"It’s brief, but it seems right. I love that as a form,"
says Mary Zimmerman, discussing the single, 90-minute act of
the new Philip Glass opera, "Galileo Galilei," which
she directed and for which she served as co-librettist.
Zimmerman is talking about the opera that will open the Brooklyn
Academy of Music’s 20th "Next Wave Festival" on Oct.
1 with four performances at the Howard Gilman Opera House.
"It’s the only way I’ve ever worked," she says in a
telephone interview from her home in Chicago, where she is a
member of the Looking Glass Theatre Company and a professor of
performance studies at Northwestern University.
"When I started directing in school, I was making non-narrative
pieces with a group," she said. "When I started working
with text – adaptation and literature have always been my thing
– I made the text for the actors whom I’ve cast."
"Metamorphoses," her one-act adaptation of Ovid’s mythic
tales, won her a Best Director Tony in June and it is still running
on Broadway. After playing in Chicago, Seattle, off- and now
on Broadway over the past couple years, it still stars many of
the original cast.
Brooklyn audiences are familiar with Zimmerman’s work: her adaptations
of "The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci" and "The
Arabian Nights" played BAM several years ago. But although
the staging of Glass’ new opera is very recognizable as a Mary
Zimmerman piece, its genesis was antithetical to her usual way
"It was really an adventure, because I’m still working the
same way – I create plays without a script in advance,"
she says. "So it was very new for me to write the opera’s
text in advance – Philip [Glass] would not begin writing the
music until he had a full libretto. But, because of various delays,
I didn’t hear a note of the music until the first day of rehearsal,
so in a weird way, I ended up working on [this opera] as I usually
How did Zimmerman become involved with Glass? "When I did
his opera ’Akhnaten’ in Boston, I got to meet him and we hit
it off extremely well," she says. "It was sort of a
secret plan of mine to get to make something with him from scratch.
That was why I decided to do ’Akhnaten’ – so I could get to meet
him. I normally do my own scripts, but I wanted to work with
"Later on, he was in Chicago, and he said, ’You and I should
do something together.’ He had five ideas for things, and the
first was Galileo. After hearing that, I don’t remember what
the other four were! I had done ’Leonardo’ before – I like old-time
scientists – and I thought it would be a romantic idea for an
"I originally brought 17 possible scenes in, and we [Zimmerman,
Glass and co-librettist Arnold Weinstein] knew we were going
to go backwards through his life," she explains. "We
wrote the scenes down, shuffled them around and thought about
how it all would make sense dramatically. It was one of the more
difficult aesthetic problems I’ve ever had, but it was also one
of the most exciting. In the end, Arnold and I have very different
tastes and ideas, and so I ended up doing a libretto by myself."
Even though "Galileo Galilei" unconventionally explores
its extraordinary protagonist’s life – his 17th-century heresy
conviction for using a telescope to support Copernicus’ theory
that the Earth revolves around the sun triggers a backwards exploration
of his amazing life, ending with Galileo as an infant – Zimmerman
doesn’t feel that it will unnecessarily confuse audiences.
"All you really need to know is that he had big trouble
with the Church," the director insists. "He had to
recant and he invented the telescope – that’s all you need to
get into the piece."
Apparently, that’s what happened at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre,
where "Galileo" had its world premiere this summer.
By all accounts, critics and audiences were satisfied.
"It was received extremely well by the audience, and it
was very well reviewed," Zimmerman says, and then adds,
"but I don’t read reviews."
"Galileo Galilei" plays at
the BAM Opera House (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place) Oct.
1 and Oct. 3-5 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $25, $40 and $60. A BAMDialogue
with Mary Zimmerman and Philip Glass will take place Oct. 1 at
6 pm at the BAM Rose Cinema. For more information, visit the
Web site at www.bam.org or call (718) 636-4100.