The Music Man

Dennis talks theater with a symphony conductor — and a theatrical one, at that.

I find this schism between opera and musicals to be very sad, because there's not just one way of expressing life. Guys and Dolls is the perfect example. "I've got the horse right here/His name is Paul Revere." How can you capture that in an opera without making it sound silly? At the same time, John Adams has done a really good job in serious opera of managing to incorporate the best elements of music theater. Stephen Sondheim does it from the other direction. But their productions end up being like that marvelous shot at the beginning of Woody Allen's Stardust Memories. They're like people on different subway trains looking at each other through the window, and the trains are never going to be on the same track.

What's the last show you saw that knocked you out?

Arguably the greatest evening of theater that I have ever known was Bob Wilson's King Lear in Frankfurt. An 80-year-old actress, Marianne Hoppe, played the title role. Sadly, it did not tour, so few people saw it. But that was 1990. More recently [a long thoughtful pause] — the truth is that I have a problem with theater as most people know it nowadays, because I can't stand the amplification. I actually go with earplugs. And it's not only the musicals, but even standard theater, which feels like it's being done for the hearing impaired.

The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra's music director, David Robertson.
Michael Tammaro
The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra's music director, David Robertson.

Given that caveat, I suppose the last thing that really blew me away was last summer when I saw The Merchant of Venice outdoors at the Globe in London. Although the cast was uneven, because the Globe is a kind of training ground for younger actors, when they got to Lorenzo's fifth-act speech "In such a night as this," the entire audience looked up at the stars. It's not as if Shakespeare didn't already have enough going for him as a writer. You could almost hear him saying, "I also have God as my divine designer, so I'm going to make a reference." Until that night, it had never dawned on me how often Shakespeare's characters refer to the heavens in ways that will get us to look up at the cosmos.

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