Hollywood filmmaker James Gray on his debut as an opera director

James Gray turned to opera while writing the screenplay for his latest film Armageddon Time, specifically a guitar version of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. And he directed his cast — which included Jeremy Strong, Anne Hathaway and Anthony Hopkins — almost as if he were directing an opera. This included “using a more basic approach to talking to the actors,” says Gray, “constantly talking about intent and trying to get to the heart of the scene.”

That’s because Gray was staging his first opera (The Marriage of Figaro) at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris just prior to filming Armageddon Time. A protracted pandemic delay later, he is now bringing the same piece to LA Opera, which opens at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this weekend.

Despite being a lifelong opera fan, Gray, 53, wasn’t looking for “Figaro” — which “wasn’t even my favorite Mozart opera,” he admits, while sitting in a quiet corner on the second floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. “My favorite is ‘Don Giovanni’. But now that I’ve done it, I think maybe ‘Figaro’ was the greatest.”

“I love just examining what these guys were doing in the late 1800s,” he continues. “Very subversive what they did. Because Contessa and Susanna have a tremendous say in the story. Her identity and feelings play a big part in the narrative, and what the opera says about her role in the world is quite revolutionary.”

A cast on stage.

The LA Opera cast of The Marriage of Figaro performs during dress rehearsal on Thursday February 2, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Gray is known for his dramatic, empathetic character studies in films like The Immigrant, starring Marion Cotillard as a Pole who arrives in rough 1920s New York, and We Own the Night, starring Joaquin Phoenix as a nightclub manager in rough Brooklyn 1980s and characters going on great odysseys in The Lost City of Z and Ad Astra.

He approached his debut opera not with the radical vision of an auteur filmmaker, but with an almost sacred reverence for the art form and this libretto – written by Lorenzo Da Ponte 237 years ago – about a rich and lecherous count trying to marry his servant’s fiancé steal, and the young couple’s plans to thwart him.

Gray jokes about “imposing his vision” on the opera, such as taking the characters into space aboard the Death Star from “Star Wars.”

“I don’t think that’s what I was brought here for,” he says. “I was brought here to direct it and to get the singers to be as dramatic as possible in portraying their characters, who have their roots in the libretto and the music.”

A peek at a sample of his work revealed an extremely faithful staging of the Mozart classic – of relationship hijinks and hanky-panky embedded in sticky melodies, sung by a cast including Janai Brugger as Susanna and Craig Colclough as Figaro, in a very traditional set . It was like going back to Mozart’s Vienna in 1786 in a time machine.

Director James Gray stands in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and watches the rehearsal.

Director James Gray stands in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and looks on during a dress rehearsal of LA Opera’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ on Thursday February 2, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Describing his responsibility as a director is difficult, Gray admits, because “if I could put it into words, it wouldn’t have to be an opera. It exists because music is the most direct route to the human heart, combined with behaviors that we recognize – even if they are oversized – and it recognizes and acknowledges the extremes of our soul. This is transcendence. That’s what art is for. That’s why I like opera.”

He didn’t always do that. Growing up in the Fresh Meadows neighborhood of Queens — “Not a fresh meadow anywhere,” he says dryly — Gray recalls driving to Manhattan with a group of — “I hate using that word” — underprivileged public school kids to to see a dress rehearsal of “Aida” at the Metropolitan Opera.

“And I hated it, of course,” he says. “I found it very boring.”

(The conductor that day was James Conlon, who is conducting Gray’s production of Figaro.)

He found his love for opera through films – films like “The Godfather” and “Raging Bull”. The first opera CD he bought was a 1977 recording of duets by Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland, and he was struck by how cinematic the overture and interlude were.

“But then you fall in love with the whole drama,” he says. “Actually, in my mid-20s, I began to believe that opera could be the greatest art form mankind has ever created.”

For example, he will listen to Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi sing Puccini as he prepares dinner for his wife and three children. His wife, producer Alexandra Dickson, doesn’t mind living in an opera-heavy household – her mother was an opera singer and that’s the thing they first bonded over.

Gray has channeled this love into several of his films: in Two Lovers, the character played by Elias Koteas says, “When you have someone you love, you take them to the opera”; Puccini’s “Il Trittico” inspired and permeated “The Immigrant”; and “Così Fan Tutte” is performed in the jungle of “The Lost City of Z”. For him there is no tension between the emotional enormity of opera and his inclinations as a filmmaker – although he has a hard time convincing some of his filmmaking friends to come along.

“The melodies are so committed to emotion that there’s no denying their appeal and power,” he says. “And that’s how it survived. That is why opera and film are very close together. In cinema we use a very pretentious word which is ‘oneiric’ which means sort of dreamlike. And in the opera you have exactly this almost fugue-like state – at best.”

“The wedding of Figaro”

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N Grand Avenue, Los Angeles CA, 90012
If: February 4-26. Dates and times can be found on the website.
Pricing: $29-$424
Duration: about three hours and 45 minutes, including a break. Sung in Italian with English subtitles.
Contact: https://www.laopera.org/, 213.972.8001

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