Opera North

A conversation with our stage director for Macbeth, Helena Binder

We caught up with Helena Binder by mobile phone in Chattanooga, TN where her production of Carmen opens on April 11th. In a brief pause between “the crises of tech rehearsal” and the promise the next day of a free recital of selections from Carmen in the park, the combination afforded a propitious encounter with the woman who will return to Opera North (she did La Cenerentola in 2011) this summer. She will direct Verdi’s Macbeth as Opera North’s Summerfest 2019 mainstage production at the Lebanon Opera House Aug 4, 6, 8 and 10.

We laughed about the ‘crisis’ part. ‘Every production has a crisis, doesn’t it?” I asked.

“The good ones do, yes,” she said.

First off, Helena noted how delighted she is to be coming back to work with Artistic Director Louis Burkot. “I’m thrilled to be asked back,” she said. “Louis is such a fine musician!”

Helena Binder is pretty impressive herself. Her resume and reviews are dazzling. ”Ms. Binder’s direction reflected the formality of the score while allowing its inner vitality to shine through,” praised  The Wall Street Journal. The Minneapolis Star Tribune praised her “arch, masterful stage production." “The sly and sage stage direction of Helena Binder lent the action a verisimilitude not generally associated with the bel canto tradition,” said Opera News. Our own Jim Lowe at the Rutland Herald called her direction “Imaginative and witty.”

As if training as a Shakespearean actor were not enough and in dance and improv, she’s also taught Dartmouth science, medical and engineering students, “how to communicate their science more effectively.” For them and for the Resident Artists at Opera North, she’s “a coach” who seeks to bring out their ability to connect to their audiences.

“I love working with young singers and other artists,” she said. “Sometimes they come out of school understanding the musicality, the language, the vocal techniques, how to sing. I work with them on how to connect with the text and communicate with their audience. ‘What are you saying,’ I’ll ask. ‘How will you make the text feel organic and come from within you?’ It’s all about telling a story.”

That, more than anything else, is Helena Binder’s ‘secret sauce.’

“It’s how I approach everything. How do you tell the truest story? I can’t tell an audience a comedy. I can only tell a story. The circumstances make them laugh or afraid, move them or make them cry. It has to be true and believable to bring an audience to tears – of laughter or tragedy.”

Helena’s specialty in storytelling is stagecraft, which she explains as “how to use your body. And the style aspects like how to wear that skirt, those pantaloons, that hat. Or how to produce sound using basic acting skills.” She mentions working with singers afraid “the physicality will impair their vocal quality” and how she has two seasoned performers in this Carmen rolling around on the floor. While singing.

“My coaching job is helping them find all the tools they can use to make their portrayal connect to the text, and with the audience,” she explained.

“Your audience will be engaged and involved if the singer is involved,” she continued. “Sometimes that means being still. Just listening.   If you keep them connected to the storytelling, that’s what grips an audience. You must play the character to make the story happen. And of course the music is very important to the storytelling, too.”

Which brought us around to Macbeth.

I asked if Lady Macbeth had a special level of difficulty and she replied,  “Any character that has a dramatic arc – Carmen, Otello, Cio-Cio San from Butterfly – the story has to hang together. I don’t view them any differently. Why is this person behaving in this way? That’s a critical conversation and once we agree on that, it all comes together.”

“To me, this story rests on the relationship between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth.”

She laughed ruefully when I said lots of the themes might resonate with the times.

“There are some themes the audience might find uncomfortable,” she said. “You have a couple who do ruthless things. They show the dark side of human nature. But I don’t believe you can ‘play a dark character.’ You can’t play evil, you can only play beliefs, intentions and goals. The Macbeths set out to accomplish their goals; and the consequences are tragic, shocking, distressing… and human.

And human.”

Opera North and Helena Binder’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth opens Sunday, August 4th at the Lebanon Opera House. Tickets are on sale now. Click here for details.