Weren't you taking a big chance hiring Jake Heggie?
LOTFI MANSOURI: Jake Heggie was in our publicity department. He started doing some songs and song cycles for people like Frederica Von Stade, some of our resident artists, and I felt that he loved the human voice. And he was very sensitive to that, he was a very gifted young man. And I felt that I wanted to take a chance with him. I first tried him when we had our opening of the opera house, after the renovations, and we had our 75th gala. I asked him to write a piece for our resident ensemble in the celebration of this particular event and our 75th anniversary. And he wrote a wonderful 10-minute piece, text and music, and using all the singers we had. And he wrote them for those voices. And so I felt that I would love to take the chance on a young composer, on making him our first composer in residence because I felt his love of human voice. And now, since he's become our composer in residence, he's already done song cycles for Renee Fleming, Jennifer Larmore, Frederica Von Stade and Carol Vanness. And so far, from what I've heard, I'm very excited about what he's done.
With a brand-new opera, you have no precedents for the characters. How did you go about casting?
In casting Dead Man Walking, we auditioned many people, even in London. And then I think there was one time I was in New York auditioning 35, 36 baritones for this role. Some of the baritones even came in prison uniforms. Then all of a sudden, when this young man, John Packard, came on stage and started to sing, I said, "That's him." And so I called Terrence McNally that day and I said, "I think I've found the artist for this role. I'm very anxious for you to hear him." And so the next day, we auditioned John one more time. And Terrence came and Terrence said, "Lotfi, absolutely I totally agree with you. He's the right one." We flew him out to San Francisco on the stage and then Jake Heggie heard him. And then Jake took him over, with some of the parts of the piano. It was a very collaborative effort of casting. I knew from the beginning that I wanted Susan Graham for Sister Helen. She's a wonderful artist. She went through our training program. When I suggested that to Jake, and to Terrence, they had no hesitation at all. And of course, to have Frederica Von Stade to play the mother, that's such a wonderful luxury. Every cast member has been hand picked for their roles.
What does it mean, "commission an opera"?
To commission an opera is a very complex task. And a very complex process for the creators. Because as I mentioned, opera is a composite art form, has so many things in it. So besides the composer and the librettist, you've got the director. Then you've got the conductor. You've got the set designer. You've got the lighting designer. Costume designer, on and on and on. So the process starts and then accumulates this kind of speed and complexity, and then goes on. And then after that, then you have the workshop process, where you bring some artists together so the creators can hear and see if this sounds right. Is this the right text? Is this the right tonality? And the conductors, and then comes the orchestration. And then you have orchestra rehearsals. How does it sound with the orchestra? And then you have your staging rehearsals. And then you go into all of the details of the blocking and staging. Then you put in the set. Then they get their costumes. Then they get the lights on. It's a very, very detailed and a complex process to bring it up that opening night. All of a sudden the curtain's going to go up, and about three years' work depends on three hours of performance.
How do you take all these different elements and make sure that they work together?
When you do a piece like this, it kind of evolves. You might start with one concept and then all of a sudden you might find something else. If you are too tied to your original vision I think that you limit yourself. I think it's, as they say, the piece itself is about a journey of self-discovery. This is a journey of discovery of the piece. To find out what are the points you want to underline or the points you want to put in the spotlight and what are the emotional heights. So it has been a discovery. It's been a discovery for Joe, the director, I think for our wonderful conductor, Patrick Summers. It has been a journey. It think it will be until the opening night, because you're always picking and polishing and tucking in and pulling out and doing that kind of stuff. And that's the exciting part of putting together such a complicated piece. Opera is so difficult, it's a composite art form; there are so many elements in it. It's like a giant mosaic. You've got to make sure that every little piece is perfect in itself, not only perfect itself, that they fit together in the final analysis, whether it's the sets and costumes and the lights and chorus and supers. So it's been a wonderful, wonderful journey on this one. It's been a discovery.
What challenges did the set present for Dead Man Walking?
I think what Michael Yeargan has done is so brilliant. He has found the essential image of the piece - which is the prison, which is the death row - and then you work all the other scenes around it. But the vital and the most essential aspect, the visual aspect, is the prison and the death cell. And I think Michael has done a wonderful job. And then the others are very, they're more environmental, like a bedroom or a room with two chairs, et cetera. That's not as complicated. But the image, for example, of a prison yard, when you see the prisoners and then you get the sense of an open prison yard on a closed stage. I think he's done that brilliantly and yet to get the confinement of each cell, that they're like rat holes that these poor prisoners are stuck in. And you feel the confinement, you feel the sense of being animals that are caged, and I think Michael has done that brilliantly with the set. And that's the essential image of the piece."