Lady in waiting
Shakespeare vet Barbara Gaines directs her first opera, a fiery take on Macbeth.
With close-cropped blond hair, a suntan and a pink scarf coiled around her shoulders, German soprano Nadja Michael hardly looks like one of opera’s most vicious female creations. The slender yoga enthusiast arrived in Chicago four days earlier, with two young children and nanny in tow, to tackle Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.
We’re sitting in one of the Civic Opera House’s conference rooms, overlooking the river. As Michael analyzes the Bard’s most memorable villainess, she pounds her fists on the table in bursts of passion. “In a normal dysfunctional situation, a couple might scream or throw plates,” she says with a strong accent. “In this case, because there’s power involved, [the Macbeths] conceal their disgust. I think she behaves so terribly out of hatred, because Macbeth didn’t fulfill her expectations as a man.” She pauses. “Perhaps he’s impotent!” (Her costar, baritone Thomas Hampson, might not agree: “He sees Macbeth as more virile,” Michael says.)
Michael is well acquainted with exploring the ugly side of human nature. She famously sung the title role in Salome at La Scala in 2007. “Singing Salome just eats my soul!” the 41-year-old says, her eyes widening. “I can’t get rid of the pain she feels. With Macbeth, it’s different. It’s an opera that goes through the brain rather than very deep emotions, although there are moments that are absolutely heartrending.”
We head downstairs to the main stage where, dressed in their street clothes, chorus members rehearse the opera’s opening. Choreographer Harrison McEldowney and director Barbara Gaines call out ideas to one another from across the stage. Both make their Lyric debut with this production. But Gaines—a petite, spiky-haired ball of energy in a leather jacket and black jeans—is no Shakespeare newbie. As artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the North Sider has directed more than 30 plays.
During a break, Gaines settles into a seat near the back of the theater. “The tragedy of Macbeth is that it’s still so relevant, even though it was written over 400 years ago,” she says. “Sadly, tyranny is still a part of our lives. For me, doing this opera is a chance for people to see that evil is not just to be blamed on one person.”
Gaines aims to convey this sense of timelessness through the costumes (designed by Virgil C. Johnson, a friend from her teenage years) and set (by James Noone, also in his Lyric debut). “We wanted the costumes to look as though they could be worn 100,000 years in the past, the present day or far into the future,” Gaines says. “Some of these Lady Macbeth costumes would look phenomenal in an Armani show.” The set, inspired by the curved steel of Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion, will serve as a silvery backdrop for projected images of the Birnam Wood.
The director sees Shakespeare and Verdi—who wrote his first operatic adaptation of the play in 1847 and revised it in 1865—as kindred spirits. “Verdi and his librettist [Francesco Maria Piave] did a phenomenal job,” she says. “They were able to reduce Shakespeare’s words to the essence. Even if you’ve never seen Shakespeare before, you’ll get this. Verdi also did a really great job of making Lady Macbeth a little more naughty.”
When Lyric’s general director, William Mason, approached Gaines three years ago, she agreed to direct the opera if the company could provide a Lady Macbeth who was an excellent actor as well as singer. She knows she’s found those qualities in Michael: “To be in the room with Nadja when she rehearses—well, it’s hard to breathe!”
Of taking on an opera for the first time, Gaines says, “I’ve been so busy learning that I haven’t been nervous, just excited. I did buy the book Opera for Dummies when I found out I was going to be doing this.”
Lyric Opera’s Macbeth opens Friday 1.