Broadway Meets Opera in Legendary Stage Director Dorothy Danner

This article was originally published in Classical Singer magazine. To subscribe to the print magazine, go to www.csmusic.info/subscribe.

Beginning at a young age, Dorothy Danner became a performer on Broadway for numerous shows. She also appeared on TV in The Perry Como Show and The Ed Sullivan Show and on film in The Producers directed by Mel Brooks. As a stage director for opera, she has directed some 200 productions throughout the U.S., Canada, and Belgium. 

As an exponent of new opera, she has also staged premieres of works composed by Seymour Barab, Margaret Garwood, Sheldon Harnick, Marvin Hamlisch, Kirke Mechem, Thea Musgrave, and Richard Wargo. As an educator, Danner has served on the faculties of the Juilliard School, Curtis Institute of Music, the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA), New York University, Boston University, the Chautauqua Institution, and Carnegie Mellon University—and she cofounded the Glimmerglass Young Artist Program. To top it all off, Danner comes from a theatrical family including actors Blythe, Harry, and Hillary Danner, Gwyneth Paltrow, Katherine Moennig, and writer/filmmaker Jake Paltrow. 

As director of Virginia Commonwealth University Opera, I have brought Danner to work with our students three times in the past 10 years, most recently in December of 2018. She offers countless lessons for growth—from stagecraft to human values. At 78, Danner remains vigorously active. She is enthusiastic and engaging. She exudes empathy and kindness. 

Her artistic integrity and profound understanding of humanity infuse the many decades of her contributions as a performer, choreographer, director, and master teacher for the world of theatre and opera. In the following interview, discover more of Danner’s story and learn what stage directors are hoping you will bring to the staging process. 

 

Will you tell us about your start as a dancer, actress, and choreographer? 

I started dance lessons (ballet and a bit of tap) at 8. I started dancing as an equity union summer stock professional at 15 in St. Louis. I was not even able to attend my own high school graduation ceremony because at 18 I was hired for Broadway’s touring show of Li’l Abner and had to move to New York during the week of my graduation. I had already done 30 shows in St. Louis working 63 hours a week. Of course, in those days, there were no dance departments in colleges, so this was my only option. 

I had my very first vocal solo in this Broadway show. I’d never sung onstage before! Anyhow, I had a solo at the top of the show (she laughs) and it was scary. A few months after it closed, that show led to being hired for Once Upon a Mattress. I learned discipline and courage from the leading master of Broadway George Abbott, clowning from Carol Burnett, and physicalizing and comic dance ideas from Joe Layton. 

 

Did you have voice and acting lessons at some point? 

When I was 18, I realized what you had to do to stay in this business, so I started taking voice lessons from a teacher I had toured with in Li’l Abner. Someone eventually sent me to a voice teacher named Madame Tweety [laughter]—it was a Broadway style of singing. But she did make me sing Schumann’s “Ich grolle nicht.” I just had minimal talent as a singer. But I didn’t understand that until I started working in opera. 

Then, when I got hired for Once Upon a Mattress, Jane White (who was playing Queen Aggravain and who was a brilliant actress) watched me in rehearsal for two days and said, “You’re coming to my acting classes.” There was no choice with her! She saw some instincts in me, so she felt I should start training right away. She was a very technical teacher. 

I studied with her for years and then had another teacher after that for years as well. If you don’t get to go to university for training, then you have to figure it out yourself and keep your eyes open. Thank goodness I was always lucky enough to be employed, so I saturated myself by learning on the job. 

 

How did you get your start as a choreographer? 

Well, I fell into it because somebody opened a door and said, “We need your help!” And then I did Broadway show after Broadway show. At 22, I stopped doing it because I wanted to use the acting skills and comedy skills I had learned. So I did tons of industrial shows (they paid well) and then returned to Broadway about three years later. 

 

How did you get started as a stage director? 

When I returned to Broadway and did a string of shows there, something had changed. What changed was the fact that I met this tenor—an operatic tenor [Harry Danner]. We did a show together and then he was taken into the Metropolitan Opera studio. So, we married! And I started learning all about opera. 

I had seen a few operas but, through Harry, I soon became a part of the opera world. I was working at the Lincoln Center at that time while he was singing La bohème. Shortly after, I went to Lake George Opera, where I met a brilliant director [Patrick Bakman] on his first solo show as director. He asked me to choreograph Die Fledermaus. Though I told him I had never done this sort of thing for the opera world before, I nevertheless agreed to take it on. 

Next, he invited me to Tulsa Opera with him to do “Baby Doe” as assistant director. I said, “What am I supposed to do? I don’t know how to do any of this!” He responded simply, “Be my eye.” 

