Opera is a world onto its own

Willene Gunn
Willene Gunn

BRAVA! Opera Theater Artistic Director Willene Gunn, is directing Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice” at the Camelot Theatre in Talent. Gunn, an accomplished performer herself, directed the Opera Program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for 30 years, and served on the faculty of the University of California at Santa Cruz. Last year her direction of “Breasts of Tiresias” was stunning. Early in her career, Gunn performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We visited at the Downtowne Coffee House in Talent.

EH: How did you find your life in opera?

 WG: I always sang, loved music, played all kinds of instruments. By the time I left the University of Montana, I knew I was going to go into opera. When went back to New York, my teacher arranged for a sponsor for me. He said one of the reasons was: I had talent, yes, but also, if I got kicked and knocked down, I got up again.

EH: How does opera stand apart from the other arts?

WG: Opera is a world onto its own. It’s related to theater, except the timing in it is totally different. In opera, everything is controlled by the music. The whole emotional base, everything is choreographed by the music. When you get the orchestra and the voice and the drama and language going together, it’s terribly exciting. It takes people to a different place. It’s the same thing in theater: When you hear people really listen, it’s really working.

Opera has evolved a lot since the advent of the super titles. People in the audience never knew what was going on before. They were semi-understanding the drama. They were just loving the music, and not really understanding it. It also made the casting and the drama much more important. Singers couldn’t just get away with learning their part. When I first started in opera, they just were standing there, singing their own tune, and they’d turn up stage and tell jokes. It was not what I’d imagined it to be.

Opera has come to a very good place. The problem is that it’s so expensive. People are interested in “Orpheus and Eurydice” because we are reducing it and making it for a smaller house; it has a very small cast. The story is a wonderful story, and it’s such a human story, full of very basic emotions, but still very moving and deep.

Our emphasis is on doing smaller works that get neglected, but yet are great works of art, and doing them in as a theatrical way as possible. I love the smaller theater, so that the audience is close enough. It’s a creative area that’s been neglected.

 EH: Where do you begin when you are choosing an opera to direct?

WG: I always start from the music. Often the orchestra tells you more than what the character is singing. Often it tells you what they are thinking. Sometimes they are thinking one thing and singing another.

EH: Do you miss performing?

WG: I don’t miss it. It’s very strange. Teaching gives you a tremendous creative outlet. It’s very gratifying. I love to see that growth within the singers.

To me, opera should be a combination of theater and music. As a director, while you’re developing it, you do get to sing everybody’s role and play all the parts.

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