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BLO’s Widowed Merriment on Era’s Cusp


Franz-LeharThe production of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow which runs from this Friday through Sunday, May 8th at the Shubert Theater, constitutes stage director Lillian Groag’s fourth for Boston Lyric Opera. Her Idomeneo, Agrippina, and Butterfly have all earned good reviews in these (and other) pages. Sung mainly in English, with projected (adapted) translations, the frothy operetta “draws us into the opulent Paris of the legendary Maxim’s in this first-ever BLO production. Featuring a lush design and a new book by director Lillian Groag, Widow cavorts in 1913 Paris during the last glittering gasps before the City of Light would be overshadowed by war—a party at the end of the world.” Tickets here.

BMIInt shares revelations from extensive conversations with stage director Lillian Groag and BLO general and artistic director Esther Nelson. The first 1600 words belong to Groag.

FLE: Can you talk about how you rewrote the book? You moved the time period? What else?

LG: I moved it from 1905 to 1913—under 10 years, so that I could get it close to on top of the beginning of World War I, making it closer to the end of that world, which is hinted at only ever so slightly in the original setting. I wanted the situation to be more dire: the world we speak of is about to end completely with World War I.

The setting is exactly the same, the Pontevedrian Embassy. Pontevedro is, of course, a country that doesn’t exist. It takes place in the embassy, which is how it’s written.

But I haven’t changed anything. I’ve just written the same jokes, only with our tone to it. There’s a tone to it that is witty and vitriolic and ironic. Nothing has changed, the story is exactly the same, the jokes are exactly where they appeared.

So it’s a matter of the visual style more than anything else.

It’s the visual because costumes are updated to 1913, to New Year’s Eve 1913 … but the actual feeling of these people is that they are to love now—there would be no time later, because all the men are about to go to war.

We know that, but do the characters?

We know that; they have no idea. There’s a wonderful quote about how they “waltzed themselves into an abyss”—a witty, witty passage—“and they’re blithely straying and talking about love affairs and who she’s going to marry and all of that, while the world’s going to hell in a handbasket.”

Right. You think of that in Ravel’s La Valse: the apotheosis and the ending of the era.

That’s precisely it, the tone of it is the tone of La Valse.

Are you going to have the three acts in very different settings? Is it a unit set?

Yes, the settings are different, but they all take place in the embassy. In other words, we don’t go to Hanna’s house in Act II. She asks the ambassador for permission to give her party in the embassy; and when she re-creates Maxim’s at her house, it will instead be at the embassy. Yes, exactly, like act II will be in a garden in the embassy, and act III is in the part of the embassy that she’s transformed into Maxim’s.

Have you worked with these singers before?

I’ve worked with Roger Honeywell, and I’ve worked with Jesse Blumberg and with Neil Herrera here. That’s about it. I’ve never worked with the ladies before, but I’ve worked with this chorus before, which is spectacular because this chorus, unlike in other productions of the Widow, will also be dancing. They do all the dancing, they do all the singing and dancing, it’s all them and not suddenly a corps de ballet just arrived to do the big dances in act III; it’s the chorus itself dancing as the invited guests of the embassy.

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Lillian Groag (file photo)
Lillian Groag (file photo)

This is going to be the last production in the Shubert for the Boston Lyric Opera. Do you feel bittersweet about that? Do you think it’s a good theater?

There are such wonderful venues in Boston. For example, we’ve been rehearsing at the Colonial Theater, and it’s breathtaking. We’ve already been rehearsing on stage, which is quite a boon for singers so they don’t go from a very dry rehearsal hall to a real theater. The Colonial is one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever seen.

Did you read it was almost lost to us? Emerson College was going to turn it into a dining hall.

Oh yes, and I’m so happy they didn’t, because it’s breathtaking. The paintings on the ceiling and the rococo decorations in the main hall in the auditorium, all that, it would have been so sad for that to have been destroyed, to have it gone, so I’m glad that they’re keeping it open. And I love the Shubert Theater and I’ll miss it when I come back. I’ll miss it a lot. But the discovery of the Colonial for me was fantastic.

It is one of the most historic theaters in the country. It is beloved.

It’s like a work of art on its own.

Unfortunately, the pit is too small there for opera. I think you could fit about 20 players.

