Meet Aria Umezawa, director of Thomas' Hamlet

Aria Umezawa is Artistic Director of Toronto-based company Opera 5 and the creator, director and writer of the popular video series “Opera Cheats," which has garnered hundreds of thousands of views worldwide. She recently completed her first year as an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera, and before that was apprentice stage director in the 2016 Merola Opera Program. 

Umezawa directs Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet this year. West Edge asked her a few questions about the work, which premiered to a captive Parisian audience in 1868. We bring in Edward Nelson in the title role, Emma McNairy (last seen with West Edge in Powder Her Face and 2015’s Lulu) as Ophélie, and Metropolitan Opera star Susanne Mentzer as Gertrude. West Edge Music Director Jonathan Khuner conducts. 

Scroll down for a glimpse into Aria's Hamlet world1

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Saturday, August 5 at 8 p.m.
Sunday, August 13 at 3 p.m.
Saturday, August 19 at 1 p.m.

WEO: Can you give us any insight into the production itself, like what you and the designers have been working on?

AU: When I read the French libretto, I was struck by how similar the story of Hamlet is to Aeschylus' Orestia. Both involve a mystical figure charging a son to kill a parent, both involve a protagonist who goes mad (or at least appears to go mad), and both involve a mother who has an affair with, and marries, a relative of her deceased husband. In the opera, Gertrude is very much implicated as an active participant in the murder of King Hamlet, and her role is dramatically increased, which gives us the opportunity to really flesh out her character.

So the design team and I have been working on tying Hamlet to the Orestia. I immediately thought about the Odeon of Herodes Atticus on the slope of the Acropolis. It's an ancient theatre that incorporates the surrounding environment. Over the millennia, it has crumbled and decayed, and is now this really cool artifact that ties us in the present to the past. Since we are performing in the Pacific Pipe, I thought it might be cool to create a sort of skene that looks like it could have existed in this factory, and show it in a state of decay (something is rotten in the state of Denmark, after all).

For costumes we have decided to go with a Goth look, not only because it is an aesthetic that fits with that of Pacific Pipe, but also because it is a style that can get very anachronistic. We can draw from many time periods, and really build a hierarchy into the design because Goth encompasses everything from health-goth (really natural fabrics) to glam-goth, to punk-goth. In this way, we can really show who belongs with who, and what their social status is.

Whitaker's designs for Hamlet, the ghost, Laertes and Marcellus

Whitaker's designs for Hamlet, the ghost, Laertes and Marcellus

WEO: Let's talk about Ophélie. What role does Ophelia play in the opera compared to the play? Can you talk about her mad scene?


AU: The French were generally captivated by the character of Ophelia. She is, what would later be dubbed, a femme-fragile: a woman who is beautiful, almost child-like, and made more beautiful through a madness or sickness which ultimately results in her death. She is the antithesis of the femme-fatale. This trope has been repeated throughout history, and it is particularly present in opera. Think Violetta, Mimi, and Lucia. The list goes on and on.

In Hamlet the opera, we have even less to go on to justify Ophelia's descent into madness. Polonius, her father, is not killed. She is not used as a pawn by the men around her as she is in the play. And yet in the opera, her drowning takes up all of Act 4 (we never see it happen in the play). The only thing we have to go on in the opera to justify this sudden madness, is a scene where she is cruelly rejected by Hamlet. For this day and age, it is definitely not an empowered or particularly nuanced portrayal of a female character.  

However, because we are working with opera, there is a lot of space for us to impose our own interpretation onto the framework. It is particularly important to me that we get the politics of Ophelia right. How can we use what is in the score to inform her character, and how can we give her some agency? We aren't re-writing the opera. She has to die – it is prescribed. But can we find a way to tell a more interesting story than simply, "She lived for a man, and when that man rejected her, she went crazy and died."

Maggie Whitaker's inspiration for Gertrude's costume

Maggie Whitaker's inspiration for Gertrude's costume

WEO: Thomas' Hamlet has been knocked for a number of reasons, particularly regarding the liberties taken with Shakespeare's story. Do you consider this a controversial work? What would you say to a nay-sayer?

AU: You know, the more I live with this piece, the less controversial I think it is. To the nay sayers, I would say this: There is a lot to be said about the concept of artistic autonomy, but briefly, it's the idea that instead of treating the document (in this case Shakespeare's original play) as gospel, we should empower the artists re-creating a work to tell whatever story they want to tell on their own terms.

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet for an English audience around the year 1600. Over two centuries later, Alexandre Dumas saw a performance of the play and felt so inspired that he wrote his own adaptation for French audiences, focusing on the elements of the story that resonated with him. Thomas took that play twenty years later, and turned it into an opera, injecting his own interpretation of the themes at play, and infusing the piece with grand harmonies, and profound musical gestures. 

Works like Shakespeare's Hamlet survive because artists like Dumas, Thomas, and now West Edge Opera, decide to breathe new life into it; show how it is still relevant; and shed light on the aspects of the story that Shakespeare himself would never have guessed would resonate over four-hundred years later. We can spend a lot of time fretting over how the famous "To be or not to be" monologue is mostly glossed over, or how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can’t die because they never made it into the opera in the first place, or we can reset our brains, watch with fresh eyes, and marvel at how a play like Hamlet has so much to it, that it can inspire people all over the world, and throughout history.