Director eager to give new life to ‘forgotten’ Chabrier opera

Thaddeus Strassberger loves it when he’s given the chance to stage an opera he has never seen by a c

Thaddeus Strassberger loves it when he’s given the chance to stage an opera he has never seen by a composer he has never heard of.

“It’s great. It’s brand new . . . like a world premiere,” he said.

This season at Bard’s Summerscape, Strassberger will help bring to life Emmanuel Chabrier’s “The King in Spite of Himself,” which will open on Friday. It is the third production he has done for Bard and, like the other two operas, this one has been either forgotten or is unknown to the general public. His other productions were Giacomo Meyerbeer’s “Les Hugenots” (2009) and Franz Shreker’s “The Distant Sound” (2010).

‘The King in Spite of Himself’

WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday and Aug. 3; 3 p.m. Sunday, Wednesday and Aug. 5

WHERE: Fisher Center for the Arts, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson

HOW MUCH: $90 to $30

MORE INFO: 845-758-7900,

Chabrier was born in 1841 in Paris and, after studying the law, worked for almost 20 years in the French Ministry of the Interior. But he had also trained as a musician and had close friends in the Paris arts community. In 1880, he heard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” and was so impressed that he decided the next year to devote himself to composition.

Brilliant scores

Until his death in 1894, he produced some significant works that were notable for a marvelous sense of color and innovative harmonies. Maurice Ravel particularly raved about Chabrier’s piano pieces and his symphonic rhapsody “Espana.” They are considered some of the most brilliantly written orchestral scores of the 19th century.

There was also this opera. Strassberger said there are several reasons why this comic opera fell through the cracks of history. For one thing, the cast is huge. Twelve principals, a 46-voice chorus, which plays up to six roles, and six dancers that all require extensive costume changes make for an expensive enterprise. The plot, which is loosely based on a popular historical novel by Alexandre Dumas, is about Henri de Valois, a 16th century noble who was chosen as the king of Poland. But he pines for France. The opera proceeds from there and balances farce with romance.

Then, there’s the tragic fate of the opera’s opening. When it opened in 1887 at Paris’ Opéra-Comique, it had three performances until, on the fourth night, a fire ravaged the theater. After that, there seems to be no record of the opera ever being done — only concert versions and they were mostly revised versions of the work.

A few years ago Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra did a concert version and critics praised what they heard as being extraordinarily sophisticated, witty and enchanting.

It wasn’t long before Botstein had contacted Strassberger with the idea of doing the whole opera, he said.

“Production demands are extensive and it might seem an ambitious undertaking,” Strassberger said. “But Leon doesn’t see it that way.”

To deal with the unfamiliar, Strassberger first put himself into a world-premiere mode.

“I don’t want to exhume a piece from the past, but to take them out, shake them off and bring them back to the public’s imagination,” he said. “I look forward from the time the work was premiered, then it’s fantastic. This opera is musically rich. Every day I discover layer after layer. It’s complex. It comes at you as real quality goods, like a fine meal.”

And because the opera is relatively unknown, he can be as ambitious as he wants with what he wants to do.

“It frees me up,” he said. “I can start from scratch.”

Getting organized

The first thing he did was get his team in place. For several years, he has worked with set designer Kevin Knight and costume designer Mattie Ullrich in productions at Washington National Opera, Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, or with the Los Angeles Opera.

Strassberger’s own career was launched in 2005 after he won the European Opera Prize. He has directed or designed the sets for such companies as Opéra de Montréal, Opera Ireland, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and Opéra les Azuriales in Cap Ferrat, France.

“These partnerships have developed into a richer dialogue,” he said. “We can deal months in advance as to who the characters will be and how it will be done through the costumes or sets.”

He doesn’t choose the singers. The associate conductor for Botstein, who with the American will be in the pit, does that, Strassberger said.

“I’ve worked with some of the leads and others are new. All are rising stars. It’s a good-looking cast,” he said, adding that he spent several months via email working with the leads about their characters so they’d be more ready when rehearsals began.

The music is very difficult to play and sing.

“It’s not difficult on the ear but there’s a lot of ensemble singing, from duets to quintets,” he said. “Many arias have everyone singing their own lines and words — like Mozart. There are a lot of weavings in and out. Chabrier had his ear to the ground. There are parodies of Wagner and even Meyerbeer’s ‘Les Hugenots.’ ”

quality chorus

Fortunately, he’ll have a chorus that’s not only top-notch but one that he’s familiar with. In fact, that’s one reason he keeps coming back to Bard.

“I love the quality of the chorus. It’s special,” he said. “It’s massive talent from New York City. All are solo-quality performers giving all they’ve got to the greater good.”

The opera will not have a complete updating.

“There’s no recipe as to how it goes. It’s what will bring it out the best,” he said. “You may see some Yves St. Laurent mixed with a survey of costumes from the 1500s to today.”

The opera is a co-production with Ireland’s Wexford Festival Opera and will be sung in French with much dialogue. There are three acts that will take close to three hours. With such a long production and so many people involved, a lot could go wrong.

“Cross your fingers,” Strassberger said with a laugh.

At 1 p.m. on Sunday, Botstein will give an opera talk free to the public at Bard’s Sosnoff Theater.

Categories: Life and Arts

Leave a Reply