Ian Campbell, General and Artistis Director, San Diego Opera
Lesley Koenig, Director, "Samson and Delilah"
Related Story: San Diego Opera's 'Samson And Delilah'
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS midday edition. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. If you ever wondered why they call it grand Opera all you need to do is witness the production and the San Diego Opera will protect this weekend the 19th century opera Samson and Delilah will be performed with elaborate sets and lighting lavish choreography, a big cast and many ground forces it's an encore of one of the most ambitious production scene at the San Diego Opera in the past decade but it also includes some new twists including a new Delilah. I'd like to welcome my guests. Ian Campbell is general and artistic director of the San Diego Opera welcome back, Ian.
IAN CAMPBELL: Glad to be with you again.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Lesley Koenig instructor of Samson and Delilah, Lesley, welcome.
LESLEY KOENIG: Thank you.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now Ian, why did the San Diego Opera want to bring back Samson and Delilah?
IAN CAMPBELL: There are many great classics that one brings back on and regular basis in this case on the balance of the season I was looking for something spectacular but also it depends on singers available and I had heard not hear Christie found was singing the role of Delilah for the first time and I recognize some years ago that she was a singer I wanted with our company and coming up with the ideal work, this is the one that she clearly needs to do. She's a beautiful woman, wonderful singer, great actress and she fits the role perfectly so it's the balance of getting something large and powerful into the season with the right singer that I wanted.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You will correct me if I'm wrong here, but just a thumbnail description if anybody doesn't remember the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, Samson is the great strongman, Delilah the seductress and there is a haircut involved in terrible things ensue.
IAN CAMPBELL: That's it. You gave the shortcut version. That is exactly it.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, give us a sense of scale this is a big production for the San Diego Opera. You look at the photos and you really do think Cecil B. DeMille.
IAN CAMPBELL: In a sense in terms of scale it really is very big and in fact the production is costing about $2.2 million to stage. It is labor intensive 74% of the budget every year is labor and that is nothing like the theater companies or the symphony. In this particular one we have 41 stagehands just love the scenery around. There are 30 dresses, 13 people for weeks and makeup, their eight principles, 80 in the course which is huge. There are 12 dances, 19 supers, these are extras, so we filled the stage and gives Lesley Koenig enough a lot of work to do to move the people around.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I was going to ask you, Lesley, what are the challenges of working on an opera of the scale?
LESLEY KOENIG: I actually think that a number of this scale is so much fun to direct because the crowd scenes you know, 80 people are in the course, or 80 individuals so the course at San Diego Opera is simply stupendous and they sound fantastic and are so much fun to work with so I think the challenge is in a fairly short rehearsal. To be able, we've been nursing for 7 to 10 days in the upper is complete. We have not done the lighting, but it is staged. It is a question, the challenge is being so prepared that you can come in and put something on this scale together very quickly.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What I understand is that the singers, the actors rehearse in a smaller area and they sort of introduce themselves to this grand stage. How does the transition work when they've been rehearsing this in a rather intimate setting and have and they have this massive production to actually humanize.
LESLEY KOENIG: It is fantastic. When you get to the stage the site is marked with tape on the floor so you can see where steps are in the rehearsal room, but once you get to the stage it is like an explosion of space. Even though we knew what the scale was in my rehearsal hall it is such a pleasure to get on stage because you can place people on steps if there is more room than it feels like in a rehearsal hall and in a rehearsal Hall you cannot get down stage. You can't get away from the singer so I don't get a perspective of what the big picture looks like but once again on stage is wonderful to be able to go out of the house or out of them down to the orchestra pit and place them so that each person has room to do what he wants and it looks great.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know everyone who's seen the Bible story enacted I remember the old movie with Victor Mature, you remember that final scene where he is change to these pillars and he regains his strength in the pillars come tumbling down. Will we be seeing that Ian?
IAN CAMPBELL: You will. The set is designed so that pillars collapse and statues all over as well and pieces are dropped from above. We avoid the course as much as we can because the 80 are all we have. So we do not hit anybody and that's the thing with reversals. All the technical stuff is very carefully put together so that nobody gets hurt and rehearsed thoroughly. Obviously we cannot totally destroyed as set onstage there has to be a certain amount of theatrical imagination, but what is intended is clearly seen and all of the nasty people get their comeuppance.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's hear a little of the big buck and now seen before the Temple falls. This is from an EMI Classics recording with Placido Domingo.
[Opera music playing]
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Both of you love that very much, I can tell. Now, Lesley when you think about Bacchanal, you think about dancing and this sort of revelry, which is very specifically choreographed of course in this opera. He where the general manager of the San Francisco ballet so was this in particular something you look forward to?
