“I always have an audience here”
Crystal Manich is back in Pittsburgh directing Little Women for Pittsburgh Opera, running January 23, 26, 29 and 31 at CAPA Theater. She is a graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School whose career in stage directing takes her all over the world. Before attending the Little Women dress rehearsal to see Manich’s work in action, we got the chance to speak with her about her career, how she got started and what’s next for her.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in directing?
I went to Mt. Lebanon High School, and there I really started being involved in theater and television production. I discovered that I wanted to pursue theater as a career, and I got a lot of encouragement from teachers there. The drama teacher [Cindy Schreiner] thought I would be good at directing. She gave me Fiddler on the Roof, and it just clicked for me… I also got a lot of encouragement from Judy Hulick, my television production teacher. It’s amazing how someone else can see something in you when you didn’t see it in yourself.
I did the CMU summer program in 1999. I started auditioning for acting and directing programs for college, and I got into CMU and other schools for directing. I chose CMU because I had an attachment to the school.
How did you decide to become a stage director for opera?
It was always in the back of my mind that I really wanted to pursue opera. I got the opera bug when I was 15. Then, I saw my first Pittsburgh Opera production, La bohème, when I was 16, and exactly 10 years later, I directed it for them on the same stage with the same set.
When I studied in Italy my junior year of college, I came back knowing for sure that wanted to do opera, and I’ve been working in opera for more than 10 years now. I find that I’m also interested in doing plays and musicals. I’ve actually done a couple musicals over the past few years.
There’s been a journey for me in looking at opera as real theatrical art form. There are a lot of conversations in the media and in general about the future of classical music. You read these articles about low attendance and opera companies closing. For me, in order to keep this stuff relevant, it doesn’t mean you need to update it. You just need to extract the theatrical angle. You also need an opinion about what is visually stimulating about a project and be able to identify the core emotion and the core question. In my productions, I think this really comes out, making opera very accessible to people by sheer theatricality. I’ve been enjoying the journey of discovering how we can make opera viable for today’s audience.
Explain what you do as a stage director.
The easiest explanation I have is that everything you see on stage is what I am responsible for, and everything you hear is the conductor. Then there are some grey areas where the conductor and I collaborate on what is happening in the music so that we can figure out how to best serve the scene. I might ask, ‘Can we slow this down?’ or ‘Can we get an extra couple of seconds here?’ Just because the music is on a page doesn’t mean that it stops living.
Everything visual is certainly my responsibility. Whatever the designers and I create impacts the audience and what they take from the production because the same opera or play can be interpreted in a million different ways.
The director also needs to get the singers or actors to commit to an approach, which is a huge responsibility on the director’s part in undertaking a project that will inevitably affect an audience.
Have you worked at Pittsburgh Opera before?
I started at the Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh in 2005 for about a year. At the same time, I was in New York, interning with American Opera Projects in Brooklyn. I then joined Pittsburgh Opera in 2006 as the resident assistant director. My first time as the director of a production for Pittsburgh Opera was La bohème in 2009. I have almost a ten-year relationship with them. I’m now on my seventh production, including four main stage and three with the resident artists at CAPA.
What should audiences expect from Little Women?
I think an audience won’t necessarily expect to see what we’re doing. Our performers are in nineteenth century clothing, but the atmosphere that surrounds them is a unique idea. Because the opera is a memory play, we’ve taken that idea and made a set design that reflects memory and how someone may or may not remember details. I think that people will be pleasantly surprised about the visual language we are using to tell the story. It’s creative, beautiful and allows people to think about the bigger story so that they can focus on the singers.
It’s also acting-heavy. All of my shows really insert a sense of responsibility into the singer. They have got to really be committed to the present moment on stage while being aware of the other singers and really acting the roles. In this piece, it is very exposed because it’s in English. In opera, it is easy to say, ‘no one will understand this line anyway.’ But not with English. We can’t hide behind a foreign language in this one.
Tell us a bit about the cast.
Most of the cast are the resident artists at Pittsburgh Opera. They get one production per year and this is it, and all of them are involved in it. There are also three guest artists who are local performers. It is also a young cast, and it’s so nice to have a young, vibrant cast because they are really believable in the ages they are supposed to be. With everyone being between 26 and 30 years old, it becomes more real. They are a very talented group, and I feel very lucky to have a cast that is so dedicated as singers and actors. I’ve been really impressed with that.
Does the Little Women opera follow the book?
Some parts, yes. I think the book is so epic in nature. It’s a big American story, and in a two-hour period, you can only tell so much. But the composer has done a nice job of discovering the through-line, which is Jo’s journey in accepting who she is and accepting change. I think that it is definitely a distillation of the book in that sense.
There is always artistic license, and there are some new things that the audience will discover. Again, going back to a director’s job, the designers and I have really tried to extract things from the book to put visually into the production. For example, Jo’s love of books is not expressed explicitly in the opera, so we’ve created a set design that uses oversized books as an element to hold up the platforms.
Another example is how we are bringing out the child-like quality of the book in a backdrop we have all the way upstage with houses that light up. It really brings out the macrocosm of the story— Little Women the novel is the author talking about lots of American families, so we express that through the set design as well.
What’s next for you?
I have a lot of projects on my plate for this year. It’s been a whirlwind of a year for me. I have six more productions after this before the fall, and they are all vastly different. I will be doing some American opera, some contemporary, some nineteenth-century opera. One is in Oklahoma… I’m making my Australian debut, and I’m going back to Argentina.
I am based in New York, but I’m on the road nine to 10 months out of the year. It’s a lot of going home to repack and connect with my mail. New York is a good place to be based because you can get anywhere and there’s a big arts community there. But I do like coming here to work. I’ve got some friends and family in Pittsburgh, so I always have an audience here.
If it hadn’t been for Mt. Lebanon High School, I don’t think I would have found my path in the same way. The arts program there has always been one of the top in the country for public schools, and in a world where arts are often undervalued, they are a perfect example of why the arts are important. As a kid, you never know where your life is going to go until you are exposed to different areas of interest and potential professions. It was a great experience for me to be there.