In 1858, having been hounded by censors desperate to dehumanize the political implications of his latest opera, Gustavo III, Giuseppe Verdi finally agreed to set it as far away from contemporary Europe as possible. And change its story. And change its name (the original was based on a real-life assassination of a Swedish king in 1793, and the 19th century was twitchy about that kind of thing). So it was that Gustavo III, set in 18th-century Sweden, became Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball), set in 17th-century America. Colonial Boston, to be specific.
Starting Sunday, audiences will see the Canadian Opera Company's latest production of the famed work at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.
A Masked Ball became one of Verdi's most popular works, but for the past 70 years, most opera directors have tried to right the wrongs of their myopic 19th-counterparts and return A Masked Ball to its original Swedish setting, in a move to make the opera more "authentic."
But the team of Sergio Morabito and Jossi Wieler, co-directors of the upcoming COC production of the Verdi classic, are not most directors. For 20 years, they have been the operatic equivalent of film's Coen brothers, and they decided to keep their Masked Ball in the United States. Except it's not the U.S. of the 1690s. In their hands, this traditional tale of the murder of a chief magistrate, who is torn between his love of his people and the love of a woman, has been set in Kennedy-era America, with its sharp political operatives, cheesy diners, and simmering racial tensions. First produced at Berlin's Staatsoper in 2008, it looked dazzling.
Of course, this is exactly the kind of directorial transplantation that enrages many opera-goers, but they might be surprised to hear Morabito talk about his production. For him, it's not about the cleverness of a theatrical conceit: It's about "the ability to get as close as possible to the human essence of the piece."
"We must try to relate in a credible way the human dimensions of these characters, to create personalities on stage that seem close to the audience's own experience," he added. "Yes, the setting we have created is an invented one, but so was Verdi's. His eventual setting for A Masked Ball was not the one he originally wanted for his story, but he created an opera of integrity nonetheless because of the emotional reality of his characters."
For Morabito, the key to this emotional authenticity lies with his singers, as musicians and, more importantly, as actors. Both Morabito and Wieler come from a theatrical background, and their productions are notable for the special attention they pay to the nuances of action and gesture. "The key to the production is having the audience seduced by the charisma of the characters," Morabito says. "But that means that we first have to seduce our cast. We can't convince an audience of the power of our production if the singers themselves are not convinced. As directors, our job is to stir the imaginations of the cast. They are not puppets in our hands. Eventually, they must enter so firmly into their characters that they create the roles anew."
Morabito is excited that the two principals of his COC cast are approaching their iconic roles for the first time. Canadian Adrianne Pieczonka is singing her first Amelia, a woman married to one man and in love with another. And Dimitri Pittas is having his first go at Riccardo, the charismatic ruler at the centre of the piece, an enlightened political figure torn by illicit desire. Pittas, especially, impresses Morabito. "Dimitri's charm is that he is so open, he relates so well to everyone on stage. In the end, it is Riccardo who must lead the whole show. He is a fascinating character who blends a lightness of touch, an enormous political loyalty – a man with tremendous vital energy. You can't help but like him."
For many in the opera world, the fact that Morabito and Wieler work as a team seems almost unnatural. We are so used to the vision of a single individual shaping our works of art these days, be they films, operas or TV shows, that a collaborative approach seems impossible. But Morabito reminds me that opera has always been the most collaborative of the performing arts, pulling a composer, librettist, conductor, voice coach, singer and director into a complex web of decision-making and power relations.
And of his greatest collaborator, Verdi himself, Morabito is full of amazed respect. "Verdi's operas are the most difficult to stage," he says. "They are so beautifully focused, so tightly built, that you can hardly open them up to give them new light. But it must be a constantly unfolding process, this relationship of the unchanging 'work' to its changing production – there is really no clear border between them. It is the live moment on stage that makes the opera so precious, the moment when this character and that story return to life to connect with an audience."