Yeah, you could do a lot of Mozart and Handel there. I don’t know that you could do a Wagner or a Richard Strauss there because those orchestras are so huge. But I think if you could fit 20-25 people in the pit you could do some lovely 18th-century pieces.

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Are the costumes going to look like haute couture?

Yes, 1913, those wonderful Erté designs that you can see in museums. The entire look will be art nouveau / art deco, and the women will look quite spectacular in the costumes. They’re narrower, they’re sleeker than, let’s say, Edwardian or turn-of-the-century costumes. You can see the skirts beginning to go a little higher, the corsets disappear little by little. It’s quite beautiful.

So you are being quite true to the intent?

Absolutely. There’s nothing gratuitously contemporaneous about that.

You’re not going to have Elvis Presley or Jack the Ripper make guest appearances.

It has to be accurate because of about the nostalgia about the piece itself, about that world that is disappearing. I’ve seen it done in the ’20s, but anything past that would not go with the music. You need to keep the feeling of an that era that was beautiful and romantic and intensely lyrical. It’s a really romantic production, I must say.

As a stage director you sometimes do edgier, more contemporary interpretation.

Oh yes. I do a lot of theater, too, so some of it is pretty dark and pretty edgy. But I also think that anytime that you the bring the shadow of death on the stage, or allude to something that is about to be destroyed, that’s edgier than just setting it, let’s say, in the subway stop on 42nd Street in New York. Anyone can update just for the hell of it, and it doesn’t necessarily give you a theatrical weight or an edginess that’s normally reflected by the action. I always have to be careful with concepts, because concepts just means a design, a visual. It doesn’t add much other than the visual, and people get over that within 5, 10 minutes of seeing what’s onstage. But if it applies to the action of the piece, to the drama of the moment, of the material, then it’s a real updating. For me there always has to be a reason for it other than just being right here right now, cool and hip and contemporary.

You have to be very careful with updatings, because things that were dire at one particular time are not anymore. For example, Hedda Gabler shoots herself because in 1888 she couldn’t get a divorce in Christiania, and there are situations where you can’t get away from them if you’re in that moment, but you could today. Anything having to do with sex was a big deal at the turn of the century, or the 18th century. Now, it’s so casual, you know. Many things don’t play if the primary action of the piece is moved by certain things that are no longer a problem.

If the social mores of the time of the work of art are very important, then it doesn’t transplant to other times. You can still keep it in its own time but still have originality and design in production.

Absolutely. You can do anything in the traditional time that it was conceived and have a really edgy production. I always begin from the libretto. I start from what the guys wrote down, and if it doesn’t make sense in a different time, I find it hard to direct that way. Certain productions get into trouble when that original moving action of material no longer has the perimeters of the time.

In other words, we shouldn’t be thinking about your concept, we should be thinking about the work.

Exactly. See what happens when you take Merry Widow, one of the great scores of all time, and you bring it close to a world catastrophe like World War I.

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Operatic Lyricism at Length; Also To Update or Not To Update?

A Conversation with BLO General and Artistic Director Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson (file photo)
Esther Nelson (file photo)

LE: One of the many things that got BMInt excited in previous conversation with Lillian Groag was hearing that BLO rehearsed in the Colonial. No one has seen opera there in more than 30 years— …

EN: What did you see?

Craig Smith and Peter Sellars did all three Mozart / da Ponte operas there. [Ed. Note: he ill-fated company only managed to present Figaro. The did not need to reduce the orchestra, though celli and fortepiano spilled out into  orchestra boxes.]

OMG—that’s right.

And it worked even though the pit’s fairly small.

Very small, and I betcha they couldn’t even fit a traditional classical orchestra in there; they would have to make additional reductions.

I think that’s probably what they did. Boston Ballet performed there once and had some of the orchestra in dressing rooms with microphones and PA system getting the sound into the house, which was nuts.

(laughter) I can imagine!

But I’m so relieved that that theater is not going to be butchered by Emerson, and learning of the Colonial as BLO’s rehearsal site just brought up the fact that next year you’re going to be a homeless company; exciting, in a way, and I’d like to talk about the future of opera houses in Boston and what we can do.

We’d be fine with one. (laughter) Forget opera houses; the irony is that we have a theater called the Opera House that doesn’t have any opera in it anymore.

Originally named the B.F. Keith Memorial, it was never meant to be an opera house.

