Back to the Future
When the curtain went up on the Met’s 2018 new production of Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, it heralded not only the opening of a new season but also the company debuts of three members of its illustrious creative team. Director Darko Tresnjak, set designer Alexander Dodge, and costume designer Linda Cho have collaborated on dozens of shows over the past two decades, including the Broadway smash hit A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, which earned Tony Awards for Tresnjak and Cho and a nomination for Dodge. As the first day of technical rehearsals for Samson was wrapping up, the trio sat down with the Met’s Christopher Browner to discuss their friendship inside and outside the theater.
This production marks all three of your Met debuts, but many of our audience members will likely know your work from Broadway, notably A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. You’ve worked on plays, musicals, and operas—does your approach differ when you tackle an opera?
Darko Tresnjak: Yes—operas have a very different structure. They’re more like Shakespeare plays in how they balance the intimate moments and the epic. And you also have to understand the singers’ need to open up and how the acoustics work in your production. So yes, they’re very different.
How would you describe your vision for this new production of Samson et Dalila?
DT: In general, I try not to impose a rigid psychology or conceptual idea that fights the information in the score. With Samson, I wanted to be fearless in my imagination and just embrace the piece. There is no attempt to update the setting or the story. Instead, our production is based on scant information of the ancient world re-interpreted through the lens of contemporary technology, art, and design.
Alexander Dodge: We were looking to create a staging that feels ancient but isn’t didactic or literal in any way.
DT: In my research, I came across this image of Gloria Swanson taken by Edward Steichen. She’s staring directly into the camera from behind this delicate lace. She is intensely beautiful but also looks very dangerous. I’ve always been fascinated by lace because what’s on the other side is seductive, but it could kill you. And that’s Samson et Dalila—seductive and dangerous. That became a repeating theme from act to act, that on the other side of the wall is something mysterious, but it could be dangerous.
Linda Cho: We did a lot of research, looking at both very ancient silhouettes and at modern interpretations of what the ancient world would look like. We looked at stone carvings and early paintings and latticework on Moroccan screens. Then we took all of these historical pieces of research and incorporated them in a fresh way to give a different vocabulary within our world. It isn’t a re-creation of the past, it’s a re-interpretation.
DT: Even the lens that Alexander has designed to frame the stage, it’s as if we’re looking at a world that can speak to us, but it’s not our world. I read somewhere that, if by the end of Hamlet, you know everything there is to know about Hamlet, you haven’t seen a great Hamlet. It’s the same for these great operas. There is so much more than what can be seen on the surface.
Can you walk me through your creative process together?
DT: It always starts with cocktails.
AD: And sometimes it ends with cocktails.
DT: Really, though, it’s never the same.
AD: Sometimes there are projects that go so smoothly it seems like we finish each other’s sentences, and others really stump us. But they’re always interesting.
How did the three of you first come to collaborate?
DT: At Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires. First I met Linda, and then, a summer later, I met Alexander. I even met my husband there—Linda introduced me to him. It’s all Williamstown.
Were you assigned to work together?
DT: No, I saw some great costume sketches on the wall, and I thought to myself, “Who did these?” That’s when Linda and I met, and it’s been over 50 productions since.
AD: And then, we met the following year.
DT: And it took us a few years to work together. We’ve only done 30 shows together, so we’re behind. [Laughs]
You often hear about famous collaborators—Rodgers and Hammerstein, for instance—who created masterpieces together but were not friends. That doesn’t seem to be the case with you three.
LC: I would say not! [Laughs]
DT: We do hang out together a lot.
AD: We’ve gone to Germany together …
LC: And we’ve all been to each other’s weddings.
So what’s the key to your continued success together?
DT: We have this trust where we never take each other for granted. There has to be trust, and there has to be love, and there has to be respect.
LC: And when we, as designers, have great trust in the journey that our director is bringing us on—when we understand his vision even if we may not see the big picture at the end just yet—we know that he’ll take us to a successful place.
