“Sure, it’s a wee bit controversial—but what art isn’t?” says stage director Ken Cazan of his adventurous new interpretation of Philip Glass’s 1987 opera, The Fall of the House of Usher. “I’m proud that my cast are willing to give unbelievably risky performances,” he adds. “It’s just so thrilling when people in this industry are willing to go that extra mile.”
Cazan is chatting over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, where Long Beach Opera has just launched Usher’s West Coast premiere with a successful run of three performances as part of a collaborative production-sharing arrangement with the Chicago Opera Theater. The acclaimed director ramps up the sexual energy that writhes at the center of Edgar Allan Poe’s highly symbolic tale of madness, paranoia and implied incest.
“I see the piece as a gay love story with tragic results,” explains the upbeat 57-year-old, who moonlights as stage-director-in-residence for the University of Southern California. Cazan’s highly stylized version places Usher’s characters in the present day—complete with contemporary-looking supernumeraries who continually move the “big, cold, sterile” set around the stage. William (baritone Lee Gregory) is a young San Franciscan who travels to Baltimore at the request of his sexually repressed school friend, Roderick Usher (tenor Ryan MacPherson). In Cazan’s interpretation, Roderick’s twin, Madeline (soprano Suzan Hanson)—who “represents the seething sexuality that has been held down within the house for years”— ends up luring the two friends to get down and dirty in a fully clothed, onstage sex scene.
“Both of my leading men, who are heterosexual, told me that they felt the same way about the direction of the story,” explains Cazan. “They’re great actors—they just took the risk and went for it. Some people who like their Poe ‘pure’ might have problems with it, but [Arthur Yorinks’s] libretto certainly wasn’t literal to the Poe, and left the story much more open to interpretation.”
The collaboration between the two opera companies, which use the exact same cast and crew, is an economic initiative driven by COT’s new general director, Andreas Mitisek, who has officially begun his inaugural season after taking over from Brian Dickie last June. “There’s a niche for LBO and COT to fill in a lot of the repertoire that isn’t being presented in their respective cities,” says Mitisek, an Austrian native who holds down the director role with both companies. “We expect to share at least one production each season.”
Mitisek, who will conduct Usher and COT’s April production of Ástor Piazzolla’s María de Buenos Aires, is known for embracing edgy interpretations. “It’s important to make art relevant and part of our discussion about society,” he enthuses over the phone from California. “It’s always a great sign if a work of art has more than one way to look at it.”
As a synthesis of the imaginations of two American icons, The Fall of the House of Usher is a boon for directors like Cazan, who strive to explore layered meaning. “Both Poe and Glass expanded the minds of their time and audience,” Mitisek says. “This opera offers a fascinating example of how two geniuses can come together through the centuries.”
Chicago Opera Theater’s The Fall of the House of Usher runs Saturday 23, Sunday 24, Wednesday 27 and Friday 1 at the Harris Theater.