The first thing people always ask me is, ‘You’re an opera company, why are you doing a musical?’” said Michelle Krisel, General Director of Ash Lawn Opera, and the behind-the-scenes creative force in charge of casting, performance selections, fundraising, and community outreach for the company.
We spoke with Krisel at Ash Lawn’s Downtown office during the company’s midsummer pause—the collective inhale of breath after the final curtain call on Puccini’s La Boheme, and before August’s five-show run of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1945 classic musical Carousel at The Paramount Theater.
“It’s really the trend in the major opera houses now,” explained Krisel, “Chicago’s Lyric Opera, Washington National—they are all adding a musical to their repertoire. Ash Lawn was way ahead of the curve in that sense. We’ve been performing one musical and one opera every season for more than 30 years.”
According to Krisel, the American appetite for musical theater has grown exponentially since the Second World War, prior to which operas and operettas were the theater productions of choice, and the influx of notable European composers seeking refuge in the U.S. in the ’40s led to the birth of the modern American musical.
“My secret wish when I came to Charlottesville was to start doing two operas,” said Krisel, who took over the executive chair in mid-2010, after 14 years as special assistant to Placido Domingo, and a decade in New York as an artists’ manager and representative. “But after observing audiences, it was clear everyone loved the musicals.”
With recent record-breaking Broadway box office grosses and the success of Hollywood crossovers like Les Misérables and Chicago it’s clear that the demand is not merely local. “There isn’t the separation between church and state anymore,” Krisel said. “The lines between opera and musicals are blurring, and the priority is to reach as many people as possible.”
Liam Bonner, the 6’4″ baritone (who is “as easy on the eyes as he is on the ears,” according to Musical America) plays the lead role of Billy Bigelow and is also aware of the trend. Though Carousel will be his first musical performance since becoming a professional opera singer, Bonner has advised castmates, “Be prepared to perform musical theater, it’s all of our futures.”
“For now, we’re focusing on the classics,” said Krisel. And in the scope of the American musical canon, it doesn’t get more classic than Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s second collaboration, after their acclaimed musical Oklahoma! (1943). The story follows the tumultuous relationship between carnival barker Bigelow and mill worker Julie Jordan. Though the stage is set with the nostalgic props and costuming of a late 19th century coastal town in Maine, replete with glittering carnival rides and neighborhood clambakes, Steven Sondheim remarked on the duo’s ability to convey serious reflection on the human condition: “Whilst Oklahoma! is about a picnic, Carousel is about life and death.”
“We produce our musicals like operas, without amplification,” said Krisel. The challenges in producing such a rigorous, vocally demanding musical like Carousel without this acoustic aid (or professional dancers) is many-fold, and finding a director who was up to the task was the number one production challenge.
Luckily, Krisel was introduced to a young New York-based talent with the skill set, experience, and energy necessary to take the helm as director, choreographer, and dancer in next month’s production. At just over 30 years old and with a long resume in theater, dance, musical theater, and opera, John de los Santos feels up to the triple challenge.
“I’ve worked as a dancer, a designer, in tech—I can understand all of the challenges in every department,” he said. “As a director, it helps me to be sympathetic to everyone’s needs and stresses.” This artistic meta-awareness has allowed him to make Agnes de Mille’s choreography more accessible to the primarily opera-trained cast, while holding on to the original work’s emotional and visual impact.
During rehearsals, de los Santos paces the stage explaining to the actors not just how to move, but what their character is thinking and feeling (“Move like you’ve just eaten too many oysters!”). “I apply musical direction to opera and vice versa, I don’t really separate the two,” he said. “It’s all storytelling, and I’m primarily working to underline the characters and their needs.”
When asked how a play first written in 1909 can find resonance with audiences more than a century later, de los Santos was insistent. “The characters are still relevant,” he said. “I know people like Billy and Julie and Carrie. [Rodgers and Hammerstein] didn’t write caricatures, they wrote real people. It wasn’t for entertainment, it was to tell a significant and poignant story.”
Though this is de los Santos’ first gig with Ash Lawn, he was already familiar with Carousel’s music and choreography, having danced his (current) role of the carnival boy in a production with Dallas’ Lyric Stage in 2007.
The summer festival season can also be a bit like a highly demanding summer camp, and ideally, an opportunity for the touring performers to pause for reflection. Despite their rigorous rehearsal schedule, the cast has had a chance to stroll about and appreciate the arts community in Charlottesville, and the charms of the Downtown Mall, which de los Santos likens to Chelsea, “without all the bitchiness.” “There’s a euphoric dedication that comes from a regional company,” de los Santos said. “In New York everybody is exhausted all the time, the pace there is so hectic. Nobody has this time to sit back and really listen to the music and say, ‘God, how lucky are we to be doing this?’”
Carousel, August 3-11, The Paramount Theater