A Conversation with director Nicholas O’Leary


Making his debut with Guerilla Opera, the young director Nicholas O’Leary brings a host of theatrical skills to the company. He has directed straight plays from Ben Jonson to Tom Stoppard. He has worked as an interactive-experience creator, a board-game designer, scenic draftsman and illustrator. His work has been seen at Actors Theater Louisville, the New York Theater Festival, and at the A.R.T. He can drive a stick shift vehicle.

Nicholas O’Leary is rehearsal for “Chrononhotonthologos” l Photo by Clive Grainger (2017)

SL: You are new to opera! How is opera different from other theatrical forms?

NO: There is definitely a lot of shared DNA between opera and musical theater—and other varieties of live performance!—but there’s nothing quite like opera. We all know that when it comes to opera, the music is the essential thing.

You often find an incredible amount of storytelling and world-building right there in the score. In musical theatre, it’s traditionally the book that tells the story, and the musical numbers flesh out the plot’s skeleton, revealing character and emotional information that can’t be conveyed in the spoken word.

SL: Having heard, along with everybody else in the room, the first-ever reading of Chrononhotonthologos, how did it strike your imagination?  Did the sounds call up images?

NO: Hearing the ensemble bring Andy’s score to life was exhilarating. I immediately began to get glimpses of the kingdom of Queerummahnia and its inhabitants that I never would have found just reading the libretto. And from there it’s been a process of collaborating with our amazing team of designers to bring these images—and the images that they discovered—to life.

SL:  If you perceive any resonances between a 1734 satirical libretto, a 2017 sound world and our current global predicament, will you incorporate them in your staging?

NO: When working with a classical text, I always find surprising resonance with the contemporary moment. In the case of Chrononhotonthologos, it’s helpful to remember that the original play is a satire: Henry Carey is poking fun at bad poets who wrote terrible tragedies, but he’s also going after the arrogance and greed of the monarchy. So, I’ve found that there are moments that shed light on what’s going on in Washington right now—moments that play very differently than they would have in the 1743. (Or, frankly, in 2015!)

The other really brilliant thing that Andy has done here, of course, is that he’s incorporated a final movement adapted from Matthew Arnold’s 1867 poem Dover Beach into the libretto. When Arnold wrote about a world that “hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain,” he never could have anticipated what the 20th century had in store for Europe—and the rest of the world.

When Andy places this text from 1867 alongside another that’s over a hundred years older, and puts them both in this sound world that is so clearly in conversation with our contemporary moment, he’s asking us to draw a line from the 18th century to the 19th and to the 21st. In terms of staging, one of my big questions has been about how to create space for all of those different resonances for our audience: the production has its own specific world, of course, but it vibrates across centuries.

Chrononhotonthologos cast in rehearsal l Photo by Clive Grainger (2017)

SL: What are the challenges for you or anybody staging an opera? Especially a new opera that only we have ever heard? A crazy opera at that?

Every piece has its own challenges. I always try to anticipate them before rehearsals, but I tend to find myself surprised at what comes easily, and what takes a bit more thought to crack.

A big question is always what the staging is *doing* in each moment of the piece: Does the staging need to tell the story? If the story is already clear from the libretto and music, is there another texture or dimension the staging needs to add? Or does the staging need to get out of the way so the singers can do their thing? When you’re at home preparing, you can do all kinds of research and thinking about these questions—but, you never know for sure until you’re in the space with the whole team.

With a piece like Chrononhotonthologos, the possibilities are endless, and obvious solutions are few and far between. Of course, that can be scary! But, it’s also exhilarating to be out there on a limb and take a leap into uncharted territory.

Susan Larson is president of Guerilla Opera’s Board of Directors, performing artist and former music critic for The Boston Globe.

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