Podcast: Otello (and opera) Overseas

featuring Mary Birnbaum, available here or in iTunes

Opera is kind of like, I don’t know, let’s say foie gras, or olives, or port wine, or good whiskey… It’s not something you enjoy every day (well, maybe that last one), so it can be very easy for someone to think “No, I’m not the kind of person who likes that sort of thing,” but then you try it and you realize it’s not weird and recondite and elitist, it’s really good but just takes the right approach and a good presentation, and then it’s amazing.

Except that opera isn’t like food at all because it is all-encompassing and can change your person in just a matter of hours.

My experience with opera has been a rather recent development, and I can count on just barely more than one hand the number of opera productions I’ve seen (exactly one hand if you only count those with full orchestral accompaniment), but each one has been breathtaking. And I’d thought, “I’m not really an opera person. There’s a story to follow in a language I wish I spoke and it’s long and kind of drawn out…”

But no. It is amazing, perhaps indeed the greatest art form there is, and this past summer I was looking hesitantly forward to a semi-staged (“mostly staged”) performance of Verdi’s Otello, as Birnbaum says, “the perfect opera.” I say hesitant because we weren’t getting the full experience in the opera house, since it was being renovated, so I was worried I’d be the slightest bit disappointed that it wasn’t the full monty.

Except I was wrong again, because it was. As usual, I wrote my article about the performance and it goes up here, and on Facebook and Twitter and floats through the Interwebs, where one Boris Statsenko, a terrifyingly amazing Iago, finds it and sends it to the stage director, who then emails me. Fast-forward a few months and I’m wondering why I didn’t ask earlier about the production and her experience working here.

But I eventually did, and we had an amazing conversation. Mary is a passionate artist, a deep thinker, and takes her craft very seriously. She’s a creator of scenes, nay worlds, experiences, ideas, feelings… unsurprisingly, it’s an amazing task to distill a work of art down to its fundamental human emotions and convey them so that thousands of people will be moved. And I wanted to talk to her about how she does it.

Mary and I, believe it or not, have a sort-of-kind-of similar background, at least as relates to English and some foreign language (and having both worked in Asia). She expresses in our conversation the critical value of opera and what it communicates, what it was like to make Otello happen here in Taipei, how she thinks about and processes a work to present it, and perhaps most pertinently, how to approach the concert hall or opera house as a first timer, and why you absolutely should. And food is involved.

We had a wonderful discussion, and even after having done the editing and clipping and music-ing, I just now uploaded it and still listened to our conversation while I went out to run errands. She says wonderful things, and if I weren’t like 8,000 miles away from her next production, I’d have my ticket already.

On her website, you can find some photos of the amazing Otello production we talked about, as well as her other projects.

I use a fantastic program called Zencastr to record the audio for conversations with my guests. The intro and outro music for every episode is Alban Berg’s op. 5, performed by Carol McGonnell (clarinet) and Steven Beck (piano), and the featured piece for this episode is bits and snippets of Verdi’s singular string quartet in E minor, both of which come from musopen.org. Share the podcast with your friends and family, and strangers if they look friendly. Ciao.


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