When you page through your program, or get your brochure announcing the new opera season, what’s the first thing you look for? Personally, having been at this opera-going thing for quite a while now, I can scarcely wait to flip to each individual production’s page to scan the cast and creative team credits. I need to see who’s singing, who’s conducting, who’s directing, and who’s designing the sets and costumes, so I can fully imagine and anticipate what I will see and hear.
As I looked over the credits for Houston Grand Opera’s new season, one name really jumped out: Michael Yeargan. Does that name sound familiar? Small wonder! He’s the designer for fully half of HGO’s 2008—2009 season, as well as many of HGO’s more extraordinary productions in recent years, including the world premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s Cold Sassy Tree, and both the Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra productions starring Dmitri Hvorostovsky. You may have caught his Barber of Seville for the Metropolitan Opera—simulcast from the Met stage to your local movie screen—with his innovative thrust stage extension reaching out to completely encircle the orchestra pit, bringing the singers closer to the audience and the high definition cameras than ever thought possible in such a huge house. Oh, and he is a two-time Tony winner for scenic design of a musical: this year for the hot new Broadway revival of South Pacific, and in 2005 for The Light in the Piazza.
When I caught up with the much-in-demand international designer by phone for a laughter-filled chat about his work, he was having a short vacation onboard his sailboat. As he put it: “We’re just puttering around Long Island Sound. We’re in Sag Harbor and tomorrow we’re gonna go on to Montauk, then start to head back.”
One of many remarkable things about Michael Yeargan is that he is not a theater designer lately recruited to opera. In fact, opera was and is his first love. “I’m from Dallas, and the late ’50s was just an amazing time to grow up there,” he explains. “The Met used to come through on tour every year, and they would bring four operas. I had this fantastic fourth-grade music teacher, Frances Parr, and she would paper the classroom with posters, tell us the stories of the operas and play some of the music for us. Then she would take a bus-load of kids to the Met performances.” Likening his influential teacher to Auntie Mame, Yeargan remembers how when telling the story of the operas to her young, impressionable charges, she would judiciously sanitize her plot synopses. “I remember Traviata was one of the operas,” Yeargan continues, “and she just pulled out a book and started reading to tell us the story, and it started off with ‘Violetta Valéry: a courtesan in Paris.’ Immediately, all the hands went up and someone asked: ‘What’s a courtesan?’ She paused for a minute and then she said ‘Aw, honey, they were ladies of the court and they loved to go to parties!’ “
It was this same teacher who planted the seed with Yeargan for what would become his life’s work: “My teacher would actually have us make little shadow-boxes. She’d say ‘get a shoebox and make a scene from the opera.’ So I started doing that, and I loved it, and I’m still doing it today.”
When Dallas got its own company, the young designer-to-be became even more entranced with the art form: “They brought in this unknown director to direct Maria Callas in La traviata, and that was Franco Zeffirelli. It was one of the most amazing things I ever saw. I saw her twice: in Traviata, and in Medea the night she got the notice that she’d been fired from the Met. That was a really fiery performance!” he laughs. “I’ve never seen anything like that. She was really frightening, and then to see her in Traviata where she was so vulnerable…it felt like you were watching Garbo.”
Yeargan began volunteering with the young company as a supernumerary (opera parlance for non-singing, non-speaking extras in crowd scenes), treading the boards with the likes of the great French soprano Denise Duval in Thaïs, and Verdian giants Mario del Monaco in the title role of Otello and Ramón Vinay as Iago, the latter having once been a great Otello himself.
Yeargan followed his dream by studying design at Stetson University in Florida and spending a year studying abroad in Spain; his breakthrough came at the famed Yale School of Drama. “I went there to study with Donald Oenslager. But when I got there he was leaving, retiring for good at the end of my first semester, and the Chinese designer Ming Cho Lee was taking over. I was one of the few people able to study with Donald and Ming at the same time.” Only a year after graduation, Yale asked Yeargan back to teach, and he’s been teaching there since 1974.
Serendipitously, the Yale School of Drama provided the link between Michael Yeargan and the current HGO administration. Renowned Romanian-born director André Serban asked him to design August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata for Yale, which led to a string of projects together, including a Eugene Onegin for Welsh National Opera. Thus began what Yeargan describes as “a whole block of work” at the Welsh National Opera. “While we were there,” he continues, “toward the end of it, that’s when I met Anthony Freud for the first time. Years later I went back with Elijah Moshinsky, and I think he [Freud] had just taken over the company. So that’s the link that’s brought me back for all these productions at Houston Grand Opera.”
When asked how he first approaches designing an opera that he’s never worked on before, Yeargan immediately says that he listens to recordings for inspiration, and of course talks to the director. When he set out to design the imaginative new Madame Butterfly that premiered at HGO in 1999 and was revived in 2004 for Patricia Racette, he went to the source materials, including the John Luther Long short story and the play David Belasco adapted from it, which in turn inspired Puccini to set his next opera to the tale of the faithful young Japanese bride (Butterfly) who weds a feckless American naval officer (Pinkerton).
“I read that there was a missing act from the Belasco play that ended up being incorporated into the second act of the opera,” recalls Yeargan, “when Butterfly goes to see [American Consul] Sharpless to find out when the robins nest again, because Pinkerton had told her he was coming back when the robins nest. And then I began to think about it and thought: ‘What if we started in the Consulate’s office?’ So that’s where the germ of that idea took root, not just arbitrarily saying ‘let’s put it in the Consulate’s office [rather than the traditional hilltop home that Pinkerton buys for Butterly]. What I thought would be incredibly powerful, and I think it is in that production, is that when she goes there in the second act, she’s in something like an Ellis Island waiting room. She sings ‘Un bel dí,’ and then she gets in to see Sharpless, and the way we played it initially was that he hardly recognized her. She was just another one among thousands of women that came to him. He goes through a filing cabinet, takes out her file: ‘Oh, and by the way there’s a letter here from Pinkerton.’ “
Before letting Michael Yeargan get back to his mini-vacation, I had to ask his reaction to the term Regietheater, which seems all the rage these days in Europe. I cited a risible European production of Verdi’s Nabucco starring Sylvie Valayre, whose Act II scena was upstaged by the men’s chorus dressed as giant bumblebees, shimmying and shaking their great, yellow-and-black abdomens to the murderously difficult strains of her cabaletta. (You can see it for yourself at youtube.com. Search for “Sylvie Valayre cabaletta”.)
“I guess Regietheater means director’s theater,” he responded, “where the director can have a viewpoint and everything is forced to fit within that viewpoint. My problem is that I love the story and the music so well, and Regietheater so much of the time gets in the way of that,” says Yeargan. “You’re sitting there saying, ‘Why am I looking at this?!’ They’ve done a Rusalka [Dvo?ák’s opera partially inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid] at the Salzburg Festival, which is set for some unknown reason in a tacky nouveau riche house in Texas. And their vision of a tacky nouveau riche house in Texas is like nothing I ever saw in Texas! It just makes me angry.”
Eric J. Skelly contributes regularly to Opera Cues and Time Out New York.