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Two Generations of the Majors Direct NEC Operas


Anthony Leon (Boxer) rehearses

A triple header of three one-act operas will place ten performances on the Plympton-Shattuck Black Box infield over the four days spanning April 22-24. Faculty Stage Director Joshua Major will be joined by his father, Leon, to direct NEC Graduate Opera Vocalists, and Robert Tweten will conduct: Jack Perla’s An American Dream, a contemporary account of the displacement of Japanese-Americans during WWII; Purcell’s haunting tale of love and sacrifice, Dido and Aeneas, and Ravel’s magical and joyous L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. The conservatory will be asking $10 per show or $25 for all three. Details appear at the end of this feature.

BMInt had an interesting conversation with Joshua and Leon Major.

FLE:  Tell us why you are playing three one-act operas separately over several nights.

JM: It has to do with COVID, the number of students, the level of students and the kind of singers we have. Bottom line, we’re constantly programming for the singers we have. So in this case we planned for our singers last Fall under the COVID NEC protocols:  Under 90 minutes, no intermission and time for the rooms to ventilate.

Last year our singers got almost no live performing experience and we wanted to catch up a little and give these students a little more stage time, but we had to work with the conditions already mentioned. So we came up with this plan to do three-one act operas, but we had to do it so that each opera had its own time window. We couldn’t do an evening of two one-acters or three one-acters without violating the rules

And so we have 10 performances in four days, and two, of the three are double cast.

I was going to direct all of them, but it became apparent that might not have been the smartest idea. So I dragged my father out of retirement. That’s Leon. You’re my father, right?

With your father’s help you can in effect be directing two shows at the same time.

Yes, it definitely helped with scheduling. But I also saw a great opportunity for us to work together for the first time and convinced him to join me and do one more show. Dad, you’ve been retired for what? Seven years, eight years. The last time you did a show was 2013. So I saw this as a great opportunity for everybody.

Why do you want to come back?

LM: It’s a very good question. Part of me said, I miss being in a rehearsal room or a studio with singers or actors, But I retired when I was 80. Now, I’m nine years older than that.

So when Josh said dad come and do this, I thought a lot about whether I would have the strength and be the ability to remember how to do it. My wife and Josh persuaded me that I still had the chops. And so, I came and here I am and having a wonderful time the vibrancy of the young people in rehearsals

Jaeeun Shin and Philippe L’Esperance in L’enfant et les sortilèges rehearsal.

Did Josh do all the casting and make the decision of what shows to do?

LM: I don’t know the players, he’s my boss, you know, that’s good. It was just extraordinary to be in a rehearsal room with Josh.

JM: The repertoire and casting decisions are led by Robert Tweten, our Music director and myself. But the entire opera department is involved in the process.

So you are attending each other’s rehearsals to some extent.

JM: Well, he doesn’t like to watch mine but I watch his…just kidding! I’ve been in all his Dido rehearsals. 

Did you attend any of your dad’s rehearsals when you were an adolescent? When was the ordained that the acorn would fall near the tree?

LM: Well, When I was 16 in my father said, what do you want to do for a living? I said I’m going to be a director and be in theater which horrified him because in Canada there wasn’t no theater at the time. When Josh was 16 asked him what he wanted to do, and he said I’m going to be a director.

LM: In Toronto in the 50s, all we had was touring shows from the United States Great, Britain and amateur theater. My solution was, “we’re going to make our own.”

JM: He created the Neptune Theater company in Halifax, Nova Scotia which is now in its 60th year. It was at the same time the time Stratford Festival started in Ontario.

LM:The Canada Council came into existence and stimulated theaters across the country: and suddenly, within 10 to 15 years there was a thriving theater scene in Canada. There was much stronger public support for the arts than there was here, even to this day. Here public support feels very weak overall compared to Canada and Europe

We’re social Darwinists compared to Canadians.


Out of the hundreds of possible operas, you decided that these three were the most suitable for the casts that you had. What, what is it about these three operas that make them singable for these singers?

Well, it’s about the singers, their vocal development, the pool of voice types and the numbers. Bob and I spend a lot of time discussing options and end up with repertoire that is most suited for the moment we are in. We also are very concerned about students experiencing a diverse repertoire. American Dream is also interesting, because you have to cast it with racial sensitivity. It is about Japanese internment in during WWII. It’s a very moving story of a Japanese family that’s displaced and it is very suitable to the voice pool we have at the moment.

That’s not gonna be terribly difficult for NEC to cast.

It’s perfect for us. We have a Japanese singer who actually gets to sing a role that’s a Japanese character; this doesn’t happen very often.

We also have to consider repertoire which will work in the black box theater. That’s very much a part of our thinking because we can only put about 18 players in the pit. So right away, we’re restricted to the kind of repertoire we do.

You need to cast German-Jewish immigrants too in the American Dream.

An American soldier meets a German Jew in in the war and he brings her back to America. And then they move to the Pacific Northwest and buy a home from a Japanese family. But basically the Japanese family is forced out, as many were, and put into internment camps. They were not treated well, to say the least.

