BY JANOS GEREBEN,
July 29, 2014
He just turned 30, so his career is ahead of him. But James Darrah, now working on the Merola Program's upcoming Don Giovanni also has an exceptional track record, some of which is reflected on his website. The UCLA graduate (music, theater, and the classics) started directing opera at age 22 through a serendipitous invitation to work at the Split Summer Festival in Croatia. Then, in just eight years, Darrah went hyperactive in Europe, Seattle (Semele), The Juilliard (Radamisto), Chicago (Teseo and Médée), Frank Zappa's 200 Motels with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen, Omaha Agrippina; collaborations with Peter Sellars in staging John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary in Los Angeles, London, Paris and Lucerne; and with Christopher Alden for the LA Philharmonic’s Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy, and more ...
His work and his words resonate with aspirations given voice by Stephen Sondheim to Georges Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George: "Bring order to the whole. Through design. Composition. Tension. Balance."
It is balance that's the most important and challenging factor in the direction of opera — balance between keeping works fresh and staying true to their essence, balance between doing something interesting or going off into the deep end. As Darrah put it in an interview at the Everett Auditorium, which he is transforming for Don Giovanni:
"I and my collaborators come from theater and other fields, not opera, none of us were really coming at opera feeling like we have to pay homage to the 1950s and 1960s "golden age of opera." We are looking for ways to activate a piece, to bring an opera to life that is both theatrically compelling and [remains true] to the text and the music. You can't do things that are overtly against them.
The music tells you what to do. With Don Giovanni, I tell the cast: I want you to think that if you were to write out the stage directions I give you, it would read like a music score.
In life we function associatively, everything flows from one to the next, it all connects — that's how stage directions should function. With that, you can explore new avenues but it's all based in the music, and you are not arbitrarily deciding to set Don Giovanni in a '40s gangster world for no reason."
James Darrah comes in a package he has been putting together, which he started during his UCLA school days: He is the founder-leader of Studio Chromatic, a group of young artists working on stage direction, design, lighting, and video produced in a creative collective. "One of the great advantages of structuring a production company," says Darrah, "is that we manage the problem that makes it hard to ascertain how to fit traditional billing for design elements — everything is so overlapped!"
The flexible Chromatic, headed by Darrah, includes Adam Larsen (projection design), Cameron Jaye Mock and Emily Anne MacDonald (scenic and lighting design), and Sarah Schuessler (costumes, usually in collaboration with Darrah). The collaboration in the group is so close Mock and MacDonald are now married.
For Don Giovanni, Darrah, Mock, and MacDonald are responsible for the entire production, including sets, lights, and costumes (while Schuessler and Larsen are away — she to costume HBO's The Newsroom, and he to finish a documentary).
The Chromatic family includes mezzo-actor-writer Peabody Southwell and dancer Janice Lancaster (both seen in the SFS Peer Gynt), playwright and director Roxie Perkins (with whom Chromatic is developing a new play), and Christopher Rountree, founder of the wild Up modern music collective, who will conduct Adams' A Flowering Tree, which Darrah and Chromatic will produce at Opera Omaha and elsewhere.
The Merola presentation of Don Giovanni is scheduled for July 31 at 7:30 p.m. and Aug. 2 at 2 p.m., in Everett Auditorium, 450 Church St.
Merolini featured in the cast are baritone Edward Nelson as Don Giovanni; bass-baritone Szymon Wach as Leporello; bass Scott Russell as Il Commendatore; soprano Amanda Woodbury as Donna Anna; tenor Benjamin Werley as Don Ottavio; soprano Karen Chia-Ling Ho as Donna Elvira; bass-baritone Rhys Lloyd Talbot as Masetto; and soprano Yujin Kim as Zerlina. Martin Katz is music director.