When you look at what we have in Boston, theaters that have any potential, theaters that could be seriously under discussion, you’re looking at only four, and none of them was actually intended to be an opera house. The Shubert, the Colonial, the Opera House, and the Orpheum. And those are it, because the Wang, while it does have a pit and does have a stage and while the Metropolitan Opera was in it on tour way back when (of course they were in many places), it’s not suitable and I’m not putting it in that category because it is vast and is acoustically the most challenged of all. The audience is also very far away. Even the front row is very removed from the action and I believe strongly that no matter how large the opera house, there has to be a sense of intimacy, and I think it’s very important that audiences feel close to the action onstage and to the singers onstage. So of the four houses mentioned, the Shubert, the Opera House, and the Orpheum are commercially managed, so their primary business model is for commercial touring shows, which are four-wall rentals and the basic infrastructure is something they bring with them. That’s the full opposite of what a producing company would look for. A producing company is not in and out. They’re looking for a facility that has basic infrastructure such as lighting; sound, and by sound I don’t mean amplification but the communication systems; and wardrobes would have to be there. Basic infrastructure that we have to bring into any of these theaters, every time we’re in it, at great expense, because most of these older theaters are very labor-intensive as well and the more you have to bring in and out of what’s basic infrastructure, that increases your cost which doesn’t relate to anything that ultimately your audience experiences onstage. So you have those three facilities that are commercially owned and managed, then the fourth one is the Colonial, the only one not commercially owned, however commercially operated in the past.

But that lease has expired.

Correct. But what I’m saying in terms of availability, they were all commercially managed. So the opera house, of the four places, is the only one that has a resident local producer in it, and that’s the ballet. And they’re filling their venue. Of all the theaters we mentioned the opera house seems to be filling its facility more than the others with activity between the ballet and the commercial shows they have in there. And it’s well-managed, it’s well-maintained. It’s a beautiful facility, so one would say, if you look at it as a successful partnership of a commercial [entity] with also being a home for a local producer, that’s a success story. I don’t want to diminish the fact that the Shubert is a lovely theater as well, with a sense of intimacy, but it has acoustical issues. Of the four theaters the one that is the least acoustically challenged is the Colonial.

But these have all been adapted for amplified performances with acoustical material and carpets; that really deadens the sound to make it clearer for the artificial sound.

That, and primarily what they did is add more seats. They changed the auditorium. They changed the balance. Not only do you have more visual challenges in terms of sightlines, but to maximize profit they needed more seats. And now you’ve changed the layout of the auditorium, and acoustical balance is a really tricky science and it’s the tiniest things, sometimes even like a curtain, that can absolutely make a difference.

Of course if you’re in a theater with good acoustics, you can get by with a smaller orchestra, and the Shubert absorbs so much of the beautiful sound made in the pit, because it’s all carpeted and wasn’t originally … and I’d love to hear an opera with a small band in the Colonial again…. I guess the Majestic is just too small for you?

The Majestic is too small. The size of pit there really limits itself to classical-style orchestras—you couldn’t do Bohème or Butterfly correctly. What a fully professional company should strive for is to come as close as possible to what the original intent was for the piece. You don’t want to shrink your orchestra way below what may be the Puccini-size orchestra should be. In this city we should be able to do some of the larger works. We should be able to do Turandot, which is a fairly large orchestra; you should be able to do some Strauss, you should be able to do some Wagner.

I was surprised when I went to hear the ballet of Mahler Fifth in the Opera House. I’ve heard two different stories on whether they used sound reinforcement for that, but whatever they used, it sounded completely natural. One could perfectly place the sound emanating from the solo singer. I remember Sarah Caldwell performing there, and it seemed to work.

Like so many of these theaters, it has sections where you have a better acoustic than another. Depending on where you sit in the Shubert you can have a very good acoustical experience and visual experience. Unfortunately, it’s limited to a smaller part of the house, and that’s the case with many of those theaters. Now, I know that the Opera House has invested in a terrific sound enhancement. They certainly have it for all the commercial shows. There are acoustical challenges in the Opera House which we are taking into consideration when we’re in there for Carmen. It’s a fairly large stage and it’s a large house, so we actually have to bring in a much larger chorus and beef up the orchestra so that you get the full impact of the natural acoustic of the facilities. We have to bring in a lot more orchestra and a whole lot more chorus than we would have, say, for a smaller house or even the Shubert.