Projections and titles?

Titles but no projections.

Will the singers just look like they’ve come in from the street?

JM: No, no, no. All of the show are costumed by the brilliant Brooke Stanton. Each opera has a distinctive look. Dido has a beautiful chorus which functions like a Greek chorus and have beautiful neutral flexible costumes. L’enfant has a very specific treatment dictated by the musical vocabulary and Dream has costumes specific to the period. All are very different and very beautiful.

I treat L’enfant  a little differently than most I think, and I let the music dictate the characters. It’s a magnificent 45 minutes and it really reveals the genius of Colette and Ravel. They create vignettes where inanimate objects come to life. But the inanimate objects are described and defined, by the musical vocabulary Ravel gives it. Each scene has a completely different musical style—vaudeville,  sarabande. It moves very fast, and the costumes again are dictated by what music is describing.

I’m less interested in being clever and showing how a teabot comes to life than I am in illuminating, the musical definition of the character. So, the teabox is dressed as a 1920s vaudeville boxer, which is what the music so specificully describes, despite the fact that he is a teapot.

American Dream is more realistic. It features clothes and furniture of the period, as it is trying to describe a moment in time.

Xiao Xiao fronts ensemble in L’enfant et les sortilèges rehearsal.

Is it political theater or a justifiable guilt trip?

It’s a story, and we encourage you to make up your own mind about whether there is any redemption. An American man who knowingly offers far too little to the Japanese family for the house, keeps it hidden from his wife. When Eva, his wife, finds out that relationship is essentially over. Though it is more complicated and I don’t want to give away the story, but there is an interesting bond that is formed between two disparate characters at the end of the opera.

But is it political? More so than the other two operas in this way.

You can attach an undercurrent of politics everything to everything in this world now. Our job is to tell stories and you guys can decide, if it’s political, if it’s not political, if it’s irrelevant, if it’s not relevant, you know, we do it because we think it is, but you might not, you know.

Well, do you think that the two of you have added any layers of meaning? Is this a directorial conceit?

I have no idea.

Are you fighting with the story at all in any of these?

 No, I think our job is to is to look at what is on the page and tell the story.

Whatever, you’ll be conveying a personal perspective.

We can’t go back and pretend to be Purcell in the 17th century.

But on the other hand, you’re not going to have to turn it into some very specific commentary on some unjust war. Nothing this time requires you to write a manifesto to explain?

Definitely not. We read it, we decide what that story is and we tell that story and if we’re in the moment, then it should be relevant. And for me, it comes from the music and the text.

So what is the role of the conductor in these productions beyond conducting? Can he pull rank and say to the director, “You’re asking for things the singers can’t do.”

First of all we are unbelievably fortunate to have Robert Tweten as our Music Director and conductor. His musicality and ability to move seamlessly from one style to another is inspiring. Bob is a true collaborator and brings a great spirit of music making, story telling and education to the room.  The days of conductors pulling rank are long gone and most directors and conductors are interested in collaborating, telling great stories and making great music. Bob will be the first one to figure out how to help you tell the story with what he can control. If there’s a fermata he will collaborate on how best to approach it with regards to the story everyone is trying tell. How long should it be? What’s happening? Should I start sooner?

Is the conductor going to say the way you’re blocking this makes balance impossible?

No, I mean, the only the only time you have discussions like that is if a singer needs a cue to be able to see a conductor at a certain moment. Any good director will intuitively understand this and help reconfigure staging to support the singer in this way. So the singer can see the conductor when the singer needs to see the conductor.

So you’re telling me the days of the artistic tantrum are over?

No, they’ll always be around

But you’re not allowed to raise your voices anymore.

You can yell, if you want, nobody’s gonna stop you, but then nobody might hire you again. It’s not so much yelling as it is what you what you say.

What’s permissible in the way of interacting with performers now?

Everybody’s more careful and open now. If you have an intimate scene, you stop and you talk about it and make sure the singers are comfortable with each other. And there’s a vocabulary for that kind of discussion. Most processes are defined by the people who are involved. You have a group of people that come together in a room and the process is going to be defined by those people and how they relate to each other.

And,  generally people want to work and want to want to be successful.. It’s a collaborative form and most people work in that spirit. I think there are lots of exceptions, but there’s a generosity of spirit, particularly in singers with each other.

Most of our roles are double cast and you find that when one person is singing, the other will help there’s a core collaboration between singers on the whole.

You want to have some diva personality if you’re going on stage.

Well for singers to have ego and strength is different than having them coming to a room and boss people around. We have to have an ego in order to go into a room and stand in front of people and say this is how I want to tell a story. But that’s different than a director coming in saying do it my way or else, or a diva saying, “This is how I do it.”

Katherine Skafidas in L’enfant et les sortilèges rehearsal

So is there any sense of there being an A cast or a B cast?

