Q & A: Eric Sean Fogel On Choreographing Opera & Working With Francesca Zambello

By James Monroe Števko

Last year, Francesca Zambello went in depth about her work at the Glimmerglass Festival and her position at Washington National Opera, roles that require tremendous dedication on the iconic director’s part. Her busy slate makes it essential that she have a strong team surrounding her to provide strong support. 

Enter Eric Sean Fogel. He’s worked as choreographer on a number of major opera productions, including “Candide” at the Glimmerglass Festival 2015, Los Angeles Opera and Washington National Opera. His credits also include “Porgy and Bess” at the Glimmerglass Festival in 2017, “Florencia en el Amazonas” at the Houston Grand Opera and Washington National Opera, and “The Flying Dutchman” at the Glimmerglass Festival in 2013, among others. 

The aforementioned productions all have something in common – they are directed by Zambello. And this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of their collaborations, which number over a dozen.

This year, Fogel will be Associate Director “West Side Story” at the Glimmerglass Festival. Zambello will direct.  

In an interview with OperaWire, Fogel spoke of his experience working with Zambello and what he looks forward to doing in the future. 

OperaWire: What was your first contact with opera and when did you decide you wanted to choreograph? 

Eric Sean Fogel: I started off as a church choir boy moving to concert pianist and then a church organist.

Going to college I thought I was going to be a Music Education major and stay in South Carolina, taking over doing theatre review and becoming the church choir director.  Freshman year, though, I declared a theatre major. Next thing I knew, the dance director finds me and says “Here are your free ballet shoes, tights, and classes.” After three years of ballet and dancing with the company, I thought “maybe I’m not Music Ed….?”

I moved to Manhattan right when Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” was on Broadway. I think I bought a ticket at least five or six times and second-acted it at least a dozen! That just changed my life. Because of that, I went to the Alvin Ailey School. It was Bourne’s brilliant storytelling that really hooked me. I found myself a year or two later dancing at the Metropolitan Opera.  I literally jumped from the Ailey school to the Met where I danced for four years, introducing me to the world of opera.

I went back and forth from musical theatre to opera, long enough to where my path crossed with Francesca [Zambello] in 2009 on the national tour of “Little House on the Prairie.” She was directing and I was the associate choreographer. Through that, I ended up then choreographing for Francesca four years later at the Glimmerglass Festival.

OW: What was your first opera at the Met? 

ESF: The first opera I performed in was at the Met (which is embarrassingly rich to say!) and it was one of the best one for dancers in the litany of operas at the time. [It was] “Samson et Dalila” choreographed by Graeme Murphy. There was a 20-minute bacchanal in Act three and we stayed on for the remainder of the act as an ensemble member. I thought dance in opera was always going to be like that. It didn’t occur to me that there were different operas where people came on, danced, then left, and went home! After “Samson,” I quickly realized in “The Merry Widow” and “Aida,” you are often called to come in and the opera is already going, You dance for 15 or 20 minutes and then you go home.

OW: After having done your first opera, how did you approach working singers on movement?

ESF: The first opera I choreographed was “Carmen” in 2010 at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. I had assisted for years before that but that was the first on my own. Looking back, I think I did a disservice to that production because I was so heavily focused on dance for dance storytelling. Now when I choreograph, I give the dancers specific phrases but I’m more interested in the arc of the story and how the story is told from the singers as well as the dancers. I no longer tell singers what shape to make physically but that carries over into how I teach dance now, with intention first. For example, “WHY are you doing these steps?”

What I don’t do anymore, “your arm should be here,” for example. Instead, I’ll go by counts and for singers, I teach metrically while using words like “staccato” or “legato” to describe the phrasing of the body and what they should be doing. They do it instantly because they’re so well-versed in music vocabulary!

Looking at young artists today, I would say 60-70 percent of them came from musical theatre or grew up watching “Glee” and “So You Think You Can Dance.” I’m not the biggest fan of these shows but what they have done is inspire people into the genre, in conjunction with their classical-studies they become more well-versed classical artists.

There are more and more young artists who grew up with a theatrical or movement-based mindset, and so approaching it intention-based or acting-based as opposed to forcing people into creating shapes, let’s inspire people to create a story, then the shapes will easily fall through.

OW: In our previous interview, Francesca Zambello mentioned how exciting it was to see the actors and singers from different backgrounds really learning from each other, surprising given the differing approaches to rehearsal in theater and opera.

ESF: I’m spoiled at Glimmerglass!  I’m going on my eighth summer with Francesca. There’s no program like it in the country! Everyone has a feature somewhere along the line, but everyone also does ensemble somewhere, creating an ensemble that is so full of personality types. And we empower them ALL to be individual, like having an ensemble made out of principals. The classical singers feed off of musical theatre actors’ levels of theatricality and movement and conversely the musical theatre actors do the same when it comes to vocals. 

