Every great sports movie has one thing in common: a story of personal and collective achievement against odds that are seemingly insurmountable. If you play a game with the stated goal of winning, you may win or you may loose. If you play a game with the goal of having the highest scoring game in the history of the sport, you are going to play the game very differently than if your goal is simply to win. If you play every game with that goal in mind, you are on the path to becoming a legend. That having been said, I want every show I direct to be the best show that anyone has ever seen. I don’t just want it to be the best production of that show that has ever been seen, I want it to be the best production of any show that anyone has ever seen. That’s my stated goal. On any given production, I will either achieve that goal or I won’t, but I am playing the game with that goal in mind.
As a director, I am always looking for collaborators who push themselves. I am also only interested in working with collaborators who push me to be my best, who challenge me beyond mere complacency to achieve artistic greatness. Whether I am working with a singer or a designer, my firm belief is that we are obligated to expect and demand excellence from each other for the good of the production, for the good of the art form we love to practice, and for the delight of the audience who has entrusted us with the mere task of taking their breath away. At the end of the day, our only job is to give the audience an evening they will remember for the rest of their lives. Anything short of that is a waste of everyone’s time.
The type of singer that intrigues me most is one who has a strong command of their artistry and technique, a fearless spirit, and an open willingness to try anything. For singers, trusting a director whom you don’t know or haven’t worked with before can be a daunting proposition. Several years ago, I received a phone call from a tenor friend of mine who was doing a production in Germany in which the director wanted all of the characters in the opera to be zombies, devoid of facial of physical expression. The tenor mentioned that the director had never directed an opera before and complained that he felt the concept was antithetical to everything the opera’s music demanded. I replied by saying, “I know why you are calling me. You want me to give you permission to do the role the way you would prefer, but you can’t be in a different show than the rest of the cast. You can choose never to work with this director again, but you will do yourself and the production a disservice if you don’t do your best to realize the director’s vision.” A month later, the singer wrote to me and thanked me for the advice, forwarding an outstanding review, which he claimed was the best review of his entire career. Furthermore, the director specifically requested him on two future projects, which he willingly accepted.
A Tale of Two Cities:
Several years ago, I directed two productions of Tosca in different cities with different casts. I had some ideas that I wanted to explore with the character Scarpia. In the first city, the baritone, who remains my favorite Scarpia of all time, was not only open to the ideas, but he was ravenously voracious when incorporating the ideas into the character. The result was stunning. The audience, the press, and the board members of the company were ecstatic about his performance, and I knew that we had uncovered something truly special. I never asked the singer why he was so willing to embrace the ideas. Was it that he had a long track record of working with excellent directors who never let him down? Was it that the ideas were appealing to him? Or was it that he was an artist…someone who believes in being audacious, daring, fearless, and collaborative in his pursuit of excellence?
Two months later, I encountered my second Scarpia. We had many friends in common, so I was expecting a certain amount of trust and a similar success. From the moment I began discussing the ideas I wanted to explore, the singer was closed. Immediately and indefinitely. It became clear that he wanted to perform Scarpia exactly as he had done it for years without a single deviation or variance from his staid, stock, and conventional portrayal. After many frustrating rehearsals, we decided to go out for a drink. After several hours of conversation, the only logical reasoning he provided for performing Scarpia the same way he always had was that “he had a brand to protect.” The resulting performance was unoriginal, formulaic, and predictable. Was it good? Sure, it was good, but anyone who aspires to be merely good is not someone any of us should aspire work with or be.
Everybody gets into the business for a different reason. The decision to be a world-class artist is both a journey and a goal that we must dedicate ourselves to on a daily basis. We must be honest with ourselves about our strengths and our weaknesses. Once we identify our weaknesses, we can address them directly and without compromise. Friends or colleagues who distract us from this goal are not our friends. Fortunately, there are many wonderful people in the world who help us to achieve excellence everyday. Make sure to thank them. Make sure to inspire yourself so that you may inspire others because being an excellent colleague is just as important as being an excellent artist.
Image courtesy of Idea Go at FreeDigitalPhotos.net