Carmen is your single production at that house next year?

Yeah. In order to accommodate the larger facility and the sound balance we are going to have to strengthen the forces beyond what we would have done in a smaller facility.

But can you shorten the run by one night?

We actually are doing four performances, vs five.

It might be a wash then economically

It might be, except for the fact that we’ve contracted most of our artists for five nights.

You know there is a fifth large theater that not many people remember, and that’s the RKO Boston.

Where is that?

It’s on the corner of Washington and Tremont and it’s within a large office building and was for a while the Cinerama Theater. It’s been closed 20 years. Its problem is that the stage is very shallow, but like other theaters, like the Opera House and the Wang Center, it could have a stage extension and a permanent company. I haven’t heard any conversation about that theater in years and my understanding is it’s still there waiting for somebody. It’s think it’s about a 2000-seat theater also.

I’m going to look that up again. I have a vague recollection of something that we have in our archive. Ideally, generally, when you’re looking at acoustical balance for opera houses and maintaining a certain intimacy, you really don’t want to be larger than 2000 seats. Not only are you acoustically challenged when you go beyond 1800, and that’s around the world, you lose that sense of intimacy which I think is pretty critical for opera. And if you go below that, if you’re fully professional like we are, then your cost is just too great for performances, when you only have 1000 seats, which is part of the problem also with the Majestic. It’s not just the small pit, even though we are using the Majestic next year, which makes sense for our celebration, because we grew out of the Majestic into the Shubert, but particularly the growing-up audience came in time to want to see the larger show, that couldn’t be done with the appropriate forces in the Majestic.

Colonial Theater
Colonial Theater

And then if your auditorium is limited, you disappoint too many interested patrons, which is a good problem to have, and likely your per-performance cost is too high. These are the factors we have to balance. But the great thing about the Colonial is that it actually does have a good acoustical balance, and now the problem there, as you already mentioned, is that you have a tiny pit. So we have to look into the possibility of extending it before even consider being in the Colonial.

That means jackhammering concrete, doesn’t it?

It does. We have actually done a fairly extensive engineering study. So we know what needs to be done and unfortunately you can’t really go too much under the stage; you have to go out, so that means if you have the pit fully installed, you would have to lose some rows of seats. Ideally you would have a retractable cover such that you close it up again and restore the seats when larger orchestras aren’t needed. So it’s quite doable.

Why can’t you go into the trap space under the stage there?

Structurally that would be massive work, we’re talking millions. At that point you have to reinforce the structural integrity of the stage and that costs enormous amounts of money.

Are you making any plans to perform at the Colonial?

No. Emerson has to decide what it wants to do with the Colonial. The only thing that Emerson has announced is that they will continue to see it operate as a theater, but who will operate the theater, and who will be in it, is a decision that Emerson wants to make.

So what are the other two theaters that you are going to be using next year?

We will have in the Opera House, the first opera in there since Sarah Caldwell, and we’re very happy about that. Then the Cutler Majestic and it’s a lovely little theater and it’s a nod to our 40th anniversary, so we’re doing Rake’s Progress in there, a great venue for that. We’re also doing Turnage’s Greek in the Paramount, another Emerson property which a lot of our audience are not familiar with, so perfect for our annex. And then we’re going to be in the John Hancock, which is often ignored, for a Marriage of Figaro. We have used that hall throughout our history as well for most of our smaller educational shows for children and families.

It’s dead, though, acoustically?

It’s actually not bad acoustically at all, but it has a tiny pit; it’s a small space, but we know how to install things in all kinds of spaces and …

There are no flies or wings there, are there?

No, no, you have to be very creative, and whatever it is is onstage. We did Marriage of Figaro, which is perfectly doable, and for that type of work we have a great designer, who has already come up with some terrific solutions for smaller works.

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Tell us how you choose stage directors. Is your conductor involved in the decision as to who’s going to be invited to do the staging? I’m not snooty about updating things, but sometimes you do things traditionally and other times mount very jarring directorial conceits. So how does the process work and how do you decide when to take liberties and changes and when to play it straight?

