It’s rare for a stage director to direct more than one opera in a city in any given season. Tazewell Thompson is directing three at the Kennedy Center within four months.
First comes Philip Glass’s “Appomattox” for the Washington National Opera. Also for WNO is Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars,” which opens in February. And for Opera Lafayette, Thompson will oversee a semi-staged version of “Catone in Utica,” the Vivaldi opera he directed at Glimmerglass this summer; it plays at the Terrace Theater at the end of this month.
“I had never done a baroque opera,” Thompson says, “and I was terrified. So of course I had to listen to every single baroque opera ever.”
Thompson is a research nerd. As both a director and a playwright, when he’s faced with a new subject, he throws himself into learning everything he can. This makes for a particularly challenging scenario when you’re directing an opera about the Civil War, one of the most-documented chapters in American history, while also writing a play about the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, the late 19th-century touring ensemble that played a key role in popularizing spirituals.
“My little [New York] apartment,” Thompson says, “is just crammed with books on Negro spirituals, and spirituals themselves. There’s just thousands of them.”
From the baroque to spirituals: The range is typical of Thompson’s career. The Emmy-nominated director has worked extensively in both opera and spoken theater, from New York’s Public Theater to Washington’s Arena Stage to the now-defunct New York City Opera, where years ago he met Francesca Zambello, the artistic director of the Washington National Opera.
“He’s a fantastic director,” Zambello says. “I think his strength lies in works where he can apply a dramaturgical hand.”
Thompson also has been an administrator. He was artistic director of the Syracuse Stage (1992-1995) and the Westport Playhouse (2006-2007), and he was at one point in serious contention to head Arena Stage. (Most recently, his play “Mary T. and Lizzy K,” about Mary Todd Lincoln and her black dressmaker and friend, ran there in 2013.) He’s also a committed and inspiring teacher, including an early stint at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn where, full disclosure, he directed me in the high school musical.
Thompson’s repertory preferences are equally unpredictable. A breakthrough in 1985 was a production of Aaron Copland’s “The Second Hurricane” in New York, for which he had 10 visual artists with a connection to Copland or the librettist Edwin Denby design artworks as part of the set. His wish list includes Virgil Thomson’s “Four Saints in Three Acts”; he adores its librettist, Gertrude Stein. And one of Thompson’s signature operas is Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” which has personal resonance since, after his grandmother took steps to remove him from a chaotic and traumatic home life, he spent six years of his childhood in a convent, being raised by nuns.
You might have seen Thompson’s work in this area recently: Recent productions include “Carmen” at the Virginia Opera, “Blue Viola” for Urban Arias and “Ruined,” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, at the Everyman Theater in Baltimore. Not many directors are equally at home in both opera and theater (to say nothing of playwriting).
“Someone asked me once, ‘If you had to choose, opera or theater?’I don’t want to choose,” Thompson says. “And I feel so fortunate that I’m able to do both. I really love going back and forth this way.”
And as for getting all that research done: “I guess being an extreme insomniac has some benefits after all.”