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Friday, March 29, 2019

10 Years of Ivo van Hove at BAM

Photo: Richard Termine

Ivo van Hove is once again breaking new ground—this time with his first foray into musical theater in the US, Leoš Janáček’s opera Diary of One Who Disappeared, which has its US premiere at the Howard Gilman Opera House Apr 4—6. We asked Joe Melillo, BAM’s Executive Producer, Emeritus, who first brought van Hove to the Harvey Theater in 2008, to talk us through 10-plus years of boundary-pushing theater.

Photo: Richard Termine

Opening Night (2008)
“Ivo was producing a show with American actors at the New York Theater Workshop, and he asked if I would meet with him. At the time, he was also the artistic director of the Holland Festival; as the artistic directors of contemporary performing arts festivals, we had a lot in common. I tend to make very quick judgments about people, and bottom line, I liked him. He was hitting all the right Melillo buttons: I enjoy smart, creative individuals, I have a lifelong adult passion for the theater, and I respect humanitarians greatly. I just really enjoyed having the conversation. I said ‘You know, I would never lure you away from the New York Theater Workshop. That’s not how our colleagueship works here in NYC...’ So I went to see him with his company Toneelgroep Amsterdam. They were doing Opening Night, which was a film by John Cassavetes that had been adapted to the dramatic theatrical form. And I was transfixed by the quality of the actors, his directing of this particular work, and how Jan Versweyveld, his professional and personal partner, designed the scenic environment. The use of video to launch and extenuate the narrative of the story, at that time, was highly innovative and progressive.”

Photo: Richard Termine

Cries and Whispers (2011)
“What’s important to know is that Ingmar Bergman's theater productions historically have only been seen at BAM. And I worked with the artists, so I was curious about how Ivo would take this material and adapt it to the theatrical form. It was quite extraordinary, how he took what we know about Bergman's work in film and theater, and advanced it. The community of audiences and critical journalists were beginning to get a very clear insight into this directorial quality matched with the visual environment, as well as the acting values of this ensemble company. With minor exceptions, we don’t have acting ensembles in our city or our country, generally. It’s not an American phenomenon. But in the theater you can really tell the difference. There’s a shorthand and a certain kind of quality of stage presence—we like to say "these people breathe together." That's different from American actors, who are hired for a particular period of time and then it’s over. These people are spending 52 weeks together.”

Photo: Richard Termine
Roman Tragedies (2012)
“The magnum opus. I saw it in Montreal, and I said to myself, ‘There is only one place in New York City that would aggressively make the commitment to do a five-hour ultimate journey for an audience that’s moving through the physical theater complex." This was an extraordinary commitment for the men and women who are in the production department, first and foremost, to be able to accommodate this massive work. Shakespeare’s Roman Tragedies were staged in a contemporized world, with live video and prerecorded video. The audience was on the stage and in the auditorium; we built a bar where we sold drinks; people were sitting next to actors while they performed. It was an exceptional phenomenon, and it worked! We would use the word ‘immersion’ now—it was completely active and thrilling. Just nonstop magnificent art.”

Photo: Richard Termine

Angels in America (2014)
“The original production on Broadway was so iconic, I didn't think it was possible for New York City to embrace another interpretation—which then led to a conversation with Ivo, who said, ‘Talk to Tony [Kushner].’ Tony was so respectful, so enthusiastic, that I said, ‘Well, I have to go see it.’ Ivo greatly edited the two plays to come up with his reductive, minimalist interpretation. It really wowed our audiences, to see the essence of what Tony was writing about: the tragedy of a pandemic and the implications of what has happened in New York City as well as elsewhere, just focusing on the journey that you go through as an audience member of the heartbreak and the truth about AIDS.”

Photo: Stephanie Berger

Antigone (2015)
“I went to its world premiere, and it was very challenging—very different from his previous productions. He cut away a lot of what we understood Greek plays were about and really focused on Juliette Binoche’s character and the relationship to authority, her rebellion. It was so focused. He's Aristotelian. Aristotle writes that selectivity is the first prerequisite for art, and that's what he does in this process of distilling— not for the sake of distilling, but to get to what really is important.”

Photo: Richard Termine
Kings of War (2016)
“Another large-scale project in the Opera House, with the hyper-imaginative way that he constructs our experience of the Shakespeare plays, with one king and his story leading into another. We're familiar with these plays, but there it was, in full glory—men in suits, women in high heels, mesmerizing and captivating everyone. Richard the III made your skin crawl.”

Photo: Richard Termine

The Fountainhead (2017)
“Ivo said ‘I'm going to do The Fountainhead.’ I said 'What? You’re going to tackle that 700-page novel by Ayn Rand, that nasty study of humanity?’ He said, ‘Remember, it’s all about New York, Joe.’ And there it was. It was a brutal experience, and controversial because of the brutality. There was no ambiguity as to what he was doing on that stage, telling that story.”

Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Diary of One Who Disappeared (2019)

“Even though he's working on Broadway now, he really believes that this is a kind of artistic home for him. So, given that I know that he will be doing an Opera at the Met in the future, I thought that we should give the first invitation for New York City to see what he does with musical theater. It’s a completely different approach for him—it’s not the Toneelgroep Amsterdam, they’re singers.

“It’s been an exciting voyage. I think that he, along with Jan Versweyveld, who has contributed greatly to the realization of Ivo’s ideas about the theater, has challenged our audiences over the years, and has widened people's understanding of what the theater can be in the 21st century.”

Diary of One Who Disappeared will be at BAM from Apr 4–6.
© 2019 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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