'The Troublemaker'

Louisa Proske of Heartbeat Opera talks about innovating by taking inspiration from pop culture, the drag extravaganza and rock concerts

| 24 Nov 2019 | 12:35

On the New York opera scene, Louisa Proske is known as a troublemaker. As the co-artistic director of Heartbeat Opera, Proske stages and produces contemporary interpretations of classic operas that draw inspiration from an eclectic mix of genres such as rock n' roll, drag culture and Greco-Roman art. The company's daring and subversive work has earned Proske a reputation as a disruptor in the opera world who is reinventing the art form for the 21st century. We sat down with her last week to talk about electronic music, toxic masculinity, and Heartbeat's upcoming production of "Der Freischütz," an opera about a marksman who finds himself "in league with the devil."

Der Freischütz is a rarely performed opera in the United States. Why did you decide to produce this piece? How does it speak to today's audience?

Heartbeat Opera is all about treating opera as a live art form that speaks to the present moment. And so we look for those operas that we feel like tap deeply into questions that we're living through as a society and as humans in 2019 in America. And this opera, in my mind, was always quintessentially German. And that's what people know about it is that it has this very national flair to it. But when I listened to it again a year ago, it struck me that it's really a small town story with a young man whose masculinity is deeply in crisis, because he cannot live up to the standards of what it means to be a "real man" in his world. And so he is brutally punished and mocked and shamed for that by his community, and then commits a really, truly desperate act as a result of that. And then it's a story of a returning veteran who comes from a horrific war zone and brings the stench of the crimes of war back into his small town and nobody wants to be close to him anymore. He has this sense of being wronged by the world that sent him to war and then shuns him for it.

Both of those stories felt so American to me. And felt so vital to look at in this moment of masculinity being questioned in all these ways. The feeling that men in many places in the U.S. have this inheritance of having to prove themselves to certain standards that are highly questionable but deeply enforced by men and women around them. That is so brilliantly and disturbingly portrayed in this opera.

How are you adapting and re-interpreting the piece for a contemporary audience?

Daniel Schlosberg, our co-music director and arranger for Freischütz, has made this stunning seven-instrumentalist adaptation of the score. Seven players probably play over 30 instruments. It's very Broadway-style, everyone's playing multiple instruments. This piece is really characterized by a vast variety of music from super folksy, German beer hall raunchy drinking songs to these incredibly lyrical, soulful intimate moments to these famous depictions of the super natural in this opera. Dan in his instrumentation is really exploring the range of what seven players can express.

In our version, when we go into the Wolf Canyon, which is this place of evil, the whole sound turns from acoustic to electronic. This act of casting the seven magic bullets [in the scene] opens the floodgates into Max's unconscious, and his demons, but also American nightmares. It's really a place where he experiences the repressed evils of our society from slavery to white supremacy to mass shootings. There is this shift into tapping into the cultural unconscious in the form of demons and visions that he has. And the sound shifts into the sound of evil. All the instruments become electronic and in some way distorted or amplified.

We're playing Weber's notes, but we're creating totally new textures.

How would you describe Freischütz in three words?

Twisted. Phantasmagoria. Complex.

You started Heartbeat Opera from the ground up. What made you start the company, and what does it bring to the New York theater scene that no other venue offers?

We founded Heartbeat as a bold, troublemaking proposal for how we can, while [being] deeply in love with the art form and honoring it, also reinvent it in every aspect - from how we look at the pieces directorially to how we rehearse in the room together, to how we frame the experience of wanting to see a performance. And we take inspiration from other forms from pop culture, from the drag extravaganza, from rock concerts, and we just look at how do we connect with audiences now, not dumbing-down opera, but taking it off its pedestal and making it not feel like an elitist experience of climbing the stairs to a temple that you can only climb if you are anointed or in the know.

We see ourselves as innovating opera at all of these levels.

The mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges recently said in the New York Times that the American "opera house has to look more like America." How do you feel Heartbeat Opera meets this challenge?

Our [production of] Fidelio that we did two years ago we set in a contemporary American prison with a Black Lives Matter activist who is wrongfully put into solitary confinement. And for the prisoners' chorus, we collaborated with six incarcerated choirs in the Midwest. All six of them learned an arrangement that we made of the prisoners' chorus in German, and so we recorded all six of them. So in that moment, it became about a real collaboration of over 100 incarcerated singers across the U.S., singing this piece about seeing the sun for the first time in weeks and feeling free.

We had a lobby display of the letters that we exchanged with those incarcerated singers, responding to what it was like for them to participate in an opera in New York City, albeit by voice and video. And we had a lot of panels with formerly incarcerated activists and social justice specialists. So that piece, Fidelio, an early 19th century German opera, really started to become a conversation about the crisis of mass incarceration in the U.S. today.

How did you become an opera director? Where did you journey start?

I was a chorus child. I was actually on stage my whole childhood in grand operas, like La Boheme. So I come from opera, and then long story short, as a very young woman, in a very misogynist opera field, I didn't see an immediate future as an opera director, and that's really why I started theater. Then at Yale, I met Ethan Heard with whom I founded Heartbeat Opera, but I also collaborated with the singers at Yale Opera and started directing opera again, and I was immediately like, "ok, this is my life, this is what I want to do, this is my real joy."

What would you tell somebody who wants to be a director, and they're just starting out?

Get a group of singers, and direct something. I think you can talk about directing all you want, but unless you are in the doing of it, it's not real. I think you have to get experience at all costs, if that means stealing people from music school and forcing them to be in a basement with you. It's really like do, do, do - you're not a director until you direct something.

This interview has been edited and condensed.