Artist Spotlight: Garnett Bruce, Stage Director

For the third installment of Opera Pulse’s Artist Spotlight series, I spoke with critically-acclaimed stage director, Garnett Bruce.  Recent career highlights include productions for Houston Grand Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Diego Opera, Austin Lyric Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, and collaboration with Peter Sellars on the world-premiere of Dr. Atomic for Chicago Lyric Opera.  Mr. Bruce was recently appointed Artistic Advisor and Principal Stage Director of Opera Omaha and currently serves on the directing faculties of the Aspen Music Festival and Peabody Conservatory.  Upcoming productions include Don Giovanni at Opera Omaha, a double-bill of L’enfant et les Sortilèges and Les mamelles de Tirésias at Peabody Opera Theater, and Lucia di Lammermoor at The Dallas Opera.  To learn more, visit

What is your background with opera?  When did you first decide to actively pursue a career in stage directing?

My first experience with opera was performing in one: when I was a choirboy at Washington National Cathedral, the summer before I started officially in the choir, 36 of us were invited to be the Faerie Chorus for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center.  There were four weeks of rehearsal and performances with two casts.  Most notable for me was that I got to stay up past midnight several nights in a row, and I opened my bank account with the $100 we were paid.  Stage directing came later.  I suppose I always liked to tell stories and coordinate groups, but only after my time in stage management did I make the leap in front of the stage to help control what the audience was experiencing.

From a directing standpoint, what do you see as the difference between opera and straight theater?

The actual collaborative process of opera is much, much shorter and more intense.  Everyone arrives with their parts learned and certain approaches to their roles – something that is usually discovered as an ensemble in longer spoken-theater presentation.  Likewise, many aspects of the stage design are determined months in advance (or by a previous production) in opera, whereas a theater company has the staff and flexibility to create alongside the actors’ process.

What is your process of directing, beginning from the time you are contracted for a production to its first performance?

Whether it is 3 months or 3 years, the process is the same – to HEAR the opera first (and in the case of a world premiere, enough of the composer’s music to understand or at least be familiar with the aural vocabulary).  This stimulates my visual imagination, and I start referencing art of the period of the composer (or in the vicinity of the composer) so that I can start pulling the piece apart.  I have to know the story and its mechanism, so I often start at the end of the piece and translate the text from end to beginning.  Historical reference is also essential, such as source materials, timelines, news of the day… 1789 was an important year, for example.   As was 1945, not just for music, but for the whole of human understanding.

After that, I like to put the piece on the back burner.  It’s reawakened from time to time by a newspaper article or tune on the radio or random bookstore reference, and all of that goes into a journal of sorts.  Usually, I’m working on more than one piece at a time, so my view of a piece is necessarily seen through the prism of something I’m currently engaged in.

Then you have the usual deadlines for program articles, schedules, synopsis, and supertitles, which force a return time and again to different aspects.  Sometimes there are cuts to sort out and even the version, as in the case of Hoffmann or Carmen.  If it’s a new production, I try to have at least three face-to-face meetings with the design team in the year leading up to the shop deadlines.

At last, rehearsals begin, and I can work with the cast and conductor with detailed page-by-page rehearsals.  There has to be time for review, time for discussion, and time for alternative approaches so that we all agree on how we are telling the particular story at hand.  And, it is (and should be) different for every casting combination; each artist MUST bring part of themselves to the process, or we lack an essential honesty in the performances.

You’ve had the opportunity to work with many prominent directors and composers in the opera world, including Peter Sellars, Francesca Zambello, and Leonard Bernstein.  How have these individuals influenced your directing style?

I like to think that I am influenced by every director and singer I work with – if I’m paying attention!  Peter [Sellars] brings a great world view into the rehearsal room with him, ALWAYS finding a way to connect with the issues of the day, keeping the art form, the cast, and the story relevant.  Cesca [Zambello] brings the great sweep of emotion and theatricality to our work and has been part of teaching me to put the “grand” in grand opera with large chorus scenes and full stage changes.  She chooses great collaborators as well and keeps the tension between the characters alive, even across vast distances of the stage.  And she never loses sight of the audience – if they don’t get it, why would they ever come back?

Mr. Bernstein was always a mentor because of the energy and zeal he brought to a room, a rehearsal, a score.  Suddenly the music was a living, breathing soul, worthy of dialogue, of questions, of commentary.  And he taught me to trust the process – whatever we find in the rehearsal room is BASED on the notes on the page – but it is that living quality that must be embraced, cherished, and encouraged.  Not that we should ignore the composer – since [Bernstein] was one himself, he would never allow himself to be ignored! – but that’s just a starting point.   It’s up to us to fill in the rest of the gaps.

There is a lot of discussion about traditional opera productions versus updated interpretations.   Where do you fall in this issue?

If the storytelling is clear, if the music is allowed to breathe and live, it doesn’t matter what we’re wearing.  Only when the concept becomes a conceit should we be concerned.  Whenever the concept becomes more important than the source material, we might as well be starting something new.

When you are directing an opera, how much of the acting process do you leave up to the singers?

Like singing, the process of acting has to be personal.  I will ask questions of an artist if I don’t see a level or aspect I think is important, but I need to open my mind and react to what he or she is presenting.  Then we’ll map out a plan together.

What do you see as the difference between opera productions in the United States and opera productions in Europe?

The AUDIENCE!  We just don’t have enough opera-goers in the USA to have a culture of wide discussion and debate.  Film seems to do that, sometimes even sports or news headlines, but not opera (or theater).  Whereas in the places I’ve worked in Europe, the role of the artist seems respected as a synthesis of current day issues reflected in another medium and then studied and evaluated.  We have diligent performers on both sides of the Atlantic, and often, our USA “compressed time” process forces shrewd decisions early on that the lengthy European process lacks.  However in Europe, ideas seem to have time to grow and evolve, and the results are more polished and more focused.  As a very wise stage hand in Dallas once told me about a last-minute change:  “Everybody’ll see it, except the audience” – perspective is key.

People are continuing to question the survival of opera in today’s society.   Do you have similar concerns?  What do you see as the future of opera?

Every era seems to be on the cusp of sudden death.   But as long as we can hear music, we WILL be moved by it, attempt to create it, understand it, and in the process understand ourselves.

Large, expensive productions may have to streamline (or find new sources of funding), but they are essential to linking us to the visual and aural metaphors of the ages.  Theatrical effect has its rewards.  Steady seasons and regular performances need to be the goals right now so that opera continues to be part of the conversation in day-to-day life.

Photo by Cory Weaver

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