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Musings: Maestro Mizrahi designs a marvelous 'Night Music'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 7, 2010 - The bewitchment of audiences accomplished every springtime by Opera Theatre of St. Louis is often the product of a long tradition of taking risks or, to put it less politely and entirely with gender-neutral intentions, to the high value placed by the company on the possession of balls.

A History of Taking Chances

From its beginning 34 years ago, Opera Theatre's artistic prowess has become routine-seeming to outside observers, simply because it is generally unfailing. Certainly, there have been disasters, such as a zarzuela performed a long, long time ago, and other less than inspiring productions upon which the gods of music have not smiled: revivals best left unrevived, rarities best left resting comfortably in well-deserved obscurity.

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And, disasters aside, not all the shows are "out there," pushing the envelope, over the top, edgy, etc. However, while the company regularly has operated within accepted boundaries, it also has leapt over these boundaries with uninhibited vigor. In doing so, it has enjoyed the perverse exhilaration that redounds from consorting with danger. It has not only gotten away with breaking rules, but has inscribed incandescent trails through the artistic firmament as a result of it.

Think back. Think about the risks taken, such as commissioning a young composer named Stephen Paulus to write for St. Louis and later taking St. Louis-produced operas about Japan to Japan. Who can forget the perils involved with commissioning a set and costumes from the late artist Louise Nevelson? Recall the audacity of moving a replica of a Model-T Ford and a kitchen sink from St. Louis to the King's Theatre in Edinburgh for “The Postman Always Rings Twice”?

Remember the wonder of mounting “The Beggar's Opera” in an apple barn in a small town on the banks of the Mississippi? Remember that during Beggar's Opera matinees, a train passed noisily and directly by the side of the building?

Think about the emotion-filled production of “Noyes Fludde,” directed by the late Colin Graham and starring children drawn from an inner-city neighborhood. This was an adventure neither they, not their audiences, will ever forget. All of this involved an openness to risk.

Taking a Chance on Mizrahi

Now, think about the case of this fashion industry iconoclast Isaac Mizrahi.

Mizrahi is one of those rambunctious and quicksilvery talents that emerge from a most fecund talent incubator: Brooklyn, N.Y. Mizrahi has lived a fascinating life, one informed by the Eastern strain of Judaism called mizrahi, by a sewing machine presented to him at 15 by his father, by  a mother who encouraged his artistic side and Hebrew school teachers who demanded he be sent to a psychologist if he were to remain in school.

His career in the fashion business has seismographic elements, soaringly successful one season, depressingly crashing the next. But through feast and famine, he always has been productive, inventive and entirely durable.

He learned elegance and understatement from the work of the likes of American master Norman Norrell. He has been associated not only with the House of Chanel but also with the House of Target. He's a television personality. However -– and here comes the risky business -– his experience at stage direction an opera for a major company has been nonexistent, until now.

Sunday evening, he brought “A Little Night Music,” a classic of the American musical theater, to the Loretto Hilton Center stage. And he brought it along with such authority one would assume he'd been directing and designing the décor and costumes for operas for years.

How so? It is difficult from a distance to second guess a director's inspiration and information, but here comes a supposition.

Toward the end of the opera, Mme. Armfeldt speaks of the importance of coherence. “A Little Night Music” is a sprawling piece that touches on and considers

  • At least six if not all seven of the Cardinal vices;
  • The notion that the night smiles three times during the long twilights of the north;
  • Beginnings (“Doesn't anything begin?” Henrik laments):
  • Conclusions (Mme. Armfeldt's dignified and quiet death);
  • Ambiguity and revelation;
  • Legitimacy, in several senses of the word.

Clearly, and in sumptuous irony, “A Little Night Music” is a lesson in human behavior, its strengths and frailties, its joys and disasters. It is, in short, a work of art that describes and defines life, the only certainty other than death, Henrik tells us. From description and definition, the show derives its depth and the profundity of its lessons. Bringing all of this together coherently required not genius necessarily (although there are stormy and thrilling flashes of genius in the show) but a clear and visceral understanding of the necessity of orderly thinking and the application of craft.

Well Worth the Taking

To employ a fashion metaphor, craft is the hard work of making the beautiful palpable. It is the draping, the measuring, the cutting and the sewing together. It is the reconciliation of wayward and contrary and resisting elements and the assuaging of resistances.

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It is because of an understanding of craft that “A Little Night Music,” Stephen Sondheim's superficially merry but genuinely solemn and philosophically complex achievement, emerges so tautly and convincingly on a stage in suburban St. Louis.

One must imagine much of the credit goes to Maestro Mizrahi.

He had, of course, an entire company of bewitchers with whom to work. There is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the pit, conducted masterfully by Stephen Lord. There is the cast, which not only sounded but looked magnificent. And making the complexities of “Night Music” work together coherently, there is the technical staff that toils in undeserved obscurity. Bravo for them.

Management gets huzzahs too. After all, it is management that takes a deep breath and decides to take the risks. It is members of management who must answer the telephone and take the heat from those who yammer on tiresomely about any number of subjects, such as, right now, whether “A Little Night Music” is an opera. Of course it is, but so what if it isn't?

Given all that, what elation everyone associated with this show must feel, basking in the lingering beauty of a little night music performed with such artistry and grace. And then, there is this: How proud everyone must be for taking chances once again -– and winning.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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