Arthur Makaryan is an opera and theater director based in NYC. This year, among other productions, he staged Path New Music Theater’s Simulacrum Multimedia contemporary opera at 3LD Art and Technology Center in Downtown Manhattan from June 8–10, that was entirely sold out prior to its successful world premiere. I couldn’t miss the chance to talk to Mr. Makaryan about his influences in opera and especially to learn about his experiences working on the brand new and challenging Simulacrum opera.
Who do you regard as the early influences in music and opera?
I have been learning music since I was child, when I took piano classes starting at a young age. Many years later during my bachelor’s degree studies in stage directing, I was fortunate to take private classical singing lessons. Every time I attended singing classes, I would enjoy listening to others sing more than when I sung myself. I would stay in the classroom for hours and would explore different areas. It was a great experience to learn about the technique of singing, the colors of timbre and the expressivity of the human voice. As a listener, my journey started with the late Luciano Pavarotti’s recordings. In 2012, I had an internship in Brussels at the Royal Parc Theatre for Le Maîtres des Illusion contemporary opera where the famous baritone Jose van Dam was starring in and I fell in love with opera. Today my favorite opera singers are Marlis Peterson, Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann. My dream operas to direct would be Wozzeck by A. Berg, The Flight by J. Dove, Norma by V. Bellini and The Marriage of Figaro by W. Mozart.
What was the process of you getting involved with directing opera?
At Columbia University, I would often choose to stage scenes from such operas as Carmen and La Traviata and I was receiving good feedback from my legendary supervisor, author of the “Viewpoints” acting method, Anne Bogart. She told me that I should pursue the path of opera directing as it was clear that I had a lot of passion for it. Soon, I received an email from Ms. Bogart about the potential for an opera directing fellowship at the Marcus Institute, Julliard School. I was determined. After a competitive process including several interviews, I was hired for the position of Opera Directing Fellowship in 2017–18 at Juilliard School. It gave a fresh meaning to my life. It was the perfect time to do what I had been dreaming of for a long time. I was lucky to find advisors like Brian Zeger (the artistic director of Marcus Institute) and Stephen Wadsworth (the director of Artist Diploma) who have been guiding me in the world of opera.
Your method of directing is more about intense physicality -mostly on a bare stage with minimum settings and without any projections. Did your production of Simulacrum, I saw in New York, feel like a change of style for you?
It is true that I have always preferred not to distract the audience and the performers with new technologies and would rather focus on inherent physicality of the performers by exploring their “instruments” in a way that they become “the center of the world” -they turn into “multimedia”, they create zoom-in, zoom-out and transitions with their own bodies. I had always thought that multimedia or technology devalues the most important element, which is, the “presence” of the performers in the space.
I have always been interested in pushing the performers beyond their limits, where they keep discovering themselves in a new way after every single rehearsal. However, by working for Simulacrum Opera, I discovered that I didn’t have to give away my working methodology in order to apply the new technologies. So, it became a new experience for me which required going beyond my own limits and figuring out how to combine the two in one. We were also thrilled to have a very non-conventional empty space at 3LD Art and Technology Center in downtown Manhattan which activated our imaginations in a very creative way.
You directed an opera that was freshly written working with one librettist and 6 different composers. What were your thoughts on it?
First, when I received the offer, I was quite intrigued working on an opera that had one librettist and six composers. I was always interested in working on fragmented plays but this time it was not a play but an opera that also had a musical dramaturgy that carried the story. The questions were whether we were going to create a narratively driven opera or we were going to emphasize the differences in between the styles of the composers.
It was a major dilemma as some of the composers wanted to emphasize their signatures. We had a lot of productive artistic collisions with the librettist and composers which brought us to the conclusion that the libretto was already quite complex and we decided not to complicate it even further. Then, I had to find ways to unify the musical pieces of 6 different composers stylistically and to create a strong musical arc while still keeping their musical signatures. The dramaturg, the choreographer and the conductor were a great help by creating and maintaining musical and physical integrity. Some audience members even thought that it was written by one composer which was a great compliment.
How did the singers respond to your directing as there was a lot of technology and physicality involved?
Of course, it was not easy for them to bring so much intense physicality together with quite difficult parts to sing. I did not feel any kind of resistance from the singers at any point of the rehearsals. I felt that we trusted one another in the rehearsal room which helped us to achieve a great result in a very short time. I had a lot of questions for the singers that aroused a lot of reflection on their end, helping each performer to take ownership over every single movement. It was exciting to read Schmopera’s review commenting on it:
“Lucy Dhegrae kept up with the opera’s fierce pacing and was convincingly agile in her response to Arthur Makaryan’s abstract, grinding and highly charged direction.”
I believe that this is what excites the singers in creating, this is what makes them feel alive and real. I have seen many opera singers who are simply devastated by the fact that their every single move is already drawn on paper before the rehearsals even start.
Of course, the director’s homework is important but we should also remember that each singer has a personality, artistic background, history and it is the director’s duty to contribute to their scenic presence without taking away their “engine” themselves. The director can either impose his/her vision on the performer or guide the performer to his/her vision through exploration of their physicality and emotional intelligence in a very disciplined way. Some think that in American reality there is not enough rehearsal time to explore that space. Even knowing very well the pressures of the industry, I still insist that art exists through exploration and search in the very moment of creating. Art is all about the unknown “negative” space”. If we are unable to leave the comfortable “positive space” we will never become creative innovators.
What is contemporary opera for you?
It was the first time that I directed a multimedia contemporary opera and I gained so much experience and interest from doing it. I would like to explore more opportunities in staging multimedia contemporary operas. The filming in the studios and the very detailed work of the performers in front of the cameras were extremely exciting for me. It was striking to collaborate with the projection, scenic and costume designers who turned the empty space into a futuristic heightened world. I would like also to emphasize the benefits of working on contemporary music that helped me to notice even more, the sounds around me. It brought me closer to intrinsic nature of the music and made me listen to the sounds around me instead of just hearing them.