In the classical-music world, it’s the
very definition of the term "blockbuster."
Jonathan Miller’s staging of J.S. Bach’s timeless oratorio, "St. Matthew Passion," sold out the BAM Harvey Theater (then the BAM Majestic) in 1997 and in 2001, and looks to do the same when it returns for what a BAM press release touts as its "final run," April 8-15.
Miller’s casual-dress production has been called everything from a "deconstruction" to a "semi-staging," but for the British opera and theater director - a veteran of dozens of worldwide stagings - it was business as usual: he discovered a unique way to present Bach’s dramatic story of the last days of Christ on earth.
"I enjoy staging things that are non-dramatic," Miller said recently by phone from London in an exclusive GO Brooklyn interview. "I quite like doing things that look like they wouldn’t work onstage, but this arose unexpectedly."
Of course, the director has always loved Bach’s passionate score, but he never had any clear-cut ideas about staging the work.
"Then, about 15 years ago, someone asked me if I ever thought of staging it," Miller explains. "I said that I thought it might be stage-able, but that I’d like to experiment with it. So one day in a school in London, I spent the day watching my performers playing it through: they started getting on their feet and acting with one another, with no scenery and no costumes. It wasn’t just people sitting in front of the orchestra. And by the end of the day, that’s the way I wanted to do it."
Miller had to first win over his cast.
"They asked, ’What are we going to wear?’ and I said, ’You’re wearing it,’" he admits. "I wanted to informalize, but at the same time, dramatize the story. If you have rows of people in front of an orchestra and looking at scores, it doesn’t work."
"There was one really new idea," the director continues. "Whenever there was a solo voice, we had the obbligato instrumentalists performing right next to them, just like, say, Ella Fitzgerald and a horn soloist doing a jazz number."
Along for the ride with Miller for this third BAM go-round is conductor Paul Goodwin.
"Paul and I get on very well," Miller says with uncharacteristic understatement. "It’s been a very productive relationship from the start: he’s quite unlike other conductors, who would be outraged by having to be part of something as unusual as this [staging]."
Along with everyone else who works there, Miller has nothing but effusive praise for the intimate BAM Harvey Theater space.
"It’s absolutely perfect for [the Passion]," Miller says. "Although I’ve done it in churches, I prefer to use a secular space, and the inspired shabbiness of the Harvey is a miracle."
The director also scoffs at that misleading term "semi-staged," which is so often affixed to his "Passion."
"It’s not semi-staged!" he barks. "It’s fully staged but without costumes and scenery. There are all sorts of ways to fully stage something without costumes and scenery.
"The worst thing ever in the theater is audiences applauding the scenery or the first appearance of an actor," he continues. "It seems that the entire notion of ’staging’ something in the United States is associated with scenery and costumes, so I’m glad that the BAM audience can read without moving its lips."
Miller will also partake in a BAMdialogue on April 11 at the BAM Rose Cinemas.
"I enjoy doing it, and I am very happy to talk about my work," he says about sitting in front of an audience. "I’ve spent a lot of time lecturing, and I’m used to shooting my mouth off."
Is this the final BAM appearance of Miller’s and Bach’s "Passion"?
"They’re saying it’s the final run for BAM, but you never know when things may come to an end," he admits. "My production of ’Rigoletto’ at the English National Opera has been presented for 27 years, and I keep being told it’s the last time."
Through the years, Miller always associates freely in developing the concepts for his productions. For example, he’s staging Leos Janacek’s "Jenufa" at Cooperstown’s Glimmerglass Opera this summer, which is a work steeped in Czech traditions and folk music.
"I have a really good idea," he admits. "I was doing an opera many years ago in Omaha, and my wife and I were reading Willa Cather’s novels, which are about the Czech communities who live up and down the Missouri River. So I’m setting ’Jenufa’ in 1930s Nebraska."
Miller sees no problem doing this.
"As long as you read widely and travel widely, you start seeing things that previously weren’t associated together," he explains. "It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does. But you can’t do it routinely, or by doing what I call theater-schlepping: picking up an opera, driving it 250 years up the freeway and dumping it into last Thursday afternoon."
Miller’s conclusion, which also goes for his BAM "Passion": "There has to be a reason and point to doing it."
"St. Matthew Passion," directed by Jonathan Miller, will be performed at the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place in Fort Greene on April 8, 11, 12, 14 and 15 at 7:30 pm and April 9 at 3 pm. Tickets are $90, $80, $55 and $35. A BAMdialogue with Miller is April 11 at 6 pm at the BAM Rose Cinemas, 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene; tickets are $8. For more information, visit www.bam.org.