Interview: Director Richard Foreman on John Zorn and Their New Play Astronome


It’s not exactly Tosca, but Astronome–a collaboration between MacArthur-genius director Richard Foreman and MacArthur-genius composer John Zorn–is an opera of sorts. In the piece, currently playing at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, Foreman’s funhouse mindscape animates Zorn’s cacophonous, amusing, semi-headbanging score. Our reviewer, Tom Sellar, describes the production as “a head rush and a quick trip to the sublime.” A compliment, indeed, so we thought we’d ask Foreman a few questions about his innovative new project.

How did your collaboration with John Zorn come about?

About four summers ago, turning the corner on Broadway and Houston, there’s John. We greet each other (when John first appeared in New York, he used to spend lots of time hanging out at my loft theater at Broadway and Broome–even answering the phone!–so we’ve known each other for over 30 years). John says, “What are you up to,” and I say, “I’m going to L.A. To do an opera with music by Michael Gordon (What to Wear)–but what about you, John, why don’t you write me an opera?” And John says–“But I can’t write music for words, the best I can do is an opera in Vocalise.” “OK, do that. I’ll stage it.” John tells me he didn’t believe me at first, but over the next two years I would ask him every couple of months, “Where’s my opera?” So finally he calls me up one day, “Hey, Richard–I did the opera. We’re doing a concert version in England. Then it’ll come out as a CD on my Tzadik label and you can hear it.”

So another couple of months, I get to hear it. It’s very aggressive for much of its length, and I immediately think, “What the hell can I do with this unrelenting blast of music?” (John tells me recently he never expected me to agree to stage it after hearing it!)

But I made a promise–write me an opera and I’ll stage it. So I’m a man of my word. But of course–listening to it again and again, and then staging it over a ten-week rehearsal period, I come to love it and understand it and hear many, many subtle beautiful things it took me a while to perceive. I’m very proud of the fact that John tells me, when he sees it staged, he himself hears more in the music than he heard just listening. That was my aim all along–focus on the music and make it really present and spotlighted in all its aggression and complexity.

If you could work on another project with a composer from all of musical history, who would it be?

I suppose Stockhausen–I do my morning exercises to his mammoth series of operas called Light, with one full-length opera for each day of the week. I love the music, which goes through every possible shape and permutation–but again–I don’t know how on Earth I could stage them–which is the challenge that would interest me.

Up until ten years ago my dream, every since I did Threepenny Opera at Lincoln Center, was to do the Brecht-Weill Mahagonny. Mahagonny is their masterpiece. I was even hired by the Opera in Lille, France (where I’d done a Don Giovonni) to do a production. The whole thing was planned in every detail, I designed the set, the full cast was hired. Then there was a political crisis in Lille, and the city removed the funding for the next year of the Opera house. But everybody–me, my assistants, the full cast–we were all paid in full! But the opera was never staged! Now the moment has passed–I’ve moved on from Weill to Stockhausen.

Many of us would be fascinated to see your staging of a classic. Any chance of directing your version of The Tempest or The Iceman Cometh any time soon? Even if unlikely, is there a classic you’d like to try?

Not very likely. I’m slowly pulling back on theater to concentrate on making feature- length film. Plunging into something new, a kind of re-birth, which excites me even if I find out I don’t do it as well as theater. (Of course, I have reasonable hopes, and am near completing the first film, which uses footage shot in Germany through my new “Bridge Film” project.)

I always resisted Shakespeare–in the last 30 years, turned down productions of Richard III, King Lear, Macbeth, and Winter’s Tale, both for Joe Papp and others. If I was forced to do a classic, maybe Strindberg’s Road to Damascus. I’ve also thought of staging Molière’s School for Wives but reversing the set-up–instead of playing the young people as genuine and innocent and the older husband as a fool, I thought it would be interesting to make the young wife a sly manipulative Marlene Dietrich type, and the husband a reasonable man with reasonable suspicions about his wife’s faithfulness. Just to shake expectations up a bit.

Are there any new theater-makers or companies on the New York scene that you’re particularly impressed by?

I’m afraid for at least 10 years I’ve stopped seeing any theater. I am encouraged by the growing number of young directors that do projects at our theater (and of course many of the better known names of new experimental theater are people who have worked with me in one capacity or another over the last 20 years)–but even though I’m delighted that things seems to be growing, I’m sure some of the work is interesting, I can’t deal with the fact that there is much, much theater I just don’t like at all. And I certainly don’t think young artists need my idiosyncratic negative take on things–(as Gertrude Stein said, artists need encouragement, not criticism)–and if I don’t say anything to people I know, or people who know me–well, I know from personal experience how painful that can be. So I just don’t go to theater–everybody knows that about me now.

Astronome audience members receive free earplugs coming into the theater, in case they’re bothered by the music’s loud volume. Have you had any strange or unexpected reactions to the music yet?

No strange reactions. Most people don’t even use the earplugs–but I just want to be kind to my audience and offer them to those who might need it. I think John would be happy if it were even louder, but I know the current volume is something a certain segment of the theater-going public finds a challenge.

Check out Tom Sellar’s Village Voice review of Astronome: A Night at the Opera, as well as Foreman’s own Ontological-Hysteric Theater for further information about the production.

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