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We chat to stage director E. Loren Meeker about her production of Manon Lescaut for Singapore Lyric Opera

 

Italian composer Giacomo Puccini is renowned for operatic classics La Boh è me, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Few know thsat Manon Lescaut, adapted from Prévost’s short novel of the same name,was Puccini’s first operatic success. Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) has invited E. Loren Meeker to direct the production later this month. Joanne Miller took to the boards to learn more about the talented director’s modern interpretation.

Manon Lescaut explores topical themes – greed, love, lust and entrapment. As director, Loren questions the central character of Manon, a woman torn between true love and a life of luxury. Is she a loose woman deserving of her eventual fate, or a forward-thinking feminist who unabashedly embraces all that she yearns for?

The struggle between Manon’s emotional needs and material desires remains a very real and poignant conflict, and is something Loren believes most of us wrestle with at some point in our lives. Although written in 1731, the story remains relevant. Manon tests the boundaries that her society set for her. Deciding if she is a victim of her circumstances, or in control of her fate, is a question for all to consider and explore. Loren retells the story within a modern, emotional context (minus the typically Rococo flavour!).

Loren is SLO’s first female stage director and I am surprised to be the one to inform her of this. She ponders the fact for a moment before adding that she has never allowed gender to affect her ability to focus on creating inspired works, which explore inner truths about humanity in a relevant and modern world.

An accomplished stage director, Loren has an impressive dance and choreography background, coupled with a love for acting and singing. Career highlights include choreographing productions of Vanessa, Orpheus, Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. Dance, in all of its variations, remains her first love. “I’m fascinated by all the different ways the human body can move and express emotions. Dance is found in every culture across the globe.  It’s a common physical language we all share.”

She was the original “Gleek” in high school and was in every musical, play and choir performance. It was a natural and almost intuitive shift for Loren to move from dance choreography to stage direction. She notes that as a choreographer, she is a physical storyteller, and the same skill is required by directors – especially opera directors. Her sophomore year at Boston University was sobering as she humbly admits to experiencing great difficulty in conveying emotions honestly on stage. But she also discovered her innate skill at encouraging other actors to open up on stage. This led her to explore choreography and direction. 

Opera wasn’t even on Loren’s radar until she moved “home” to Boston in search of work and accepted an offer to stage-manage an opera. She later wondered how she hadn’t discovered this art form sooner. Opera allowed her to explore dancing, acting, directing, choreography and music all at once. A new career path presented itself to her and the world of opera has generously supported her since.

Loren adds that nothing compares to the pressure of being director and having the weight of an entire production resting on her shoulders. She is responsible for delicately developing a story with the musicians and having them trust in her vision. She then moves on to marrying text and music, with hours of detailed solo work and then even more candle-burning to familiarise the cast. Staging and costume design also take months and sometimes years of effort and direction. She says she often feels like “the ringmaster of a three-ring circus” with each opera demanding all of her energy, attention and. ultimately, devotion. She admits to being a nervous wreck on opening night, adding that it is difficult to surrender and entrust the performance to the cast and crew.

Before each production, she also devotes countless hours of research to understanding the language that will fill her days throughout its course. Though she is passionate about languages, she admits to sometimes struggling with the nuances. As a director, she cites this as one of her greatest responsibilities: “If I can’t understand the language, then I have no business telling the story.” 

Those who don’t know much about opera may be interested to know that by the time Loren graduated from college, she had attended only two operas and walked out of both! She recalls being baffled by the onstage happenings. She didn’t understand what she was listening to and she certainly wasn’t captivated by the productions. So what changed for her? Why is she now directing the very same art form she couldn’t comprehend just a decade ago?

Her answer is that she uses stage management to present accessible theatrical opera to all, and that opera is not the scary, elitist genre that some see it as She does caution that some operas are easier for occasional attendees to enjoy; fortunately, Manon Lescaut is such a creature. She cites Puccini as “the master of melodies”, with his enthralling music and themes you can easily relate to. She assures the doubtful that Manon Lescaut is an exciting, new and fresh production. “It’s not a Wagnerian opera requiring five hours of enduring attention!”

With all her vast experience and exposure to the arts, Loren admits to being most interested in the telling of stories and the development of characters. “I want to learn something new about myself, the world or humanity each time I go to the theatre. I hope the audience does too.”

Manon Lescaut premieres at the Esplanade Theatre on 31 August with nightly performances on 1, 3 and 4 September 2012. Tickets start at $25. sistic.com.sg

Post script: For the curious (and downright nosy) among us, the enigmatic “E” before Loren’s name stands for “Elizabeth”, yet she is known as either Loren or Lorie. All the members of her immediate family are known by their middle name.

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