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Double Play

This month’s opening of La Traviata is director Michael Mayer’s second new Met production of the season.
By Doug Strassler 

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© Ron Berard/Metropolitan Opera
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“I LIKE BEING TAKEN OUT of my comfort zone,” director Michael Mayer says. “I am always interested in growing as an artist. When you do things that are not familiar to you, that’s where growth comes from.”

Mayer, now fifty-eight, has found many ways to grow and stretch of late. Within the past year, his third full-length feature film, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Seagull, opened, as did Head Over Heels, the latest show in his twenty-year Broadway directing career. Head Over Heels fused the plot of Philip Sidney’s Arcadia with the music of the Go-Go’s, the 1980s all-female pop band. The show put a very contemporary spin on Arcadia: not only did this body-positive work celebrate same-sex relationships; it made history in its casting of the performer Peppermint, the first transgender woman to originate a principal role on Broadway.

Mayer’s banner year continues at the Metropolitan Opera, where he is directing two of this season’s new offerings. In October, Mayer’s production of Nico Muhly’s Marnie, an adaptation of the complex 1961 Winston Graham novel, arrived at the Met. This month, Mayer provides Met audiences with his take on Giuseppe Verdi’s Traviata.  

The Bethesda, Maryland, native listened to opera with his family regularly, but he says it was not until he was a teenager and saw the Houston Grand Opera production of Porgy and Bess that he was “old enough to understand the potency and scope of it.” Mayer’s love for the arts guided him to study acting at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, but he eventually shifted his focus to directing. 

A directing fellowship allowed him to spend several months in the 1990s in Europe. “I got opera news and went through the calendar of what was showing when and witnessed the European aesthetic across Germany,” he says. “I heard some incredible music, saw some amazing things and knew that I wasn’t alone in thinking that all of these different art forms could speak to each other.”

Mayer’s passion is clear, and his belief in the abilities of those around him is transformative. He doesn’t only establish an environment with the freedom for his performers to push themselves; he instills in them the confidence to succeed. This has allowed him to guide such actors as Roger Bart, Kristin Chenoweth, Sutton Foster, John Gallagher, Jr., Neil Patrick Harris and Frank Wood to Tony Award-winning performances in dramas as well as musicals. Mayer’s Broadway productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Side Man, Spring Awakening and Thoroughly Modern Millie all took home top Tony honors from the American Theatre Wing as well. Mayer won his own Tony Award in 2007, for his direction of Spring Awakening.

Kevin Moriarty, currently the artistic director of Dallas Theater Center, was Mayer’s assistant director from 1995 to 1997 and worked with him on Triumph of Love, Mayer’s first Broadway musical. “There is no detail that Michael isn’t aware of, from a small chip in the paint in a corner of the set to a slight variation of an actor’s line reading or a conductor’s subtle tempo shift in the music,” Moriarty says. “His devotion to clear storytelling and truthfulness never causes him to shy away from large emotions and theatrical gestures.”

This may be because, even as his career trajectory took him to the heights of the world of theater, Mayer remained a student of opera as well, which, as he saw it, afforded opportunities that commercial theater did not. “I was still going to the opera and watching what these people were doing as directors,” he says. “I was taken by the audacity of the mise-en-scène, of how sophisticated and intelligent and often political the artistry of the work was. I thought, ‘Why don’t we do that in theater?’” 

Bill T. Jones, the Tony-winning choreographer of Spring Awakening, recalls first meeting Mayer when he came to view what Jones calls “a rather esoteric modern-dance work of mine he had seen in Harlem. [I was] doubly surprised that he had ventured to see this work, and that he would assume that the choreographer of this study in pedestrianism [set] to the music of Schubert might work for the rambunctious, potentially controversial Spring Awakening.” 

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Piotr Beczała, the Duke of Mantua in Mayer’s Rigoletto at the Met, 2013
© Beth Bergman

MAYER SAYS, ONLY half-joking, “What actors really want to do is direct, and what theater directors really want to do is direct opera.” Met general manager Peter Gelb reached out to Mayer about directing a new production of a standard-repertory opera. At the top of Mayer’s list was Verdi’s Rigoletto. Mayer’s updated version, which opened at the Met in January 2013, placed the action in Las Vegas in 1960, the era of the Rat Pack. (Mayer’s future opera plans include a new Aida for the Met, to be produced in collaboration with the Bolshoi in Moscow.) “Opera never seemed like something I would participate in,” Mayer says. “It was always at a great distance, sort of the way I watched movies. I fell into the magic of it without ever knowing how they did what they did—or wanting to.”

The success of Rigoletto led Gelb to approach Mayer about putting his touch on another great Verdi opera, La Traviata. Mayer’s production opens on December 4, with Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin pacing Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Flórez and Quinn Kelsey. “[La Traviata]is about this love that transcends death,” Mayer says, “which, in a way, is what we all look for.” Mayer’s conceit sets the entire plot within the last year of Violetta’s life in the era of Louis XIV, the setting of the original production in 1853. “I thought, ‘What if the whole opera took place in the moment when she died?’” he says. “It starts in the winter of her death, and then we transition to the spring when she first meets Alfredo. Then there’s the heat and fullness of summer, as the flowers are alive and verdant and the passion is at its fullest. Then she makes her sacrifice and returns to Paris in the fall, and it is decadent. She is daring death to come, laughing in its face and drinking and having a good time—and when she succumbs, it’s a moment of rapture, because she is reunited with her true love.”

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Mayer’s staging of Nico Muhly’s Marnie at ENO
© Richard Hubert Smith

WHILE HIS TWO MET endeavors this season seem somewhat disparate, Mayer’s Traviata and Marnie do have something in common: they both offer a glimpse into the interior life of the protagonist, catnip to someone whose most frequent playground is the theater, where character is king. But it was opera that seemed like the perfect outlet when Mayer was watching television at home and happened upon Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film adaptation of Marnie and envisioned it for the stage.

“I loved how stylish it was, and I loved how psychological it was,” Mayer says. “I thought it would be a great opera.” He reached out to composer Nico Muhly, with whom he had worked on the 2011 Tony Kushner play The Illusion. Muhly happened to have been reading one of Winston Graham’s Poldark novels at the time and responded enthusiastically to the idea. Meanwhile, the novel Marnie had recently received a new printing; librettist Nick Wright read it and loved it. The Met commissioned the opera in a coproduction with English National Opera, where Marnie had its world premiere last year.  

Mayer found that incubating Marnie at ENO jibed with the way he directs musicals stateside. “I find it in rehearsal and then tech it. I am interested in what happens organically in the room,” he says. “That’s why I tend to like sets that are sort of an empty stage with lots of stuff on it, so I can figure out how to use the stuff. I like to work in a more organic way.” 

Mayer learned during Rigoletto that in opera all staging decisions must be planned out ahead of rehearsal time—a process that Mayer believes provides him extra opportunities to consult with his colleagues and learn from their guidance. “One of the things a director does—maybe the thing a director does most—is solve problems,” Mayer says. “And I’m a collaboration junkie. I love listening to everyone else’s input. It’s inspiring to me, and I find it opens up my brain channels a bit. I’ve been very fortunate to work with such brilliant people, who I get to call very dear friends,” he says. “There’s no special magic—it really is a craft, and we’re all in it together.” spacer 

Doug Strassler , editor of Equity News at Actors’ Equity, has written about the arts for American Theatre, Backstage and Broadway Direct, among others.

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