Backstage Spotlight:
Staff Stage Directors

March 01st, 2017

When a visiting director comes to the Met to stage a new production, the company assigns staff directors to assist with the process. Not only do these staff directors grease the wheels for a new staging, but they also sometimes take the lead in reviving these productions when they come back to the repertory in subsequent seasons. Along with Greg Keller, Gina Lapinski, and Paula Williams, Executive Stage Director David Kneuss, who oversees more than a dozen staff directors, spoke to the Met’s Matt Dobkin about their work preparing for this month’s revivals of Idomeneo, Fidelio, and Eugene Onegin.

Audiences hear a lot about the visiting directors who create new productions for the Met. But what is the role of the company’s staff directors?
David Kneuss: When you assist on a new production, you have to learn every detail of the show and what the visiting director intends, make notes, and keep that the number-one goal when a production returns.
Paula Williams: On new productions, you’re the person who helps the visiting director find his way through the system at the Met. You have to be able to function as their assistant, and you also serve as a liaison with all the other departments.

Do you remember your first Met productions?
Greg Keller: Don Giovanni in 1995, the old Zeffirelli production, with Bryn Terfel, Thomas Hampson, and Carol Vaness. That was my initiation—being around these stars who were big, famous names.
Gina Lapinski: Mine was Moses und Aron—the Met premiere. I remember I had to learn about 85 choristers’ names, and then there were another 85 supers and 60 dancers.
DK: I assisted Tito Gobbi on Tosca in 1978, with Luciano Pavarotti, Shirley Verrett, and Cornell MacNeil. There were two assistant directors, but the other one was only available up to opening night. So it was just me for the run of the show, with all the cast changes and replacements—and then a tour, so I ended up as the full-time Tosca man.

What are some of the challenges of collaborating with visiting directors?
PW: We help with the extremely large groups that are unique to opera, like our chorus, so we’ll often take that on for them. They’ll explain what their idea is, and then we’ll execute it for larger scenes.
GK: One of the main differences between theater and opera is you have a prescribed amount of time—you have what the composer wrote. You have four bars for Cherubino to jump out the window, not eight, not two. And a director who is not as accustomed to working in opera may want more time to get an idea staged, but the reality of opera is you don’t have that luxury.
GL: I think it’s also about knowing how to communicate with singers, with the chorus especially. Usually you want this big group of people to behave as they would in real life, but you can’t take the time to give every single person specific, individual direction. So you have to give them enough information to be able to run with it.

David, this month you’re doing Idomeneo, Gina and Greg are doing Fidelio together, and Paula, you’ve got Eugene Onegin.
DK: I was one of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s assistants on Idomeneo when it was a Met premiere, and I’ve revived it a few times. Hewas a very musical director. He always directed from the score, so there are always reactions that are specifically dictated by the music.

I understand you want to maintain his original ideas, but surely you’re going to have to stray from time to time….
DK: Of course. What Ponnelle might have done with Pavarotti and Hildegard Behrens is different from what he’d do with Matthew Polenzani and Elza van den Heever, our cast this season.
GK: Your job is to be sort of an alchemist. In a different year, you have different singers, but your job is to still make it have life.

Fidelio was new in 2000. When you work with a new cast, what adjustments do you make?
GL: Jürgen Flimm’s approach as a director was very specific, in terms of the choices he made conceptually. Jürgen is coming back this season, but when I’ve revived his production other times, what I’ve tried to do is inform the artists of what his ideas were and find a way to make those ideas believable to them.

Paula, when Onegin was new, the director, Deborah Warner, was unable to make it to rehearsals due to illness…
PW: Yes, but she sent Fiona Shaw, whom she’d worked with super-closely for many years, and she was great to work with. Deborah trusted her totally.

I imagine that each of you has your individual strong suit as a director.
GK: I came from the theater, so I like operas with good, strong text. I have a penchant for the dark underbelly, so I love Lulu. Also I love the Mozart-Da Ponte operas—FigaroCosì fan tutte, and Don Giovanni. To me, those are the greatest libretti ever written, and that’s what really makes my heart beat.
PW: I like challenges. I like the challenge of working with large groups of people—like War and Peace, for instance, with its cast of thousands. Guillaume Tell this year was a huge challenge. And the Ring, of course, is always difficult when you do the whole cycle.
GL: I think we all agree that you have to be in the people business to do this job. You’re dealing with so many different types of personalities, and collaborating with the music staff and with the stage managers, and the crew and all the other departments.
DK: You have to communicate, which is one of the skills I look for most in these folks, because they’re responsible for disseminating all the information to every corner of this building. Everything starts right here.