09 March 2013

Interview: James Marvel on Gotham Chamber Opera’s ‘Eliogabalo’

Illustration by Alfred Leslie for Gotham Chamber Opera.

Much as Clark Kent so often exclaims, “This is a job for Superman,” so I found myself exclaiming, “This is a job for Gotham Chamber Opera,” as I read the outlines of Francesco Cavalli’s Eliogabalo, from 1668. Inspired by the scandalous life of the rapaciously pansexual Roman Emperor Elagabalus, Cavalli’s opera provides abundant and completely legitimate opportunities for an innovative, sexy staging, something for which Gotham is justly known. Plus, the piece is obscure, having received its world premiere only in 1999, and having been produced only a few times since. For a company that got its start with the American premiere of Mozart’s Il Sogno di Scipione, that’s an irresistible opportunity.

With the Baroque Revival in full flower, Cavalli’s operas have found appreciative audiences, though he’s perhaps not yet a household name: La Calisto, Didone, and Giasone, among others, have been dusted off, produced, and recorded, in some cases several times. But Eliogabalo moves beyond mythology as it depicts a decadent Emperor and a corrupt Roman Senate, evidently in a conscious critique of the Venetian government of the composer’s time; the score languished for centuries as a result, and Gotham’s production will be the U.S. professional premiere.

Under artistic director Neal Goren, Gotham is pulling out the stops, engaging Grant Herreid as music director for the production (while Goren himself conducts Eliogabalo), and performing in the Box, a Lower East Side space where, it seems, just about anything goes. Looking forward to the premiere on March 15, I spoke with the opera’s stage director, James Marvel.

Costume design for the Owls by Mattie Ullrich.
Hoo? I expect I’ll understand once I see the show.
Courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera.

Q: From what I’m hearing, the plot of Eliogabalo is like The Coronation of Poppea, but even wilder.

JM: It is a bit, and the Emperor Eliogabalo was a very notorious figure during his life, and since then. The sort of allegations against him — or as I like to say, résumé credits — include elements of child sacrifice, castration — not just circumcision — and prostitution, and he was a priest of the Syrian Emesa cult.

It’s interesting in that he ruled from the time he was 14 to the time he was 18. He was essentially put to death because his sexual appetites were so outrageous, even by Roman standards. He had five wives during his lifetime, and a whole slew of male lovers, as well. A lot of what was happening at the time was — one way to say it was a cultural prejudice, since he himself was not Roman and engaged in ecstatic rites that would be the opposite of how we think of religion today, which is kind of repressed and a very shame-based culture.

This was quite the opposite. He attempted to merge his religious practices with those of the Roman sun god, and people didn’t appreciate it. They just felt as though their god was being usurped. The name Eliogabalo means “god of the mountain,” but after his death Heliogabalos became god of the sun, or the mountain god.

A lot of the allegations made against him were the same kind that romans made about any kind of foreigners, whether it be anti-Semitic or anything else. I’ve read a lot of historical criticism that sort of asserts certain facts about his life, and then as much contrarian research that says that many of the allegations against him have no basis in reality.

Costume design for Eritea by Mattie Ullrich.
Courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera.

It’s been an interesting thing, having no production history for this opera to draw from. There was one version done in England done a few years ago, and Aspen Festival did a production a couple years ago as well. Most of the research I drew from was history, reading history books and scouring for any kind of information for the kind of figure he was or was reported to be.

The production itself is taking place at the Box. I attended the Box as part of researching. We considered many venues for this opera, and the reputation of the Box is one in which the kinds of variety acts that are presented there are really quite shocking. [Laughs] You definitely leave the space transformed afterwards, perhaps not for the better! The evening I went, there was a man who sodomized himself with a wine bottle and then drank the liquid from the bottle, in the direction of John Waters and Pink Flamingos. There was another act with a toilet and fecal matter, and a guy ate it. It’s like, okaaay.

But actually, if Eliogabalo were alive, he would either be an owner of the Box, a performer at the Box, or someone who attended regularly. He was known to prostitute himself at the temple and was a man to every woman and a woman to every man.

