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Allegories for a Modern Audience

A Q&A: Poppea Production Director NJ Agwuna's approach to early opera with

General Director Mark Streshinsky

NJ Agwuna, Director

1. Working in the style of our earliest operas can present unique challenges to a director. How do you approach directing an early opera like Poppea?

NJ: I approach most operas, particularly older works, like I'm working on a classic play… like a Shakespearean text. So not only am I looking at the history of the text, I'm looking at the themes and the history of the musical score - and the way that they were writing music at that time - What are the stories that we can get not only from the libretto but also from the composition? I'm also looking at what was important at that time in history - what did they want their audiences to take from the piece?

For Poppea, I looked at the story and I started to think of allegories for a modern audience. That helps me think of design as well as what are the physical and dramaturgical actions for the characters, and the pictures that can help bring forth this piece, anew.

Claudio Monteverdi

M: Thinking of pieces like this in terms of allegories for a modern audience is absolutely the way to go with these early works. They can really seem daunting, and I was lucky that I first worked on them with directors who were passionate about telling the story and leading an audience down a path of connection. The structure is very different from the 18th and 19th century works, and the language is archaic - so, these operas require an understanding of those forms in order to, in some cases, throw them away and present these living, breathing characters as people we can recognize. Too often I have attended early works and seen them presented with disjointed imagery - as if the director didn’t understand, or worse, believe in the story and themes of the work. I’ve been thrilled to hear N.J.’s ideas so far, and can’t wait to see her take on Poppea.

2. How do you go about connecting a story about Ancient Rome to a modern audience? How might modern audiences connect to this story?

NJ: I look at the story, it's themes, the characters, and I create allegories - one-to-one comparisons of those characters to people that we know in popular culture. That way I'm able to really start thinking of the Opera with new eyes and considering the audience and how we are going to meet them, at which stage of life we're meeting them, and what is happening globally and interpersonally. I think: at what distance are we able to look at stories objectively? And that helps me figure out a time and place in which to present these characters.

Depending on the material, I also consider what is it that the audience needs at a specific time… is it contemplation? Or entertainment?

After considering all of these things, I hope the audience is able to see themselves in at least one character or at least recognize someone and invest in the story at hand.

This particular story, The Coronation of Poppea, is really FUN. It has all of the elements of a modern scandal: the clickbait articles of your favorite celebrities getting involved with different people, the TitkTok story times, the reality tv dramas playing out on podcasts and how that sucks people in and takes them out of their normal day-to-day life. Poppea is full of characters that we love to hate... no one is immune to scandal. There are various moments where you may feel like you're on someone's side, until they do something that feels against the grain. It's messy and complicated like a reality TV show with Baroque music. Monteverdi was lauded for bringing a modern spirit to music, and I believe an exciting way to revitalize that spirit is to dive into the guilty pleasures that entertain modern audiences.

The Magic Flute, NJ Agwuna's production from the 2021 Glimmerglass season

M: I’m so excited that N.J. believes in these pieces as entertainment… for a while that was a dirty word, thankfully I’ve now come across more directors that love to entertain people. This is the only opera I know of in which the bad guys win (sorry for the spoiler) I love that N.J. will be going for that delicious and salacious fun!

3. How do you intend to present the supernatural element of Poppea? How does that propel the story?

NJ: In this production of The Coronation of Poppea, I'm revitalizing something that Mark did in his previous production which is to not have the gods as present. Instead, I am utilizing technology to get at that outside pressure and explore what it is to be a public figure and be on display all the time, and try to find moments of intimacy and passion.

Because Nero is such a prominent figure, one of my main questions explores what he wants versus what he means to the people of Rome What happens when your desires and your responsibilities are in direct opposition with each other - and what does it mean for it all to be on display? Embedded in this concept are camera crews, the Press, spectators…

M: I removed the gods when I did the opera before, because I was going for brevity and I wanted to focus on the storytelling. Early pieces often have comments from the gods in order to set the story as a morality play and I wasn’t interested in that aspect. For N.J.’s production, a few ‘god moments’ have crept back in because for the way she wants to tell the story… and they work perfectly as a way for the audience to feel that these people are being watched all the time.

Ottone: Ryan Belongie, Poppea: Emma McNairy and Arnalta: Brian Thorsett from WEO's 2013 Festival Season

4. This is a story about terrible people! Why should we care about these characters?

NJ: It’s an interesting display of humanity to actually see an opera where the bad guys win and there are no consequences. We like to live our lives thinking that people will suffer the consequences of their actions, but we know as human beings that is not always the case.

And I think it's interesting to see that everyone, even those who we would consider good in this opera, have moments of weakness. Moments when they are only out for their own interest. I think about the time in which this opera was created, and what it means to go against the grain and go after what you want. I think this will be a moment for audiences to really question what is meant to happen next… and what I mean by that is: do these two actually live happily ever after? Or, will there be something else to cause this story to become cyclical? Will there be another Poppea?

M: As I write this I’m constantly worried about the debt ceiling and how some have used it to take the government hostage. I can see Poppea encouraging Nero to do something like this. So this ending should leave everyone feeling a sense of dread, indeed it’s a well-known though probably apocryphal story that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Many people will have an understanding of how this alliance affects the subjects of this emperor and understand that it caused political disaster. A cautionary tale for us today.


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