Michael Cavanagh has been one of Canada’s busiest and most successful opera stage directors for more than 20 years.
Directing more than 150 productions at companies all over North America and Europe, the Don Wright Faculty of Music professor remains in high demand as a dramaturge and teacher. As a librettist, he has enjoyed critical and popular success with seven chamber operas with three different composers.
In his career, Cavanagh has developed and staged many new pieces – his production of Nixon in China was first produced in Vancouver to coincide with the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Beginning this fall, he will direct new productions of all three Mozart-DaPonte operas – Le Nozze di Figaro, Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni – for the San Francisco Opera.
The trio of late 18th-century operas were not intended to be staged as a cycle, but Cavanagh and his creative team seized upon the opportunity to consider them collectively with a setting, an American mansion, modified for each opera.
“Mozart and Da Ponte were mischief makers in these works, but they also thought deeply about the nature of society and asked what kind of world we want to live in,” Cavanagh explained recently. “Not unlike Wagner’s Ring cycle, we see this series of works tracing an epic scope of human experience.”
The multi-season project continues through the 2021-22 season.
The San Francisco Opera is the second largest opera company in North America and has been one of the world’s leading producers of opera since its inception in 1923.
Western News reporter Paul Mayne spoke recently with Cavanagh during a break in his production of Rigoletto for the San Diego Opera to discuss his forthcoming productions.
Western News: Ideas like this can take some time to get to this point. Are you excited to have the news public?
Michael Cavanagh: We’ve been working on it for a few years already. I came up with the idea a couple years ago, pitched it and it’s been in development ever since. These things are usually announced once they’re mostly realized, especially when you’re trying to design a concept that’s going to link three huge productions together. It’s a ton of planning that goes into this before we can make a big announcement.
I’ll keep flying back and forth to San Francisco for more meetings and consultations, and the rest of my creative team live mostly in the New York City area, so I also bounce around between New York and San Francisco as well.
Has something like this, connecting these three operas, been done before?
As far as we know, these three operas have never been linked in this way before, never been linked in this order. They have been presented because they have the same composer and libretto. There are very few times, in all the opera companies all over the world, they have been presented as a unified vision – and certainly never in this way. So that’s very exciting.
Where did this idea come from?
It came out of my head and my imagination.
I’ve directed each of these operas several times individually over the years in various cities. You know, you get to chatting with your colleagues and you keep pondering the big questions about what these pieces mean. Composers and librettos tend to return to similar themes in their work. They are drawn to certain big ideas. Sure enough, theses three pieces can be, if you care to think in big enough terms in sort of over-arching terms, really do belong together. I’ve always thought so.
The idea of the Great House of Mozart/Da Ponte would be an awesome way to do it.
I said that to the General Director of the San Francisco Opera. We were out for dinner; he had just been named to his position. I was congratulating him and we were chatting about the exciting times ahead and he asked, ‘What things have been rattling around in your head?’ For some reason we were talking about Don Giovanni and I said I’ve always wanted to link all three of those Mozart/Da Ponte’s. He said, ‘What?’ I was very casual about it; it was not a pitch, just chatting over diner.
About a week later, I get an email saying, ‘You know that idea you were mentioning at dinner? You want to pursue it further?’ I said, ‘What do you think? Of course I do?’ He had been discussing it with his colleagues and the people in his company – and beyond. It began to take on a life of its own. And here we are.
So, if something like this has never been done before, how do you explain the reasoning behind the idea? How do they come together as one?
What I do is separate the stories by 150 years. It’s not like we’re telling the same story over the three operas. They tell different stores. What they are is somatically linked.
So, when you’re looking for a big theme that connects them, you go looking for a metaphor that can stand as a bridge from one big idea to another. This idea of a house is perfect for it because it’s a big main theme that connects all these three pieces. It’s about how we choose to live as a community and as an individual within that community.
In other words, what are my obligations to myself, as a human being, versus in cooperation, in collaboration or in competition with my responsibilities to other people around me?
And then, when you look at the way the stories are structured, one is very much about new beginnings, one is really about people in the middle of their lives, at a crossroad, and one is really about finality, ending and consequences. So, you have a natural beginning, middle and an end sort of sequence.
Explain more about what you refer to as the ‘Great House’ that brings the stories together.
I use this big house metaphor as a vehicle for this idea of community. A household is as metaphor for a society; everyone’s home is a miniature society. My family is like my nation. There is a culture in my family; there’s a culture in my society, in my city, in my province, in everything – in all the concentric circles of how we live.
Marriage of Figaro was written in post-revolutionary time, just after the French and American revolutions. What we do is set it all about beginnings, right after the American Revolution. This house is being built; we see this huge mansion being constructed. So it’s all about hope and possibility and new beginnings. Everything is in scaffolding; people doing plaster work and painting rooms. It is all about building something new, which was the idea of America at the time. This grand social experiment in a new kind of democracy, giving rising from these revolutions.
