At the helm of Seattle Opera's Young Artist Program is opera veteran Peter Kazaras, lending his experience to "Don Giovanni" April 1, 3, 7 and 9, 2011.
Here are the realities of producing opera, the most expensive entertainment in the performing-arts world: You find an opera you think will sell pretty well; you find the best possible cast. And then you cut more corners than an Indianapolis 500 race-car driver.
Peter Kazaras, the director of Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program (YAP), related these requirements over a recent lunch, as he explained the look of the program’s new production of “Don Giovanni.”
Kazaras, wielding a burger in one hand and waving the other to amplify his remarks, said that as he was looking for existing set elements to use in “Don Giovanni,” Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins suggested a big wall used in 2006’s “The Turn of the Screw.”
Kazaras figured he’d put the wall at an angle and use a scaffold on the side. But trucking the wall to Bellevue for the production would cost too much, and Jenkins suggested using a projection screen instead.
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“I screamed at him,” Kazaras confessed, sounding only moderately abashed.
” ‘Excuse me? This is ‘Don Giovanni’! We need something more than a screen!’ But I think we have found a good solution. We are updating the show to the 20th century and using the screen as an impromptu movie screen, like you see in Mediterranean cafes. People will be watching a real movie as the opera unfolds.”
The always creative Kazaras is in demand in the world of opera, for his problem-solving and his artistic talents. He is the stage director for this “Don Giovanni” as well as artistic director for the YAP, and his local staging credits include Seattle Opera productions of “Falstaff,” “Norma” and “The Marriage of Figaro,” as well as the recent sidesplitting “Barber of Seville.”
He’s directed productions for 10 other opera presenters, including UCLA, where he is professor and director of opera.
But Seattle Opera audiences knew him first as a singer, in 12 roles here that included Loge in the “Ring” and Erik in “The Flying Dutchman.” His performance credits range from the Metropolitan Opera to Milan’s La Scala and the Vienna Staatsoper.
In short, this is a comprehensive “man of opera” who knows whereof he speaks. And when he speaks, those Young Artists listen.
“Investigate this! See what happens if you don’t eat, but just watch, during the dinner scene,” Kazaras urges the young baritone David Krohn, the singer portraying Don Giovanni, during a recent rehearsal.
“You have to exit the other side,” he kindly advises another singer, who starts out in the wrong direction. (In a nutshell, “Don Giovanni” is the story of an arrogant nobleman who gets supernatural comeuppance at the end of two acts of seduction and murder.)
For their part, the aspiring singers respect Kazaras’ judgment, experience and fascination with details.
“It’s a great advantage that he’s been on both sides of the orchestra,” says Krohn, referring to Kazaras’ experience as a singer and director.
“He’s very concerned with relationships. If there’s a problem, he spends time with the person or takes them out to lunch. He’s very concerned with his dual responsibilities to create a show and also to guide the singers’ artistic development.”
But Kazaras is no pushover. Krohn says that his staging is “anything but traditional. If there’s ever a choice between doing what’s easy and what’s challenging, he will choose the route that’s challenging.”
So how did Kazaras get into directing? Looking back over his career, he says it’s not such a surprising segue.
“I was always the person who was watching. During opera rehearsals, I would watch the scenes I wasn’t performing in. I was always talking with my director friends, people like Stephen Wadsworth and Francesca Zambello, about what they were doing.”
In 1997, Kazaras found he needed to rest his voice for a period, and a friend suggested he try directing. As he went along, Kazaras kept hearing “You should continue with directing” from people he respected.
“I am not interested in presiding over a crumbling empire,” Kazaras says flatly, referring to the inevitable vocal decline that sets in over time. “Directing was something I knew I could do for a long, long time.”
Invited to direct an opera double bill for UCLA, Kazaras discovered he had essentially auditioned for the full-time job of director of opera there (a position he still holds). But he still kept strong connections to Seattle Opera. After a string of successful shows with Seattle Opera’s YAP, Kazaras was offered the artistic directorship of the program five years ago. Now in its 13th year, the YAP provides 21 intensive weeks of career guidance and training for young professional singers (usually 22-32 years old), culminating in full opera YAP productions — and, increasingly, main stage Seattle Opera roles as well.
“I auditioned for Speight in 1982, and I got 30 years of work out of that audition,” marvels Kazaras.
“Along the way, I have learned a lot. Student singers are usually afraid of doing something wrong. Older artists are often afraid of doing something new. All of them need a director to help them craft the way that will work for them.
“And that’s an incredibly rewarding role.”
Melinda Bargreen (www.melindabargreen.com) is the former classical-music critic for The Seattle Times. She also reviews concerts for Classical King 98.1 FM.