DT: And something that has often occurred to me over the years is that Linda was born in Korea and grew up in Canada and in the United States. I was born in Yugoslavia, the first ten years of my life, then the United States, then part of my teenage years in Poland. And, Alexander, you’re half German. So we all have a genuine cross-cultural perspective. I can’t totally explain it, but it enters into our work.
How did each of you discover your passion for the theater?
DT: Well, I directed my first show when I was seven years old. I saw the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, and I thought “Oh, I’m going to do that.” So I staged the Olympics on the streets—lighting of the torch, medals cut out of cardboard, long-distance spitting competitions. I rigged it so I would win the most gold medals, and kids had to carry me down the street. [Laughter] I was the only kid in Belgrade with a pogo stick, and I had all of these other toys. So basically, if anybody wanted to play with my toys, they had to be in my shows.
Alexander, how about you?
AD: I grew up going to the theater and opera. My father’s a big opera fan—a big Wagnerian—and he’s also an architect. I loved architecture, but I wanted to do something different. At some point, it dawned on me that there must be somebody creating everything I saw on stage. So I started doing some theater design, and it just snowballed.
LC: But you also did music, right?
AD: Yeah, I studied classical piano, but I had terrible stage fright. I loved it, but I never wanted to be on stage.
How did you come to design, Linda?
LC: Being Asian-American, you get to be either a lawyer or a doctor when you grow up. I actually have a degree in psychology. But I also took electives in music appreciation, in fine arts—basically anything to make me an excellent med school candidate. [Laughs] But I hated all my science classes and loved all my electives. Finally, my mother suggested, “Why don’t you do theater? You seem to like it.” I applied to grad school and got in. I never imagined this life, never imagined designing at the Met.
Do you ever bring the psychology in?
LC: Every day of every project.
DT: Have you been to her costume fittings?
LC: But seriously, my process is kind of inside-out. I start with character, and I tell a story through clothes. I’m not just creating an exterior—I’m helping flesh out an interior life and a story. And when I’m interacting with performers, I have to read body language and try to make them comfortable. All of that is absolutely psychology.
We should also mention the other talented members of your team for this production, starting with Donald Holder, your lighting designer, who has worked on three previous Met productions.
DT: And this is our second show with him because he also designed the lighting for Anastasia on Broadway.
LC: He’s a delight.
And Austin McCormick, your choreographer.
DT: For anybody in the audience who has seen Austin’s work, they’ll know why he is a great choice for Samson et Dalila. When I told him that the statue of Dagon in Act III is this incredible latticework 80-foot statue, and within his chest there are basically six stripper cages, he was totally on board. [Laughs]
You also have an all-star cast, led by Elīna Garanča and Roberto Alagna. Have you ever worked with them before?
DT: No. This is a good story, though. I was at my home in Connecticut listening to a recording of Elīna. I love her voice. I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice to work with her someday?” And Peter Gelb called two days later and asked me to direct Samson et Dalila. I asked, “Who’s in the cast?” and when he said her name, I lost all cool. And I know Roberto’s work very well. I recently found some clips on YouTube of him singing Samson, and it’s absolutely beautiful. I can’t wait to work with the two of them.
You really have the best across the board—a great cast, you’re all making your Met debuts together, and it’s opening night of a new season, which creates its own excitement—
DT: Okay, now you’re making us nervous!
LC: Oh my God. What am I going to wear?
But to go through this process together, what does that feel like?
AD: I’m actually surprised by the fact that I’m not so nervous. Initially I was, but being here with these guys, it all seems normal. We’ve been down this road before. So I’m actually doing okay.
LC: For me, the work is the reward. Opening night is nerve-wracking and exciting, but the most exciting part is the process of figuring out what this world is and then actually making it. And I get to do that with my best friends.
AD: I couldn’t agree more. I love coming to the opera, so creating a production at the Met has definitely been pretty high up on the list for me. But to be doing a show with my good colleagues who are also my good friends, it’s a double treat.
DT: When you work like this, you wake up, and you look for the best in every person you work with. What is the best that they can bring in relation to the themes and the issues of the project? That is a very positive way to spend the working days of one’s life.
Christopher Browner is the Met’s Associate Editor.