As the artistic director, I have the final decision in terms of who we bring in as stage director. I have surrounded myself by a team, and I believe as an artistic director the best decision is made when you use the resources that you have at hand and that does include our conductor. Our artistic management team also includes John Conklin, who is here in the form of dramaturge and also occasionally designer. You should not make seasonal decisions or repertoire decisions without including your total management team and that includes everybody who’s involved in marketing, in development, fundraising, because ultimately they speak for the audience and for your funders and you have to take that into consideration too.

It used to be that you would talk about your top 20 operas that audiences would recognize. Now you’re down to top 10, and they do bring in the audience. If you have a Carmen in your repertory, that means you can afford to do a Rake’s Progress as well, or a Greek, because audiences recognize the [familiar] title and they are more likely to venture into a subscription series if they recognize at least one of the titles. So you constantly have this mix of popular to lesser-known works and sometimes something that’s completely unknown or a commissioned work, and then you look at the repertory, and obviously who is best-suited to present a certain opera in a certain way.

There are for instances some stage directors I think who are absolutely brilliant for installing operas in nontraditional spaces. That same director I may not choose as the best for Carmen or Bohème. Many artists have strengths and shine in one area and may not shine in all areas, and that’s opinion obviously, that’s subjective. Ultimately we look at how directors work in spaces. One director might do wonderfully in a larger facility, like say the Opera House, with a lot of chorus, with a lot of people onstage, and other directors are better with focusing really on theatrical elements in a more intimate way, without lots of activity onstage.

I travel a lot to various festivals, to other houses, as does our conductor. Director so and so then appears on our radar. I will make an effort sometimes to go see something of a director’s work, to go see some of this director’s work somewhere else, and then comes the game whether they’re available. So it’s a lot that goes into it and it really is an entire team.

Do you feel the need, if you’re always going to include one of the 10 biggies, to do something very different and unexpected with them?

You reach out to your director and say , for instance, Lillian Groag would be great for Merry Widow. And then Lillian comes back and says, You know, I’ve been thinking about Merry Widow; I see it best presented in the following way. So I don’t go to a director and say I would like for you to do this avant-garde way or I’d like for you to do this totally traditional. That’s not my role. I may say to a director, You know, I already have two shows that season that are fairly contemporary and not in the original setting, so maybe you could think of it in a more original setting, just so we have more contrast within the season. I will do something like that. But most of the ideas come from the directors and then I have to say either yes or no.

Sometimes saying no is a good thing. In my conversation with Lillian she said she has to be convinced that there has to be some compelling reason to change the setting of an opera, and so she moved Merry Widow five years forward to the eve of WWI, but noted it doesn’t basically change the story. When you have a Don Giovanni set in 1950, it’s confusing because the social mores of da Ponte’s and Mozart’s time don’t translate, and it makes for some weird disconnects.

That’s probably where then my take plays into it. People’s idea of what is traditional may not be what the original intent was. When the librettist or the composers agreed to a certain setting, even in their lifetime that was changed with the blessings of the composer. If the stage director thought that the heart of the story could be told more compellingly in a different setting, there was often no objection, least of all from the composer. How many times have you seen a Shakespeare play that was updated bring a completely new understanding from our time to the story of another time?

Take our Bohème, for instance. I thought our approach of setting it in 1968 Paris was risky, but I obviously approved. The stage director came in and said I really think this is a fantastic story with the same revolutionary spirit of the Revolution that students have spurred so often in France; it happened again under de Gaulle. Sometimes by updating you come actually closer to the original, because you’re not doing a postcard version.

Carmen has been produced in so many completely different styles. Carmen Jones among blacks on an army base in the American South, and then did you see the Soweto setting of Carmen?

Oh, yeah, that’s actually amazing. What did you think of that?

Lee: I thought it was amazing too. I saw the film. I don’t think it strayed too far from the feeling of the libretto.

So what’s the heart of the libretto is the story of the people.

Whether they’re smoking cigarettes or rolling cigars on their thighs isn’t really a showstopper.

Look at the Carmen we’re co-producing with San Francisco; it’s not set in Spain. It’s by a Spanish director and it’s certainly updated, but, oh, my God, he gets it. He gets that intent and that intensity of Carmen, but in a society of the 20th century.

So I think it’s always a risk and the problem we often have today, particularly with opera, more so than with theater.

