"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 of working.
"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 do."
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 him.
"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 opera.
"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.