Brian Staufenbiel is sitting in a rehearsal room at Minnesota Opera’s North Loop base, grinning with boyish enthusiasm at the production paraphernalia around him.
Clunking bits of scenery loom over his director’s table, where colorful printouts of set designs are scattered. A laptop flickers with updated logistical details.
“Most directors in their career don’t get to do ‘Elektra,’ ” he says. “I feel very honored to be asked to do it.”
The San Francisco-based director has been in town before. He staged Minnesota Opera’s first-ever production of Wagner’s mighty music drama “Das Rheingold” three years ago.
That was an innovative show, with the orchestra on stage and the pit used as part of the staging. But for his new production of Richard Strauss’ seething historical drama “Elektra,” which opens Saturday at the Ordway, Staufenbiel has taken things to a whole new level.
The major innovation this time is his use of what the movie industry calls “green screening,” where actors film movements against a green backdrop which are then superimposed on separate video footage. The technique was used extensively in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and in films such as “Forrest Gump.”
Staufenbiel is using it to locate “Elektra” on a 1920s film set rather than the world of Greek mythology, where Strauss set it. His singers are depicted making a silent movie of the opera while performing it, and we see clips of footage projected on a screen behind them.
Why this radical shift? Is the composer’s depiction of a dysfunctional family disintegrating in bloody fashion not powerful enough already?
“I sometimes feel ‘Elektra’ drags a little, with really long arias,” says Staufenbiel, who also serves as the production’s designer. “The idea with the parallel world I’m creating is to give a framework and help focus on the story and the singing.”
Staufenbiel’s updating will, he argues, help audiences less familiar with mythology than audiences were a century ago.
“Back in 1909, when the opera was premiered, the general public had more of a sense of the classics,” he says. This staging supplies the Greek tragedy’s back story: Elektra seeks revenge for the murder of her father, King Agamemnon, at the hands of her mother, Clytemnestra.
In Staufenbiel’s bold redesign, the Ordway set becomes a movie soundstage, with the orchestra providing live “studio accompaniment” as the singers perform Strauss’ opera for the cameras.
The orchestra pit is boarded over, and becomes an area to act and sing on.
“Doing ‘Rheingold’ helped me realize how much intimacy could be gained by having the singers literally feet from the audience,” Staufenbiel says.
It’s a ‘meta-Elektra’
Reimagining “Elektra” as an opera-within-a-movie has sparked other departures from traditional operatic practice.
“There’s a preshow in the auditorium 20 minutes before the music starts,” he said. “You’ll see a silent movie set where wave machines and props from other studios are being moved, and actors are rehearsing. People should come for that, because it’s a whole show unto itself.”
So, too, is what happens to the character of Elektra.
In Strauss’ opera she is gradually unhinged by the bloodbath she has set in motion. In Minnesota Opera’s staging, the singer performing “Elektra” — sopranos Sabine Hogrefe and Alexandra Loutsion share the run of five performances — becomes demented, too, by gradually absorbing the crazed imaginings of the character she is “playing” in the silent movie.
“It’s a total meta-Elektra,” Staufenbiel says. “My hope is that the audience will connect with Elektra’s emotions even more directly by adding this extra layer.”
Adding extra layers is something he does frequently in his work as creative director at Opera Parallèle, a San Francisco company that specializes in cutting-edge interpretations.
While he thinks there is still a place for staging operas “traditionally,” he believes fervently in the role that computer-assisted technology can play in the genre’s future.
“Green-screening, animation, film — these are amazing tools,” he says. “It would be foolish for theater and opera not to engage in the technology that helps us tell stories better.”
How, though, do you stop the technology from feeling gimmicky? Is there a danger that making opera relevant in a media-cluttered 21st century can lead to embarrassingly superficial productions?
“I see that happen all the time,” Staufenbiel replies dryly. “When you use technology to be ‘cool,’ it’s distracting from what’s happening on stage rather than serving it.”
Done correctly, though, he believes tech-age opera can attract new audiences to an art form that often struggles to cast off a fusty and elitist image.
“I find people come to opera when they’re just a little burnt out from the deluge of other media we are confronted with nowadays,” Staufenbiel says. “With the help of new technologies, I think we are possibly on the verge of a renaissance where opera becomes a kind of hip thing to do.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.