Updating an opera’s setting to a different time and place from those originally specified by the composer is a directorial rite of passage—but some directors are bolder than others in terms of where they choose to set a classic work. A few years ago at the Met, Michael Mayer (who won a Tony Award for Spring Awakening and later wrote and directed the Green Day musical American Idiot) moved the action of Verdi’s Rigoletto from 16th-century Mantua to a Las Vegas casino circa 1960. The production caused a sensation, winning the Met legions of new fans and garnering a 60 Minutes feature. Now Phelim McDermott—a co-founder of the theater company Improbable (famous for the ingenious musical Shockheaded Peter) who also created the Met’s landmark production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha—is following in Mayer’s footsteps with a wild new staging of Mozart’s Così fan tutte set in a Coney Island-esque amusement park in the 1950s (instead of the customary 18th-century Naples). A co-production with English National Opera, the production premiered in London, where critics threw around words like “inventive,” “colorful,” “liberated,” and “fun.” The two directors connected by phone to speak with the Met’s Matt Dobkin about the challenges and rewards of reimagining an operatic standard.
Matt Dobkin: To start with, I have to ask, do you guys actually know each other? Have you crossed paths over the years?
Michael Mayer: I don’t think we’ve actually met before.
Phelim McDermott: I don’t think we have, no. But one of your questions in the email arranging this interview was about the hurdles of making this production happen, and I remembered that when [set designer] Tom Pye and I first talked about where we would set the first scene of Così fan tutte, where Don Alfonso bets the young men that their girlfriends won’t be faithful when they show up in disguise, we thought, “Oh, that’s great, we can do it in a casino!” [Laughter] And [Met General Manager] Peter Gelb said, “I’m sorry, you can’t do that.” So one of the biggest hurdles was that you’d gotten there before us!
MM: So funny.
MD: Phelim, apart from having to pass on the casino idea, how did the fun house approach come about?
PM: Well, my experience of opera before Così had been the Philip Glass operas that I’ve done. I hadn’t done any classic operas in the canon. So when Così came up as a project with the ENO and the Met, I asked Tom if he would be interested in designing it, and he said, “Oh, I’ve done Così before. And what I really wanted to do was …”—so basically it was Tom’s idea! And I thought it was brilliant.
MD: And, Michael, what about you with Rigoletto? Where did the idea of a Vegas casino in 1960 come from?
MM: My situation is similar, in a way, because I had very little time to come up with a production to replace a different one that had been planned. And my first thought—Phelim, you’ll appreciate this—was to do a mafia type thing. And then Peter reminded me that [director] Jonathan Miller had already done that.
PM: So there we are! [Laughs]
MM: That got rejected immediately. So I had to really think of what kind of world would be equivalent to the decadent life of the Duke of Mantua’s court but for a more contemporary world. And that’s when I came up with the Vegas thing. Luckily, I had a fabulous design team as well, and we used some really familiar Las Vegas tropes that I felt an American audience would grasp. My goal was to create an American Rigoletto that would feel really resonant.
MD: When you take on an opera project, what are the first questions you ask yourself? Do you always think, “Hmm, should I update this? Should I place this in a different time setting?”
MM: I really try to think about what has come before. I want to give the audience who has been experiencing an opera in a certain way something different, so they have a new perspective on it.
PM: To be honest, in the past, I’ve been slightly averse to going, Let’s set it in … I think my thing is to create a world that I get atmospherically excited by. With Così, there’s a kind of challenge with it, which is that audiences say, “Oh, I’ve never believed that these girls would not spot their own boyfriends in disguise. I never buy it.” So what I liked about the Coney Island sideshow was that it’s a slightly altered world anyway. People, their identities, when they go to that place, they’re in a kind of dream already. So it seemed to be a world in which it wouldn’t necessarily even matter that the disguises were realistic. I want the audience not to think too much about that world, just to be swept along by it.
MD: Is it true you’ll have actual sideshow performers in the production?
PM: Yes, one of the things that’s different in New York from the ENO run is that Coney Island is not far from the Met, so we’ve cast some of the real performers who are still working there. And what is really exciting is that a fair few of these people who swallow swords and are highly tattooed and have snakes and are strongmen or contortionists—a really high percentage of them were like, “You know what my favorite thing is? Opera.” Some of them were in tears about the idea that they might be on the Met stage.
MM: Wow, that’s wonderful.
PM: I mean, they call themselves freaks, and on some level, opera singers are freaks. They are these extraordinary athletes of performance. They are larger than life. They are superheroes, in a certain way. And to bring those two worlds together—to bring Coney Island into the Met—it felt like there was something really touching about that. If it all goes to plan, there will be someone from Coney Island with their real boa constrictor on the stage.
MD: That will be a first for the Met! What is it about these operas that encourages reinterpretation?
MM: Well, I think that, first of all, they are masterpieces. It’s a testament to the strength of the works themselves that they are able to shift and change and accommodate these ideas. And with these pieces specifically, the music itself is deeply communicative in a timeless way. You just get it. It hits you in the center of your being, and you understand what the emotion is.
PM: There’s something amazing about the timeless element of the music itself—when you think about the people who heard this music when it was first written and that it has stayed as a constant throughout time. The wonderful thing about opera is it’s this combination of the music and the visuals. So a performance can be reinterpreted again and again, like Shakespeare. That’s the proof of the sturdiness of it. You can imagine—if the world survives beyond where we’re going at the moment—these pieces will still be done again and again. This form literally demands of you that you say, “What am I going to do with this? How am I going to reinterpret this for this age?” I don’t think that there will ever be a definitive version of these operas, and that’s really exciting.
MD: So, Michael, what do you think? Can Phelim expect Met audiences to buy into his Così?
MM: Judging from the way they responded so well to the Rat Pack Rigoletto, I think they’re going to love it. I love watching audiences get off on the imaginative engagement of it. This kind of approach just makes the event and the characters and the relationships feel grounded in a world that we recognize, and therefore, we’re able to go along on the ride. So I personally can’t wait to see this Così, and I think that the Met audiences are going to eat it up. That’s my bet.