Ariadne auf Naxos: Director’s Notes

From the richest man in Vienna to the richest man in Seattle to the richest man in the Twin Cities?

Unlike Tosca, an opera whose setting is dictated by very specific historical events, Ariadne auf Naxos works in most periods. When Alexander (original stage director),
Robert Dahlstrom (set designer) and Cynthia Savage (costume designer) set out to create a suitable environment for their Ariadne, Seattle in the early 2000s provided all the necessary inspiration. But could this happen right here in the Twin Cities?
Let’s examine the evidence.

As the curtain opens for the first time, we see into the mind of a young composer whose first large work is to be performed this very evening. Behind him, the frantic backstage preparations of a dinner party thrown by this unseen “richest man” are in full swing. For his part, Robert Dahlstrom found a template in Seattle’s annual celebrity auction to support the arts choosing to set the opera in the private art gallery of Seattle’s richest man. During the Prologue, we see a large cylindrical sculpture far upstage, and a caterer’s drape separates the backstage loading dock from the dinner party in the main gallery. Just as librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal described the scene in his letters to Richard Strauss, the backstage space is “improvised” with women’s and men’s restrooms acting as dressing rooms for the diva and her leading man.

Cynthia Savage (a Minnesota native), in looking to update our characters, found inspiration in actual theatrical personalities from opera and musical theater — from the Dancing Master based on Bob Fosse (right down to his cigarette), to stereotypical young musical theater performers (the commedia dell’arte troupe), to pretentious opera stars, to a Wardrobe Mistress who always has yarn and needles in her bag (to kill time while waiting to dress the Prima Donna), to a Wigmaker based on a famous West Coast opera personality, and finally, to a nerdy, idealistic and, at times, rather emo young composer. For the Minnesota Opera, we have added a few Twin Cities touches. Can you find them?

As the curtain rises on the second half of our evening (the performance of the Composer’s Opera Seria), our perspective is rotated 180 degrees, revealing the gallery itself. Paintings inspired by Helen Frankenthaler and Sam Francis and glassworks in the style of Dale Chihuly adorn the centerpiece of a gallery — a large cylindrical sculpture inspired by the works of Richard Serra. Tables full of dinner guests in their finest evening wear wait patiently for the performance, and waiters mill about refilling champagne glasses. It should be noted that, as the whims of our wealthy patron change over the course of the Prologue, it becomes necessary to rethink the entire evening’s entertainment and thus scrap the original production (e.g., the rather old-fashioned painted scenery). This job of restaging falls to the Dancing Master who chooses the Serra to act as the island cave in which our heroine lives. Thus, the sculpture becomes the center point of the opera’s action. How will Bacchus reach the island? He is, after all, the god of wine …

In his writings, Hofmannsthal noted that the costumes of the Opera Seria should be “… in the heroic opera style of the older period (Louis xiv or xv).” For her part, Savage based her costumes on a very traditional opera look. The commedia troupe is historically accurate (each commedia dell’arte character has specific costume requirements). Thus, during the Opera Seria, we see the juxtaposition between stodgy traditional opera, festive musical comedy and the modern audience.

So, did our “richest man in Seattle” buy a house on Summit Avenue? His gallery is full of works by some of the same artists found right here in the Twin Cities. Take a stroll through the Walker Art Center or the Minneapolis Institute of Art and you will find sculptures by Serra, and paintings by Frankenthaler and Francis. Visit the lobby of the Gonda Building at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, and you will see glass-blown chandeliers by Chihuly. Perhaps our “richest man in Seattle” didn’t buy that house in Saint Paul, but it does seem that he owns a condo in Mill City, and maybe he just “winters” here.

Alan E. Hicks

Stage Director


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