Staging ‘The Wreckers’ Opera at Bard College

The New York Times

By Phillip Lutz

July 23, 2015

Leon Botstein, the Zurich-born polymath and president of Bard College, has the bald pate and imperious bearing of an Old World movie director. And he has the rhetorical style to match.

Little wonder, then, that he had an immediate impact this month when, addressing 52 singers midway through an early rehearsal of the Ethel Smyth opera “The Wreckers,” he let the rhetoric fly, warning of an impending “musical disaster.”

“This thing doesn’t play itself,” Mr. Botstein, the production’s musical director, declared. “The tempo, sound and pace need to be radically altered.”

As if to prove the point, he swept the singers into a detailed deconstruction of the libretto, coaxing them to extract meaning from every syllable. Ultimately, the strategy worked: Singers lent both shape and substance to their developing characterizations, and praise supplanted scolding in Mr. Botstein’s oratory.

“The Wreckers,” which is having its first fully staged performances in the United States in Bard’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts through Aug. 2, is, Mr. Botstein said, one of the least known in a line of lesser-known operas the college has produced.

Its score has been heard only once in the United States, in a 2007 concert version Mr. Botstein presented at Avery Fisher Hall. That kind of obscurity, he said, put an added premium on the dynamism of the cast, a handpicked group with experience in leading opera houses around the world.

“When someone goes to see the ‘The Wreckers,’ ”he said during a break in the rehearsal, “there’s no filter of memory, of comfort, of familiarity. So the burden on us is for people not to walk out and say, ‘Now I know why we’ve never heard of this piece.’ “

Mr. Botstein said the qualities that originally attracted him to the work — its potential for drama and its timely subject matter among them — argued for the full staging. The dramatic potential, in particular, also seems well suited to the broadly theatrical personal aesthetic he brings to the project, which draws on the legend of 18th-century Cornwall peasants who salvaged valuables from ships they lured onto the rocks, along the way using religious faith to justify murder.

“It’s a tremendously germane story,” he said.

Telling the story presents challenges, not least the language. The opera was written in French and translated to German for its 1906 premiere in Leipzig. Its English retranslation yielded what are now archaic words and phrases, among them “barque” (a deep-water cargo ship), which sent Mr. Botstein to the dictionary, and “beetling crags” (hanging-rock formations), which did the same to the baritone Louis Otey, who plays the fiery preacher, Pascoe.

Mr. Botstein said he and Thaddeus Strassberger, the director, had turned to replacement words sparingly, in each instance weighing their clarity of meaning against their rhythmic fit.

“We’ve done some very slight fiddling, but you have limited options,” he said, adding that the libretto would appear in supertitles projected over the stage.

Mr. Otey, one of six principals in the cast and a veteran of the 2007 concert, said the libretto had occasionally come across as stilted during that concert, detracting from the dramatic impact. But he said that placing the narrative in the context of a full stage production allowed him to speak the words “in a certain way, color them to give them meaning in whatever the scene is about.”

Compared with performing the work at the concert hall, he said, “taking it to the stage is much easier. I’m used to living a character, with sets and costumes and movement.”

As this month’s rehearsal unfolded, Mr. Otey, whose dark image dominates the stock poster for the opera, began to refine his character by varying his delivery and at the behest of Mr. Botstein, making greater use of sprechstimme, the singing technique combining elements of speech and pitch. Beyond the language, the terrain onstage held some hazard for the players as they moved on, over and around props that served as plundered crates. The movements were mapped by Mr. Strassberger, who, in a single day with the chorus and several more with the principals, had laid the groundwork for Mr. Botstein’s appearance.

Mr. Strassberger and Mr. Botstein, who have worked together previously on four operas — “Le Roi Malgré Lui,” “Les Huguenots,” “Der Ferne Klang” and Sergei Taneyev’s “Oresteia” — appeared to have developed a communication shorthand, helping release Mr. Botstein from having to micromanage the process.

“Leon is a charismatic character,” Mr. Strassberger said during a break. “Once he knows what he wants, he can sort of lightning-rod around. There’s a sort of freedom.”

At the rehearsal, Mr. Botstein, who at age 68 is nearly 40 years older than Mr. Strassberger, assumed the dominant role, though his younger counterpart in one instance sought the superior vantage point by standing on a wide ledge and surveying the cast spread across the rehearsal room.

Mr. Strassberger said he sometimes found it helpful simply to observe. “Some of the conductors, especially in Germany, let you run the rehearsal the entire time,” he said. “But then you’re always in output mode and it’s difficult to sit back and listen to what somebody else is saying.”

For Mr. Strassberger, hearing what Mr. Botstein is saying is especially critical on “The Wreckers” because Mr. Botstein is that rarity in America — a conductor who has performance experience with the piece, albeit in the concert hall.

Whatever the dynamics of Mr. Botstein’s working relationships, the results have shown some success in raising the profiles of the projects at hand. Notably, Shostakovich’s neglected early opera “The Nose” gained currency with a Bard production in 2004, and in 2010 it was staged by the Metropolitan Opera.

Mr. Botstein was making no such prediction for “The Wreckers.” But he is hoping that Smyth, a London native who remains the only woman to have composed an opera produced at the Met and whose views on sexuality, art and politics were unusually open for her day — she died in 1944 — will attract fresh interest.

“That’s the point of the production,” he said. “In a way, Ethel Smyth’s time has come.”