The Special Alchemy of a Revival
by Eric Einhorn, General and Artistic Director
As a stage director in opera, my job is to create something truly ephemeral. We plan for months or years for a new production; we rehearse with singers for several weeks; and then, in just a few short performances, it’s all over. A select number of people have gotten the opportunity to experience the production. On Site’s productions are especially ephemeral, as we are likely to never return to a venue a second time for another production.
Sometimes, though, directors are given the chance to revive their productions. There are many reasons why companies choose to revive productions:
- The production is popular with audiences
- New productions being expensive, it can be financially responsible to remount a production the company already owns.
- It is in the general producing model of the company (such as at The Metropolitan Opera).
Whatever the reason, it can be a gift to have the opportunity to revisit a production after having already gone through the initial rehearsal process and seeing the production play for an audience. One also has to be careful, though, as it can be tempting to try to recreate the experience in a way that works against the production. A crucial part of performing is the chemistry that is created within a cast. Chemistry is not something that can necessarily be replicated when a new cast is assembled for a revival of the same production. It is beholden on everyone in the room (director, conductor, cast, staff, etc.) to create new chemistry within the framework of the production.
While revivals can be a directorial gift, there is also a certain amount of uncertainty built into producing revivals. The production worked the first time, but would a revival prove to be as powerful? How has the world changed between the original production and the revival? Would any artistic choices, performance elements, or larger issues addressed in the show still be relevant? Could they even now be taken as socially unacceptable or offensive?
Such was the mindset of the company when we closed our production of Amahl and the Night Visitors in December 2018. The production, updated to a soup kitchen and featuring a community chorus of people impacted by homelessness, was a popular and critical success. Audiences wept night after night from the deeply moving performances of the cast, chorus, and dancers. This production was intended to be as ephemeral as any of the sixteen On Site Opera productions that came before it. Then we experienced something none of us ever had before: a rallying cry among audiences and journalists to make this Amahl an annual event.
Once the initial shock and joy of such an honor subsided, we began to evaluate the possibility of a revival. What would it mean to dedicate a third of our season programming to a show we already produced? What made the production so successful in the first place? Could those elements be brought back together a year later to the same effect? Would the impact be as deep a second time? Would audiences regret their rallying cry?
Feeling a healthy mix of confidence and trepidation, we (along with the support of our Board of Directors) embarked on our first revival. When we announced the revival, the most common question was: “Will you be performing the piece in a new venue?” The answer to this question was “no.” In evaluating what made the production successful, the consensus was the success was found in the sum of the production’s original parts. In more practical terms, this meant that our goal was to recreate as many elements of the original run as possible, venue included. Luck proved to be on our side, as most of the original cast, dancers, chorus, orchestra, and staff were all available to return the following year. Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen (our venue partner) and Breaking Ground (our supportive housing partner with whom we created the community chorus) were both thrilled to collaborate for a second year.
With all of the same players in place, the next step was to rehearse the opera again. This is where a new, palpable level of anxiety snuck in for me as a director and producer. Would we be able to find that same special chemistry we found the previous year, even if most of the same artists were in the room? Rehearsals went incredibly quickly and smoothly. Most of us cried a lot less this year, as the emotional impact of the production was now a known quantity. The piece wasn’t being discovered in the same way. This only stoked the flames of my directorial worry, as I fretted that the magic of the production had disappeared with the closing performance the year before. That’s not to say the cast and creative team weren’t giving their all in rehearsals…quite the contrary. I, and many of the returning artists, just weren’t experiencing the piece the same way.
Then it was time for opening night. A huge sense of deja vu hung in the air, as we had been in this space with this production before. The audience filed into their seats, once again generously bringing food donations for the soup kitchen. The community chorus members were in their preset places around the soup kitchen tables. Everything was feeling very familiar. Then the music began and soprano Aundi Marie Moore (who played the Mother in both productions) started to sing. I watched and waited. Would the decision to revive this production pay off? Would the show be as impactful as it was a year earlier?
Forty-seven minutes later, the final chord echoed in the vaulted ceiling of the soup kitchen. Amahl’s mother was left along on stage to feel the impact of the Kings’ generosity. The lights went out and the entire room sat in suspended silence. A moment later the audience showed its appreciation quite loudly. When the lights came up, I saw many audience members wiping away tears while they applauded. As patrons left that evening, many shared with me how moved they were. Several had seen the production last year as well, and felt that this year was even more powerful. For the remaining five performances, audiences responded similarly as they did on opening. The ephemeral magic that had been created in 2018 re-emerged in 2019 and affected audiences just deeply, if not more so. Once again, the special alchemy of a revival created gold.
In the true spirit of this production, closing night 2019 left me with a familiar sense of deja vu. Audiences wept night after night from the company’s incredibly moving performances. Once again, audiences and critics asked: Will we be able to see this again next year? Once again, I find myself with a healthy mixture of confidence and trepidation. Can a revival of Amahl be impactful for a third year in a row? Does the magic have a limit?
What do you think?