David Stern‘s musical life spans three continents, and the pandemic hasn’t slowed him down. As founder and director of Opera Fuoco, a Paris-based international opera company and young artist program, he helms Figaro in the City, a modern-day video retelling of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. It’s available in easily digestible segments of 15 minutes or so at Marquee TV. Stern is also chief conductor of the Palm Beach Opera in Florida, which last month presented its Outdoor Opera Festival, the first large-scale, multi-opera performances (with an audience) in America since the start of the pandemic. Finally, in Asia, he is artistic adviser and chief conductor of the Shanghai Baroque Festival.
Maestro Stern was kind enough to talk to us about reimagining opera for a young video-obsessed generation while managing the restrictions of physical distancing during the pandemic, and about the challenges and rewards of getting back to live staged opera with an audience while COVID-19 is still assailing the U.S.
Opera Fuoco and Figaro in the City
How did Figaro in the City come about? Was it your idea?
The idea for Figaro in the City came to me at the time that we were obliged to cancel the scheduled concert in Paris. The frustration of having to postpone live performance was such that I felt it necessary to look for an alternative format in order to keep our singers working, without compromising their safety.
I did not want to make a simple video capture of the concert, because already in the spring it was evident that there would be a glut of performances on the net. I felt we needed to imagine a format completely dedicated to the audience’s experience on, for example, Netflix. If people don’t feel like watching three hours of an opera broadcast, perhaps they would enjoy watching in short episodes. And simply by chance, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is an episodic opera.
How did you keep everyone safe during rehearsal and recording?
The end of the first lockdown in Paris came about in mid-May 2020, and having prepared for two weeks or so previously, I secured the use of a performance space in someone’s private home in Paris’ 11th district. The owner of the space is actually a retired American biologist, who not only is a huge music fan, but was willing to be our COVID consultant.
We measured out enough space to be able to record while keeping enough distance between all the singers. Unfortunately, I had to cancel the orchestra, because there was no way to employ such a large group in the hall. I opted not only to use a piano to replace the orchestra but also a baroque guitarist to replace the harpsichord for the recitatives in the opera.
Once we had recorded the audio, I asked a young director, Alexander Camerlo, to film the entire work in a mini-series format. The singers then acted out the staging while mouthing the words on playback of the pre-recorded audio. This allowed the performers to be able to be close to one another, since they were in fact not singing at the moment.
Other than Laurent Naouri, who plays Bartolo, the cast is composed of members of Opera Fuoco’s Young Artists Program. You are highly selective in choosing the young singers for the program, and their performances in Figaro in the City are pure gold. How do you find and develop such wonderful talent?
Opera Fuoco has been the most rewarding project of my career. My wife, Katharina Wolff, and I began it in 2003 with an orchestra of period instrumentalists (she is still the concertmaster), but as of 2008, we developed a young artists program for singers.
The program lasts around three years per generation. During this time they do operas with us, as well as concerts, chamber music, and master classes. We concentrate on music from very different periods, to give them as much different repertoire as possible, from Monteverdi to Cage and Cole Porter. The Figaro cast is the fourth generation, and the concert performance of The Marriage of Figaro was to be the highlight of their last season.
Over the years, as our reputation spread, the competition to win a place in the troupe has risen considerably. Our newest generation has just been selected out of 215 candidates from around the world. I do believe that Opera Fuoco has become an important springboard for emerging singers, and I am proud that a significant number of our graduates have developed important careers, and can be heard at the Met, the Bastille, the Munich Opera and many other halls throughout the world.
The single-set video format creates an intimate space that’s the opposite of how classical opera is usually experienced. What were the challenges and the rewards of this format?
The director’s wish from the start was to use only one handheld camera and to film every episode in one take. He was looking for a fluidity of the lens’ view, [so] that the camera would be an additional character in the story. We both wanted the singers to exchange directly with one another, and abandon the “fourth wall” that traditionally separates the stage and the audience.
Of course, this “one-take” strategy led sometimes to frustration when a singer forgot a line or when the camera’s battery died, but it also heightened the tension to keep up the concentration throughout the shooting.
Opera is usually done on a grand scale, but Figaro especially gains from the little details. The exchanges between the characters become more nuanced with the close camera angle and the chamber music accompaniment. Beaumarchais’ play is about a day’s worth of hectic activity in a miniature setting, and this format highlighted the interchanges.
Experience “Figaro in the City” at Marquee TV. The first episode is free to watch.
Palm Beach Opera’s Outdoor Festival
Can you tell us a little about your association with Palm Beach Opera and the programming focus or philosophy you’ve brought to the company?
I have been associated with the Palm Beach Opera for seven years, the last five as chief conductor. While I have the great opportunity to perform little-known works from the past in Europe, my repertoire in Palm Beach has focused on more standard repertoire. I am as happy doing Telemann as I am Puccini, so I have to admit I am in a lucky position.
How did you select the three operas for the festival? Did you choose audience favorites because of the special circumstances this year?
David Walker, my executive director, is a former singer and a real colleague. When the time came to find a solution to the pandemic, instead of just canceling everything, he had the idea of coming out guns ablaze with a large-scale opera festival. With every rehearsal and concert outdoors, we were capable of coming back with live performance in a safe format for the musicians and the audience.
La Bohème and The Magic Flute were already on the schedule for our 2021 season, and David had expressly asked me to do The Magic Flute since he knew that it is a work to which I feel particularly close. I perform Mozart much of the time with period ensembles these days, so I wanted to bring a bit of that experience to the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra, in terms of expression and articulation.
Did you get any sense that the pandemic measures (outdoor venue, spectator numbers, distancing, etc.) affected audiences’ engagement, either positively or negatively, with the festival performances?
The greatest lesson I took from the experience of these past three weeks is that the distance between musicians on a stage only heightens how strongly the music itself binds us. The orchestra was thrilled to be back. The difficulty to hear one another only added to their effort to play together, and the intonation onstage was remarkably good. They were attentive, sensitive, and very understanding of the situation, and I felt that we could be proud not only of the fact that we did do the job, but that we succeeded at reaching a high artistic level.
Many members of our audience mentioned feeling the engagement of everyone and they were thrilled with the overall effect, despite the airplanes, the wind and passing traffic noise.
The iTHINK Amphitheatre usually programs rock and pop acts. How did Palm Beach Opera adapt to the venue?
Of course, the orchestra and the singers were all amplified, but the sound engineer did a remarkable job, and a number of our audience members told me that the sound appeared more “enhanced” rather than manufactured. There were giant video screens that focused on the singers and musicians, and I think that made up for the distances between the audience and the stage. Indeed, there was, strangely enough, an intimacy that touched both the orchestra and the public. Everyone felt the chemistry between Mimi and Rodolpho, and that was medicine for our souls.