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MUSIC / CHRIS PASLES : Playing Devil's Advocate: Resurrecting 'Faust'

September 08, 1993|CHRIS PASLES

Gounod's "Faust" was once so popular and prestigious, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York picked it for its opening on Oct. 22, 1883. But tastes change. Familiarity may breed contempt. "Faust" no longer holds the boards the way it used to, and some people, well, snicker at Gounod's sugar-coated music, not to mention his trivialization of Goethe's classic story of a man who sells his soul to the devil.

A rescue effort is necessary, says Ken Cazan, the 36-year-old director of Opera Pacific's "Faust," opening Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

"Opera needs to move forward," Cazan said over lunch recently at a Costa Mesa restaurant.

"We're almost to the year 2000, and we're doing pieces that were written 200 years ago. They're wonderful pieces, I love them dearly, but I've taken some really radical approaches because I think artists need to be challenged to rise to new musical levels and vocal levels and physical levels, because people can stay home and watch a sitcom or go to the movies and see something as entertaining."

To compete, Cazan has taken an approach he described as "totally minimalist."

"I really want to tell the story of this young man being torn between his sensual desires and needs and what he knows is right and wrong. This is a very sexual, sensual production. For me, (the opera) is all about relationships and characters. I can't stress that enough."


The set consists of "two very rough-hewn circles," on which--and around which--the action takes place. It is modeled on a 1977 production at Michigan Opera Theatre, which Opera Pacific general director David DiChiera also runs.

The circles are part of "large symbolic pieces (we use) to set the tone and the atmosphere of the piece, and just tell Goethe's story as best we can to Gounod's music and words. The symbols are really slap-you-in-the-face symbols, basically, and once you see them, they have their effect and then you can pull down and concentrate" on the characters.

So he left out realistic details such as a spinning wheel at which the heroine Marguerite is traditionally first seen.

"I just couldn't deal with that, I'm afraid," the director said. "Because for me when you do a scene with something like a spinning wheel, it becomes a scene about a spinning wheel and not about character development and relationships."

Cazan sees the story, based on Goethe's great poem, as Goethe's personal journey "to maintain his idealism and yet also maintain the idealism through a certain amount of worldliness. So that he's not naive or stupid, but that he does keep a certain amount of wonder about the world and maintain a certain innocence."

The production "jumps periods," ranging from the medieval to roughly the 1830s, the time of the composer. ("Faust" received its premiere in 1859.)

"There's no real chronological order in the piece," Cazan said. "It goes from here to there to there to back to here to over there. I felt that Faust, as a scientist needing constantly to be challenged, I thought it would be more interesting to bring him into the future so he has to deal with a whole different set of people, a whole different mentality that he wouldn't necessarily know.

"We don't bring the curtain up," he added. "There are no breaks between scenes. Everything happens in front of the audience and things just go from this into this into this, just to keep the idea of time moving."

There will be no "Walpurgisnacht" ballet in the production because of "serious time constraints. We had to keep it down to 2 1/2 hours, basically, with intermissions," he said. "That's unions. If you go over that by 15 minutes, you're paying an entire orchestra for maybe another hour. It's horrific."

Cazan expects his production, his first venture with Opera Pacific, to be "controversial," but he expects it will make "people think and inspire them emotionally."

"I don't worry about how sophisticated or unsophisticated (audiences) are. They're never going to get sophisticated or . . . they're never going to learn to experiment in their lives if they're constantly condescended to and shown the same old thing."

Cazan studied at Kent State and Syracuse universities and began an acting career in New York, which led to his directing career. He estimates he has directed about 60 operas so far, most recently for opera companies in Toronto, Milwaukee, Nashville and Austin.

He is booked "into 1995," but still "worries all the time" about making a living. "If I look a year ahead and see that I have a couple of months free, it's terrifying . . .

"But the thing that thrills me about opera these days is that more and more we have better singing actors, people who realize they just can't be a single thread in opera any more. They've got to look good, they've got to sound good, and they've got to act well. They've got to be able to sing and think at the same time."

* Opera Pacific will present a new production of Gounod's "Faust," directed by Ken Cazan on Saturday at 7 p.m.; Tuesday, Sept. 17 and 18 at 8 p.m., and Sunday and Sept. 19 at 2 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $15 to $75. (714) 556-2787.

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