In looking at not only the figure of Eliogabalo but the other characters and the style of the opera, I thought that Mattie Ullrich would be the perfect costume designer for this show. One of the things I love about working with her is that I’ll present my original thoughts, and she’ll take those, improve upon them, and challenge them, shock me. It’s a collaboration and it’s fearless. There’s going to be a lot of skin showing in the opera, and it will be a visual extravaganza.

A scene from James Marvel’s staging of
Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria at Wolf Trap, 2009.
Photo by Carol Pratt courtesy of James Marvel.

There’s no part of me that ever feels a need to do anything gratuitous or be provocative for the sake of it. I do traditional operas as well, I’m happy to do La Traviata in 1850s Paris, but I’ve also done some out-there productions. At Wolf Trap, I did Monteverdi’s Ulysses and Mozart’s Zaïde, and those were visually inhabiting a world that you might not have expected them to.

I think Neal Goren, the artistic director of Gotham Chamber Opera, first got my name through Wolf Trap. He said, “We have this unusual Baroque opera, and do you know a director who has a reputation for taking difficult material and making it accessible to an audience?” Kim Whitman brought up my name, and Neal did an exhaustive background check, called everybody I ever worked for and wanted to make sure I was the right person.

Originally we were looking at doing this show at Lincoln Center during Fashion Week, but that wasn’t possible. We’ve been talking about the show for four years, and it’s gone through a lot of manifestations. At one point it was going to be a kind of pop-up nightclub kind of thing. The guy who runs the Box, Randy Weiner, who produced Sleep No More and The Donkey Show, and he’s doing a show for Cirque du Soleil, he’s a really interesting guy. We went and saw an evening of stuff at the Box, and it just seemed kind of perfect for the show, ultimately.

Actually, the space is a very challenging space to work in. there are no entrances stage left or stage right, there’s only one entrance in the center. So we built a kind of catwalk so the singers can enter through the audience. I thought it would be fun to have a big phallic element right in the middle of the audience, so that worked out.

Costume design for Flavia by Mattie Ullrich.
Courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera.

It’s a small space, the musicians are right there with the performers, there will be times when it’s gonna seem very crowded.

We’re in very good shape, we just had a final rehearsal yesterday, and I can’t wait to unleash it on the public.

Q: What about the music? There’s a lot of recitative, I’m told. Does that provide you with opportunities or with challenges?

JM: I would say both. Whenever I direct any show, it’s always my goal that if you can’t read the supertitles in English or you don’t speak Italian, you should understand everything that’s happening. Just the way the actors and singers are relating to each other physically and spacially. Every single moment is crystal clear. This is probably more recit than any other opera I’ve experienced, it’s really quite a lot. But as a result, and this was something we acknowledged at the beginning of musical rehearsals and staging process, we had to make the recit really compelling and dramatically viable. That was of the utmost importance.

There are arias. Some of them are really quite beautiful. One of the interesting things stylistically is that frequently the arias will come in the middle of a scene. It’ll start with recit, there’ll be an aria, and it will end with recit. The later contemporaries of Cavalli didn’t usually have the aria section in the middle.

Colorful guy: Director James Marvel.

I think actually that the show flows quite well. We made some cuts to the piece, because there were scenes that had no bearing on any of the dramatic action, but also we reordered some scenes so that the flow of the show would be more linear and logical and assist in our telling of the story in a way that we feel today’s audience would be most receptive to.

But yeah, the music is stunning, and people who are really into Baroque opera, it’s every bit as much a fetish for them as any sexual fetish that someone might have. There are people who seek it out really seek it out, and know what they love. We’re mixing a Box audience with a Gotham audience and a Baroque audience, and that’s gonna be a lot of the fun.

Cavalli’s Eliogabalo
Gotham Chamber Opera

March 15, 19, 21, 23, 26, and 29 at 8PM.
The Box, 189 Chrystie Street, Manhattan
For more information and tickets, click here.

NOTE: Where the context is clear, some of my questions have been removed from the transcript.

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