NEW YORK — Director Julie Taymor, who will unveil her new production of Wagner's "Der Fliegende Hollander" (The Flying Dutchman) with the Los Angeles Music Center Opera on Saturday night, is a relative newcomer to the operatic stage.
As a visionary young New York theater artist, she first made her mark with Off Broadway experimental productions, works that drew on non-Western theater and dance traditions, with startling uses of puppetry and masks. She has confessed that much opera onstage doesn't impress her.
"I can listen to the music in my home and imagine the most amazing imagery," she says. "But quite often when I go to the opera and then I see it, I'd rather close my eyes, because you can't match the music."
Today, however--on a too-hot morning in Manhattan--Taymor's eyes are open wide as she describes her vision of the "Dutchman." Sitting in the airy and spectacular, but not air-conditioned, Manhattan loft that she shares with composer Elliot Goldenthal, she promises an airy, spectacular production of Wagner's almost oppressively Romantic work. If Taymor's previous three journeys into opera are any indication, her "Dutchman" should be unlike any other.
Taymor has, in fact, managed to become one of the most celebrated of all operatic novices. Her debut, a 1992 production of Stravinsky's dramatically static and problematic 55-minute oratorio "Oedipus Rex," won the International Classical Music Award for Opera Production of the Year--and this for a production seen only in Matsumoto, Japan, about as far from international opera capitals as possible. Seiji Ozawa had turned to Taymor to direct "Oedipus" only after his first choice, Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa, turned him down. Kurosawa's painterly use of the camera, it happens, had long been a strong influence in Taymor's stagings, and it can be seen in her video of the production (available from Philips Classics on laser disc and VHS), which took top honors at the Montreal Film Festival.
Next, Zubin Mehta, who had been introduced to Taymor's work when she was presented the first Dorothy Chandler Performing Arts Award in theater at the Music Center in 1989, invited her to direct her second opera, Mozart's "The Magic Flute," at the Maggio Musicale in Florence, Italy, in 1993. The production so wowed producer Peter Gelb, who recently became head of Sony Classical, that he has asked her to follow in Ingmar Bergman's footsteps and direct a movie of the opera as part of a new series of Sony films on classical music.
Then it was Valery Gergiev's turn. The Kirov Opera's impetuous conductor was intrigued by her production of Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" in New York last winter (probably, Taymor jokes, because she had created such elaborately Baroque staging on a shoestring budget). He asked her to direct Strauss' "Salome" for the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia. Although all the reports aren't in yet from the June premiere (many dailies didn't cover it; the opera magazines will publish reviews this fall), she reportedly bedazzled a Russian company and audience little used to her elaborate sense of lighting and movement, her emphasis on myth and meaning, her ability to convey convincing sexiness.
Taymor, who was born in 1952 in Newton, Mass., has a background that ranges from Joseph Chaikin's Open Theater to years spent working in theater in Indonesia; from her student years in Paris, where she daily haunted the Cinematheque, to far-flung travels and direct contact with exotic cultures. Her productions, of Shakespeare and of original works, have attracted attention--including a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant--for their wondrous accumulation of foreign and familiar cultural traditions, and for their ability to express time frames that are simultaneously antediluvian and postmodern.
She might populate commedia dell'arte with plexiglass light puppets, as she did in "The King Stag," designed in 1984 for the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.
Or she might create an imaginative world of her own, as in "Juan Darien," in which the Far East meets Mexican specters and a jaguar cub turns into a boy and then back again, all with the help of bunraku puppets and Bengali fireworks. This was the production, staged in the basement of St. Clement's Church, that Stephen Sondheim called "one of the best theater pieces I've ever seen."
But what makes her work especially haunting is that it is never possible to put a finger on exactly what influence is operating. Myths and cultures flow together seamlessly on Taymor's stages. A coffee-table art book about her work, to be published this fall by Abrams, is as culturally multifaceted as one of Joseph Campbell's studies.