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20 Questions With... Francesca Zambello

Director Francesca Zambello - whose production of Show Boat, the first fully staged musical ever at the Royal Albert Hall, starts performances this week – talks about the mother of all musicals, her love of live & the government’s renovation duty.

By • West End


Award-winning opera and theatre director Francesca Zambello was born in America and has worked all over the world. Her American debut took place at the Houston Grand Opera with a production of Fidelio in 1984. She debuted in Europe at Teatro la Fenice in Venice with Beatrice di Tenda in 1987 and has since staged new productions at major theatres and opera houses in Europe and the USA.

Her opera work includes Les Troyens and Cyrano de Bergerac for the Metropolitan Opera, Alcina for the New York City Opera, Die Walküre for the Washington Opera, La Bohème at the Royal Albert Hall, Fiery Angel for the Bolshoi, Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House and Boris Godunov and William Tell at the Paris Opera.

Recent theatre projects have included: Tibet through the Red Box, a new play by David Henry Hwang for the Seattle Children's Theatre; The Little Prince with Oscar-winning composer Rachel Portman; Napoleon in the West End; West Side Story for the floating stage in Bregenz; Aladdin: the Musical for Disneyland; the world premiere of Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy for the Met, The Ring and Porgy and Bess for the Washington Opera, and Carmen and Cyrano de Bergerac for the Royal Opera House.

On screen, Zambello has directed Menotti's Amahl and The Night Visitors, which was transmitted in December 2002 for BBC Television, and a film version of The Little Prince for the BBC, Sony and PBS.

Zambello was recently awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government for her contribution to French culture and the Russian Federation's medal for Service to Culture. Other honours for her work include three Laurence Olivier Awards (for ENO’s Khovanshchina, Billy Budd and Paul Bunyan at the Royal Opera House); the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical (for her 1997 production of Lady in the Dark at the National Theatre); the French Grand Prix des Critiques (for Billy Budd and War and Peace); the Palme d'Or in Germany and France (for Street Scene); and Seattle's Artist of the Year (in 1991).

In addition to English, the multi-lingual director speaks French, Italian, German and Russian. Zambello attended Moscow University in 1976 and graduated cum laude from Colgate University in 1978. She began her career as an assistant director to the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. From 1984-1991 she was the artistic director of the Skylight Music Theater. She has been a guest professor at Harvard and Berkeley Universities.

Zambello’s latest project is Show Boat, the first fully-staged musical at the Royal Albert Hall, featuring a cast of West End and Broadway stars and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.


Date & place of birth
I was born in New York, but I’m not going to reveal my age! Just say something nice, like “looks 20!”

Lives now in
New York and London, in Covent Garden. I’ve been there for ten years. My family are in New York, and my dogs. I have three beagles. No children.

Training
I didn’t train to be a director. I think you just have to do it. I went to Colgate University in New York, and then I had a semester abroad, one year in Moscow, and then another semester here in London.

First big break
I’d say my first big break in England was being asked to direct Khovanshchina at ENO. That was in 1994. But I had my break in America, directing at the Houston Grand Opera, in 1985. And I had my European break directing at la Fenice in Venice, which was in 1988, before it burned down. I feel like one of my first great breaks was when, as an assistant stage manager, I was asked to be an assistant director. I think there are certain points in your career where different things happen that one sees as breaks.

What made you first want to become a director?
I think I always wanted to be a director. I was always interested in story-telling and fantasy and character and something different than reality. At an early age, I used to make up my own shows with a little puppet theatre. We had a piano in our home and there was a lot of music, a lot of theatre - my mother, actually, is an actress still so I was around the theatre from an early age. But I wasn’t interested in performing. I was always interested in being responsible for the big picture. The way I think of it, directing is like a horizon and you’re looking at the whole horizon, and acting is…. I think great actors really are more in a kind of laser beam, very focussed on one aspect of the production.

Favourite productions
War and Peace, which we made a film of after it was at the Paris Opera; The Little Prince by Rachel Portman, which I made a film of for the BBC and it was also a stage production; and an opera called The Trojans at the Metropolitan Opera. I’d say those are three of my all-time favourites. But I have to say that the opera you’re working on at the time, or the play or the musical, is usually your favourite.

What other directors to you most admire?
There’s such a range. When I was younger, my favourite directors included Ruth Berghaus, Harry Kupfer, Hal Prince… If I put this question in the present, then I’m sure I’ll leave out someone, but I think my favourites at the moment are Richard Jones, Richard Eyre, Ann Bogart, the Wooster Group and Liv Thompson. I like a range of theatre so there are all different kinds of directors I admire.

