OVATIONS: Interview with Director Kristine McIntyre

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Kentucky Opera: Can you speak on the role of an opera director?

Kristine McIntyre: Basically as the director, I’m in charge of everything that you see, and even some of what you hear. My job is to have a vision of the piece and then guide everyone through the vision so that the work of art the audience experiences is a unified whole – a complete world.

It starts months or even years in advance: guiding choices about scenery and costumes, helping to design a look for each character that actually tells a story. I’m a big believer that in the theater, how the characters look onstage should tell you something about who they ARE.

Then there is deciding about cuts. Sometimes the pieces are long and the conductor and I have to choose exactly what music and text we want to present (because we try and keep the shows between 2 to 3 hours, but the original operas can be much longer). Then there’s the actual rehearsal process of helping the singers build characters and tell the story, literally blocking the scenes (telling people where to stand or where to move) but also shaping the dramatic content, deciding how to tell the story.

Once we are in the theater, I work with the lighting designer and the tech folks to create the actual physical look of the show. I’m involved in every aspect of it, and it can be exhausting!

In the rehearsal room, on the first day, I like to say that I’m pretty much the most important person there because the whole show is in my head. I know what we are going to do and how it’s going to look. Assuming I’ve done my job, on the last day of the process, at Final Dress, I’m the LEAST important person in the room because the show now belongs to the singers and the conductor and the orchestra and the tech folks – and I can go home after Opening Night happy!

KO: Did you always want to be an opera director?

KM: I’ve wanted to be an opera director since my junior year in college. I was actually pre-med at Georgetown, but I was also an English major with a lot of theater in my background. I played several instruments growing up and sang and danced as well.

I loved doing theater and during my junior year abroad in England, studying literature at Oxford, I went to see a lot of opera that was really interesting. It was more like theater than the opera I had seen in the US up to that point, which was pretty boring. I realized that I wanted to spend my life making opera that felt really alive and fresh, so I abandoned the idea of medical school (sorry Mom!) and went back to England to get a Masters in theater, but with a concentration in opera. I loved studying abroad and it really gave me a wider perspective on an art form that is sometimes a little old-fashioned here in the US.

I’m a huge fan of internships and three internships that I had while I was studying really helped me decide what I wanted to do and helped me get started. Before my junior year of college, I spent the summer at the Playwright Project in California, teaching playwriting and helping kids tell their stories. After I graduated early from college, I spent the rest of that year working at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. It was my first experience with real, professional theater and it made me realize this was where I wanted to spend my life. Right after grad school, I was a directing intern at the San Diego Opera, and the stuff I learned there set me up for my first professional job in opera at the San Francisco Opera.

I have a very “old-school” opera background: I spent 7 years working at the San Francisco Opera, and then 8 years working as a staff stage director at the Metropolitan Opera. It’s the sort of pedigree that really helped me start a freelance directing career, and I learned a lot at those big companies.

KO: As the director, what is your role in guiding the artists in their respective interpretations of their characters versus allowing them flexibility in portraying their characters?

KM: As a director, I’m very collaborative but I also know that it’s my job to have the vision and to make sure that everyone is in the same version of the story. I have a rule that we have to use the best idea for each moment, and I don’t care where that idea comes from, as long as it’s the right answer.

At the beginning of the rehearsal process, we’re probably using more of my ideas, but my favorite day is where the singers start suggesting things that are just brilliant, which means that they are really in the world we are creating, and now we are using mostly their ideas, which is perfect.

It’s also fabulous when I get to work with the same singers over and over because we develop really strong relationships and a lot of trust so things are really fun and easy. Harold Meers (Pinkerton), Talise Trevigne (Butterfly) and Morgan Smith (Sharpless) and I have all worked together before so we’ll use all that history to build this show. Harold and Morgan and I actually just did a show together a few months ago, so we’ll tell all the same jokes and stories!

KO: Do you work through the opera in order of the scenes or out of order? How do you decide this process?

KM: I like to rehearse an opera in order. Sometimes scheduling logistics cause us to have to work out of order, and we can do it if we have to, but I hate it. I like to build each scene from the scene before, and my work really feels like theater, so I try to keep the process as much like a theater rehearsal process as I can.

KO: What is the relevancy of MADAME BUTTERFLY for audiences today?

At first glance, BUTTERFLY can seem like a pretty old-fashioned opera, but it’s actually very modern in the way it deals with issues like racism, cultural imperialism and misunderstanding and the conflict between culture and family. It’s based on a short story and a play that were both really cutting-edge for their time and I’m always amazed by how willing Puccini and his librettists were to point out the flaws in Pinkerton: he’s kind of the classic, clueless, ugly American. So there is still a lot we can learn from it. Opera is a sympathetic art form; it’s not always trying to tell stories in the most realistic or naturalistic way, but it is trying to engage our sympathies and our emotions. By living through a story like Cio-Cio-San’s, we become more sensitive and better people. We remember how important things like respect and love and honor and commitment are, we live a little beyond ourselves, and I hope it makes us better humans.

What excites you about directing this production? What can audiences expect that will be unique to this production with Kentucky Opera?

KO: I’m excited to work with Joe Mechavich again! We are good friends and we like creating Opera Theater together, so it’s always a good time. I have a lot of friends in the cast and this should be a great chance to explore a story we think we know, but a way that is really vibrant and fresh and, I hope, relevant.