Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
Director’s Notes | An Interview with Jose Maria Condemi
By Kathy Doane
Jose Maria Condemi, who will direct La Traviata and María de Buenos Aires this summer, sat down to talk about his connection to the city; his leap from medicine to music; and bringing to life two very different operas.
Even before you directed opera here (Don Giovanni, 2004; Ainadamar, 2009), you were no stranger to Cincinnati, were you?
That’s right. I got a Masters in opera directing from CCM in 2000.
As a child growing up in Buenos Aires, did you see a lot of opera?
Not at all. Honestly, my only connection with the arts growing up was piano playing, which I did from age six on. I used to play concerts but never thought of it as a career. When you live in Argentina and come from an Italian background like my family, you are programmed to be a doctor or a lawyer. I was interested in the sciences, so I went to medical school, but I didn’t finish.
How far did you get?
It’s different in Argentina. You go right from secondary school into medical school. I went four years, but that was only halfway through.
It began to feel not very fulfilling, and I didn’t know what to do. Literally, I was walking down a street in Buenos Aires and heard this music coming from a record store. It was the final duet from Carmen. I had heard that before but that day, I paid attention, and I just wanted to find out more about it. I became a fan of the art form very quickly, and then it became an obsession.
How did that lead to directing?
Eventually, I became interested in telling stories and acting and set design. I just made a decision at some point to become a director, but I didn’t know what I was doing or why or even if I could make a career out of it.
How did your parents take your switch from medicine to music?
They were not too happy with me, because they wondered if an opera director could make a living. I don’t blame them. They feel bad now, but they had my best interests at heart. Also, that is partially why I moved to the United States, because back then, there weren’t many opportunities for anybody in opera in Argentina. Still, there is only one major opera company, Teatro Colon, in the entire country.
Would you agree that your career direction obviously worked out well for you?
Yes, and I always credit CCM a lot for that, because it’s very hard to train a director. I think they do a fantastic job there.
Have you been back to Argentina to direct?
Yes, last July I did Simon Boccanegra for Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires.
You are doing two very different operas here, La Traviata, which many in the audience will be very familiar with, and María de Buenos Aires, which very few, if any, will have seen. When you’re presented with something so familiar, like Traviata, how do you, the stage director, make it your own?
The Traviata is a revival with existing costumes and scenery, so my job is to retell the story using those elements. Even if I don’t do anything too out-of-the-ordinary, it’s still going to be fresh. By that I mean that, for me, there has to be believable human interaction between the characters onstage.
That’s what makes it real for the audience?
Oh, yes. I’m a firm believer that’s why it works—because there are universal, perennial truths that we all relate to. You may not think a courtesan in 19th century Paris has anything to do with your life, but Violetta is facing things we know about or have personally experienced: the loss of social status, the loss of her health, the loss of her relationships. The specifics might not be the same, but we certainly are faced with having to choose one thing over the other all the time or sometimes learning about the loss of our health and strength.
Can you cite a moment in the opera where that is evident?
Act II. The entire scene between Germont (Alfredo’s father) and Violetta is about two people facing the same thing. You can think that Germont is the bad guy who wants to ruin Violetta’s life, but it’s not about that. They are both trapped in a set of circumstances. It’s about choices they have to make in life based on other people’s expectations and forgoing their own interests for the sake of someone else. It is heartbreaking.
By contrast, María de Buenos Aires (Astor Piazzolla's tango opera about an Argentinian prostitute) is very untraditional storytelling, similar to A Flowering Tree last year. It’s even going to be in a different venue, the Music Hall ballroom.
I want to break down all the conventions. It is a tango chamber opera with 11 musicians, three characters and dancers. We want the audience closer to the action. That’s the reason we are setting it in the ballroom. We’re very lucky. Opera companies who stage it have to re-create what we have here naturally.
Almost like a cabaret?
What are some of the challenges of getting the story across to the audience?
I think if we are all doing our job, it won’t be difficult. The set is minimal, but there are props and a meaningful prop in the context of the story can be an anchor in the storytelling. If you remember the yellow shawl in Ainadamar: When we first see it on Margarita, it is just a fashion accessory, but later we see her student, Nuria, wearing it and it suddenly signifies the passing of a legacy. There will be things like that to remind us of what the story is about. The challenge of María is the language.
Isn’t it Spanish?
Yes, but it’s actually a type of slang language that is specific to Buenos Aires. I grew up there and some of it is nearly impossible to translate. It’s a slang associated with the tango culture, very raw and pedestrian. At the same time, it’s elevated in this very poetic way with the music and storytelling, but the basic flavor is very earthy.
Is the opera set in the past or the present?
It’s really undetermined. You would certainly find the setting and the people today in Buenos Aires. When Madonna came to Buenos Aires to film Evita, I remember how little they had to do the city to make it look the way it did (in Eva’s Peron’s time). María is more about the spirit of a place and a people than a particular time. That’s why people will relate to the story.
Kathleen Doane is a former Senior Editor of Cincinnati Magazine and Assistant Features Editor of The Cincinnati Enquirer. She is a freelance writer who specializes in the arts.