Then what we do is jump 150 years in the future to just before the Second World War, when the United States is coming out a Depression and the house has now changed hands many times. It is in perfect shape and at the peak of its beauty and elegance, and has now been repurposed as a country club. It’s now more a society than it is the household. It’s now a playground for the rich and restless. They play with each other emotionally and physically. What they are trying to do is figure out where they’re going with their lives.
That’s was Così fan tutte is all about. That’s where this household is at now – it’s at its peak of elegance and power. That’s what America was going through as well, with a lot of decisions to make.
Then we jump ahead 150 years and now we’re in 2080. Now the house in is ruin. It’s fallen down and is like a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Everybody is rattling around trying to survive because of the choices – and I have got to say it – that we’re making right now that are ruining our societies and splitting everything. There is so much division now; let’s not forget the environmental consequences.
This third opera, Don Giovanni, is so much about consequences.
We want to say to everybody, “Do not let our house, as a metaphor, become a ruin. Don’t let it. Your actions have consequences. Every decision you make, you can’t just make it for yourself. You also have to make it with other people in mind. We are members of a community, of a house of a nation or the world.”
This seems quite the undertaking and commitment. Any hesitations or nerves as you move forward with this on such a large stage?
Nope. But I do care very much what people say.
At the beginning, the more I thought about it, and the more I started telling people about it, the more they got excited about it and the more I knew I was on the right track. It’s almost like you send a product to testing or a focus group. I not only tell my colleagues and fellow opera people, but also just people I know who have tiny knowledge about these operas.
The more you talk about the idea of how important it is to examine the notion of personal responsibility, versus public responsibility, the more they got excited about it and the more I knew, even though it had never been done before, it could be really thrilling to link these this way.
In the opera biz, we tend to have a limited number of pieces that get done over and over again. The opera audiences are always game for a new angle, a new perspective on these pieces that have been done so many times. And to put these three together, this way, have gotten opera people very excited.
The productions you are part of and involve hundreds of people, from set designers, costume designers, lighting folks, conductors to the talent. How do you ensure cohesiveness with everyone to so each performance goes off without a hitch?
Everybody gathers on that first day looking for someone to be at that steering wheel. Somebody has to be guiding that ship. That’s the director. Everyone stares and me and says, ‘Where is this voyage going?’ If you can articulate something that is clear and has a vision, it all starts with the idea. People in my position get in trouble when they say, ‘Well, let’s kind of figure it out as we go along.’
I prepare meticulously so when that moment comes, whether it’s a small meetings or big gatherings, the first music rehearsal or the conductor comes up to me and says, ‘So, what are we doing with this show?, I have to be able to clearly and powerfully state my point of view on the material.
It can be an ongoing challenge and juggling act. You can’t make everyone happy all the time; you couldn’t try. I have to convince other people on the strength of my ideas. I collaborate; I’m not just a puppeteer. As an artist, I want a give and take. As a director, I love the collaborative approach to everything.
The whole creative team is a process of a team of us all working towards the same goal.
I rely on them for inspiration. I can’t think of everything. Sometimes I’ll think myself into a bit of a corner and think it’s not going the way I hope. Then someone else will say, ‘You know, all we have to do is adjust our thinking in this direction’ and it works beautifully.
Do you ever have moments of doubt when undertaking such a tremendous responsibility?
I have fewer moments of doubt these days as opposed to back in the day. But also, back in the day when you’re young, you have lots of confidence, too. You go barreling forward. Now, I’m happier to admit when I’m stuck sometimes. Like any big collaborative enterprise, you have to take a collaborative approach, but with a real sense of leadership. It’s a great balancing act that way.
When you look at your resume, the productions you have had a hand in, the countries you have travelled to, the people you have met, do you ever step back and think, ‘Man, life is good?’
You’re going to think I made this up but I had a super clear moment of that like 20 minutes ago.
The crew is working way, toiling on the set, and I’m sitting in the theatre watching them and I just looked around and said, “I’m in San Diego working on this epic opera with these fantastic singers.”
I’m a lucky guy indeed, no question.
When I was in my 20s, I had no concept I’d be here. As I got later in my 20s, it started to dawn on me that this was something I might way to try. I also had no idea I would be at this point in the business at this point in my life. It’s fantastic.
It can’t all be wine and roses, though.
Nothing worth doing doesn’t have some form of struggle that goes along with it. Anybody’s best work comes when you step out of your comfort zone; you’re challenged. Talking about directing myself into a corner, or thinking myself into a corner, sometimes I do that on purpose. Out of that comes some of the best stuff – sometimes. I never want to settle because then I know I should be doing something else.
This is one of the big opera houses in the world. There are going to be a lot of eyeballs on this and lot of people interested in it. The company has been super supportive. They are talking about these as legacy productions to be re-mounted and presented over and over again for many, many years.
Sounds like a lot of pressure?
Certainly. And I love it. That’s exactly the point. I embrace the pressure. Out of that pressure can come something really exciting. I have no problem working under pressure. It’s awesome.