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A changing love: Opera GR's 'Romeo and Juliet' proves opera can be both modern and traditional

Can an age-old art form still connect with people of all ages? Opera Grand Rapids, and its upcoming production of "Romeo and Juliet," is out to prove that, yes, it can.
Upon walking into Grand Rapids’ Devos Performance Hall on April 29 and 30, opera lovers and novices alike will be transported to a world far from here: to the place of “fair Verona,” where a feud between families leads to duels, murders and the tragic deaths of two star-crossed teenage lovers whose untimely endings have deeply resonated with people around the globe for the more than 400 years that have passed since William Shakespeare penned “Romeo and Juliet.”

But, while the setting may take place in a land far away, in a time hundreds of years ago, its story of family and alliances and deep-rooted resentment and, above all else, love is one that will never get old, says Bernard Uzan, who will direct Opera Grand Rapids’ production of French composer Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which was written in 1867.

Bernard Uzan, left, with Malcom McDowell, right.“'Romeo and Juliet' is timeless,” says Uzan, a Parisian-trained actor who has directed more than 400 opera productions across the world. “Love is timeless. It’s about two young people falling in love, period.”

This is Uzan’s 17th time directing “Romeo and Juliet” — he has brought it to audiences from Europe to the U.S. — and while it is the same story being performed, it is far from the same production.

“Once somebody asked me the question, ‘How can you find it still interesting to do it after 30 years of doing it? How can you find something different to do each time?’” says Uzan, who just completed directing “Macbeth” in Detroit and whose most recent version of “Romeo and Juliet” has traveled to Opera Carolina, the Virginia Opera, and the Toledo Opera, and will travel to the Lyric Opera of Baltimore after Opera Grand Rapids. “I hope I’m not the same man I was 30 years ago. My way of looking at love is different. I’m more generous. The older you get, the more knowledge you acquire. You become a better man. That’s why every time I do it, I do it differently.”

This time around, it is, Uzan says, necessary for them to make the characters of Romeo and Juliet seem much younger than the lyrics in order to connect with the audience — making the performance, in some ways, very much reflective of today’s opera, an age-old art form that, in recent years, has seen ticket sales drop and audiences age, but which younger fans, singers, directors, and others say can very much still resonate with people of all ages — there just must be the effort.

At Opera Grand Rapids — one of only about 30 professional opera companies in the country, that effort has been made through a variety of ways, including $5 student tickets for all performances and free dress rehearsal performances for pupils in middle school through college.

To make Juliet seem younger than the lyrics from a 150-year-old opera based on a more than 400-year-old Shakespearean tragedy, Sarah Joy Miller, who will headline as Juliet and who recently starred as Anna Nicole Smith in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s production of “Anna Nicole,” says she is making the character very much her own.

Sarah Joy Miller“I’ve learned there are stages to prepare something like this: it’s listening to the music and letting myself be overwhelmed by the music, to cry,” says Miller, who recently traveled from her home in New York City to Grand Rapids for the opera. “Then you go back and be strategic in how you’re going to sing it, how you bring yourself to the role.

“To make a believable character, you have to make it as much you as possible,” Miller continues. That’s hard to do; it requires a certain letting go of playing the character of Juliet. It’s looking to your own life for the character.”

Essentially, this translates to feeling the kind of pain that Romeo and Juliet experience. So, when Tybalt, Juliet’s first cousin, dies at the hands of Romeo, Miller must draw on her own painful memories of a family member dying in order to truly connect with not only her character, but with the audience.

That connection has become increasingly prevalent in opera, Uzan notes, with the introduction of more directors with theater backgrounds coming into opera around the 1980s.

“My generation of opera directors brought theater to opera,” he says. “Opera has changed — in 1985, 1986 it changed completely; it becomes more theatrical. People were starting to act instead of just singing and leaving.”

Miller and Uzan, too, are representative of the kind of diversity that opera can draw, with Miller being a rising opera star in her 30s who grew up in a family of Polish-Ukrainian immigrants in southern California and Uzan being a 72-year-old actor-turned-opera-director who grew up in Tunisia until he was a teenager, when Uzan, who is Jewish, and his family fled persecution in their home country and found refuge in France in 1959.

“I grew up in a family of singers — at family gatherings, we would get together and sing many folk songs,” Miller says. “Around the age of 12 or so, my voice changed; it became large and unruly and strange. I would sing, and my family members would say, ‘I think she’s an opera singer.’”

Indeed she was, and Miller went on to make her professional operatic debut singing Mimi in Baz Luhrmann’s acclaimed Broadway production of Puccini’s “La boheme.” She has since traveled the globe to perform in everything from “Faust” to “Carmen” and has been praised by the New York Times as “vivacious and fearless.”

Unlike Miller, Uzan had not considered opera for his career as a child, though he did grow up wanting to be an actor.

“I was very sick as a child, so I just had my imagination — I wanted to be Clark Gable,” says Uzan, who grew up battling a serious illness and was bedridden until he was about 15 years old.

At 14, he finished high school and then at 19 he had a doctorate. Around the age of 21, two family tragedies, the deaths of his brother and father, prompted him to turn to acting as a career.

“I said, ‘I can’t deal with normal life, and I want to be an actor,’” says Uzan, who started his theater career in Paris and then moved to the U.S. in 1972 to teach theater at Middlebury College in Vermont. Not long after he arrived, he was asked to start a French theater company, which he based out of Boston and which went on to perform a couple hundred productions annually.

In 1981, Sarah Caldwell, an opera conductor, impresario and stage director  who founded the Boston Opera Group, asked Uzan to direct “Faust.”

“The first opera I ever went to was one I directed,” says Uzan, who ended leaving theater and has gone on to direct hundreds of opera productions. From 1988 to 2002, he served as the general and artistic director for the Montreal Opera, and in 2011 he started Uzan International Artists with his daughter, Vanessa Uzan.

“When you have an opportunity in life, you don’t ask yourself too many questions — I just did it,” Uzan says in reference to leaving theater for opera. “Stop watching the train pass; just take it. Not too many will pass again if you don’t take them.”

Uzan’s career has been widely lauded, and he was recently awarded the Lifetime Achievement from the prestigious Giulio Gari Foundation.

“The same week I got the lifetime achievement award, I auditioned for the TV show ‘Mozart in the Jungle,’” Uzan says, referring to the television series that is centered around a new, and sometimes controversial, maestro at the New York Symphony. “So, I get this award, and I audition for the first time in 44 years. It was extraordinary. It's all been extraordinary."

Opera Grand Rapids will perform “Romeo and Juliet” on Friday, April 29 and Saturday, April 30. Tickets start at $25 (and $5 for students). For more information about the opera, please go here, and to purchase tickets, you can go here.
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