Crystal Manich to Guest Stage Direct Opera

Guest Stage Director Crystal ManichCrystal Manich is coming to Simpson to direct Massenet’s Cinderella, which performs February 15, 16 and 17 at the Pote Theatre. We interviewed her to get an insight into her career and what she intends to bring to Simpson students.

You have already built a significant career as a stage director, nationally and internationally. When and how did you realize that you wanted to be an opera stage director and what steps did you take to make it happen?

I discovered opera when I was 15 years old with a Maria Callas recording of Tosca. When I did my undergraduate work in directing at Carnegie Mellon University, in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to do opera, but I wasn’t sure how to make it happen, or if I even had the talent for it. I studied Italian and lived in Italy for a semester where I took an opera history course, among others. It was there that the opera bug bit me. I had good mentors at CMU who encouraged me to pursue opera and I landed my first job right out of school as a stage manager, and subsequently as an assistant director. In 2008 two friends and I started a company in New York called Opera Omnia and we produced The Coronation of Poppea as our inaugural production. This was also the first full opera I had ever directed. Producing my own work has spiraled me quickly into the mainstream opera world as a director.

What opera companies have you worked with?

I got my first break at Opera Theater of Pittsburgh. Then I went to New York to be an apprentice at American Opera Projects and then went to Pittsburgh Opera to be resident assistant director. I have now directed several shows at Pittsburgh Opera. I have also directed at Utah Opera, Lyric Opera Baltimore, Opera Roanoke, and in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with a new production of Madama Butterfly in 2010. As an assistant director I have worked all over the country, most frequently with Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

What do you know about opera at Simpson College? 

Simpson has a fantastic reputation for vocal music education and for its unusual opera program for undergraduates. The Simpson faculty’s dedication to and expertise in producing singers, music educators, and artistic administrators is nationally recognized. I know several graduates who speak of transformative, life-enhancing, and career-making experiences at Simpson. It is known for producing graduates who work in the profession. For me it is a great opportunity to teach the next generation of young artists in stagecraft, as we strive for a professional production even at the collegiate level.

Have you ever been to Iowa? 

I have never been to Iowa!  I am very much looking forward to seeing a new part of the country. As they say in the musical The Music Man “You really ought to give Iowa a try!”

What are your expectations of the students at Simpson College? 

I expect the students to come to the process hungry to use the skills they have gained at Simpson so far, but to be open to learn new things. My focus as a director is expression of character through the body, in addition to the voice. In Italian, “opera” literally means “works” and this theatrical medium is a culmination of music and drama working as one. In other words, opera is hard work!  It is also fun, but the fun can’t happen without solid preparation.

What is the difference between working with college students and working with established artists?

Established artists often come to a rehearsal process with an arsenal of techniques both vocally and physically. Students, however, are slowly building their own arsenals to take with them into the profession. It is always my goal when working with students that I not only direct them where to go on the stage, but that I give them practical tools of stagecraft they can use for the rest of their lives. Opera singers don’t just have to sing, they have to be excellent singing actors. These skills can be useful offstage as well as on!

What is your vision for Cinderella at Simpson College? 

Cinderella is a fairy tale. We shouldn’t hide away from that, for fairy tales give us the chance to create a magical atmosphere through theatre. But it’s important to stress that all characters in opera, no matter how fantastical the work is, are real people in real situations. I will certainly stress this point in rehearsals as we make specific character choices.

What advice do you have in advance for the Cinderella cast? 

I suggest that all of the students read the original Charles Perrault story. There are beautiful details that are not depicted in the opera that are helpful to understand the story and characters. Like professionals, students must come to the first day of rehearsal fully memorized. The more you invest in studying and practicing the music in advance, the bigger return you will get. Come with ideas but be open to new ones. Write your blocking and other staging notes in your scores from day one. The quality of a production is entirely determined by the quality of the rehearsals.

What other advice do you have for the students?

Opera is a collaborative art form. It is my goal that we will work together as a team and create something very new and special on the Simpson College stage.

Of the productions you have directed, which are the favorite, and will you share some photos with us?

I have had the good fortune to direct all kinds of operas, ranging from the 17th century to the 21st.  My favorites (in no particular order) include the following:

Crystal Manich directs Madama ButterflyPuccini’s Madama Butterfly because of the strength of the title character.  My favorite scene is the humming chorus when Butterfly and Suzuki await Pinkerton’s return.  In two and a half minutes you need to maintain a sense of anticipation and waiting during music that is very simple and beautiful.  I directed this production in 2010 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Another favorite production from 2011 is Handel’s Rinaldo at Pittsburgh Opera.  Handel’s operas don’t give much direction in the score so a director has complete responsibility as to how the story is to be told visually.  This photograph shows how I solved the problem of Armida needing to turn into Almirena, through the use of a mask, in order to trick Rinaldo into loving her.

Crystal Manich directs GlasoneAnother favorite is Cavalli’s 17th century comedy Giasone about Jason and Medea.  It was the first comedy I ever directed.  This scene, from my company Opera Omnia’s production in 2011, is from the end of Act I in the Cavern of Spells when Medea summons the Spirits of Hell to assist Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece.

Crystal Manich directs Flying DutchmanMy most recent production this year was Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman at Opera Roanoke.  It is an amazing and complicated opera to put together. This scene shows the Dutchman’s Act I aria while the ghost crew works on his ship.  Wagner calls for the Dutchman to descend his ship onto land, but in this production I wanted the Dutchman to trespass onto Daland’s vessel, thus helping to solve the issue of putting a large opera on a smaller stage.