the self-important isolation that creates some truly deadly feeling theater, but also a very closed-off community that just routinely consumes new productions or trots to old dusted off museum theater.

Opera is so vastly old compared to film, and I’m always amazed at how a group of six people will never align on film genre tastes. We’ve come to think of opera sometimes as take-it or leave-it…but it’s hundreds of years old! Why should we be just “okay” with every single ounce of the repertoire…I’d argue contemporary opera contains a limitless well of information to teach us about life and illuminate something in our lives into the extraordinary…but it needs vitality, risk. It needs people to take risks and sometimes fail. It needs singers to take risks.  It needs the excitement of what’s next–What’s new? What will said composer, or director, or singer do next? The communities I’ve seen in the US that have embraced some of those ideas have a flourishing new music scene.

James Darrah

James Darrah–Photo by Rus Anson

What do you see practitioners of contemporary music doing well to help ensure community building through the arts, or what do you wish they were doing more of?

Even though I currently feel like I don’t spend as much time there as I’d like–I think my home Los Angeles is a pretty rich example of the arts working to build and strengthen communities—and much of the ONE Festival in Omaha is modeled off of some of my experiences there. You have people doing amazing things in contemporary music throughout the city, but actually engaging with people in ways people perhaps wouldn’t expect. My close friend and colleague Chris Rountree and band wildUp are changing the way people encounter, hear, and experience concert formats and the work of living composers, the LA Master Chorale programs both seminal works of choral repertoire but also champions new exciting composers with powerful sociological views like Ellen Reid. Beth Morrison and Yuval Sharon are in Los Angeles and dedicated to new opera, living composers, but more living ideas that take opera to completely new territories and new audiences of people, and then there are a whole host of singers, musicians, composers that truly have important things to say, communal experiences that branch beyond a normal operatic or contemporary music audience. There’s a flexible artist space called Werkartz in Chinatown that has studios, photography, and also hosts live shows, installations, concerts —they’ve hosted several of my video shoots and projects out of a desire to help foster new artistic communities and do a lot to champion artists from all over LA.

In all…I’m interested in knowing people in the communities…and if new music and opera can help foster that–great.