This is part of CS Music’s ongoing “Influencers of Singing” series. If you have questions you would like submitted or influencers to recommend, email email@example.com.
Influencers of Singing: 7 Questions with Stage Director, Kristine McIntyre
CS Music Question 1: How did you get into directing?
Kristine McIntyre: I’ve always wanted to be a director since high school. I was originally a theater director but pretty quickly in college I realized that Opera was the direction where I wanted to go. I spent my junior year of college in England during a period when many conceptual productions were just getting starting. It was the kind of opera that felt a lot like theater and I thought, that’s what I wanted to do. Since there was no place in America to study opera direction or that kind of opera in America at the time, I went back to England for my graduate degree. So, I have an English degree in theater and then started in opera right after that.
CS Music Question 2: Why did you choose opera?
Kristine McIntyre: I like non-naturalistic story telling. I grew up in the theater watching a lot well-made plays. While I thought they were always very interesting, my natural inclination was always towards the stuff that was a little “out there.” I deeply feel music can tell stories. I find music itself to be really narrative and I wanted to use that medium. I enjoy the bigness of opera too. I like choruses and the scale of storytelling.
CS Music: So, Waiting for Godot is not exactly your cup of tea?
Kristine McIntyre: I like intimate and emotionally wrought stuff in that way. I am intrigued by the place where theater, music, dance and the visual arts all come together. That’s a pretty good description of what one can do on the opera stage.
CS Music Question 3: As you look back, are there any productions you’ve seen or been a part of that stand out as extremely creative or inventive?
Kristine McIntyre: The first thing I ever saw that was a really conceptual production was something I saw in England. I saw an updated production of Orphee – it was at the Gluck and Orpheus was carrying a guitar in a t-shirt and torn jeans… it was a Harry Kupfer production at Covent Garden. It emerged as an evocative and moving production, using a lot of video and beautiful big ideas. Really moving. I remember sitting in the audience thinking, “Wow, this is something I want to do.”
I worked at the San Francisco Opera very early in my career and assisted and saw productions that were lovely in scale and theatrical media. I’ve been very lucky to do some new work that I am very proud of, too. A production of Ulysses in Pittsburg that I turned into a really conceptual production was the first show where I got to test my theories about what I can do theatrically with the art form. The production of Moby Dick that I’m working on right now is kind of a natural extension of that. I’m told that if you look at a lot of my productions there is very much a “Kristine style”. I’m not sure I can articulate what that is but other people out there can look at a photo and say, “Oh yeah that’s a Kristine show”.
CS Music: What do they say makes it a “Kristine Show”?
Kristine McIntyre: You could say a certain level of theatricality and cleanliness in the aesthetics. Perhaps because I have a British theater background there is a certain look – my shows are not particularly overdressed. If there is something on stage it’s because we use it. My shows tend to be visceral and often really physical. Lighting wise they tend to have either saturated color or really wide and really strong looks.
CS Music Question 4: When you look at ‘up and coming’ singers these days, do you have any suggestions on how they can get to the main stage?
Kristine McIntyre: What sets apart performers that I want to work with is they come with ideas and an opinion about the work. They are unique individuals. Often I see this thought that we want all voices to work in the same way and to perform in the same way in music schools. Yet it’s the uniqueness of the stars that makes them who they are. Most people I work with at large opera houses stand out are the outliers. Find out who you are as an artist and do that. Be that artist that you are on stage instead of the cookie cutter ideal. You have to know who you are before you can be someone else on stage. Have a good sense of where you’re coming from and what your talents are.
CS Music: That’s interesting because the opera world seems like such a defined, absolutism kind of a world in that here’s the art form and you better do it the way we want it done. And your suggestion is to forget that and do your thing?
Kristine McIntyre: It’s interesting having worked with a lot of people who are considered big stars now early in their careers. I worked with Anna Nebtrebco on her US debut in San Francisco. It wasn’t the fact that she could sing and was really pretty. There were people on the side lines saying that she sang with really bad technique and yet she is a huge star! She has a uniqueness in how she approaches what she does. It’s the way she makes the art form her own. That’s what makes us want to buy the tickets and see her and others sing live, and to work with them. We’ve stopped having a cookie cutter art form which is exciting for me, but terrifying for those that like the status quo. But that’s clearly not where we are anymore. Artists are going to have to be incredibly flexible to stay in this art form. The art form is shifting – it’s not enough to sing Bel Canto runs anymore.
