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Friday, May 07, 2010

Dallas theaters showcasing director Francesca Zambello — while she’s far away in China

By Arnold Wayne Jone

Francesca Zambello is well represented on the stages of Dallas ... which is a strange thing, because she’s not in Dallas. Not even close.

Try China.

“I’m directing Carmen at National Center for the Performing Arts here,” she says in an interview via Skype. “That’s the big theater that looks a giant egg. This is the first time a Westerner has ever directed a production in the theater and the first big production of a Western opera. There’re a lot of difficulties but I think the pros outweigh the cons — it’s such a unique experience.”

But Zambello sincerely wishes she could be in Dallas. After all, she has two shows opening here this week.

The first is the Dallas Opera’s season closer, a revival of her production of Madame Butterfly (playing five dates from May 7-May 23 at the Winspear Opera House), which she originally staged a decade ago for the Dallas Opera. Zambello’s concept for the show is being recreated by her on-site assistant, with whom she has been in daily e-mail communication.

Then across town, the national tour of Little House on the Prairie (playing at the Music Hall at Fair Park from May 11-23), which Zambello conceived and directed before it hit the road, arrives courtesy of Dallas Summer Musicals. It’s an embarrassment of riches for the East Coast girl who secretly pines for Texas.

“I’m a New Yorker who loves working in Texas,” Zambello says. “And I want to see the beautiful new [Winspear] theater. I do check on the tour with Little House and Dallas would have been the city I would have stopped in.”

For now, she’ll have to settle for being an internationally in-demand theater artist — one who, unconventionally, straddles the worlds of both musical theater and grand opera. And as one of the few openly gay women at her level, her achievements are rarer still.

“I started in theater and just gravitated to opera,” she explains. “The last number of years I have been doing more of both, which in Europe is very accepted but less common [in the U.S.].”

Her career path raises the issue: With the expansion of musicals from spritely revues to bombastic epics, is there a great dividing line between opera and musicals anymore?

“It’s very much blurring,” she says. “A lot of people will raise their hackles at me for saying this, but for me, musicals are American opera — our popular musical art form, the way people in Europe might whistle Verdi on the street. They have entered our popular culture and are our big contribution to musical history, a fusion of Vaudeville and operetta and opera. And it’s amazing to think they aren’t even 100 years old!”

It’s that approach that lets Zambello effortlessly flit between serious, deeply psychological classic operas like Butterfly and small, prosaic new musicals like Little House — with some Disney’s The Little Mermaid thrown in. (Zambello directed the live-action musical on Broadway, which she worked on with Dallas native Doug Wright. “I love, love, love working with him and he is a fantastic collaborator,” she says.)

But it all works together for her.

“The irony of the job is that your reputation is made in larger, more prestigious venues, but the work that satisfies you more is often in the smaller, out-of-the-way places. Of course, you want to be at the Met and at the Royal Opera House and the West End, but sometimes the pressures of these places are not as conducive to your best work. Little House we developed as a production based on the imagination of the audience. Little Mermaid is certainly more lavish.

“To be truthful, I think opera productions are very much like musicals in that you have to tell stories in highly dramatic and embellished ways, different from a straight play,” Zambello says. “One thing much better about theater than opera is you have so many performances and previews. But the great unknown is always the audience.”

That’s even more an issue when she finds herself overseas in places like China, and her recently completed tour of Cambodia. But she goes it alone there.

“My partner stays at home — she has no interest to come to Cambodia,” she drawls. “She’s the editor-in-chief for arts & culture for Bloomberg News, so she travels enough herself.”

The couple will settle in a little more next year, now that Zambello has accepted the choice assignment as general and artistic director of the Glimmerglass Opera Festival, one of North America’s most acclaimed opera programs. But she keeps coming back to Texas.

“I’m really upset I’m not coming,” she interjects suddenly. “You don’t know, I have a lot of friends there. There are certain cities where I know a lot of people. I love audiences in Texas because they definitely let you know what they think.”

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