Midway through my telephone interview with out and award-winning opera and theater director Francesca Zambello, she steered the discussion away from my admittedly arcane questions about which songs made it in and which ones didn't in her new Lyric Opera of Chicago staging of the 1927 Broadway musical Show Boat.
"These questions you're asking me sound like a musicologist," Zambello said. "I don't think your readers could care less whether ["Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'"[ was in or out. I hope they're interested to see it for the content of the wholeyou know, the story, the characters."
Zambello's frank redirection of our discussion to the big-picture entertainment value of a major 21st-century take on this landmark U.S. musical can be reflective of Zambello's own long career as both a director and arts administrator. (By the way, "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'" did make the cut).
She once had a reputation for an overly analytical and symbolic approach to her directing work that sometimes baffled audiences. (Her 1992 Metropolitan Opera debut directing Lucia di Lammermoor, set in a "half-seen realm of the unconscious," was a critical flop.) However, Zambello admitted in interviews that she later came around to creating accessible productions that emphasized clear and entertaining storytelling first and foremost, before her intellectual and creative flights of fancy.
Zambello's directing projects have run the gamut. Zambello has staged massive operatic epics, like Berlioz's Les Troyens in 2003 for the Metropolitan Opera and Wagner's four-part Ring Cycle for San Francisco Opera in 2011. However, she's not loathe to doing commercial fare like The Little Mermaid on Broadway in 2008 and a wildly popular Disneyland theme-park staging of Aladdin.
She is also a highly regarded arts administrator. She was the artistic director of Milwaukee's Skylight Music Theater from 1984 to 1991, and Zambello is currently the artistic advisor to Washington National Opera in Washington, D.C., and the artistic and general director of the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Zambello has little patience from opera elitists who express reservations about opera companies producing Broadway musicals. In fact, Zambello dropped the "Opera" name from Glimmerglass' title when she assumed leadership of the company in 2011, since her summer festival programming now features at least one classic Broadway musical performed without amplification and with the show's original orchestrations.
"People forget that Puccini and Verdi were originally populist entertainment and that everyone knew their music," Zambello said. "There's a connection to that with American musicals and American audiences."
And as anyone who has been schooled in musical theater history should know, Show Boat is considered to be Broadway's first true masterpiece. Based upon Edna Ferber's 1926 novel of the same name, Show Boat features a hit score by composer Jerome Kern ("Ol' Man River," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man") and a libretto by Oscar Hammerstein II that challenged what could be dramatically explored in a Broadway musical.
"For me, the piece was a revolution for its time, and still is today in many ways," Zambello said, noting how Show Boat broke ground as a musical drama with a racially integrated cast tackling difficult subjects like miscegenation, racism, infidelity and more across many decades of U.S. history from the 1880s to the 1920s.
Zambello came to this Show Boat production as a sort of follow-up to her wildly successful 2008 Lyric staging of Porgy and Bess (her other Lyric work includes Tristan and Isolde from the 1999-2000 season and a Salome in 2006). Zambello drew both from the operatic and theater worlds for her cast, notably with opera stars Nathan Gunn as Ravenal, Alison Cambridge as Julie and Morris Robinson as Joe appearing alongside Mary Poppins Broadway star Ashley Brown as Magnolia. There's also a plethora of Chicago-area talent for the dancing and expanded choral ensembles, plus many local theater regulars like Ross Lehman, Bernie Yvon and Cindy Gold in featured roles.
"The rehearsal process has been very fertile for everyone," Zambello said about opera singers and theater actors inspiring each other to do good work. "It's been a very happy rehearsal period with everybody being like the people on the Show Boat who are joining together different styles."
Zambello has directed Show Boat twice before, notably in a massive in-the-round staging in London's Royal Albert Hall in 2006 and a concert staging at New York's Carnegie Hall in 2008. But Zambello was more than willing to tackle Show Boat again, this time within a traditional proscenium opera stage setting.
"It's a historic, magisterial work that combines so much of American history, amazing music and phenomenal characters," Zambello said. "It's a work you want to do because it's so rich."
Show Boat continues in repertory with Rinaldo and Aida through March 17 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 17, 18, 22, 25 and 28 as well as March 9 and 17 with 2 p.m. matinees March 1, 2 and 7.
Tickets are $34-$254; call 312-332-2244, ext. 5600 or visit www.lyricopera.org . To find out more about Glimmerglass Festival's 2012 season consisting of Aida, Armide, Lost in the Stars and The Music Man, visit www.glimmerglass.org .