CS Music- Question 5: I see singers around the country that want the “paint by numbers” method on how to become successful. You’re telling us to just “be yourself”?
Kristine McIntyre: Be yourself and be a really good version of yourself. Be really good at what you do. I’ve yet to meet a singer that I would call “over prepared”. There is always more that someone can do. Those that are successful and adapting well to this new world come with new ideas having done their research. They have great technique and sing with their own voice. Not a voice that has been put on them by their voice teacher or agent. They know who they are when they stand up on that stage so they have a lot to give because they are working from a place of knowledge. And yet they are willing to be pushed outside of their comfort zones. When you get the singers that just want to do the same roles the next 10 years they are going to find that’s not the way the opera companies work anymore.
Summer programs are a great place be a young American singer these days because many new composers use summer programs to commission operas for their studio program. You could possibly have the chance work with a living composer who will have a lot of opinions and you’ll be singing really hard music where you are always looking for your pitch but that’s the new wave of American operas these days.
CS MUSIC – Question 6: Robert Swedberg once told me to tell CS Music to not to send us anymore singers, but to send performers. What are your thoughts on his comment?
Kristine McIntyre: Yes, I see what he means. I appreciate singers with beautiful voices who create beautiful sounds and perfect technique – they are called recitalists. If I have somebody I’m trying create a role with on the opera stage, I need a performer. Because it’s not about perfect sound, it’s about telling the story to the audience through the mechanism of your voice and your body. Sometimes that means using your voice in a different way and committing everything you have to telling the story.
Audiences today expect that. We are competing with a world where people can watch pretty much anything on their phone all the time. The only thing that sucks them into coming to the live theater is having this intimate, visceral, communal experience where they are moved beyond belief in a way that they can’t be when watching their little phone screens. To do that we all have to commit to the story telling. I’ll take somebody with slightly less than perfect technique who is a tremendous performer over the world’s most perfect singer any day. Because I can make theater with that person.
If we look historically at those we hold up as the great singers of past eras we recognize they weren’t perfect. They had their idiosyncrasies that made them interesting, made watchable and listenable. Avoid the cookie cutter singer and be an artist. That’s what an artist is, someone that has an opinion and a talent to share.
CS Music – Question 7: What do you think of the avant-garde type movement in the various opera world productions? Almost like shock opera? For example, when directors take Hamlet or Othello and juice it up and do wild and bizarre things with it. I don’t think Shakespeare would have recognized it that way. It’s almost shock opera.
Kristine McIntyre: People need to acknowledge and realize is that when traditional opera is done there are a lot of choices being made to be able to put it on the on the stage. Interpretations are still influenced by our time period. If you look at older historical opera productions you’ll see that their interpretations are influenced by their era. Pictures from the opera’s done in the 50’s look like the 50’s. Our ideas about period pieces are influenced by the visual choices we make. Today, there is a wider range of all that because of what happened in Europe 20 years ago and is finally here in America.
We are constantly being asked to do the same operas over and over again and so as directors we ask ourselves what can we do to make it new again for our audiences? It’s our job as interpreters of this work to find the most interesting and relevant ways to tell the story to the audience. What’s on the paper is a starting place and then you have to tell the story in whatever way you interpret it. That’s part of the experiment of how to tell these stories to make them relevant to our time.
For example, except for the Globe Theater in England, you would not find a traditional Elizabethan looking production of Hamlet in England. Nobody would ever do that. Why? Because they have been doing it for 400 years and they have moved on and they recognize what is modern about the play and they do something else with it.
It has taken us a long time in the opera to give both audiences and opera teams permission to explore. There are a lot of growing pains, I’ll be the first to admit. But these older pieces have a lot more to say and we have to find out exactly what that is.