No. We try very hard to balance the casts. Those with a little less experience get the benefit of working people who have a little more experience. I think that helps. It helps everybody. And again, these decisions are based on what’s best for the students. I’m less interested in the audience and more interested in the experience students are going to get.

But you wouldn’t be asking for an Intelligencer interview if you didn’t also want an audience

Of course, audiences are very important to the students, but our decisions aren’t based on the audience.

You know, we have a pretty loyal following and we don’t have to make rep choices to sell tickets.  


Back to the shows, I gather that Dido’s totally timeless and it doesn’t exist in any particular place. Are there ancient Greek costumes?

LM: I saw a production from Epidaurus of the Persians, which was done a few years ago. It was a live broadcast and it was just a thrilling experience, beautiful to see.

It was gorgeous. That’s the influence the look and the costuming.

Well, what is it exactly?

Neutral, …not within a specific period. And the chorus is in an off-white, with men and women all the same. Dido was in black. She’s in mourning and Aeneas is in a dark purple, which is the royal color. And that’s how we depict class distinctions. The chorus both comments and participates and the psychology is interesting because Dido is in mourning for her husband.

She has promised fidelity. She would not fall in love again. She meets Aeneas who was a rockstar and they feel instant attraction; she unsuccessfully fights being seduced by him. Then he is ordered to Italy to found Rome as the gods dictated. She is devastated. He goes, she dies, and the most beautiful choral music in the world ends the opera,

Does the production imply offstage sex?

You decide whether something happens during the scene changes when they’re both off the stage

Some of these stories do need to be set in their time because the, the mores of the particular period are essential for the story. Does le droite de seigneur still obtain? Marriage of Figaro makes sense in terms of the mores of Mozart’s time, but if you try to make it completely contemporary, nobody’s gonna get it.

Sometimes we’re held at a distance because of the formality of a period and that keeps us from getting involved in the story. We’re looking at something through a windows, right?

Not in great productions,

But it can have the effect of a more intuitive response with certain audiences. You know, if you see a guy and a butler or a latter-day servant, we might intuitively understand more than if we saw it in a period.

These are good reasons why people update. I’m very careful to update myself. If it’s not going to help the storytelling then I’m not interested in doing it. But if it’s going to illuminate spirit, and the inner life of the story then I would very much consider it. For the ancient pieces it’s trickier, because there is formality there, and there is formality in the music and the language in Dido was very formal, but it’s also personal. They’re saying real things. But we can easily use that formality to keep ourselves apart from it. It’s tough to completely modernize them.

LM: Which period is it? 17th century?

Purcell’s period or Dido’s period?

LM: It was a tough choice. The idea of doing it in Purcell’s period is distasteful to me because I think it’s very hard to get through those costumes. Just to find the reality of the people. This way, it’s much easier to realize that these are real people,  flesh and blood. They feel and they are angry… and they laugh, etc. You want an audience student to connect with the person’s on the stage?

Is there going to be any inappropriate laughter any time in any of these productions?

Who knows?

Does that bother you when it happens?

You have to really be very careful about being consistent in you approach.

So I gather things are shaping up.

We’ve had our orchestra readings, and we start our orchestra dress, rehearsals on Monday. We have the orchestra dresses and move into the theater tonight [last Tuesday].

Joshua Majors at left directs ensemble in L’enfant et les sortilèges. In foreground, Jaeeun Shin
and Xiao Xiao   (all pictures by Andrew Hurlbut)


An American Dream

Set during World War II, this moving American opera explores the lives of two women: a Japanese American forced into internment,
and a German-Jewish immigrant preoccupied by those she left behind.

Thu, April 21, 2022 | 6:00pm
Fri, April 22, 2022 | 6:00pm
Sat, April 23, 2022 | 2:00pm
Sun, April 24, 2022 | 5:00pm
NEC: Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theatre | 255 St. Botolph St., Boston, MA

Tickets: $10 per show; $25 for all three; non-NEC students $5 per show; NEC students free

More information:

Robert Tweten, Conductor
Joshua Major, Stage Director

Dido and Aeneas: Desire. Duty. Betrayal.

Thu, April 21, 2022 | 8:30pm
Fri, April 22, 2022 | 8:30pm
Sat, April 23, 2022 | 8:00pm
Sun, April 24, 2022 | 2:00pm
NEC: Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theatre | 255 St. Botolph St., Boston, MA

Tickets: $10 per show; $25 for all three; non-NEC students $5 per show; NEC students free

More information:

Robert Tweten, Conductor
Leon Major, Stage Director

L’enfant et les sortilèges: Ravel’s masterpiece is pure joy, charm, and musical genius. Sat, April 23, 2022 | 5:00pm
Sun, April 24, 2022 | 8:00pm
NEC: Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theatre | 255 St. Botolph St., Boston, MA
Tickets: $10 per show; $25 for all three; non-NEC students $5 per show; NEC students free

More information:

Robert Tweten, Conductor
Joshua Major, Stage Director

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