AT a recent rehearsal of his new production of Kurt Weill's "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" for Los Angeles Opera, British director John Doyle is busily breaking down the fourth wall.
Looking beach-resort cool in an aqua sweater and cream slacks, Doyle appears out of place as he strolls among ragtag cast members toting suitcases and wiping imaginary sweat from their brows as they trudge like weary Ellis Island immigrants into Mahagonny, a new city in the Old West that promises the glitter of gold.
Also somewhat out of place but for a different reason are cast members Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone, Tony winners more associated with Broadway stardom than the opera stage, sharing top billing with tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who portrays the doomed Jimmy Macintyre. Other distinguished opera performers in the cast include Donnie Ray Albert, Mel Ulrich and Robert Worle.
Contrary to accepted conventions of the theater, Doyle is instructing his players to break character to let the audience in on the artifice when another cast member is the focus of attention.
In fact, he tells the chorus line of women portraying Mahagonny's very available prostitutes that it's OK to look a bit distracted, maybe even a little resentful, when Jenny Smith, the hooker portrayed by McDonald, is selling herself with a song -- just like real performers waiting their turn at a cattle call.
"Show that this is playacting," suggests the even-tempered Doyle, whose comments always seem less stage direction than polite request. "Let's bring a little bit of the dressing room onto the stage."
Doyle also wants the characters to play everything bigger than big; he surprises Worle, the suitably plus-sized tenor who essays the role of Fatty the Bookkeeper, with the suggestion: "You can be \o7fatter\f7."
"Do it bigger" is the kind of direction that represents pure catnip to LuPone, who stars as the amoral madam Leocadia Begbick. This diminutive performer often ends up in larger-than-life roles -- Eva Peron in "Evita," Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" -- and she appears eager to take things over the top again as she belts out her character's get-rich-quick philosophy: "It's easier getting gold out of men than out of rivers."
When Doyle asks the cast to try emoting as though playing the largest theater they can possibly think of, LuPone hollers back: "Well, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is no shrinking violet!" The home of L.A. Opera seats about 3,000.
Doyle predicts that not everyone will appreciate his take on Weill's 1930 opera "Mahagonny," the dark tale of how lust for money causes the downfall of a new city and its denizens. The libretto is by Bertolt Brecht, whose three-year creative partnership with Weill also resulted in "The Threepenny Opera," and during a lunch break, Doyle says that he's trying to do Brecht without being, well, \o7Brechtian\f7.
"I know if I read that something is Brechtian, I think, 'Oh, I'm not going, it'll be \o7dreary\f7,' " Doyle says, invoking his favorite word for what theater should never be. "But it really is about breaking the fourth wall, telling us what we're about to watch. Musical theater and opera are such heightened form -- I mean, you and I are not sitting here singing arias at each other. The director should take advantage of that.
"But you should still be emotionally involved. There's a danger of thinking that about Brecht: 'Oh, I don't get emotionally involved,' and I don't think that's good theater.
"Yes, it is presentational, it is simple, and the performer knows the audience is there. It has a certain element of being declamatory. It has maybe street theater and circus theater influences, rather than just being influenced by the theater of Ibsen and Chekhov. It's vital and sexy and alive. I see a danger in getting too much involved in it as a philosophy."
In fact, his fourth-wall-blasting "Brechtian" approach in his recent Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" was born not of adherence to a philosophy but of necessity. "We didn't have much money," he says. In that stripped-down, small-cast production, which won Doyle his first Tony for musical direction, the cast also served as the band. Picture LuPone, who played Mrs. Lovett, purveyor of meat pies made of human hamburger, playing the tuba.
Making an impression
L.A. Opera general director Placido Domingo says it was "Sweeney Todd" that led the opera company to Doyle. "His amazing attention to both the musical and the dramatic aspects of that production convinced us that he would be the ideal choice as a director," Domingo says.
Not everyone was similarly impressed, Doyle acknowledges. "I get 'How dare you' letters: 'How dare you do that to Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece?' " he says, sounding quite pleased by the fact. "Well, Stephen Sondheim was \o7in the room\f7. The point of the theater is that you explore the story differently every single time."