I spoke to Thaddeus Strassberger, director of “The Wreckers,” Ethel Smyth’s opera, at the Fisher Center of Bard College. Written in 1904, “The Wreckers” is based on truth: thieves on the Cornwall coast of England would extinguish the lights in lighthouses, causing ships to crash. Then they would loot the wreckage and kill the survivors. In this opera, the wreckers are led by a charismatic Christian minister, Pascoe. There is one more performance of the opera this Sunday, August 2. For more information: (845) 758-7900: fishercenter.bard.edu/calendar/event.php?eid=128383
Sparrow: Why are there so few operas in English?
Strassberger: We have the great American musical. I mean, there’s no difference between a musical and opera, other than what people standing outside the experience call it. We have things like “Chicago” and “A Chorus Line” that are amazing musical works of theater, that are essentially operas. We have Bernstein, “Carousel,” “West Side Story.”
Sparrow: One of the themes of “The Wreckers” is religious fundamentalism. How do you approach that?
Strassberger: There’s morality, free from religion, say. People have an instinctive gut feeling as to what’s right and wrong. And what happens [in “The Wreckers”] is that this Wesleyan revivalist religion is justifying actions that people in the community instinctively feel are wrong. In this case, they’re actively killing people in order to reap the bounty that’s washing up on their shores.
Sparrow: So is the minister in this opera the villain?
Sparrow: Your goal as a director is to make him a sympathetic as possible; is that right?
Strassberger: Sure. I mean, he’s in a predicament. He’s the leader of a community that has no food, that has no way to survive. The Cornish coast is known for its really hostile environment, there’s very poor soil for growing crops, and they didn’t have any wealth until the 19th century when tin began being mined from their rocks, which was necessary for the Industrial Revolution. They had nothing! So what are you to do, when you’ve got children – the Bible’s telling you to be fruitful and multiply – so you’ve got all these children, and they’re hungry? What are you going to do? And there’s some Infidels that are washing up on the shores. There are ships coming in from the Middle East, right? And we read in the Bible that God hates them anyway. So maybe they’ve been sent to nourish you! And some Catholics from Spain get washed up – well, that’s how the Devil works! I don’t know if that makes him a bad person, or is he a sympathetic, generous – is he soothing people’s consciences by providing them with an out for their reprehensible behavior, to which they have no alternative?
Sparrow: This whole Christian community is a gang of pirates, in a sense.
Strassberger: Well, we’re all pirates. I mean, we know that an iPad is made in a factory that’s causing people cancer and child laborers to have horrible lives, but we don’t stop buying iPads. Are we pirates? I don’t know. Are we sympathetic, or are we horrible, reprehensible characters who should be put out of our misery? We benefit from the sacrifices, or the enslavement, or the distress, of other people.
I think that’s one of the roles of the director, is to really advocate for every single character –so there’s more room for empathy.
Sparrow: Do you think it’s a problem that the audience reads this synopsis beforehand?
Strassberger: Do you think the audience reads the synopsis beforehand?
Sparrow: I don’t know. I personally try not to read anything in advance, but with an opera, I get nervous and I might glance at the synopsis – because otherwise I often don’t know what’s happening.
Strassberger: Well, that’s the fault of the direction or the opera itself, if you can’t follow what’s happening. Any piece of theater that you go sit down and watch, you don’t need to prepare yourself in advance. I mean it would be preposterous to sit down and read a synopsis of “The Sopranos,” all the way through to the end, and then watch the HBO series. It’s a similar medium, in a way. I mean there’s music, and there’s action and there’s text. Would you read a child a synopsis to “The Wizard Of Oz” before she sees it for the first time?
Sparrow: [Laughs.] God!
Strassberger: That would seem mean-spirited, in a way.
Sparrow: Yeah! A terrible thing to do.