One of San Francisco Opera's favorite stage directors is Jose Maria Condemi. Along with being a frequent contributor to the San Francisco Opera stage, Jose Maria is also Artistic Director at Opera Santa Barbara and an advocate for young artists. This fall he directed Puccini's formidable "Tosca" staring not one, but two alternating casts in the production. Amid his busy schedule, Jose Maria took some time to answer our Five Questions. Take a read and see how one handles breathing new life into old productions, advice for young performances and where to get great BBQ in San Francisco.
Your relationship with San Francisco Opera began back in 1998 while in the Merola Opera Program. Can you share a little bit of your experience in the stage director program? And, on the same line, what prompted you to want to pursue directing?
The Merola Opera Program was a great experience for me, especially because the first time I participated in 1998 I was still a graduate student at University of Cincinnati/College-Conservatory of Music where I was pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Opera Directing. Having the chance to be part of a prestigious training program such as Merola and to meet extraordinary artists only half-way through my education in the USA was instrumental in helping me chart the course of my post-school career and artistic goals. As for what prompted me into opera direction, it is a question I never really have a good answer for. I played the piano since I was 6 years old, I liked classical music a lot and opera later on in my teens and enjoyed theater and visual arts, but I do not come from a family of artists. When it was time to choose a career back home in Argentina, I decided to become a doctor and I actually went to Medical School for almost 4 years before quitting it all for opera and enrolling as a full-time student at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires.
San Francisco Opera’s Fall 2012 production of "Tosca" has two alternate casts. What is it like directing two different casts in the same production?
It's a balancing act between allowing and benefitting from each artist's experience with their particular role and the way they've played it in previous productions, but also steering them towards a performance that is suited to the production SFO is mounting. In doing so, the challenge also becomes ensuring that the traditional setting not-withstanding, their performances are alive, vibrant and full of life. I have always said that there is nothing intrinsically "wrong" with traditional productions. There are wonderful examples in cinema and theater of highly traditional work that are also filled with human emotion and passion. Think of "Dangerous Liaisons" or "Downton Abbey," for example, or the iconic productions of the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. However, breathing life into a production like the one SFO is offering this time, requires rehearsal time and opportunities for the cast to play with and off each other. Unfortunately, our rehearsal period was severely affected by hurricane Sandy which took away almost an entire week of rehearsals due to late arrivals, flight cancellations and other complications.
The two "Tosca" casts: Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca with Massimo Giordano as Cavaradossi and Brian Jagde as Cavaradossi and Patricia Racette as Tosca. Photo by Cory Weaver.
On the same note, Tosca is such a well-known opera. How do you put your own spin on it and/or keep it fresh for new audiences?
That is another challenge because the physical production, the way the set and the costumes look heavily dictate what can be realistically altered or which new elements can be introduced without them appearing out of place or alienating. I can speak of a few things I've done this time around that are entirely different from the previous time I directed this production. One of them is the Te Deum at the end of Act I: up until now, the procession of Church dignitaries and attendants was always seen as if crossing in the background, entering from the right and exiting on the left. This time, I decided to flip it around for maximum visual impact and end the Te Deum with everybody facing the audience, including the presentation of the Monstrance and Scarpia kneeling and crossing himself. Another small change is the way Tosca handles the last few seconds of her interaction with Scarpia in Act II; she is seen "setting Scarpia up" by lounging on the sofa as if giving herself to him, but the audience gets to see she is in fact clasping tightly to a knife in preparation for the stabbing. The long introductory scene at the beginning of Act III also merited quite a bit of new detail in the proceedings of the Jailer and his interaction with Cavaradossi.
Mark Delavan as Scarpia and Patricia Racette as Tosca. Photo by Cory Weaver.
Roberto Frontali as Scarpia and Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca. Photo by Cory Weaver.
You’re also in demand as a teacher and trainer for young artists. What advice do you give aspiring performers and stage directors embarking in a competitive field like the performing arts?
The main advice I always give my students, both singers and directors, is to remind them that the main reason to become an artist should be because they have something they absolutely MUST say. A point of view about life and the human condition that they feel they MUST convey through their art, no matter how small or big their participation in the form may be. I also press upon them that they have to ponder and decide on what type of career they want to have and how that relates to other career and life goals. Is family life important for them? If so, how do they feel about possibly being away and on the road for the majority of the year should they become successful singers? Is singing the big roles their main goal? Or do they realize one can make a wonderful and very lucrative career by singing the comprimari repertory at a level of excellence? For stage directors, I also share some of my own experience of either accepting or rejecting work that was offered to me and how, sometimes, it was the smaller, seemingly less important engagements that later on led to the bigger ones. Dealing with criticism and reviews, particularly on this day and age when anybody that is able to type could review our work, is also something I tend to discuss with my students.
Lastly, when you’re not totally swamped with rehearsals, do you have any favorite places in San Francisco that you’d like to share?
Some of my favorite things to do in San Francisco are simple neighborhood exploring such was walking up and down Fillmore street and stopping at the cute shops and eateries. Or driving down the coast to Half Moon Bay for the amazing Sunday brunch at the Ritz Carlton. Or enjoy a BBQ Brisket sandwich at Memphis Minnies in the Lower Haight. But I now live in the East Bay so most free days I simply drive around exploring the wonderful scenery and undiscovered gems of the Bay Area. And my work as Artistic Director of Opera Santa Barbara also means I spend quite a bit of my time down South and one can never get enough of the beauty of that part of California.
To learn about Jose Maria Condemi check out his website here.