Both her parents were actors, and their work gave a young Zambello the insight she needed to understand how a theater was run. “If my parents were working, I was backstage watching,” she told the New York Times in 2013.
Her observations led her to organize the neighborhood kids into a children’s theater company, operating right beneath her family’s floorboards. Having caught the directing bug, she left her native New York after college to pursue that passion professionally.
One of her first professional experiences was in Wisconsin, where she learned to make the most of modest means. As she explained to The Guardian, the theater she worked in was small — with only 275 seats — and the budget was just as tiny, with $7,000 allotted for each play.
But those constrictions proved formative. “If you can’t direct on no money,” she told The Guardian, “you can’t do it at all.”
Nowadays, Zambello’s work is often epic in scale — her production of the Ring cycle here in 2018 was a massive spectacle of fire and fury — but her approach remains focused on the basics. She sometimes asks her opera performers to recite their lyrics as prose, stripped of any music, to ensure they connect with their characters intimately.
Zambello herself has a particular connection with the title character of Bizet’s Carmen, a work she will be directing here this June. Fiery, fearless and independent, Carmen remains one of Zambello’s enduring favorites, in part because she subverts hierarchies that remain in place today — hierarchies that discriminate based on race, gender and class.
Catch Zambello’s interpretation of Bizet’s immortal work when Carmen, starring J’Nai Bridges, storms our stage this summer!