Favourite actors
That I’d get in trouble for, I have to draw the line there! When you’re working on a show, you usually have a love affair with the people in your cast – I don’t mean that literally! But in a way you become a family so it’s always very painful when you leave because it’s you all get close and then you separate. The people you’re working with are sometimes the people you love the most and then suddenly they’re out of your life. That is one of the things about theatre, you have an instant family – for good or for bad! Favourite playwrights or musical writers
I seriously love all the great playwrights from the Greeks to the great American and the great English playwrights. Basically, I’m someone who loves live theatre. I’m a practitioner and live theatre is my joy, my life, my love, my energy source. This week I love Jerome Kern because of Show Boat. But I’m also working on some new musicals and I love that, it’s an honour to be working with great living composers. So while it’s wonderful to do Kern or Rodgers and Hammerstein, it’s great to have the opportunity to work with living, breathing artists. It makes such a difference because then you’re involved in the creative process; you’re not just an interpreter, you’re there at the initial stages.

Do you prefer directing for film or stage?
I really am someone who exists in the universe of live. Film is an exciting media and one that I hope I will work more in, but I could never lose that energy that comes from live theatre, the active chemical force that you get from working with live actors, the incredible sense of breathing with an audience. It’s something that you just don’t experience when you make a film. It is a totally different art form.

Which shows would you most like to direct still?
Lots! I’m really interested in new musicals, that is my passion. I have done many new operas, about 25. Now I’d like to turn my attention to working more with living musical composers and playwrights. So, in answer to your question, the ones I want to do haven’t been written yet! So often when you see something you think, “oh, this is how I might have done it” or “this person has totally solved this, there’s no way that I could ever do a more interesting production”. What hasn’t been written yet is what I’m still waiting to work on.

What might you have done professionally if you hadn’t become a director?
I would have been a chef or a diplomat. I think both of those things go with theatre. Or a psychiatrist.

What was the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
In London, the last thing I saw was Mary Stuart, which I thought was incredible. The direction was perfect, the acting sublime, the language amazing. It was a perfect theatre experience. That’s a show you see and have such respect and awe for your colleagues. I also just saw Jersey Boys in New York which was equally well crafted. It’s completely different but also wonderful.

What would you advise the government - British or American - to secure the future of theatre?
The British government should spruce up the West End, give money to theatres to renovate, stop taxing this area so much and put money into encouraging people to come to theatre. Less congestion charges, better transportation that runs later at night, a lot of practical things make a lot of difference. You have old theatres here, they’re national landmarks - in New York we don’t have them – and the government should help pay to fix them up. Simple things like making the conveniences better and putting in air conditioning, facilitating parking and transport – these things make a big difference to the audience. Everyone who’s working in the business is concerned about the product, but I think it’s equally important to think about the audience’s comfort. Why should you decide not to see something because the environment isn’t good or you can’t get there because of transportation or once you’re in there it’s uncomfortable? Your government should be spending a lot more money on what is one of the most valuable industries in London. Theatre is an integral part of English history and the very fibre of your country. I mean Shakespeare gave you the best tourist attraction practically, and the government isn’t giving anything back! At least the city of New York does give a lot of money to the theatres.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Hillary Clinton. I have a lot of respect for her and I think she’ll be our first female president. It would be exciting to be in the mind of someone like that.

Favourite books
I read all the time. I read a lot to relax. I mostly like to read history and biographies. I guess that’s generally what I look to when I have free time, but I can’t pick out any specific ones right now.

Favourite holiday destinations
Any place that’s in a beautiful, natural setting. I love the outdoors, I love hiking, skiing, long-distance walking. Anywhere from Australia to Antarctica is fine.

Favourite after-show haunts
I’m not too big on the bar culture so I generally like to just go with a few friends to have a light meal after a long rehearsal. It depends on the neighbourhood that we’re in, usually some simple Italian restaurant - and the West End, thankfully, is full of them.

Favourite Websites
I use the internet much more to stay in touch with the rest of the world via email than anything else really. As a director, I’m constantly working on multiple projects, and it makes it so much easier than having to talk on the phone because you can answer all your emails at night in whatever time zone you’re in. I’m working on a new musical of Rebecca for Vienna later this year, and at the same time I’ve been answering a lot of emails from New York about doing a workshop there right after Show Boat. I couldn’t do that without the internet now, it’s become an invaluable tool. Apart from staying in touch, I use the internet for research. Of course it’s made that so much easier, you can investigate anything. The hours that we used to spend in the library are now down to the time you need on the computer.

