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The Indiana Daily Student

arts jacobs school of music performances

Q&A with IU’s ‘Romeo et Juliette’ director Katherine M. Carter

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The Jacobs School of Music Opera and Ballet Theater department will present its final opera of the fall season, “Romeo et Juliette,” at 7:30 p.m. with two different casts Nov. 10 and 11 at the Musical Arts Center. 

Student tickets are available for $10 at the Jacobs School of Music website. 

“Romeo et Juliette” is a French opera composed by Charles Gounod. The production is directed by Katherine M. Carter, known for her strong collaboration-based approach to productions, according to the Jacobs School of Music website. 

On the fourth floor of the MAC, in a meeting room filled with aging Puccini vinyls, Carter had a relaxed and welcoming energy about her before the interview on Oct 31. She laughed about vintage shopping, voluminous hair and living in New York City. The Indiana Daily Student discussed Carter’s approach to her work.  

IDS: How did you get involved with Jacobs? 

Carter: My maestro, Louis Lohraseb, has been here many times. We worked together last winter at Sarasota Opera on a piece called “Thérèse” by Massenet, a rarely done French opera. We got along very well and wanted to work together more. I brought Louis onto a project I was working on at Chicago Lyric Opera, he brought me into the voices program in Tel Aviv with a bunch of awesome IU people, so it was like someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone. 

IDS: What was your initial reaction to the production value here at the MAC? 

Carter: It’s a wonderful place to work. It’s well-resourced and it’s always great to be at a place that values the arts. It has the infrastructure to support an opera of this size so that was really exciting to see. Any place I walk into — regardless of size — is magical, it’s like you’re walking into the house you’re going to decorate and there’s all these ideas and you’ve talked about it with pictures, but nothing beats walking out on that stage.  

IDS: Where does your process start with new productions? 

Carter: With opera, my process starts with music. I like to listen to a few different recordings and get a feeling of what the show is. When I’m listening to an opera for the first time, I’m really feeling the emotional journey — musically only. It allows me to think about what the music is bringing out in me, what thoughts, what feelings are coming into play. It’s nice because it’s really a blank canvas of a moment. I’ll just write down little thoughts and feelings about the characters and who they are. Usually images come to mind, and I really take note of those. The easy thing about being a director of opera who comes from a theatre background is that when I’m called to direct an opera, nine times out of 10 it’s the first time I’ve ever interacted with that piece. I’m able to come to everything completely fresh, I have no preconceived notions and there are things that I bring with a fresh eye that have either long been forgotten about or no one’s noticed before. 

IDS: What about “Romeo and Juliet,” it’s so well known outside of being an opera. 

Carter: I know the play extremely well; I grew up as an actor, studied Shakespeare and directed it often so I’m very close to Shakespeare. With the opera I thought, “Oh great, Romeo and Juliet the opera, I know this one.” But I didn’t. Gounod’s taken the play and done a lot of different cuts. Yes, they still die at the end but it’s different than the play — I won’t say how, you should come and see it — but there are all these different catches I found.  

IDS: What are some of those initial responses you felt when hearing the music? 

Carter: I remember being very moved by the time we got to Act Five, the tomb scene. What’s interesting is that, I know what’s going to happen, but the way that the music ebbs and flows in the tomb scene gives us a very clear emotional journey of how Romeo and Juliet are feeling in the moment. There were a lot of smiles with the little moments of joy that Gounod inserts in these scenes. It’s grand French opera so it sounds gorgeous, it’s sweeping, it’s spectacular, you go on this complete wave of emotion, and I went there.  

IDS: You mentioned images come to mind, what kind of imagery do you envision? 

Carter: I had the opportunity to direct “Romeo et Juliette” this summer with some IU students in Tel Aviv. It was a bare bones production. I always joked that I wanted my IU production to look expensive. Lydia, the costume designer, asked what I was looking for, I said, “I want it to be expensive” and we were talking about what that meant — what does lavish look like? What we’ve ended up creating is this late ‘90s early 2000s homage to fairy tale romance. It’s Brandy (in) “Cinderella,” it is Drew Barrymore in “Ever After,” it is “Princess Bride,” it’s a little bit of “Labyrinth.” We are very much in this fairy tale time period that is all fairy tale(s). You’re going to see various cuts of dresses and doublets and various kinds of jackets. It’s going to be this all-encompassing Verona that spans in color, texture and class. We have this variety of a community that is nice to see on stage.  

IDS: So there’s a trend of visual timelessness, does that speak to the timeless quality of the source material? 

Carter: It’s completely timeless. The reason it’s so timeless is that no matter how many times you read it, there’s a little part of you that wants the ending to be different. This little part inside of you says, “Maybe this time she’ll wake up.” As you get older and as you allow love to come into your life in different ways, the love hits you in different ways. When you fall in love for a second, third or fourth time, all of a sudden you go back to wanting to be Juliet or Romeo no matter what age you are. You can come to this and be a character. Everyone in this show is doing the best they can for the people they love with the information they have, and I think that’s the beauty of human emotions. 

IDS: You really work with the chorus to create little stories that the audience might catch in the background, why is that important for you? 

Carter: There is a chorus who comments on the story as we go, they are the voice of Verona. If we don’t set up the why –– the community that won’t allow Romeo and Juliet to be together –– then we don’t have Romeo and Juliet. Having individual reactions to something makes it more fun to watch, it makes it feel more rounded and it’s also more fun to perform. If a chorus isn’t vibrant on stage, then the show will tank. 

IDS: In today’s world, what place is there for opera? Why do we come back to it? 

Carter: Why do we still go to musicals? Why is “Wicked” running on Broadway for 20 years? Why do we still do “Our Town?” You could ask this for any art form, and as a director who does plays, musicals and opera, I think opera gets a bad rep. Yes, it is considered an elitist art form because that’s how it was started, there wasn’t a cheap section in early opera houses like there were at the Globe (Theatre), so already you have this different structure. But when we’re talking about storytelling and the craft of the voice, I think they belong in the canon just as much as the last revival of “Oklahoma.” (Operas) are a part of our arts makeup. 

IDS: Does the future of the arts have more appreciation for operas then? 

Carter: I think the future of the arts is unknown. I think the future of the arts asks everyone to look within and ask some hard questions about the stories they’re telling, who they’re telling them for, who’s at their table and are they doing everything they can to build a bigger table and advocate for those who don’t have advocates. Through those questions we will find the future of the arts. I don’t know where the arts will go but I’m proud to be on this journey with so many other artists. 

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