Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Don Pasquale Director's Notes: Chuck Hudson

Photo: Philip Groshong for Cincinnati Opera
With DON PASQUALE, Donizetti gives us champagne for music and so the comedic style in the acting must match this excellence or it would be like mixing bubbles with beer! I had the privilege of working with a master of comedy, Marcel Marceau. At his school in Paris, Marceau had us study the various styles of comedy from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte to his own comic inspirations: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and other actors of le Cinéma Muet. It was their virtuosity, their “musicality” in style that struck Marceau. Their comic dignity represented the champagne of Comedy as opposed to the stylistic beer of Slapstick or Vaudeville. Marceau also drilled us in the details of his own comic masterpieces, working the specificity, style, and that elusive skill, Comic Timing. Highlights of touring with Marceau came on the off-nights in a studio improvising together. He’d put me on stage and toss out a theme and I would “play.” He gave me specific stylistic directions: “make the same action tragic, now comic, now dark comedy, now Baroque comedy, now Melodrama….” To increase the subtlety he would say, “Now find the tragic in the comic” or “find the comic in the tragic.” I learned that I could change the context or even the meaning simply by changing where and when to “take” to the audience. These silent asides would make or break the comedy and could generate cascades of laughter. I love honoring his influence by inserting flowers from his bouquet into a show now and then, so we have inserted a few into this production—rifffing on Bip Commits Suicide, The Mask Maker, and The Pickpocket’s Nightmare.

We wanted to create an environment that would allow the comic virtuosity to work hand in hand with the vocal virtuosity of Opera. When the design team and I settled on SUNSET BOULEVARD as the inspiration for this production, the collaboration and creativity flowed. Having singers play Hollywood actors who are playing roles opened up a world of comic possibilities. I have always been amazed with the “theatre magic” of the costume changes during a Japanese Kabuki performance—a Samurai Warrior turns into a Fox right before your eyes, which is not only part of the fun, it is a playful way for us to portray in a theatre the special effects we expect in a movie. Like a Busby Berkeley chorus becoming a kaleidoscope of human action, even our set transforms one large element into a completely different object in another scene.

One of the trickiest things about this opera is that there is only one female character, Norina. When we meet her, we are not introduced to a girl but to a woman. She is neither innocent of the ways of men nor innocent of the ways of the world. In her introductory aria, Norina revisits the Fairy Tale Romance that she and all young girls are taught to believe, and she knows from experience that this is not what real love is. In our own Post-Romantic world where Disney Princesses have more chutzpah than their Barbie Doll predecessors, Norina is an intelligent and educated young woman who has experienced life, and yet is not so jaded by her experience that she no longer believes in love.

Similar to the relationship between Rosina and Figaro in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Dr. Malatesta never tells Norina what to do. Like Figaro, he is Socratic in his instruction. He values and supports the cleverness and intelligence of his protégée, leading Norina to discover her own solutions by thinking them out logically. He even trusts her to improvise her own text and actions disguised as the shrewish Sofronia.

If Norina is the Only Woman, she must therefore represent Every Woman. If the real Norina is in any way shrewish then she is not in disguise as the shrew Sofronia, and what a two-dimensional stereotype of women that would be. No, Norina is written as a three-dimensional woman possessing flaws as well as talents. We may not agree with some of her choices—restoring our faith in a woman who has just slapped an old man to the ground is quite a challenge! Perhaps Norina goes too far, and she must recognize this, too. Restoring the comedy from that dark situation is a pivotal moment in the show.
On the first day of rehearsal I presented the singers with Marceau’s Comic Timing Exercise—a specific and yet simple sequence of movements that allows comedy to flourish. Armed with this technique, we got to work! Although he is no longer with us, Marceau’s style and his love of style live on in those of us who worked with him directly. I am privileged to pass it along to the next generation of performers including actors, movement artists, and opera singers. As with all of them, so with you, I share the eulogy for Chuckles the Clown on The Mary Tyler Moore Show:

“A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”

Learn more about Chuck Hudson:

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