Christopher Alden doesn't like the views from his South Waterfront hotel room. "It is," he says, referencing no water in sight from his window, "more of a non-view."
Views, perspectives, images—these things are important to Alden, a grown-up enfant terrible of the opera world in the line of stage director giants like Peter Sellars or Jonathan Miller. He's equally influenced by another director giant, Portland's own Gus Van Sant, whose '05 Last Days so struck Alden that he asked each cast member in a recent English production of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo to watch the movie to inform their work in the opera. (For his part, Alden admits that he received "the worst reviews of my life—really" for that very production).
Alden—compact in dark jeans and sneakers with intense eyes and a shock of spiked gray hair—is in town to direct his version of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman with Portland Opera, which originated at the Canadian Opera Company in 1996.
For a director on the international circuit, there are challenges in revisiting a production years after first staging it—tastes and trends change, technologies and personalities evolve. "This Dutchman production is from 10 years ago," Alden says. "I have to figure out what the hell I was thinking about then."
Turns out he was thinking about stripping down the almighty Wagner—frequently thought of as the most overblown opera composer—to the bare bones: minimal staging and set, a reduced orchestra and sharper focus on the social, political and psychological intimacies of Wagner's meta-mythological gesamtkunstwerk.
Alden accomplished this to spectacular effect in a series of pocket "Ring Cycle" productions in New York City a few years ago: The New York Times called his Das Rheingold "the great Wagner event of recent New York seasons."
With his Dutchman production remount in Portland, Alden says he's out to "recapture some of the danger and subversive quality" of the opera, with an oppressive-sounding,boxlike set in which the opera's characters are trapped. And there is another subversive element to his production: With a running time of about two hours and 20 minutes in one long act, there will be no intermission.
"You're stuck with these people for this extended period of time in this extreme and obsessive world, and the screw is turned tighter and tighter," he says. And Alden won't be skirting the issue of Wagner's well-documented anti-Semitic views. "I'm bringing in Holocaust imagery—we're confronting it head-on," he says. "That's part of the MO of being an opera director—to shock and provoke." STEPHEN MARC BEAUDOIN.