Beethoven's audacious 1805 opera addressed tyranny in Napoleonic-occupied Vienna and was set in a prison-like fortress. Set designer Alexander V. Nichols created a multilevel, dynamically rotating cubed structure of prison cells, interrogation rooms and offices that are equipped with projected surveillance cameras. (Courtesy San Francisco Opera)

San Francisco Opera premieres ‘Fidelio’ a year late, but with the zeitgeist

Matthew Ozawa’s new production addresses tyranny in Beethoven’s time and ours

Director Matthew Ozawa’s bold new production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” at San Francisco Opera sets the composer’s only opera in a modern-day government detention facility. The set conveys an autocratic, oppressive atmosphere, one that would be recognizable to the composer, whose audacious 1805 work addressed tyranny in Napoleonic-occupied Vienna and was set in a prison-like fortress.

SFO’s new production of “Fidelio” premieres Thursday, but it was originally scheduled to usher in the company’s pandemic-canceled 2020-21 season, which would have coincided with the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth and led up to the 2020 presidential election in which government detention camps for immigrants were an issue. And yet the production doesn’t clearly suggest when or where the opera takes place.

“We’re seeing it through a contemporary lens, however, we’re honoring different aspects of the tradition and setting it in what could be seen as the recent past or near future at a detention center somewhere in the world,” Ozawa said. “When we were meant to premiere this work before the election, we were very careful to not put a heavy hand on this question; we were not saying it’s necessarily America, because forms of oppression and groups of individuals being ‘othered’ and placed into facilities, often wrongfully, happens all over the world.”

While the production’s time and place is purposely unclear, set designer Alexander V. Nichols created a multilevel, dynamically rotating cubed structure of prison cells, interrogation rooms and offices that are equipped with projected surveillance cameras, all of which unmistakably depict an oppressive incarceration facility. Nonetheless, the real-world examples of detention sites that inspired Nichols’ set design don’t explicitly state their purpose to the public.

“I found in my research of different facilities around the world, as this phenomena is not limited to only the U.S., that a majority are set up in buildings that were previously commercial spaces — warehouses, big-box stores, light manufacturing buildings, etc.,” Nichols explained. “Buildings that you are used to seeing and can walk by and not think anything of them. But behind the innocuous facade is a government-run program of detaining people who may or may not have committed a crime.”

Nichols determined that a self-contained environment with all the needed locations, rather than a set design with specific scenic elements that are introduced and removed, would be the best way to portray the opera’s detention facility. But getting the finished product to function as it was conceived was not without obstacles.

“I think the greatest challenge in pursuing these ideas was (A to fit the cast of nearly 100 performers into it and (B still have all the automation that moves the set properly with the sometimes irregular weight distribution in various scenes,” Nichols said. “It was a challenging puzzle but I have to give a huge amount of credit to the production staff at the S.F. Opera who were instrumental in solving all challenges in creative and artistic ways.”

Nichols relied on projections to convey the chilling presence of surveillance cameras at the detention facility but he generally advocates a judicious use of that technique.

“I think video is an element that needs to be carefully used as it very easily can upstage the live performers,” Nichols said. “The projection/video ideas in ‘Fidelio’ are based more in the world of inmate surveillance and are sparingly used otherwise.”

The repressive environment of a detention facility had personal resonance for Ozawa, whose father was born at a Japanese American internment camp in Wyoming during World War II, a fact that fit right in with his directorial approach.

“I approach every piece that I direct trying to find personal connections to the work, which I reveal through the music and text visually that can connect an audience with the work,” Ozawa said, “So my own historical family connection to being ‘othered’ and to family members being placed in a facility, even though they were American citizens, had a large part how I saw the work when we began the design process.”

Ozawa sees the two-story design of the detention facility as a way to display what he calls the “food chain” of its hierarchy. It starts at the top with the facility’s despotic governor Pizarro (bass-baritone Greer Grimsley), then moves on to middle managers and bureaucrats who are ostensibly oblivious to the harmful impact their work is having while upholding the system, and drops to the people who are suffering because of the system, eventually sinking to the basement confines of the opera’s male lead Florestan (tenor Russell Thomas).

The top-down structure of the detention facility and its oppressiveness also serves to highlight the heroism — revolutionary for women at the time of the opera’s composition — of the work’s female lead Leonore (soprano Elza van den Heever), who disguises herself as a guard in an attempt, despite daunting odds, to infiltrate the building and free her husband, Florestan.

“The fact that a woman is our hero is very much a vision for the modern age, when I think that in so many operas the female often kills herself,” Ozawa said. “Leonore is going into a system that ostensibly is run by men, and a system in which she could be very threatened — her life is at stake, and she hasn’t seen her husband in two years. And I think that the power, through the courageousness and resiliency she chose, reminds us, women or anyone in the audience, that we all have the power as individuals to ignite change.”

Ultimately, Ozawa wants his production of “Fidelio” to have contemporary relevance while simultaneously making it a production that the San Francisco Opera would find equally relevant to stage, say, 15 years from now. And, judging from human history, that may very well be the case.

“‘Fidelio’ has always been performed at times where the zeitgeist is experiencing autocracy: In the ‘30s and ‘40s it was replying to the Nazi regime, terror and World War II; in the ‘50s it was in response right after the death of Stalin to the outrage for those who were unjustly condemned and sent to prison, and it’s a sad statement that these occurrences still go on,” Ozawa said. “There’s going to be somebody new in the future who tries to oppress and silence dissenters, and I think that’s always going to be something with which audiences connect.”

IF YOU GO: “Fidelio” at San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave.

When: Thursday, Oct. 20, 22, 26, 30 7:30 p.m.; Sunday 2 p.m.

Tickets: $26 to $398; Livestreams available at $25 for Oct. 14, 17, 20

Contact: sfopera.com

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