If Cori Ellison has heard it once, she’s probably heard it a million times: What exactly is a dramaturg?
“I strive to understand and support the concepts of the directors and their process,” Ellison explained. “This can take many forms. It can be research, giving feedback at rehearsals, or speaking to audiences and journalists. One of my big responsibilities here is curating the editorial content of the program.
“It really has to do with the evolution of opera in America in the 20th century,” said Robert Meya, the new general director at the Santa Fe Opera. He worked with Ellison, who is the first dramaturg in the company’s 62-year history, at the New York City Opera and recruited her to come to Santa Fe from her last position at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in Britain. “In the mid-20th century, there were still a lot of what we called ‘park and bark’ operas: great voices, lavish sets, and not a lot of acting going on. These days, audiences have come to expect dramatically compelling evenings.”
In Santa Fe, Ellison will be involved in the company’s commissioned operas as a development dramaturg, which means she works with the directors, composers, librettists, and staff to hone the work to its most effective incarnation. She also gives talks about the operas and leads full-day adult seminars.
Ellison teaches opera dramaturgy at the American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program. In addition to her new position in Santa Fe, she serves as dramaturg for the Canadian Opera Company, Opera Philadelphia, Arizona Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, Pittsburgh Opera, Beth Morrison Projects, Indiana University, the Miller Theater, On-Site Opera, and Crane School of Music. She is a vocal arts faculty member at The Juilliard School and Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute. She also teaches, lectures, and writes for schools, performance venues, and a number of publications.
“It’s the greatest job in the world,” said Ellison, who is based in Santa Fe. “I get paid to learn. There is always new work, new productions, new commissions. I get paid to be the best-informed person around so I can support everyone. But at the end of the day, as a dramaturg you are an advisor, not a decider.”
In the case of this summer’s three new productions, La bohème, Così fan tutte, and The Thirteenth Child, production teams have been at work for three years — on each. As a relative latecomer to the process, Ellison says her role was to offer advice only if asked for it.
She is already fully involved in the transformation of David Henry Hwang’s Tony-winning play, M. Butterfly, into an opera of the same name for the 2020 season.
“For opera, we look for moments in a story that allow for lyrical expansion,” said Ellison, speaking about moments for an aria, when the music takes over the action. “You need to have a solid understanding of theatrical form and how words and music work together. I help composers and librettists create a road map of the story, so they can go off and do their thing.”
Rufus Wainwright, who worked with Ellison to produce his opera, Hadrian, for Canadian Opera Company, calls a dramaturg “a marriage counselor.” Ellison, in other words, is paid to be the calm person in the room. “A composer and a librettist each have a vision and don’t always see eye to eye,” Ellison said. “Things can get heated. These are creative people with strong opinions. I like to point out to them where their visions intersect. I’m the impartial one in the process.
“I try to offer feedback in an almost clinical way. I tell them what I’m seeing and hearing. A doctor wouldn’t say to a patient, ‘Oh my god, you look terrible.’ Similarly, I wouldn’t say, ‘This is awful.’ I would say, ‘The storytelling could be a little clearer in this part. Maybe we could try X or Y,’ ” said Ellison, a former singer who preferred research and development over fame. “I make little interventions. You leave them, hopefully, with a very solid structure to create from.”
At Glyndebourne, she helped develop the 2017 opera Hamlet by composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn. The objective was to capture the spirit, if not the letter, of Shakespeare’s play. “If you set every word to music it would be longer than [Wagner’s four-hour] Tristan und Isolde, and not as much fun.”
The finished libretto relied on Shakespeare’s text, she said, although it was truncated and rearranged. “It was a real process of orchestrating fragments of Hamlet.”
It took three years.
She also worked with composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek to create an operatic version of the 1996 Lars von Trier movie Breaking the Waves. “It was the first time I helped adapt an opera from a film. In an opera based on a prose source, like a novel, music is written to fill in descriptive passages written by the author. In this case, with a film, the music does the heavy lifting of the cinematographer’s work: closeups, angles, how the light hits the subject.”
Building relationships is key to the dramaturg’s role. When Darko Tresnjak, the director of The Thirteenth Child, arrived in Santa Fe to begin work, Ellison was meeting him for the first time. “Every director has a different way of working. If they grow to know you and trust you, they really want to hear what you have to say. I’m going to be looking for cues from Darko, because we haven’t worked together before.”
In the case of R.B. Schlather, the director of Così fan tutte, Ellison’s expertise in storytelling may be useful. “He has an unusual point of view. He comes from a visual arts orientation and is very tuned into contemporary art and photography. He’s taking a very mythological approach. Not that Così is literally based on myth, but that this prototype of disguised lovers, and the testing of fidelity, is an ancient trope. That’s what gives it resonance.
“Universality is the easiest path for achieving a contemporary feeling,” she said. “The universality of a story lets you perceive it as something that could happen anywhere and anytime. I’m going to be sitting in on rehearsals offering observations. We’ve worked together before, and I know he’s open to that.”
Ellison said the reason good directors change the time or setting of an existing work is to recreate the effect that the original production had on the original audiences.
“Salome caused fistfights and riots at the opening. Traviata almost didn’t get onstage because the subject matter [a courtesan dying of consumption] was controversial.”
The director wants you to experience what drew Verdi to the story in the first place, she said. “Verdi was presumably moved, provoked, and shocked by his own subject matter. That is where directors want you to go today.” ◀