So I never really learned, even then, how to be an assistant director, how to take notes, etc. He wanted me to watch. Here was a man with all sorts of degrees; he was the opposite of me. But I had the practical knowledge. He opened my eyes to so many things. That was my start in opera. 

 

Next, he said to me, “I’ve just been offered a show, but it would really be better for you because it has a lot of movement.” He gave me the show! But I felt so behind. That’s why I am forever constantly buried in Nico Castel’s books. 

Next, I was asked to choreograph a couple of comic ballets for La traviata and Die Fledermaus at Lake George, and I received other invitations from there. At that point in time, opera companies were trying to build their audiences by including lighter fare, like musical theatre shows and, because that was my background, I would be given Gilbert and Sullivan or The Student Prince (seems as if I did hundreds of those!), The Merry Widow, Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein and La Périchole. And that’s what got me into it—the timing of their needs and my background. 

 

As a stage director, what shortcomings do you perceive in terms of today’s typical training of opera students? 

Well, so many of them have minimal movement or dramatic training—though I find that singers today have more physical vocabulary than they did in the past. One of the most difficult challenges seems to be the waltz. And not just a slow waltz, but a Viennese waltz that might occur in Die Fledermaus or The Merry Widow. You will save your cast and director many hours of tedious rehearsal if you learn to waltz now. 

I think movement training and the cultivation of physical imagination are extremely important. They will help you find the “spine” of the character and to explore your character’s physicality, rhythm, behavior patterns, etc. If you tend to schlep in your natural carriage and gait, then ballet is also good and it can be useful for very stylized period shows. Improvisation is wonderful for loosening up bodies and imagination onstage. 

In terms of acting craft, there are so many ways to teach it. Singers have the unique experience of working one on one with their teachers, which is totally different from learning to be an actor or dancer. Actors usually have many scene partners, and dancers are in constant physical contact with others. That’s why opera scenes programs are tremendously valuable for singers. That is where, with guidance, you can develop the technique for true communication with your stage partners, which is absolutely basic to your craft—otherwise, it’s all artificial. 

I urge singers to experience all of the arts. Go to see plays, operas, musicals. Go to films and observe what choices the actors or artists have made to depict their characters. What does their physical behavior reveal? Shyness, arrogance, lustiness, contentedness, cynicism, playfulness, decadence, anxiety? Are the clues in the posture, tilt of the head, movement of the eyes, walk, rhythm of gait, use of a prop, tension in the body? 

 

This observation work is a fun and valuable exercise that can be done anywhere: public transportation, church, a park, a party. An artist must never stop observing. Watch videos of operas and turn off the sound and study the movement. Which performers move you emotionally in these exercises? Why? If two characters love each other, how do their bodies respond that makes you believe they love each other? Everyone finds their own way into characters. Explore! 

Also, I realize that many students are burdened by overcrowded schedules and don’t have adequate time for real preparation. However, there is no way to be truthful if you don’t know every word of the foreign language text in English as you deliver it. Meet your scene partners on breaks and speak the text in English and then speak it in the foreign language, or whatever it takes. 

 

How do you feel about the prevalent trend of displaced time and location settings versus traditional settings for operas? 

I try not to judge it. I say, “That’s where their head is”—it’s very courageous! I worked a lot with Jonathan Miller at Glimmerglass, and in his book Subsequent Performances, he offers a sort of rule: “If a piece takes place at the time it was written, it should never be changed. But if the piece was written about an earlier time, then one has the freedom to alter the setting.” Time settings impact me in a different sort of way because, as a dancer, I work physically with people. I want to see their shapes and the lines of their bodies. 

For example, I once did a Gianni Schicchi, which is meant to be set in 1299. Well, the costumes of that medieval time period are lumpy and formless, baggy—and everyone’s bodies were all smothered in the same shape—and yet the story is filled with such disparate and amazing characters. So, I decided to update that show to the 1940s. I also once updated L’italiana in Algeri to the 1930s. 

La Calisto was my first Baroque piece, and my wonderful conductor Gary Wedow, who is renowned for his Baroque music work, said, “We get to shape it. Let’s do it like a Broadway show!” We had a grand time, and it certainly gave the show a fresh timelessness. I have admired many updated productions, but I don’t want to force contemporary work on my style. 

 

Oftentimes when we attend operas nowadays, it’s more about the stage director’s concept than the composer’s music and the librettist’s text and story. Are opera productions meant to serve the story and composer or the director? 

