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Q&A with ‘Anne Frank’ director Crystal Manich


The Musical Arts Center will present the world premiere of the “Anne Frank” opera, based off the life and diary of Anne Frank. The opera will be presented with two casts on March 3, 4, 9 and 10 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available now through the Jacobs School of Music website. 

The opera is directed by Emmy Award-nominated director Crystal Manich. Manich last worked with the Jacobs School of Music on the 2022 production of “La Rondine.” The Indiana Daily Student spoke with Manich about her work on “Anne Frank” on Feb. 21. 

IDS: How did you become attached to this production of “Anne Frank”? 

Manich: We were in talks for me to do “La Rondine” at that same time the project was brought up to me as a possibility. I have a track record of some world-premiere work, and I had a clear idea of what the story was, so it ended up being a very fitting project for me. 

IDS: Do you find you have more creative freedom working on premieres because there’s no precedent already set? 

Manich: That’s certainly the best, most freeing aspect of it. I would say that it’s also a challenge because how do you know what to do? For me, it’s always going to the text and the music. Workshop-wise, you only hear it on the piano, so it’s very challenging in that way. Sometimes you get to the final moments and there’s still uncharted territory but the reward of creating something that no one’s ever seen, and no one’s ever known, is really the greatest impact on a director. 

IDS: Covid had an impact on directors. Was there any lasting impact on your directing style? 

Manich: I think I paid attention to bodies more because you couldn’t pay attention to face. It really forced me to think about the body in a way, but it was really rewarding to get that extra level added and I haven’t taken that out of my toolbox. 

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IDS: You gave a past interview describing yourself as a “text-based director,” could you elaborate on that? 

Manich: I think sometimes in the past, libretto has been under investigated. Opera was always called “drama per musica” in Italian which is “drama through music.” For me that means drama nor music overtake the other, they should be on equal footing. I think for a long time the opposite was true and music overtook precedence in opera and the libretto was kind of ignored. I’ve done “La Boheme” six times, if I do it a seventh time, I will reread it, look at it and take a fresh look at it because I’m older, I have different experiences and that counts for something. 

IDS: Much of your past work has reflected your heritage and background, why do you think that kind of inclusivity is so important in opera?  

Manich: Western opera has primarily been the lauded art form and there wasn’t room at the time or a desire to make room for others. I think there are some works that are problematic, but we should approach them with intelligence. If you look at the most popular titles, they were all Italians writing about different places, so what’s authentic then? I do question that and I am trying to lead an outcry about the need for more Spanish opera created in this country and I would love to be at the forefront of that charge because the audience that is consuming the arts is largely Latino. 

IDS: What intrigued you about this opera? 

Manich: I know there has been a desire by the Anne Frank estate to keep her legacy going because we are in a time where these things can be forgotten. I met a hundred-year-old Holocaust survivor in Los Angeles, and I felt so privileged meeting him in that moment and the stories he was able to tell. She [Anne Frank] wrote probably the most important document of the 20th century, which is priceless in our understanding of World War II and of the plight of Jewish citizens in Europe. 

IDS: What do you think the medium of opera brings to the story of Anne Frank? 

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Manich: Opera works in large gestures which can carry emotion for a long period of time. I think that in particular to Anne Frank, we have the opportunity for long stretches of music where we see life happening in the annex where they lived. To achieve that, we created a turntable with the different rooms of the annex so that we can move through it quickly. There’s not a lot of time for set changes in the music so the design came out of what was required. I think opera achieves the deepest level of emotion just through music when you couple it with text — and this is certainly an emotional story — sometimes difficult material but overall, worth presenting in this format. 

IDS: How did you begin the conversation with Sam Epstein about the choreography? 

Manich: The first place is at Anne’s birthday party, there is mention of her friend Liez and there is beautiful music that surrounds it that seemed to me like dance music. Given that there are dancers required a few scenes later in Anne’s nightmare, I thought to myself, “Well, what if we make Liez a solo dancer that makes these appearances?” If we put her in the birthday party, then she’s a recognizable character that the audience can latch onto and that helps with the emotional connection to Anne. Then I used Liez one other time near the end of the opera and I’m very excited for the audience to take that in. 

IDS: It seems like some of the elements you put in the production are not originally there. How do you come up with that? 

Manich: I don’t know, sometimes it just happens. Sometimes I have to sit down and think about “what is the message” and “what is important” and “what do we have to know if something so specific is mentioned like a character name but there’s nothing written for that character?” Then I figure out what I have to do to make that read for an audience. For me I think it’s living with the piece. When you live with it and you’re doing other things you start to see parallels, and if my job is to interpret life in a theatrical way, then I guess that’s how I live my life. 

IDS: This is a very delicate story; how do you tell this story while being respectful? 

Manich: Those questions happened very early on in the design process with my team about whether to utilize the Jewish star on clothing. That was the first concern we had, and I am using it once for a very specific reason that the Frank family makes a point of taking them off and throwing them away. The other symbol that doesn’t hinge on the success of the story is the striped pajamas. We do have a chorus of people who go to a concentration camp and it’s an abstract idea, they are present throughout. We made the choice to not use the striped pajamas because it’s an image we know so well, and I don’t think we need to be repeating those images because everyone knows them. Those are artistic decisions that people may or may not agree with, but I think what we’re presenting is authentic in terms of a theatrical representation of the work.  

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IDS: So the humanity of her words is what you want people to remember, not inhumanity? 

Manich: That’s right, that’s the whole point of doing a show like this — to point out how even in the madness and sadness there is beauty and something to be learned from this young person.  

IDS: You said opera has a desire for a new audience, how can it move forward in this ever-changing landscape? 

Manich: I think we need to be doing works that are meaningful, that reflect our time and it can reflect other times periods as well but what is the takeaway? For “Anne Frank” it is obvious, we need to heed the words of a young person living many, many years ago. I think that opera has the opportunity to change people. Opera is really in a position to affect people on a high level because of music and the role of music and text together.

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