Vancouver playwright and director Amiel Gladstone has had only one thing loaded on his iPod these days: the music of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, the opera he’s set to helm.
Even on a trip to Scotland for a playwrights’ retreat earlier this fall, it was all he took with him. It’s just another sign of how seriously he’s taking his first directing gig at Vancouver Opera and how devoted the rising star is to his craft.
“I felt like, ”˜You can’t listen to anything else.’ I thought, ”˜That’s wasted time,’ because it’s that fear of not knowing it when everyone else knows it so well,” the thoughtful, sandy-haired artist tells the Straight over coffee before rehearsals with his crack team of singers at the nearby Holy Rosary Cathedral. But all that exposure has only made him appreciate the music more: “That’s the great thing about working on opera: you get to listen to amazing singers every day.”
Gladstone’s momentous operatic assignment comes amid the busiest year of his career. In early November, he saw the premiere of his new play, The Trolley Car, by the Solo Collective at Performance Works. After Lucia di Lammermoor, he’ll immediately step into directing duties at the Vancouver Playhouse for its much-anticipated January production of the urban comedy This, a recent off-Broadway hit that features Canadian star Megan Follows. And right on the heels of that, he’ll direct a colossal 100-person stage experiment called 100% Vancouver during late January at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. He’ll also be developing a show about text messaging with Green Thumb Theatre.
It’s a mix that would be unheard of for most theatre artists: big-budget shows at regional operas and stages, and experimental endeavours at indie companies and fests. But Gladstone seems to be taking the daunting schedule in stride. “I’m kind of enjoying the multitasking right now. It feels overwhelming but it also feels manageable,” he says. “All of the projects that I’m working on I feel ready for.”¦It’s so bizarre to have this much in one year, but it also feels right where I want to be.”
Gladstone came to the world of opera with minimal experience, aside from once singing in the opera chorus as a fine-arts student at the University of Victoria. Since then, he’s been deeply entrenched in Vancouver’s theatre scene, penning plays like The Wedding Pool and directing works like Tape, a play set and performed in a Waldorf Hotel room during the 2009 Vancouver International Fringe Festival, and Morris Panych’s The Ends of the Earth at the Belfry. His relationship with Vancouver Opera began about five years ago, when he was one of four stage directors brought on for a two-year program to assist on shows and take master classes in the form. That led to a gig directing the Vancouver Opera in Schools production of 2009’s Jack Pine, composed by Veda Hille.
The experiences opened a new world of directing for him. “We’re now doing opera better than they ever imagined when they initiated the art form,” he says. “I knew there was this kind of new energy behind the art form, and so I felt like it was maybe another way to work on directing—but on a much larger, different scale.”
While he had been training with the VO, Gladstone won an emerging-artist award from the Vancouver Opera Guild in 2008 that allowed him to go, later that year, to Oper Frankfurt to observe rehearsals of Lucia di Lammermoor. And it was that experience that led to the invitation to helm his own production of it here—complete with elaborate sets from the San Francisco Opera and singers that include Eglise Gutiérrez, one of the top Lucias in the world, and fast-rising tenor Michael Fabiano.
The setting amid the brooding Scottish moors may be grand, but Gladstone has been digging to get at the emotional crux of the story of a young Scottish woman, Lucia, who loves her clan’s enemy but is forced to marry another man for financial reasons—and is pushed into madness. Gladstone says he’s approached the piece very much as the playwright he is, seeking to stage a Lucia that Donizetti himself might have liked.
“There’s kind of a gorgeous simplicity to it, with beautiful tune after beautiful tune,” he says of the bel canto work. “I realized all the men are involved in taking care of themselves and are very worried about their own survival, so nobody shows her any generosity or compassion or love—other than her lover.”
He’s cast the tragic opera’s famous mad scene in terms he can understand: the deranged passion of unhinged teenage love, “one of the strongest emotions we can ever experience”.
Still, the self-effacing young director admits there have been challenges. “The biggest has been that I’m a new director”¦so there’s always a feeling-out period where they want to make sure you’re not being led by a crazed person,” he says. “The other big difference is that, normally, for myself as a director, I want to feel ahead of the performers. With theatre I’m usually a week ahead of the actors and know the text and have a general idea of where I want to push them. In this case, you can’t know it better than the singers, because they’ve lived it. It’s in their bodies and it’s completely familiar and they have ways of doing it that have been very successful.”
No doubt about it: the opera is a huge moment for Gladstone. But then, there will also be challenges interpreting playwright Melissa James Gibson’s idiosyncratic dialogue in the premiere of This, next door at the Vancouver Playhouse. Or corralling 100 everyday Vancouverites, all nonactors, in Theatre Replacement’s 100% Vancouver at PuSh. Clearly, Gladstone doesn’t shy away from difficult tasks, on big stages or small.
“I really do love how the stages are so different,” he says. “It will always be important that I can go from these kinds of projects to Fringe shows in hotel rooms for 12 people.”