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Our 2016 Season kicks off with a semi-staged production of La traviata, Verdi’s heartbreaking masterpiece, on May 13 and 15 in collaboration with the Oratorio Society of Virginia. Stage Director Mary Birnbaum, who was nominated for “Best Newcomer” at the 2015 International Opera Awards, will bring this stirring piece to life on The Paramount stage. Here, she discusses the challenges of a semi-staged production, her interest in Verdi, and teaching at Juilliard. Make sure to get tickets to La traviata today!
Have you ever directed a semi-staged production, and what are the special challenges of making the drama unfold without the help of a set,costumes, or lengthy rehearsal period?
I have directed several semi-staged operas and they are always a special challenge. It’s easy to tell a story with bodies in space, no matter whether you have set or costumes, but the hard part is the shortened rehearsal calendar. Most great art takes a lot of time to put together. But what’s fun about it is that it really capitalizes on the ephemerality of the art we’re making, and to put a piece together for an audience in no time relies heavily on the bravery of everyone involved- performers, crew and the whole creative team. There’s no time to second guess anything.
You have developed new plays and theatrical events, directed the premiere of Denk and Stucky’s The Classical Style, and directed twentieth-century operas, such as Britten’s Rape of Lucretia. Does a nineteenth-century classic like La traviata seem less exciting?
There’s nothing NOT interesting about Verdi, who is one of the greatest musical storytellers of all time. Every note he writes has a dramatic purpose and reason. I have always wanted to direct La traviata because I adore the character of Violetta, who is a woman who has lived by her own rules and then decides to let intimacy into her life. I also lived in Paris for two years, so that aspect of La traviata is very near to my heart.
You have a degree in English Language and Literature with a minor in French from Harvard College. How did you get from there to being a stage director?
I always knew that I wanted to be in the theater and I grew up wanting to be a singer. At the time when I was in college at Harvard, there was no theater major – things are different now – so English felt like a very close cousin. I ended up making a special study of Restoration drama and directing a restoration comedy as my thesis. The leap from directing big plays with timeless themes to operas with timeless themes was not that large, actually, particularly because of my musical background and my love of collaboration.
You have taught at Juilliard since you were 26 and are now the Associate Director of the Artist Diploma Program. What are your thoughts on the state of arts education and aspiring performers?
I think arts education in all schools is imperative, especially as we are running out of ways to teach children empathy. I know that many schools in the northeast have cut down their arts education considerably, and that’s a really awful development.
Juilliard is a really amazing place to work because everyone there believes so wholeheartedly in the success of all of our students, and all the faculty know that there are many ways to have a career in the arts and are devoted to helping our students find the right path for them. I’ve witnessed former students “grow up” to be musicologists, dramaturgs, development directors at opera companies – all of these ways of being in the arts are just as valuable and important as performing on stage.