Director and team design new 'Agrippina' as distillation of film, theater and fine arts -
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Director James Darrah, left, works with Doug Williams during a rehearsal of Opera Omaha's production of “Agrippina,” which opens Friday at Omaha's Orpheum Theater. California native Darrah, 29, is a graduate of an MFA program at UCLA.
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Darrah hunkers down at rehearsal as he puts his cast through their paces. They are, from left, Doug Williams (Pallante), Zachary Wilder (Narciso), Hadleigh Adams (Claudio) and Peabody Southwell (Agrippina), a fellow UCLA grad and frequent Darrah collaborator. Many members of Darrah’s creative team on “Agrippina” are also frequent collaborators. They share his vision of what opera can be, no matter their disparate disciplines. “There are seven roles in ‘Agrippina,’ and all of them are hard. Handel was writing for rock stars.” — Director James Darrah(KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD)
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Director and team design new 'Agrippina' as distillation of film, theater and fine arts
By Casey Logan / World-Herald staff writer

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th St.
Tickets: $19 to $99
Information: 402-345-0606 or

* * *

When James Darrah, the 29-year-old director of Opera Omaha's upcoming production of “Agrippina,” thinks about Handel's 18th century opera, he thinks about sex.

He thinks about lust, power, violence and the brilliant duplicity that spins the story's wheels — a kind of “House of Cards” for ancient Rome.

He also pictures the scene of Carnival in Venice in 1709, when Handel's opera debuted to a typical year of festivalgoers gone wild.

What Darrah doesn't think about is how old “Agrippina” is — the oldest work, in fact, that Opera Omaha has ever staged.

“It's only old insofar as the date it was written,” he said. “But we're still making modern films based on ancient myth. We're still obsessed with all of these mythological stories, these ancient rituals, history in every way.”

So it's time to think about old opera in a new way. It's not just a mustier version of the opera people think they know, Darrah said. Handel operas in particular are full of the dramatic machinations that make for great stories, set to music that is arguably more accessible than what followed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Old can be the new new.

To make that case come alive, Darrah brought to Omaha his creative dream team, a group that operates more like a small design agency than a top-down directorial dictatorship.

“This team that's here, they are all incredibly formidable artists, and they all have points of view,” Darrah said. “A lot of times all of those things have similar wavelengths in terms of the way we think of projects and the types of work we're interested in and the things that we get excited about.”

Pulling it all together involved time travel. In updating a 305-year-old libretto set 2,000 years in the past, Darrah and company used 21st century technology to arrive at a production aesthetic that might be described as timeless 20th century. They created Pinterest boards. They shot images back and forth, trading ideas for costumes, set designs, hairstyles, props.

They condensed their “Agrippina” into two acts, the first in a vast space dominated by a bed. The second takes place in a garden that almost seems to exist inside the palace — nature as decor.

The story of “Agrippina” is at once simple and complex. Agrippina, hearing news that her husband, the Emperor Claudius, has died, schemes to deliver the throne to her son, Nero. Her efforts become even more deceitful when it's learned Claudius is still alive and embroiled in a love triangle that soon becomes a square.

“There are seven roles in 'Agrippina,' and all of them are hard,” Darrah said. “Handel was writing for rock stars.”

In just a few years Darrah has carved out a prolific résumé working with symphonies and opera houses across the country, including a pair of productions for the Chicago Opera Theater in its 2011-12 season (Handel's “Teseo” and Marc-Antoine Charpentier's “Médée”) and the 2013 world premiere of Frank Zappa's “200 Motels” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The year ahead will bring Darrah productions for the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera, Milwaukee Symphony and Seattle's Pacific MusicWorks, creative home to his frequent conductor and early opera specialist, Stephen Stubbs.

Darrah frequently talks about opera in the language of movies, and with good reason.

“If you're at a large dinner table, even with complete strangers, the common denominator is film,” he said, “because everyone can see it, everyone can talk about what's happening right now. The common denominator is not Handel operas.”

He acknowledges, perhaps even welcomes, the challenge of working within an art form saddled with preconceived notions about its audience and what it can do. But he can relate to those who think opera isn't for them. Not long ago, he was that person.

“I've spent a lot of time looking at what drew me to it in the first place,” he said. “How did I end up passionate about the possibilities of something like an early opera, but really all of opera? I'm super interested in new opera, too, and the idea of that as an art form. What excited me about that? What hooked me?”

Short answer: Croatia.

In 2006, after graduating from a small college in California, Darrah took a job with the Croatian National Theatre, working to present the city of Split's monthlong summer festival. At the time he thought his future was in film, but what Darrah experienced in Split changed the way he perceived the arts in general.

“They were producing large operatic works and new dance pieces and translating Tennessee Williams into Croatian with their all-star national actors,” he said, still struck by the ambition of it all. He recalled a Verdi opera performed within a 4th century palace built by the Roman emperor Diocletian.

“And they just used it,” he said. “It was a combination of me being from California, where the oldest thing is from, like, you know, 1890, and we rope it off and aren't allowed to touch it, and this idea of showing up in Eastern Europe and the fervor built around the entire city funneling into a summer festival in which opera and theater and dance and chamber music were all blurred and merged.

“That happens here, but there was really very little separation between all those forms. … I came back to the U.S. and was instantly interested in what was possible in that sense here.”

Darrah enrolled in an MFA program at UCLA, where he started to meet the people who would become his team. He connected with Cameron Mock, his lighting designer for close to 20 projects now. He met his frequent costume designer, Sarah Schuessler. Later, through Mock, he met Emily MacDonald, an artist who has become his set designer. Most recently he started collaborating with filmmaker Adam Larsen, who serves as his video designer.

All joined Darrah in Omaha for “Agrippina.” None does opera exclusively. They come from film, television and fine arts, and often return to those between collaborations.

“He's sort of leading a revolution in changing opera, in making opera truly a culmination of all the arts, and opera that really functions as theater and really functions as fine art and has the highest level of musicality,” said Peabody Southwell, another UCLA graduate and frequent collaborator who plays the title role in “Agrippina.”

“I think the old way of the director as the king of the room and everyone being pawns in his plan is the antithesis to what James does,” she continued. “He really doesn't see a lot of boundaries between director and singer, or designer and director. We are all working toward one goal, which is to make it live.”

For Darrah, the goal is what he experienced in Croatia.

“It's those few times you experience something illuminating,” he said. “For me, that's the whole point of a project. Like a chemist, you're basically trying to re-create that exact formula to give people an experience like that, and then convince them that if they come, they will have that experience.”

Contact the writer: Casey Logan    |   402-444-1056    |  

Casey's a GA features reporter looking for good stories to tell about interesting people.

Contact the Omaha World-Herald newsroom

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