What made you choose to direct Show Boat at the Royal Albert Hall?
The reason to do a musical in this venue is that we’re bringing a very high, not only hopefully theatrical standard but also musical standard, which because of having the Royal Philharmonic’s 75 players and a cast of 80 it’s a different experience. Of course, we also have to be mindful of the more intimate side of the story as well. The venue is big but having worked in it, I know you can make intimate things happen there, which is important because Show Boat is the journey of one character, Magnolia. I had the experience of doing West Side Story in a huge venue at the Bregens Festival in Austria. That was a great learning experience about how to do something on that scale and yet still have the intimate scenes work. I also did La Boheme at the Royal Albert Hall twice and I think I learned a lot about how to make things reach in that hall, how to really connect with the audience and how to work in-the-round. It’s a question of dealing with scale versus intimacy and in-the-round versus the proscenium. In-the-round is very freeing for the actors in many respects because they can play more naturalistically; the trickier side is how do you design a boat in-the-round? The story takes place in Chicago in a nightclub and in a hotel, there are many locations – it’s almost filmic in its locations. It was a great trick for Peter Davidson to capture the spirit of all those locations. I feel honoured to do the first fully staged musical in the Royal Albert Hall. This is an experiment, a first-time event. One of the great things about the Hall is that, since you’re in-the-round, there’s that wonderful shared experience where you see the people watching the show. It raises the stakes, it brings a different level of communication and concentration. Show Boat is a musical I’ve loved and known my whole life. I mean, everyone knows “Old Man River”, “Only Make Believe”, “Fish Gotta Swim” and “Bill”. There are so many great, great songs which are the roots for what became American musicals and theatrical tradition in history, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Sondheim - everyone borrows from Jerome Kern. A piece like this merits being done in this situation because the Royal Albert Hall is a big canvass and that’s what the show needs.

How did you choose the cast for Show Boat?
I wanted to get a range of West End and some more opera people because Show Boat really falls in the category of the first great American musical. It has its roots in a more operatic past but its future in musicals as we know them today. We saw a lot of West End people and I’m happy to say that our leads are John Owen-Jones and Elena Shaddow (she’s been in a lot of Broadway shows, most recently Fiddler on the Roof and The Woman in White), we also have David Burt as Captain Andy and Jenny Galloway as his wife - they are two people I really wanted. Then we have the lovely Rebecca Thornhill. One of the good things about doing a short run is you can really woo all these fantastic performers and you’re able to get them because it isn’t a long-term commitment. The woman playing Queenie is a wonderful African-American actress named Angela Simpson, who just recently worked on Porgy and Bess with me. I wanted people who had big personalities, who had a real sense of the epic family nature of the show. In one way, the story is about a family and in another way about American history. It has such a long sweep of time. I wanted an actress who I felt could fill that vast need to tell the story of the 20 to 25-year time-span. I also needed great musical values from everyone because we’re dealing with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra too. It’s a cast of about 80 people, which you’d never get to do in a West End musical.

Do you have a favourite song or line from Show Boat?
The songs all go through my head all the time. “Only Make Believe”, that’s my favourite today. It’s the great traditional love song because it’s “Only Make Believe” and then you can see how it becomes “People Will Say We’re in Love” and you can see the roots of musical theatre leading onto other things.

Why should people come & see Show Boat?
They shouldn’t miss Show Boat! It’s an incredible story of one woman’s journey from girlhood to womanhood. It’s the story of a family who are torn apart and then come back together. And all of this is set against a very evocative tableaux of a section of American history from the 1880s up until World War I so it’s that incredible tension between the intimate life story and the big picture. It touches on strong and provocative issues such as race issues, class issues, issues about relationships and divorces – many serious things that most musicals don’t do nowadays. So that’s the story side of it. And then there’s the music side of it. There’s one song after another that is a great hit. People hear it and they say “oh, now I understand where that song comes from, now I understand what it really means”, because most of this music we know out of context. And thirdly, we have the production. We have a fantastic cast assembled of people who really are top at West End and Broadway level. It’s a top-drawer cast in a production that I hope will be really wonderful and unique because it’s in-the-round. And you would never usually hear this score played live with such a huge symphonic orchestra.

What are your future plans?
I’m working on a new musical of Rebecca which opens in Vienna in September, by the composers of Dance of the Vampires and Elizabeth who are very well respected in the German market. I think it will be great - I mean, Mrs Danvers was crying out to be musicalised! So I’m doing that, and then I’m working on a new musical for Disney. Then I’m working on some operas – including Carmen at the Royal Opera House later this year – so that’s going to keep me busy.

- Francesca Zambello was speaking to Caroline Ansdell


Show Boat opens on 13 June 2006 at the Royal Albert Hall (previews from 10 June), where it runs until 25 June.


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