In a very curious way, I think before the days of television and film, audiences entered the theater unencumbered with preconceived notions of what they were supposed to see. When you tie yourself down, you miss the emotional experience you’re about to have. That said, they’re all risks. I have seen some of the most uninspired Carmens that pretended to be authentic.

Carmen depends on sex appeal and great voices, and if you have them, almost anything works.

Exactly. It’s acting, it’s are the characters convincing you of what they’re doing? I don’t know if you saw the Marriage of Figaro that Boston Conservatory just did. It was charming. It was completely updated, but boy those students, they convinced you of the emotions they went through. Cherubino was maybe a little more corpulent than the typical mezzo who sings the role, and so they left her as this charming little almost bisexual type or androgynous being that was totally uncomfortable. They didn’t make her pretend to be something else. And by letting her be, she was completely authentic. You just felt for the poor little girl who was a boy pretending to be a girl. If they tried to absolutely be authentic to the Mozart time, they would have failed.

But I saw the recent BU Cosí and I just disliked it. A couple of stage directors from universities thanked me afterward for what I wrote, because the production made it so difficult for the young singers and a university should be supporting its singers.

Exactly, that’s what I say, here about the Boston Conservatory one: he went in and said okay, what are the students capable of and what are my resources to do the show with? And they would not have been able to succeed had they tried or attempted to do what others would have considered to be a traditional performance. He just went to the essence of it; he worked with the students and strengthened the weaknesses he had, and he turned them into real characters, in minimal setting, to suggest a setting. It was very good. So again, I think a good theater director looks at the piece. If the director comes to me from the very beginning and says I wanna update, then I’m thinking, well, that’s just a method. You’re not looking at the piece.

Is it about the director herself or is it about the work being put on that’s the question?

Sometimes the director is really getting to the heart of it, and he comes out of it and we talk about it, and they say I really see it best portrayed in that theater with the singers that we have and today’s audience. And that can be traditional, whatever that means, but let’s say in the original setting, or it could be updated to XYZ period. Then they have to start convincing me that actually, yes, I understand what they mean, I feel it, and then I give the blessing “go ahead.” But if I have a director who says I have to update everything, then I’m thinking, Well, clearly it’s about you.

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Boston Opera House in its luckier years.

One think that bothers me in some trendy productions is the updating of the dialogue and the colloquial translations that make people laugh at inappropriate times. There’s certainly humor in opera, and people have always laughed, but when they’re laughing at serious scenes and when the laughter covers the singing, that cheats those who want to hear.

You know that’s a really tricky point, because when updated, certain references could become jarring. We don’t change what the singer sings, but the supertitles are changed. That actually in a way works, because people who speak the language get it, but they also realize that if it were in today’s period, then they would have expressed it as the title does. Yet it’s tricky because I think there are directors, particularly in Europe, who take tremendous license to change the text and then you wonder whether they have gone over the line.

We can see the line in different places.

Life is about risk. If you don’t want to take any risk, I could take a show that I liked in Santa Fe or Philadelphia and import it. Then I know what I’m going to get for sure. That’s one way of doing it. That’s what a lot of companies do. They bring in other companies’ shows. They might get their own singers but they bring in a specific production. On the other hand, we produce our own, and, by the way, that is not what this company used to do. But when they brought me here, they brought a producer rather than an importer. That is good, because this gives us a whole lot more flexibility with what titles we want to do. Otherwise, I would be stuck with what’s on the menu of other companies.

Singers love working on new productions, so you get a better caliber of singer, you have more choices. Because the company is little more vibrant, you rehearse more, you get your stage director, and then we own the sets, by the way which we rent out to provide another income source. And our sets are mostly built by ART, so we have a partnership with ART which allows them to keep their scene shop open in the summer, so it’s a great partnership. But it’s a risk. I have thought, We’re going into a production and it’s just going to work. And then you get into rehearsal and think, Is it going to work? And then sometimes during the rehearsal process massive changes will happen and sometimes you get onstage and the brilliant idea that everybody thought was going to work is just not so brilliant, and there is nothing you can do about it anymore once you’re onstage.

Okay: Did it really work for Don Giovanni’s death scene to have him killed by being humped by one of his former victims in your feminist take on the story?

