A Brilliant Lark

Claudia Zahn’s ten years of triumph.

The first example I saw of director Claudia Zahn's touch, her knack for marrying simplicity and imagination, was in a 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel, the scene in the forest as the two children pray before bed: "Now I lay me down to sleep/Fourteen angels watch do keep." Zahn portrayed their dream of heaven as a playground, with the angels imagined, naturally enough, as other kids. Everyone was dressed in white pajamas. The slide and the swingset were white too, against a green floor and a starry-night backdrop. The children gamboled around as Humperdinck's sumptuously Wagnerian music swelled from the pit. Somehow it all alchemized, and its sheer soaring beauty left me dumbstruck.That's what makes Zahn, who announced her departure from the University of Washington's School of Music a few weeks ago, the most consistently excellent director of opera I've ever seen. In her work over the last decade, one or two shows a year, she's created moments of memorable beauty and dramatic power—on a limited budget and with students just taking their first steps in opera. Despite her emphasis on the truths of human behavior, Zahn recognizes the ways opera intensifies those truths: the heightened super-reality, the extravagance, the fun. "Who wants kitchen-sink realism all the time? We live that," she says. "Opera is the wildest theater ride."Zahn arrived on "a bit of a lark," she says, persuaded mainly because she knew UW professor Julian Patrick (now emeritus) from working with him at New York City Opera. "He believed that singers should be trained to be able to speak dialogue," she says. Convincing acting has been an increasing preoccupation of the opera world in recent decades; the old-school "park and bark" approach is fading fast (with Pavarotti as perhaps its last great exponent). You can see it, for another example, in Seattle Opera's intensive Young Artists Program, in which the training goal is a combination of vocal chops and dramatic vividness."I am never allowed to simply stand and sing—which I love," says soprano Tess Altiveros, who's worked with Zahn in several UW productions. Zahn's approach makes the art immediate, Altiveros says, "rather than the inaccessible, upper-crust spectator sport it can appear to be."For her swan song, Zahn chose Mozart's La finta giardiniera ("The Pretend Gardener"), a precursor to the great comedies the 19-year-old composer had in his future. The title refers to a noblewoman taking a job as a servant while in search of her ex-lover; the dizzy plot consists essentially of the characters chasing each other around, "looking for love in all the wrong places," as Zahn puts it, until they gain a little self-awareness and pair off.When Zahn decided to present the work in Italian, she took care to begin work months early on the recitatives (the keyboard-accompanied dialogue between the arias) and the attention clearly paid off: The singers sound as comfortable and expressive singing rhythmically in Italian as they would be chatting in English.The first act's finale marks the plot's peak of confusion, with everyone's frustration boiling over. In rehearsal, the actors' first instinct is to exit after they finish singing, to the bustling of the orchestral postlude. But to Zahn, that's two endings. She has a better idea: Move during the last bar. The overlap of music and gesture makes everything more fluid. The sudden motion punctuates the end of the vocal line; the release of tension as the characters burst out of formation becomes part of the music rather than something separate.It's a simple detail, but it makes a profound difference: Music, word, action, emotion aren't merely simultaneous, they all coalesce. That, friends, is what opera is.gborchert@seattleweekly.comPostscript: Directing UW's opera productions next year will be Noel Koran, returning to Seattle (after an '80s stint at ACT) to direct Haydn's Il mondo della luna in the fall and Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin in the spring. --GB

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