EXCLUSIVE: R.B. Schlather on Handel's 'Orlando,' the Problem with New York City Space, Philip Glass' 'Penal Colony' and the Politics of Open Rehearsal Space

By Maria Jean Sullivan on Apr 24, 2015 03:28 AM EDT

For all the bogus boilerplate about how classical music is dead or even well-intentioned words regarding how she can stay breathing, precious few--performers, ensembles and institutions--are actually doing anything to change both conversation and prognosis.

Moreover, when it comes to remounting baroque opera in our digi-epoch, fewer still have the informed perspective, due diligence and, well, cojones to really make a difference.

Save for one R.B. Schlather, of course.

Equal parts Peter Sellars and Rick Owens, last fall, Schlather's installation of Handel's Alcina at Whitebox Art Center on the Bowery was, itself, equally informed, diligent and brimming with ballistic inspiration. Only a few scant months removed from that triumph, he's is back in black for Handel's second installment of opera seria, Orlando (HWV 31), with a slightly different cast (Drew Minter, Kiera Duffy, Anya Matanovic, Hadleigh Adams, Brennan Hall), the same music director (Geoffrey McDonald) and the same production team: Paul Tate dePoo III (sets), Terese Wadden (costumes) and JAX Messenger (lighting).

Never one to repeat himself verbatim, this time on Broome Street, Schlather's take on that furious solider in Charlemagne's army is even more "downtown." Presented as a gallery-like exhibition where Chinatown meets the LES, as he duly notes, the installation, the rehearsals, the livestreaming are all as important (perhaps even more so, at least conceptually) as the three performances proper.

You say you want a revolution? Well, you must know R.B. Schlather.

Classicalite: Orlando is your second production in G.F. Handel's so-called Ariosto trilogy. What is about Handel's Italian opera, written for Britons that first grabbed you? You've made quite the investment here.

R.B. Schlather: It was an instinctual reaction to [Whitebox Center]. I went to an art party there and liked the flow of people in the architecture, and I immediately thought that Alcina would be a good fit for that space. Handel is honestly what I listen to around the house and on the subways. So, it's always on my mind, in a way. The trilogy really came out of the excitement of making Alcina in September--music director Geoffrey McDonald and I started talking about Ariodante (since Handel wrote both Alcina and Ariodante for the same cast of singers) and imagining how to locate that in the architecture of the gallery. And after the totally enthusiastic reaction to Alcina, I was invited by Tony Guerrero at Whitebox to quickly continue with the next two in the trilogy, to complete within the year. An ambitious plan, but this way of presenting opera production as process art exhibition has demonstrated enormous currency in New York City.

C-LITE: Not to jump too far ahead, but what can Classicalites expect from your forthcoming Ariodante? Will that final chapter be staged as "process art," as well?

RBS: Ariodante will continue breaking down elements of the traditional opera performance and questioning how the audience can take this material in. Alcina was very theatrical (as is the material), Orlando is going to be less so and more focused on the sound production and Ariodante will be the most like a gallery exhibition.

C-LITE: Talk a bit about the aesthetics of rehearsals as an open forum. What does your kind of transparency do for older repertoire? And can that only exist in a space like Whitebox's?

RBS: I just dig doing open rehearsals ever since I started sitting in on opera rehearsals as a child performer. I have always loved watching how a director and singers create a staging and how alive something can feel in a room with no sets and minimal costume pieces. It's something that, as a professional, I've been around for most of my life. But the average person has no idea about it. Maybe he or she doesn't even know it exists! Some operas rehearse for months before opening to the public. And most casts and production teams are planned years in advance of the public performances.

 Too much #legendary she stayed for 20 minutes #everything #free #open #opera #process #art #livemusic #handel #orlando

A photo posted by R. B. Schlather (@r_b_schlather) on Apr 17, 2015 at 9:25pm PDT

I am also reacting to the crisis involved with rehearsal space in New York City. There are few adequate, affordable, spacious rooms to make work in. You end up in tiny, cramped spaces with no light that cost half your budget. And it feels disrespectful to the work you're trying to make. And this work is important; this craft must be respected. A life devoted to and specializing in this art form needs visibility and respect. It's great to connect to an art space where the entirety of the performing body suddenly becomes what is viewed and considered and appreciated as an art object. C-LITE: OK, so who is the ideal audience for an endeavor such as this, at a venue like this? The Chelsea gallery establishment, Lincoln Center subscribers? Or is it a cross between downtown art denizes and the more curious opera aficionados? RBS: The people I most want to come to this exhibition are the ones who would never go to an opera. Those who thought they couldn't because of the economics, or because they wouldn't fit in, but who would go to a storefront in Chinatown and check it out for 15 minutes. Then, maybe they come back the next day and watch for another 15 minutes and start dropping in every day to watch more--to see how the work develops and changes. They hear the music repeatedly and get Handel's melodies stuck in their heads. Finally, they come to a performance on the 24th, 26th or 27th to see the 'finished' thing.

I think another aspect of the success of these exhibitions is the inspiration I get from the production team--especially my contemporaries Geoff McDonald and Paul dePoo. They are facing the same question I face as an emerging director: How do you break out from the people you've assisted and get opportunities to be recognized for your own vision?

C-LITE: Switching gears, in between Orlando and Ariodante, you'll helm Philip Glass' In the Penal Colony for Boston Lyric Opera's annex program. You have a history with BLO, but how did that specific opportunity come about?

RBS: I've been associated with Boston Lyric Opera for years now, and I am very lucky to be given a break by them. It's the very rare, lucky thing about developing a relationship with a company as an assistant director, or as a director of remounts, or of educational outreach programs. They give you a big break and invite you to make a new production. It's huge. And it's by a living composer in a non-traditional space, so it has a real feeling of event and excitement to it. They are really interested in doing new things, so they have my respect and great appreciation for what is a huge break in this business.

R.B. Schlather's Orlando opens tonight, April 24, and runs through Monday, April 27. As with the gratis rehearsals, so, too, each presentation is free of charge. Donations in any amount are kindly appreciated, though, and you may make such a contribution via PayPal here.

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, Classicalite Q&A, R.B.Schlather, Handel, Philip Glass, In the Penal Colony, New York

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