11/19/2014 03:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

An Interview With Francesca Zambello

I had a chat with Francesca Zambello while visiting The Glimmerglass Festival last summer. I'm a big fan of Ms. Zambello's work. As Artistic and General Director of The Glimmerglass Festival, she has done work that has garnered great acclaim. She is also Artistic Director of Washington National Opera, and has worked in all the world's great houses. Her long list of awards includes France's Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, Germany's Palm d'Or, and three Olivier Awards.

Photo: Claire McAdams The Glimmerglass Festival

Is there a message you'd especially like to convey?

We're working hard to curate the art form. That's important today. That is my primary goal.

There is a perception that opera directors today lose the focus on great singing.

The singing has to be good. Great singing usually leads to great character portrayal. Nothing is worse than being in a rehearsal when a singer can't sing the role. They're never going to give you a good acting performance because they're wrapped up in trying to get through the role vocally. Maybe a singer doesn't look right, but you work with everyone else--the costume, set, and lighting designers--to figure out how to make somebody look right for the role. But you need great singing.

You've received a lot of praise for building a community around the Festival in this area.

Culture has to be a destination if you're not NYC or Berlin or Paris. We've worked with the community--the museums, the dairies, the breweries--to make this a destination. We've worked on raising the quality, getting the best people here. I called in a lot of friends who are great singers to come and not just perform, but also to mentor the Young Artists.

On the outside, it's publicity. Find other ways to make culture a destination. Get on the financial page so that somebody reads about us and comes. This month we're in a major airline's in-flight magazine, for example.

Does it feel like starting over again each summer?

I'm here a lot during the winter, and we do a lot of events during the year. We go to someone's home, bring some singers, talk about the company. This year we did events in Boston, Miami, Washington, NYC, Albany, Utica, Ithaca, Binghamton--I can't remember them all! I go to all those places with singers, encourage people to come to Glimmerglass, to buy tickets, to donate. And then there's the planning! It's a year-round job.

Working in a festival has great karma around it. We benefit from a slow rehearsal process. We gain the most in the rehearsal hall, and artists can then go home and think about the work, or go swimming in the lake and think about the work--they have time for their roles to gestate.

50% of our audience comes from within a two-hour radius. I feel obligated to give them Aida or Dutchman. They're never going to see those operas live unless they go to NYC. That's why we have them. We've worked very hard on that two-hour radius, reaching out in a grass-roots way.

A question I stole from Inside the Actor's Studio: What's your favorite swear word?

I try to tone down the cussing, because there are kids around a lot. I work really hard to get kids in the theater or to put them in shows. Kids are important. And it's been an amazing transformative experience for some of these kids. Many are from schools whose music programs are being cut. Many are from working-class families. The kids gain confidence and direction, and it shows in greater accomplishment and focus in the rest of their lives. That's the kind of thing that makes this job worthwhile.

You've gained notoriety from time to time with updated opera productions. What factors help you make a decision about updating or keeping the opera in the original setting?

You determine what is the best world or environment to tell the story. I don't arbitrarily think, "Let's set that in the 20s!" That's silly. If it leads you in your discussion with the set and costume designers and choreographer to a place where you think that will serve the piece, that's your decision. Each production is different.

It's no secret we're doing an updated Ariadne here. [This writer, often quite critical of updating, found the Glimmerglass Ariadne production charming.] I was very inspired by the conflict of the opera, which is high art vs. pop culture. That's a pretty contemporary question. The estate of the richest man in Vienna could be like any estate in upstate New York, so why not set it here? Rockfeller, not Esterházy. It's so important today that people realize there are the patrons among us, and to look at how we all mix together.

How can I best tell this story? What are the visual cues that will help the audience? How will the characters relate? Who is that character going to be? For me it's all got to start with the people. Once we get the people right, we get the world right around them.

Let's start where the composer wanted to set it. Let's understand that world, socially, politically, visually. When you know those things, then you can find parallels in other worlds. An example is The Marriage of Figaro. How many people really know about the French Revolution? How many people really understand what was going on? What is the droit du seigneur?  What was happening in art when Mozart wrote this piece? What was happening in Vienna? What was happening in Prague? Why was he traveling between those two places? If a director can't answer these questions, I don't want to hear about his plans to set it on a tennis court. That's not informing the work. It's putting a frame around it, not presenting the canvas in the best light.

There was a profile where you had a wish list including Der Rosenkavalier, Fanciulla del West, and Elektra. Think it would ever be possible to produce them at Glimmerglass?

Rosenkavalier would never fit here, obviously. There is this version of Elektra that Strauss did for a smaller theater, so it's possible. Fanciulla was done here in 2004, so I still can't do it yet.

There are many factors. Producing an obscure opera today would be extremely difficult to justify economically, whereas something like Madame Butterfly will not only sell tickets but also be rented to other companies as a production. We do more obscure works balanced with more standard repertory. The lesser known works we try to streamline and do in simpler productions. Everything is a balancing act.

You have a long list of honors and accolades. One of DC's most powerful women! One of the ten most powerful women in music!  I hope you'll use your powers for good!

I feel a responsibilty to do that. I'm passionate about this. I wouldn't be doing it if I weren't. I feel fortunate to be someone doing something I deeply love.