I think, in that case, it is ironic that it is the vengeance of the women. And what you really don’t know is that in his mind is he not guilt-ridden to the point where he thinks that’s the only time in his life where he’s defiant to the end? I think at the very end he is scared; he may not want to admit it, but he is scared. And what is divine punishment? Is it the statue coming in? To 21st-century audiences, is that really going to be so believable? We now have an audience that is so familiar with film technology that you better have a supernatural presence onstage that’s really convincing or it becomes cliché and it doesn’t become as effective or scary. To me one of the important points is: Know your limitations for a 21st-century audience.

I can understand the devil coming in the form of a group of women seeking vengeance, but that one scene of the woman astride him I found improbably jarring.

It should be jarring. I have to say in this case we went through various situations. I thought it was effective. I thought it suited that opera, that moment, that particular Giovanni, I thought it was a certain violence to it that in my opinion was justified at the moment. But not everybody agreed and you didn’t either. You didn’t, some audience members didn’t, and others thought it was brilliant. I can tell now how many people will come to me at intermission and I will get somebody who hated it and the same time others will come and say, “Oh, my God, I get it. It was so powerful. I now get it.”

When we did Macbeth, the director decided that witches are green. Their dresses would open up and you see the green that made sense and it infused the culture of the court. One lady came up to me at intermission absolutely beside herself and grabbed me by the arm, “Witches just don’t look like that” And I looked her and I said, “ Gosh, you know in the neighborhood I grew up in, they all did look like that!” “What do you mean? Oh okay….” I said, “It’s imagination. It’s our imagination of witches.” It’s like when people see angels. Well, I don’t know how many people have seen angels … some have … what do they look like? But people get very passionate.

If presenters feel the need to please everyone, you’ll please no one.

There’s a large gray zone of subjectively what’s good and what’s not good. That said, I think there is also a line where you say, I can walk away and say this production was overall not a success. And does it mean that the director was incompetent? No. Can everything that you touch succeed? No. We’re not playing it safe. I cannot promise our audience and everybody that every show we’re going to put on is going to be a total success and convince you across the board. That’s our creative risk.

One last question: When are you going to raise a few hundred million to build a beautiful golden horseshoe opera house?

Boston is the only city of the top 10 in the United States that doesn’t have a facility suitable for opera, ballet and other stage performances. That doesn’t mean you have to build a new facility. We do have facilities in town, you mentioned one that might be a hidden jewel that could be unearthed. It could be one of the facilities I’ve talked about that could be converted into a suitable facility for the future. And so it’s not only a classical theater, it is also that audiences have changed. Audiences today demand a social experience. They don’t want to put up anymore with very crowded lobbies. You want a space where you can socialize, have a conversation, or the space itself is inspiring.

The Keith Memorial Opera House certainly provides some of that, but I think we should get Northeastern University to rebuild the Eben Jordan Opera House on Huntington Avenue. You know every time I drive by and see the name Opera Place branching off of Huntington Avenue, I feel sad.

That was one of the largest, most significant opera houses in the country when it opened, in 1908. It rivaled the Met, it rivaled Chicago Lyric, it was the same funders who were behind Symphony Hall. High-minded Bostonians believed that our city should take a lead in the arts. And it’s not just in the arts. Where would the Patriots be today without civic leadership? Where would they be if they didn’t have a home?

We need a Fenway Park or a Gillette Stadium for opera.

It takes the whole community. It’s not the responsibility of a midsize opera company or midsize ballet to solve that problem; the entire community has to rally behind Boston’s need and make up for the shame.

Well, here’s hoping for some brilliant new golden horseshoes.

I have to applaud you for the Intelligencer. It makes a huge difference. We can’t rely on the print media. Whether your reviews are good or not, you spotlight us, and people read you.

Boston Opera House, 1909-1958

The Merry Widow

April 29 though May 8

Music by Franz Lehár
Libretto by Viktor Léon and Leo Stein
Sung mainly in English, with projected translations.

Conductor Alexander Joel
Stage Director Lillian Groag
Set Designer John Conklin
Costume Designer Gail Buckley
Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel
Choreographer Kyle Lang
Wig And Makeup Designer Jason Allen
Surtitle Designer John Conklin

Erin Wall as Hanna Glawari
Roger Honeywell as Count Danilo
John Tessier as Camille de Rosillon
Andrew Wilkowske as Baron Zeta
Chelsea Basler as Valencienne
Jesse Blumberg as Njegus

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