James Darrah is a set designer, theatrical director, and visual artist based in Los Angeles. He is known for his collaborative approach to theater, working with the Chromatic collective, which includes illustrators, photographers, performers, and authors. Darrah's projects have ranged from Beethoven's "Missa solemnis" to the first full stage performance of Frank Zappa's "200 Motels." Working throughout the US and Europe, Darrah is highly in demand; he was named Musical America's New Artist of the Month in December 2015. With Chromatic, Darrah staged a gala in an abandoned Omaha shopping mall, and produced a video installation about performance artist Klaus Nomi at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. At Bard SummerScape, he will direct "Iris" by Pietro Mascagni, a rarely performed opera that is considered the inspiration for Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." This year's Bard Music Festival is devoted to "Puccini and His World." "Iris" will run for five performances at the Fisher Center beginning July 22. (845) 758-7900; Fishercenter.bard.edu. —Sparrow
Were you familiar with "Iris" before you began this project?
No. I was familiar with Mascagni, of course, but I didn't know the piece well, and certainly had never seen it. I was also a little hesitant, because my work has often taken me into modern opera and early operas. I've spent a lot of time in the 17th and 18th centuries, and with modern works like John Adams's operas—and new works—so I was hesitant about turn-of-the-century Romanticism. What's incredible is that "Iris" is really audacious, dramatically and also musically.
The libretto is shockingly nonliteral. In the first act, we're introduced to Iris, this girl who has never been in society, who's lived in nature her entire life, to the degree that in the first 10 minutes of the opera she believes she's having a conversation with the sun. Iris is abducted away from this fantasy world, taken to Tokyo, and thrown into sex slavery. In act two, she thinks she's died and gone to heaven, because she's never experienced a major city. Later, she throws herself into the sewer to kill herself, but doesn't die. In act three, she wakes up and believes she's on another planet! Each act is a completely different world, not only visually with the set but also the colors of the costume design, the way people move, all has to feel completely different.
So you won't use a unit set?
No, there're three different sets, one for each act.
It's a steady descent, from act to act.
Yeah. Act one is lots of neutrals and whites, full of rich flower blossoms. It's all very pure, and the clothes are simple. The men who abduct her appear in black—almost black leather. And when the curtain rises on act two, we are in a world of metal and heavy black material; it's full of neon light—artificial light, for the first time. (Act one is lit by sunlight.) Act three is entirely dirty, all earth tones: browns and copper. And that takes us into what is called "the Rag Pickers Scene": all these homeless people in the sewer picking through the trash.
That's unusual; the heroine kills herself, then the opera continues.
Exactly. And that's my favorite part, in a way, of the piece. It goes into this insane psychological place where she's neither alive nor dead, and she believes that the sun is coming back to save her and cover her body in flowers, but she's actually just buried under a pile of trash. And that's the end of the opera.
Iris believes she's going to be resurrected, and the tragedy is that moment, not the traditional romantic opera trope—she's upset, she throws herself off the balcony, and she's dead: "The End."
Was Mascagni known as a radical composer?
Luigi Illica, the librettist, and Mascagni fought a lot about the content of "Iris." Mascagni wanted it to be more domestic. What I keep saying is, "We can't get away from the text." And the story itself is incredibly surreal.
Also, Modernism comes out of Romanticism. Basically, Romantic music got stranger and stranger until it became Stravinsky.
How long have you been working on "Iris"?
My team and I have been conceptualizing this for about a year.
Did you research Mascagni?
Yeah, I've been reading about him. There's a lot of talk now about "composer intent"—what was the composer intending? I'm a modern interpreter of something that was written over 100 years ago, so there's a sense of liberal freedom, mixed with the desire to honor the nascence and genesis of why the opera was written.
Although it's complicated in this case because setting an opera in Japan, which was exotic and charming in 1898, is now seen as borderline racist.
That's another reason I'm very adamant that the piece not feel like a historical re-creation of the work's premiere. The trends I see in filmmaking are psychological, creating an imaginative landscape. So why not present a version of modern-day Japan? Japanese couture designers influenced the clothes in our city scene, and we have familiar balcony architecture with neon lights that evoke a labyrinth-like brothel in act two. It's not necessarily a brothel you would actually go to—but then I would argue, "How many people in the audience at Bard have ever hired a Japanese prostitute?"
That's a good question.