Francesca Zambello

Francesca Zambello, a top opera and theatre director, usually has work playing on both sides of the Atlantic—often simultaneously.  The next few months will see her operas staged in London, Paris, Vilnius, Dallas, Washington, DC, and San Francisco, while two of her musical-theatre pieces, "Aladdin" and "Little House on the Prairie", continue their tour around North America. 

A director without a signature visual style or repertoire, Zambello is best known for shrewdly taking on works of epic scale (Berlioz’s “Les Troyens”; Wagner’s “Ring”, updated and set in America; Britten's "Billy Budd", arranged on a single wood scaffolding ) that less daring directors steer clear of. Last month, this self-described evangelist for opera was also named the artistic director of Glimmerglass Opera, one of America's most important opera festivals.

This spring, Zambello’s work will begin to appear across another ocean: the Pacific. More Intelligent Life caught up with Zambello in Los Angeles just before the Glimmerglass announcement. She was about to leave for Asia, where she is rehearsing a new production of "Carmen" in China. She is also leading a two-week directing workshop in Cambodia, with the help of the American Embassy and AMRITA, a non-profit group dedicated to sustaining the arts in Cambodia. Zambello spoke about the role of the arts abroad, at home and the impact of the recession.

More Intelligent Life:  You’re very much in demand in Europe and the States. What’s bringing you to Asia?

Francesca Zambello: I’m going to China to work in the National Centre for the Performing Arts, the theatre that’s called “The Egg”. I’m doing a new production of "Carmen" there, which they have never done at The Egg. I’m going to set it up for about a week and then go back in April and do the production. Then I’m going to Cambodia to work with an organisation called AMRITA that is responsible for trying to rebuild Cambodian culture. So much was lost during Pol Pot, during the Khmer Rouge.

MIL: Have you been to Cambodia before?

FZ: I was there once, 15 years ago, when I went to see the temples. But a friend of mine, Fred Frumberg, was the genesis for this. He went to Cambodia and decided to try to help rebuild the arts there with the help of UNESCO and the US Government.  When I knew I had a job in China, I thought, “I’m so close...I should go there and be helpful and see what I can do.” Fred said, “These women really want to direct. They want to know about the skills and the craft and the practical side of it all. How do you get something on its feet?” 

MIL: So what will you be workshopping?

FZ: So this is really an attempt to get together with a group of actors and four women who want to be directors. Basically the idea is that I will come and work with them on how you really break down a play when you start to rehearse, how you prepare it. So myself and a set designer, Peter Davidson, are going and we’re all working on the play "Ruined" by Lynn Nottage.  (Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and reviewed here in The Economist.)

MIL: "Ruined" hasn’t been staged many places in America, how did it get to Cambodia so quickly?

FZ: The reason was that Lynn had been there last year and they translated the play—and they felt a connection to the material. The directors, they liked working on the material.  It’s a big deal that "Ruined" will be performed in Cambodian. They don’t have that much in translation, not even all of Shakespeare is translated. We’re also going to work on a new Cambodian play, called "Frangipani", by Chhon Sina, about children and prostitution. No doubt, that’s why "Ruined" connects so much—these are subjects that are part of their landscape.

MIL: As a director, you must always be on the lookout for new work and new ideas to stage. Are you looking for new material in Cambodia?

FZ: Asia is definitely a place I’m interested in working, especially China. It’s a place that’s exciting—and they’re excited about the arts there. I’m exciting about being part of that Western collaboration with them.

MIL: Given the global recession, is Asia a better place to work as a high-profile artist, especially since in your home country, the United States, the arts are usually the first thing dropped from budgets?

FZ: Historically in Asia, but now in China especially, they’re on a race to create an enormous amount of art—not only Western arts, but also build up their own. It’s like building contemporary temples, all these [new] theatres in China.

MIL: As someone who works for some of the biggest commercial entertainment firms, like Disney, as well as some of the biggest non-profit arts organisations, like Paris Opera, how have the arts been affected by the recession?

FZ: Our world is so small financially compared to the corporate world. But I think we are doing the same thing that the corporate world is doing. We are recycling, reinventing, streamlining operations—every new production has a much lower budget.  We are taking old productions and rethinking them and sprucing them up. Mostly I think everyone is trying to be pragmatic. You just have to think outside of the box, rethink what’s on the stage. You [also need] to rethink how to entice your audience, whether it’s through different programming, or programming that feels more accessible to them, or reduced ticket prices—anything that’s going to get your audience there.  We were always doing those things anyway, and now we just have to do them a lot more. You have to remember, most opera and theatre (except for the commercial theatre) is not-for-profit, so they’re answering to a very strict board, usually, and a strict budget and a set of circumstances.

MIL: But even in good economic times the arts struggle to seem relevant here in America.   

FZ: Yes, it’s tricky because none of these things have wide audiences in the states, the way that a commercial show might or a film or TV show. You put on an opera in Basil and everyone knows about it in Switzerland because the TV is supporting it, it’s a news item. [In Europe] the media is supporting you. [In the states] we barely have any print left for the arts. Newspapers are folding or the arts pages are folding.

MIL: And theatres here are closing. Last week it was announced that the Pasadena Playhouse, the state theatre of California, was closing it doors.

FZ: It’s a tragedy. That institution as been there for over 50 years. I know Sheldon Epps (the Playhouse’s Artistic Director). For a theatre to close it's like a peg in your heart. They’re living institutions; a living, breathing shelter that holds something that’s alive. The thought of one closing, or even when all these theatres are cutting back, it’s very hard on everyone. Everyone is working so hard to maintain an audience, to give them something they want and can afford.

MIL: In Europe, short of the apocalypse, the government would never let a state theatre close. It would be such an embarrassment.  Why do you think this is so different in America?

FZ: We have never had in America the government support. That just goes to the heart of the matter: the arts have not found their place of importance in America. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, because I’m grateful for whatever we get from city, state or federal funding; but its nothing compared to our European—or our Asian counterparts. It really all reflects this: what does art mean to your society?