LESLEY KOENIG: Absolutely I will actually admit that I directed operas for 20 years and then met when I was younger and placed a (inaudible) dancers out of every opera that I could because unless it were a (inaudible) because all of a sudden people would need to dance and the beautiful people would come on and dance and leave and I like to see course people dance but running a choreography was helpful for the dance this time around I've directed the opera twice before and I completely rethought it for this go around. I was actually the choreographer is such an amazing man and we really work collaboratively. I felt very comfortable with dance this time, and my major concern was that the dances there are a couple in the first act and the knowledge that there The dances were an integral part of the story. The story didn't stop the sometimes a tradition in French operators but the story absolutely continues. Samson and Delilah, you should see the Delilah, she can actually bend over backwards in a complete curve and stand up without any help. So she actually dances beautifully in both of the dances. So literally at the end of the Bacchanal, usually the Bacchanal and Samson comes on, but in this case the answers are pulling Samson on the stage at the end. So, it was a great experience and I learned and the ballet the dances the time to be positioned on the sets of the choreographer had two hours yesterday to place dancers. I would never have known that before running a company.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Very interesting. I think it's fair to say this is a rather long opera. Ian, is this a good opera for newcomers?
IAN CAMPBELL: It's really not that long, just over three hours and in the opera world, that's perfectly normal. The opera as far as newcomers are concerned I think it's got great melodies, no act is overly long, it's a story they can cover, is colorful. And the singers that we have that can act and sing.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And bend over backwards.
IAN CAMPBELL: This is (inaudible) Kristeva who does Delilah, she does the splits as well, but not in this production.
LESLEY KOENIG: We decided that wasn't a good idea
IAN CAMPBELL: I've never met a leading artist who can do what she does gymnastically. It was wonderful she did a press interview recently she said yes I can do the splits and went down on the floor without warming up and I said don't you hurt yourself and she said no, no, can't anybody do this? But I think this is a good first offer and Opera, frankly because it's got everything that Opera is about.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And doesn't this have one of the most famous arias for Opera?
LESLEY KOENIG: It is tricky to stage because she starts singing, and she has one version, he has a little response and at the end of the second verse it turns into a duet so it's always kind of tricky to figure out how to position people so that they are able to be reacting, Simpson is able to be a reactive study in the first verse and join in with her, but I think it looks if I do say so myself I think it looks really gorgeous. The couple, the two of them together are really really sexy.
IAN CAMPBELL: And the audience has no trouble following the story because we have a supertitles, we have English translation above the stage so any English newcomer doesn't have to worry about what the words mean, they didn't let the music and the sounds of the words work on them while reading the text and that is where a love duet like that one that was just mentioned work so well and yes it is a sexy couple. They are very powerful together.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering Lesley are there a lot of women directing operas these days?
LESLEY KOENIG: Certainly more than when I started out.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When you were little, was this a career trajectory for you?
LESLEY KOENIG: I saw an opera when I was eight and San Francisco Opera, and quite by accident person running the ticketing services took me by the hand and said do you want to see a rehearsal one day, one afternoon and I went into the back of the opportunity, auditorium, were quite people in normal clothes, P&L and the pain and I was completely enchanted typesetter who is in charge of this and the person said I'm a director, that's going to be, so I did it was a 10 min. accident that's why I say to people you shouldn't expose your children to everything because you never know what is going to click.
IAN CAMPBELL: For many years there were not enough female conductors and female directors and I think they were also biased against them by many managements, but today it's been proven that talent is no less than men, and therefore it is never a consideration for most companies us to the sex of the director or the conductor. It is simply can he or she do it well. And Lesley is one of the finest female directors around, one of the finest directors around. And her background at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere brings enough a lot of talent, skill, experience to this production which I think the audience will appreciate.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you both sort of the closing what tips might you have for people about enjoying opera, Lesley?
LESLEY KOENIG: Just to go with the flow. Really people need to come in, it helps to sometimes read the synopsis before you come in. But it is not necessary really with their titles, really come in and relax and go with the flow. It's just as acceptable as seeing a movie or play with the music and it certainly for me preferable to a musical. It's just all clear there's nothing to be afraid of in the great melodies and music in this production is going to be spectacular.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You have a closing word?
IAN CAMPBELL: I can't say it better than that. Don't worry about what it isn't, worry about what it is.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And enjoy with the San Diego opera production of Samson and Delilah open Saturday the 16th runs through February 24 at the Civic Theatre downtown and KPBS will broadcast the opera live on February 16 and continue watching evening edition this Friday for a behind-the-scenes look at building the biblical scenes for the opera. I've been speaking with Ian Campbell at the San Diego Opera and Lesley Koenig is director of Samson and Delilah thank you both very much.
IAN CAMPBELL: Thank you very much
LESLEY KOENIG: Pleasure.