“My earliest theater experiences were seeing opera,” says Ethan McSweeny. “My family lived across from The Kennedy Center. My parents couldn’t get a babysitter and the Bolshoi Opera was coming, so I squeezed into one of their seats. They were performing Boris Godunov. I was absolutely enthralled. I distinctly remember the last act — the company was about 400 strong. They flooded the stage and Boris rode out on a white horse. I recall thinking, ‘The circus has nothing on this.'”
Decades later, McSweeny, currently the head of the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., is back at the Kennedy Center, this time making his grand opera directorial debut at The Washington Opera with Tosca, one of Puccini’s greatest works.
The production boasts a cast of nearly 100, a challenge McSweeny at first found daunting. “Because of the scale you very rarely get all of those people in the same room at the same time. You’re left trying to create the piece imagining what the other group is going to be doing. Then that’s magnified by about a million because you also only get a very few select runs with the orchestra. [It’s] like this incredible structure balanced on the head of a pin.
“It’s my job to make it as immediate and exciting as possible,” he continues. “My conductor, Maestro Speranza Scappucci, who is a really dynamic, spectacular, young Italian conductor, and I both agreed that the proper pace for this is very, very fast in the music…. And Act Two of Tosca is about as action-packed as you get. What’s amazing is that in the middle of all of this, Puccini drops in what is probably the most recognizable aria in all of opera, ‘Vissi D’Arte.’ When you do that act right, you get to that moment and suddenly everything stops, and we get to listen to the innermost thoughts of the character for about two and a half transcendent minutes. It’s an act of genius on Puccini’s part.
“I may not be popular for saying this,” he concludes. “but if it were only about the singing, you could stay home and listen to a recording. It has to be about the live combination of the scenery, the singing, the acting, the lighting, the music — all balancing on the head of a pin in a most precarious Olympic-level endeavor, trying to get to a moment like landing on ‘Vissi D’Arte.'”
Tosca runs through May 25 in the Opera House. Pride Night Out, a performance in partnership with Capital Pride, is Wednesday, May 22, at 7:30 p.m., with an exclusive post-performance reception at the Watergate Hotel. Tickets are $35 to $300. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.