Robert Neu was not expecting to be named the new artistic director of the Skylark Opera Theatre.
But sure it was hard to not see it coming.
The company announced the director’s new position as part of unveiling its new season, which will feature two new productions of opera staples.
“Not only does Bob bring us extensive directing and production experience,” said Ann Spencer of Skylark’s Board of Directors in a press release. “But he has also spent his career with nonprofit performing arts organizations and therefore brings a wealth of knowledge. He has always been a passionate advocate for Skylark Opera and has long been a member of our extended family.”
Neu’s resume with the Minnesota-based company is second to none. He has nine productions for the company in the past nine years including “Naughty Marietta,” “The Merry Widow,” “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town,” “The Fantasticks,” “Candide,” “Putting it Together” and “Don Pasquale.” He is also known for his involvement in the Twin Cities theater and opera world, having mounted numerous productions for Minnesota Orchestra, Bloomington Civic Theater, Chameleon Theater, Phipps Center for the Arts, Lyric Opera of the North and Minneapolis Fringe Festival among others.
Neu recent spoke to OperaWire about his new position as well as the two operas he is bringing to the company this year – an adaptation of “Carmen” and a Prohibition-era “Don Giovanni.”
OperaWire: Tell me about how you wound up being the New Artistic Director for the company?
Robert Neu: I’ve worked with Skylark for 10 years as a free-lance director and have done productions ranging from operettas to operas to musicals to revues. I’ve always loved the company because they offered great casts and great collaborators – and I’ve always especially loved Skylark IN the Twin Cities where there is no opera company that operates on an intimate scale. Minnesota Opera is a fantastic company that presents stunning and large productions. I’ve always felt that the Twin Cities has needed a smaller company to do the kind of pieces that Minnesota Opera would not be likely to program.
As far as the nuts and bolts of being named to the company, it went through a search process and considered a number of people for the position. I’m thrilled they settled on me!
OW: Have you found that the Minnesota audience is very receptive to more modern adaptations of classic works?
RN: I have found that. Audiences here are well-educated, well-rounded, open-minded and curious – all of that makes a strong combination for being able to take some chances.
OW:What do you feel is the most effective way of getting more traditional audiences to open up to these more radical takes on favored works?
RN: I think first and foremost one has to be sure to honor the music since that is the most important element of great opera. And one has to cast well with singers who can beautifully present the characters.
OW: Where the idea for doing this adaptation of Carmen come about?
RN: It’s an adaptation that was done by the great British director, Peter Brook and first premiered in the early 80’s. His impetus was being intrigued with the psychology of these fascinating characters and wanting to focus on them and have the performers approach them in strong acting terms. For Skylark, we [settled] on the idea as the new direction of the company emerged. I’ve done the piece before and I think it’s the perfect introduction to opera that’s “up close and personal.” It has the name recognition, and it has the “hit tunes,” but stripping away everything but the main characters in an intimate surrounding really lets one see into their psychologies.
OW: What are the major revisions made to the opera and why were they made?
RN: Peter Brook stripped away the chorus, the dancers, all the secondary characters, leaving just six characters and 90 minutes of music. Carmen and Don Jose are two of the most well-known and iconic characters in opera and as I mention before, he wanted to figure out what made them “tick.”
OW: How does this new adaptation alter your perception of the work as a director?
RN: It makes me work harder to understand their stories and their motivations. It also requires me to work with the actors in finding the different facets of their personalities. No individual just works and thinks on one plane – we all have many personas, many wants and needs, many good and bad habits. So It’s about finding those multi-dimensional facets.
OW: What new themes emerge or are excised?
RN: I don’t know that any new themes emerge – it’s still a story about unrequited and obsessive love, and about realizing that actions have consequences.
OW: What are the challenges of directing this iconic work?
RN: It’s been done so much and everyone knows it. So it’s a matter of having to look at it fresh and forgetting about what I’ve seen before in other productions of this work.
OW: What is your approach?
Exactly that, looking at the piece fresh – examining the text and the actions for any insights into the character, being open to thoughts and ideas that aren’t traditional and perhaps aren’t even rational. Are any of us completely rational human beings??
OW: Do you have a favorite production of “Carmen” and what do you love most about it?
RN: I actually don’t – I’ve seen many, many productions and they all have merit. But they’re really telling a different story. A “grand opera” production of “Carmen” has a dozen named characters, a very large chorus, a full orchestra, huge sets and lasts over three hours. All of that is completely fantastic, but “The Tragedy of Carmen” is a different experience entirely.
OW: The second opera this season is a new production of “Don Giovanni” set in the prohibition era. What led you to set it in that time period and how will this choice illuminate the drama?
RN: The “Giovanni” will be a site-specific opera set in various rooms in the Minneapolis Woman’s Club – which is a grand edifice really from another era. It was built in the late 20’s so the years following that – the prohibition era – seemed to make sense within the context of the house. And since “Giovanni” is largely about “the forbidden” it seemed a good fit.
OW: How does this new take alter the characters and their relationships?
RN: It obviously brings the piece historically closer to audiences than if it were set in the original time period. There’s far less distancing and that causes one to re-evaluate the characters through a more contemporary lens, vis-a-vis where things are, or were, in regards to women’s rights and male privilege. I think our culture has shown us that this opera is perhaps no longer a comedy. Giovanni behaves despicably and it now seems callous and downright ugly to present his philanderings as being amusing.
OW: Do you have a dream opera that you would like to produce someday that you have yet to get a chance to work on?
RN: I’m currently going through a Britten obsession for some reason. I’ve just read two of his biographies and have re-listened to most of his output. So I suppose “The Turn of the Screw” is an obvious choice for a small opera organization. I’m also very taken with “Noye’s Fludde.”
OW: In your opinion, what make them such compelling works?
RN: I’m fascinated by Britten in general because of his economy and by his ability to tell a story using suggestion and not being explicit. His libretti are so incredibly moving without being obvious.
OW: Have you given thought to how you would approach either of those works?
RN: I do have a particular take on “Noye’s Fludde” I’d like to attempt but I’m going to keep that my secret. For now.