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PDX OPERAbeat | A Company Blog is the blog for all things Portland Opera, featuring a variety of guest contributors who will provide insider's tidbits on all we do to celebrate the beauty and breadth of opera.

Galileo Galilei: Meet the Director, Kevin Newbury

Overheard in a recent rehearsal:

Kevin: "Whatever the most amount of fire I can have, I want that."
Jennifer: "Like maybe a torch in a bucket?"
Kevin: "A torch in a bucket… maybe."
Lindsay: "Fire Bucket -- that's my nun name."
Jose: "Sister Fire Bucket."


I watch the cast use a table rack, swiped from our physical plant room, as a makeshift gondola, which involves Nick Nelson and André Chiang sitting on chairs on a platform about 4 1/2 feet long, facing each other. The constraints of the fake gondola are such that the two guys are seated nearly on each other's laps, and a ripple of laughter spreads through the cast when they're finally set.

Some costume pieces were added today: petticoats for the ladies, and cloaks and caps for the two Inquisitors. Nick has a black velvet cloak, trimmed at the neck in gold. They are AWESOME.


Meet the Director: Kevin Newbury


I recently sent members of the cast a few questions to answer for you, blog readers. Kevin graciously told me all about the fun and the challenge of working on modern shows like Galileo. Let's not ever break it to him that it doesn't stop raining in Portland, OK?

In the meet and greet, you told us you like to listen to the music of Philip Glass and John Adams for fun, in your own home. You mentioned, too, that you're 'definitely the person to talk to if you want to get into this music.' What would you say to someone who might be interested in developing an appreciation for composers like Glass and Adams?

I think the key is to go to the theatre (or put on your earphones) with an open mind, and let yourself be seduced by the music. Glass writes in a very ritualistic way and it rewards patience. The subtle shifts in harmony and meter, for instance, take longer to register, but when they do shift it can be incredibly cathartic and emotional. It is always helpful to listen to a bit of a composer's music before going to the theatre. I recommend Satyagraha (the final aria "Evening Song" is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written!)


Remind me: Is this your first time directing a Philip Glass opera?

It is... and I hope to do many more!


You mentioned that Galileo is basically a science class with music underneath. Having watched many hours of rehearsal at this point, I would say that's definitely the spirit of the production you're developing. Can you tell me a little bit about how you came up with your ideas for this show?

Galileo used every tool available to him to engage with the outside world. He perfected the telescope and conducted all sorts of experiments to help him understand the beauty of science and nature. Our production fills the stage with different tools ... ladders, ropes, chairs, lanterns, to help us tell the story. It's a very theatrical production that uses the same elements all evening in transformative ways. We have created our own rituals to connect science, nature, technology and music, and to communicate the emotional heart of the story. Galileo was a brilliant scientist, but he was also a fascinating man -- for instance, he was a devout Catholic who loved his children.


What's the biggest challenge with this opera?

The cast is onstage for the entire performance and they are busy throughout... not only singing and acting, but moving props and scenery, listening, observing. It takes immense concentration and a true ensemble spirit to pull this kind of production off, and the cast is 100% game!


Although the shows you've directed run the gamut, from traditional shows like La Boheme to shows like Galileo, you're particularly interested in new works. What is it about premiering a work that interests you so much?

I think that the future of opera depends on fostering new work. I love working with living composers and librettists because, of course, you can collaborate with them directly and ask them questions about their work. Opera should be as current and relevant as film, television and theatre. What are the stories that we need to tell today? How can we use music to look at life in the 21st century? For me, Galileo is a very contemporary story... all you have to do is turn on the news to see the battle between science and religion raging on.


I know you've had some conversations with Mary Zimmerman, who wrote the libretto for Galileo. I would imagine that a benefit to being involved with new works is having the ability to call the composer (or librettist, or lyricist, etc.) up on the phone, or send an email, when a question arises. On the flip side, when you're creating a new production of a classic work (like Boheme), you don't have to worry about the composer's opinion at all. Is one situation easier than the other? How frequently do composers get involved?

Well, certainly dead composers and librettists can be easier, in theory, but that is nowhere near as much fun! There is no greater honor than working directly with the creators of a work of art to help them realize their vision. It's also fun doing a production like Galileo that hasn't been produced very often since the premiere. Mary has been very generous and helpful, offering insight but encouraging us to explore the work anew.


I find myself singing this music in my mind while I'm lying in bed. There's no escaping it. What, if anything, do you listen to in order to get Philip Glass out of your head?

I am a musical omnivore. I listen to a lot of jazz and electronic music. I am also a big pop music fan. I am obsessed with Bjork right now after seeing her Bibliophilia concert in New York a few weeks ago. Galileo would have loved the way she used music and technology to look at the natural world. My dirty secret: I can't wait for the new Madonna album -- that's about as far away from Glass as I can get, but I agree that Glass and Madonna both get stuck in my head with equal ferocity!


What kinds of things do you like to do in your spare time?

I love to read and listen to live music of all types. And I am a total cinephile. I also love hiking, canoeing and being outside... one of the reasons I love Portland -- when it isn't raining!