In that sense, the idea of a corps de ballet is gone; the chorus is gone. Everyone is acting, singing and dancing, creating a strong sense of community. It helps in shows like “Oklahoma” or “Candide” or “Porgy and Bess” or “West Side Story” where everyone is fully integrated.

OW: You’ve touched on how there’s no Grand Opera anymore. In regards to dance in opera, how do you feel about that? Do you miss it or do you like the innovation that’s happening?

ESF: I love the innovation that’s happening. Even as a traditionalist at heart, I think what’s important for the art form is to compellingly tell stories to a modern audience. You have to think about how quick-paced and integrated TV shows and movies are. There’s a way where we can stage traditional opera in a traditional fashion that’s more theatrically integrated that will spawn modern-day audience’s imagination. I don’t mean flash and trash, and I don’t mean video, topless or tons of scenery, There is a craft and a way to integrate singers, chorus, dancers, and actors into one, that can tell a timeless story in an approachable modern fashion.

I’ve seen Francesca do it with “Aida,” “Showboat,” “Porgy and Bess,” “The Flying Dutchman;” so I know it can be done. She completely blends principals, chorus, and dancers into one community. That’s where it feels more cinematic, or theatrical because you have one community where you can’t tell what the designation of their contract is, like dancer, chorus or principal. Instead, everyone is telling the story on the same level. For me, that’s the future of opera; that’s what will bring young people into the opera houses. You don’t want them coming in and seeing the preconceived notions they already have of what an opera is, you want them to come in and be like “WHOA! I had no idea!” Again, that’s not through cheap tricks or bombastic choices; it’s from thought out and intentional storytelling.

OW: With so much focus on storytelling, how do you integrate dance into opera without ever making it too technical?

ESF: I do plenty of pirouettes in my choreography. I ask people to hide their technique in favor of adopting the physicality of the character. But that’s the same in traditional folk and character dance and the same even for singers.  You don’t want to see the technique in the work, you want to use it to tell the story, not dumb it down. Jerome Robbins was one of the best storytellers. It’s a necessity to have a classical technique to do his movements. He asks you to hide it but you can’t do it without. It’s not about erasing the technique, in fact,  you need more classical technique so that you can depart from it. I’m still a classicist at heart but how do you keep it honest? How do you have this level of technique? Audiences aren’t looking for presentation but for honesty. Angela Meade is phenomenal as “Norma,” as well as Jamie Barton. They have the most amazing vocal technique and on top of that,  they’re really strong actresses. The technique allows them to go into these great emotional departures as actors.

What’s interesting is that- first I teach with intentions- there’s a time to go through counts, and I don’t ignore tradition and technique, but through the years I find that  if I begin by teaching movement from a technical standpoint, it’s harder to then add the next layer, because the classicist in us all will start approaching it by making the shape when I want the shape to come from the intention.

OW: It’s like reverse-engineering it.

ESF: In ballet, you learn the steps, you rehearse it for years and then someone tells you how to emote on top of that. I don’t want people to move like me or the name of the step, I strive for everyone to look as much as themselves as possible. As an audience member that’s most interesting. Then you have a stage of 30 soloists!

OW: Is there anywhere you’d like to see this kind of dance go further in the future?

ESF: I want there to be more fully—integrated singing and dancing operas, where you can’t tell who’s doing what. I’m really excited and I hope people see Candide in LA and DC because I think you’re going to see a fully-integrated company approach the show as an ensemble despite being on different contracts and having different responsibilities; it’s possible! To some extent, the new Met Opera “Rigoletto” is like that in Act one, the men in the gambling scene and the dancing  women is as one big piece of theatre. And “Parsifal!” The “Parsifal” is a beautiful and best example where you can’t set aside who’s a singer, actor or dancer. One of the best pieces of theatre on the Met stage! You can quote me on that, it’s amazing!

OW: How do we get young people interested in coming to the opera?

ESF: It goes back to what I said in the beginning: let’s not approach these phenomenal well-written pieces as museum pieces. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to update or change it in any format but you have to know your audience. You have to tell the story in a way that entices them. And that doesn’t even mean changing the music or time-period, but you have to bring out the humanity of the piece and the intention of the piece that makes the story relatable to a modern audience.

I think Facebook and Instagram have made things more visually accessible and brought opera more to the mainstream. Two things: One, good productions that are well-staged; two, people in the industry literally saying to their relatives and neighbors “Have you seen this? Do you want to see this? I have free tickets.” Up at Glimmerglass our attendance increases exponentially every year. We got them in the door first, they saw a good product second, and then they came back. How do you get people in the door? Community involvement. It’s also part of music education and not dumbing down or modernizing the material. “West Side Story” was for me the show that completely segued both worlds; because I did the 99 European tour of it but then I did the La Scala production in 2003 where we used a hybrid of opera and musical theatre singers. So “West Side Story” is 100 percent in my DNA because it had figured out how to use classical stories, technique, but tell it in a way that attracted the audience of that time and in doing it that way became timeless.  


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