Young American Theater Director Arin Arbus Discusses Her Operatic Debut
Her New Production of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia Opens at Houston Grand Opera, Feb 3, 2012
A brief conversation with Arin Arbus:
Q: How did the opportunity to direct Britten’s Rape of Lucretia at Houston Grand Opera – your debut opera production – come about?
AA: HGO’s previous General Director, Anthony Freud, contacted me. He came to New York City and saw my production of Othello at the Theatre for a New Audience, and later he came and saw my production there of Measure for Measure. He called and suggested I consider doing Britten’s Rape of Lucretia in Houston, knowing that I had never directed an opera before. I listened to the music, which I was hearing for the first time, and quickly came to love it. Lucretia has a reputation for being a problematic piece dramaturgically. Some people find the ending unsatisfying. After Measure for Measure, which is commonly thought as one of Shakespeare’s “problematic” works, perhaps he thought I was a good match for the piece.
Q: What about the opera first struck you and made you decide to accept the invitation?
AA: I responded to the music and to the characters of course. I also responded to the male/female conflict in it – that’s of great interest to me. Anthony convinced me that directing an opera wouldn’t be as terrifying as it first seemed.
Q: What kind of background did you have in music? Did you ever direct a work of musical theater, or any other works with a strong musical component?
A: I sang in a choir for eight years, and all of the straight plays I’ve done always have music in them. But I’ve never done an opera or musical, so this is totally new to me.
Q: Did you have classical music in your background?
AA: Well, I sang in high school and college choirs. I went to an all-girls’ Catholic high school and would go to an all-boys’ school to sing because they needed girls for their productions. I went to Bates College in Maine and was in a choir there as well. In both choirs we did mostly religious music. (After that I went to the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture in Greenwich Village, which was in Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s original studio on West 8th Street.)
Q: And was classical music something you heard in your household growing up?
AA: Well, my dad used to play the piano and his room was underneath mine, so I grew up listening to him play many different things. I loved being in a choir and wish I had time to sing in one now. There’s something about choral music that really touches me. It’s like the most civilized activity that man is capable of: it has tremendous beauty, coordination, discipline, and the need for people to be unified. Singing Mozart’s Requiem, one of my favorite works, was an unforgettable experience, but in no way at all am I an expert on classical music.
Q: New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini recently wrote that even the most accomplished theater directors sometimes get intimidated when working in the realm of opera, thus blunting the impact of their productions. Do you find yourself feeling any more trepidation, or special anxiety, preparing for your work on your first opera than you might be feeling if you were getting ready for some other theater project?
AA: Well, I feel nervous about everything – so I’m used to that! Sure, doing an opera makes me nervous because I’ve never worked in this form before. But there’s no doubt something very daunting about doing Shakespeare’s plays! Those works have been interpreted many, many times by great people, so I guess there’s actually a similar level of intimidation for me in taking on an opera.
Q: Your work with a theater company of inmates at Woodbourne Correctional Facility – a medium security prison in upstate New York – has gotten some attention. In a feature by Kate Taylor in the New York Times, you said, “It’s while making theater with this group of prisoners that I feel the most free.” How might your work in a prison impact this Britten project?
AA: I just finished a workshop on King Lear in Woodbourne, so I’m not currently working on a project there, but there’s more of this kind of work for me in the future. I’ve learned a lot about Shakespeare from the men in prison, and while that work might not specifically relate to this Britten work, to me it’s all the same sort of thing: I like going into new places and working with people that I don’t usually come in contact with. So I feel very lucky to work with prisoners, and then to come in touch with classical actors, and now with opera singers. In each place I learn a great deal from the people I meet, and all of that goes into my work.