Back in 1933, with the Great Depression in full swing, famed Hollywood director George Cukor released a small film called “Dinner at Eight.” Starring Lionel and John Barrymore, Marie Dressler and Jean Harlow among others, the film established the cataclysmic world event in a very intimate setting.
The film became a cult classic in ensuing decades and a new version of “Dinner at Eight,” this time for the opera stage, will make its world premiere this weekend on Saturday, March 11 at the Minnesota Opera.
Librettist Mark Campbell and director William Bolcom are at the core of the opera’s conception and creation, but a major piece to the puzzle is director Tomer Zvulun, bringing their vision for the story to life onstage.
Zvulun, who is also the general director of the Atlanta Opera, recently spoke to OperaWire about his experience working on the opera ahead of its big moment.
OperaWire: “Dinner at Eight” is a brand new opera that no one has seen yet. What do you think will surprise audiences most about this opera?
Tomer Zvulun: It’s a comedy. That’s very unusual for a new work these days. Opera America did a survey on new pieces being written and the type of genre they were. They found that only 10 percent were comedies. Most pieces are really deep and dark. Think about the recent world premieres making headlines. “The Shining,” “Scarlet Letter,” “Bel Canto” in Chicago. They are all beautiful but I would not use the term “comedy” to define them. I think it’s great to do a comedy because it’s so difficult. More than drama I think.
OW: Why is comedy more difficult to put together than drama?
TZ: You never know what the audience reaction is going to be. Timing is everything and balance is everything. Directing comedy is more challenging but also more rewarding because it does what the geniuses like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton did. It gets the audience to have one eye smiling and one eye crying. It is much easier that you get to them on an emotional level once you disarm them by making them laugh. There are great examples of that in opera too. Especially when you look at “La Bohème.” The audience weeps at the end and a lot of that has to do with the fact that they were laughing moments before Musetta bursts through that door. The same with Verdi’s “Falstaff” or even Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”
OW: Now in terms of the work itself, what do you think audiences will connect with most? Can they expect an entertaining romp for a few hours? Or does it also work on other levels?
TZ: I think that the genius of “Dinner at Eight” is that it isn’t just a comedy. It isn’t just on the surface and entertaining. It is a profound comedy with a lot of darkness in it. Especially when you see that it centers around the idea of decline and the idea that everything fades. From fame to money to even our youth, everything fades. Even love can fade and disintegrate. That is something that every character in the opera experiences.
I also think that this will connect with audiences emotionally because of how contemporary it is in that it deals with the effects that a big world event has on individuals. In this case, it is a family throwing a dinner party and in the background, the Great Depression is looming. It is prevalent in every corner without being mentioned. It’s a major world event that changed lives. I think that is something that this generation really understands especially with what we have been through over the last few decades starting with September 11 to the 2008 recession and… [Pauses]
OW: … The Election?
TZ: I don’t really want to get too political, but yes, the election this past year. So I find it fascinating how the individual is impacted by great world events. There were other operas recently that did the same thing. Just look at “Silent Night” and the impact of World War I on individuals or “Cold Mountain” and the Civil War.
OW: How about the music itself?
TZ: It is very comedic and light. The music connects great American Opera with Great American musical theater. Will [Bolcom] and Mark [Campbell]’s connection to great American music really comes through. There are some great tunes in it.
OW: When you look at your body of work and compare directing a world premiere with directing an old classic, is there any added pressure?
TZ: For me it’s wonderful. Opera is a collaborative process and often when you take on classic opera with a composer who is no longer with us it is more limiting. You are still collaborating with designers and singers and conductors, but when you are doing a world premiere you are also collaborating with the composer and librettist. And even the artistic director of the opera who conceived the world premiere. It’s a far deeper collaboration. It’s more exciting and for me even more fulfilling.
OW: Since you are the ones doing this for the first time, how often are their changes made to the libretto or score during the rehearsal process?
TZ: There are changes all the time. Will [Bolcom] and Mark [Campbell] are very flexible artists. When something doesn’t work dramatically or vocally, they are completely open. Sometimes words are not clear or there isn’t enough music for a scene change or even for a dramatic moment and they will immediately add something to it.
OW: How do sudden changes like those affect the rehearsal process?
TZ: It takes a great amount of sensitivity and teamwork. Everybody wants the piece to be successful. If something isn’t working in rehearsal and it’s obvious to me, then it is probably obvious to every person. When it works well it is also obvious to everyone. So when a chance is needed usually all of us are on the same page. We discuss it and then come to an agreement on what it might be. That’s why it’s crucial to establish the relationship early.
OW: When did you start work on this piece?
TZ: In this case, it started three years ago. I was involved from the beginning with the dramaturgical tasks to make sure that everything is in place and collaborating with Mark Campbell. I had many meetings with him and Will Bolcom to establish that world. And then it moved into design. It was a long process, usually a two to three-year process. In this case, it was more complicated because, after its world premiere in Minnesota, it heads to Europe and then eventually it will come to Atlanta.