When I listen to the music over and over again, for me, it’s about the imagery that I get. I feel an obligation to the text and music. Perhaps the most exciting thing is having the opportunity to premiere new works after you workshop them with the composer. 

Richard Wargo and I have done five operas like this, and there is no experience more fascinating. We all are searching—searching for the characters to unfold in the safety of the workshop situation—and then the composer can rewrite as we go. For traditional repertory, I try to serve the piece rather than superimposing something on top. 

 

In auditions, what is it you are looking for? 

Above all, there’s a certain thing we need to see: an openness. With auditions, here is an important thing to learn: we are not up there looking for faults. We are looking for help

We want you to reveal as much as you can in the audition rather than striving to be correct. I’m seeking someone who knows more about the role than I do. Don’t play it safe in an audition. I look for commitment to the text. 

I also watch body language. If there is a lot of tension in the body and the chest is closed, then I feel unsure about how open the artist will be to exploration in rehearsal. We want to know who you are and who the character is and what you can express. From the entrance, we want to be able to say, “This will be interesting.” Reveal that you will help us tell the story. 

 

What is your planning process for a standard opera you’ve never directed before in a foreign language? 

With Nico Castel! The first thing is to enter the literal translation. For me, the research comes at the same time as translating—and also listening to the music over and over. Let your thoughts flow. Sometimes ideas pop into my head as I’m driving or ironing. 

I love to undertake the historical, sociological, cultural, and artistic background research. I use art history books and study the art of the time period. I watch films set in that time period. What did ladies do for entertainment in that time period? How did servants behave in that time period? 

I question people. I study groups of people in paintings and photographs, which helps me to create meaningful compositions on the stage. And then, you know, I love working with a chorus—the dramatic support they give, the colors they can add—maybe because I was in the Broadway chorus myself at first. There, you learned that you must pull your weight and add theatricality to every scene—but to add it responsibly. When I go to the Met, it’s a special thrill to recognize my former students not only performing exciting leading roles, but also to see others doing outstanding work in the chorus. 

In closing, do you have general words of advice to young singers? 

Aren’t we lucky? We are so fortunate to be around beautiful music all day and to share our hearts and souls with other talented artists. Take joy in what you are doing! If you don’t have a full-time career as a singer, search for a way to express your gift in whatever capacity is available. 

In terms of production work, there are those singers who want to be told every little move—or to be choreographed—by the stage director, because they feel safe only within a tight structure. Then there are others who prefer to be left alone with the directing process. There are also those who have performed the role many times before. We, as directors, don’t know any of that when we start the rehearsal process. 

This is what makes directing opera so challenging, unless you are doing a newly composed opera and everyone is starting fresh together. Know that you will work with many different kinds of directors. Some directors will want you to follow exactly every direction—and some, like me, enjoy more playful exploration. Stay open and positive! 

Come in to the first rehearsal with thoughts and research of the character and the period. It is impressive for a director to sense that you have done your homework, and it is the director’s job to bring out the very best in every performer. Delving into the research and making choices will personalize and deepen the characterization and will create a sense of ownership. 

The best artists I know never stop searching for a deeper and more interesting interpretation. Make active choices for your character and never settle to play a result such as, “I’m sad, I’m happy, I’m lonely.” This leads to what I call opera face, which is one emotion for an aria or scene. 

It is also important to excite each other in rehearsal. We want to see from the get-go how well you can relate to your partners onstage. How well do you listen to your partners? Are you really seeing what’s going on around you? Make choices with your partners and help to build a strong ensemble feeling. 

I thought of something this morning that I wish someone would have told me when I was young. My sister-in-law, the brilliant actress Blythe Danner, was the speaker recently at AMDA’s [American Musical and Dramatic Academy] graduation in New York City—my niece was graduating. The message was never to personalize anything because you will never really know why you were hired, not hired, fired, or whatever. Personalizing is a waste of time. You cannot know the details behind certain choices. 

Sometimes, someone might give you a really rough time in rehearsal—but it’s not about you, it’s more likely about them. Just cope with your insecurities and with others’ insecurities. We have all chosen a business where we are very exposed. You’re going to have so many ups and downs, but it’s the way you respond to defeat or negativity that matters. Will you complain, argue, give up, or turn it into a source of strength? 

Melanie Kohn Day

Melanie Kohn Day is associate professor of music at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts in Richmond. She serves as director of the award-winning VCU Opera, as vocal coach, History of the Art Song instructor, and Voice Masterclass teacher. She spent 15 summers in Italy working for Operafestival di Roma and served as its artistic director for the last six of those years. In addition to her activities as a pianist for singers, Day maintains a freelance coaching/voice studio for young professional singers.