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INTERVIEW: Crystal Manich on Opera, Interrupted

Tenor Daniel Montenegro in Opera Santa Barbara’s March 2020 production of Il Postino (The Postman), which featured projections, lighting, and set design by Tláloc López-Watermann and was directed Crystal Manich. Photo by Zach Medez.

There’s not normally time for moss to grow in Crystal Manich’s schedule. Since taking the reins at Mill City Summer Opera in 2018, she’s directed shows from Boston to Nashville to Salt Lake City to Santa Barbara. After wrapping up productions of Così fan tutte and La serva padrona for Mill City last summer, Manich left the company and headed off to Nashville to direct the world premiere of a play. By October, a film script she wrote was an official selection for the Oaxacan film festival. In January, she was back in Minneapolis to direct Theater Latté Da’s critically acclaimed premiere of Bernarda Alba.

When not on the road, Manich makes her permanent home on the island of Puerto Rico. The Arts Reader caught up with her to ask how an opera director weathers a global pandemic and quarantine.

Director Crystal Manich.

Do you recall where you were when you first realized that COVID-19 was going to be a major impact on the world?

I was directing a production of Daniel Catán’s Il Postino in Santa Barbara, California, in February; that’s when things started to become clearer. I came home on March 9; on March 11, everything starting to close down in the U.S. I am grateful to have gotten home in time to be on lockdown!

Before the shutdowns, quarantines, and the cancellations began, what show(s) had you directed so far in 2020? What was on the calendar for the rest of the year?

I had directed the musical Bernarda Alba at Theater Latté Da in Minneapolis in January, remounted my new production of Il Postino in Albuquerque in February, then did a week-long workshop with a young artist cast to prepare for Il Matrimonio Segreto at Florida Grand Opera (scheduled for April, and soon to be rescheduled), and then I directed a different version Il Postino in Santa Barbara, which played in early March.

My production of A Streetcar Named Desire at Opera Roanoke was scheduled for May and was canceled – as was La Bohème at Wolf Trap Opera in August, at the incredible Filene Center in Virginia. In September, I am directing the long-awaited world premiere of The Copper Queen with Arizona Opera—it’s going to be an amazing show!

Directors and artistic directors have to do a great deal of preparation before a show begins rehearsals. What has been filling your time in quarantine?

I obviously do opera production prep, and I have other time to continue to work on back-burner writing projects. I have also started a new mentorship platform on my website for performers to achieve their performance goals. I have a lot to offer and am really enjoying the singers I’m working with remotely thus far.

Any especially memorable experiences in quarantine thus far?

What I’m enjoying a lot is cooking. I don’t recall a time when I made every single meal for myself for such a long stretch of time. It’s been therapeutic. I am also enjoying the time to discover new things—have epiphanies—being open to change. It’s a challenging time and I am calmly figuring out my place in all of the chaos.

Director Crystal Manich at home.

When you say “different version” of Il Postino, are you referring to a different directorial vision, or a wholly different production vision and design? How often do you get to direct the same work in the same season?

For the Santa Barbara Postino, I had my same projection designer from the other production, and he also served as the lighting and set designer for Santa Barbara. When you have different resources at your disposal depending on the company, the venue, and the circumstances, it is your job as a director to conceive of a piece so that it is shown in the best light for a unique audience. That’s the beauty of doing the same piece again.

It was a wonderful experience to revisit Postino so soon in a unique way. Santa Barbara streamed it a few weeks ago and I got a lot of incredible responses from people who took the time to watch it. That show is very dear to my soul and I look forward to remounting the other production in Chicago in April 2021.

It has indeed been a long while since Arizona Opera’s 2016 reading of The Copper Queen – how and when did you first become involved with that production?

I began conversations with Arizona Opera about the piece early in 2019. I then formed an all-female design team for the project and we are moving forward with pre-production as I write! It’s been a really exciting project already. Clint Borzoni, composer, and John de los Santos, librettist, have done beautiful work creating the piece and I am excited to collaborate further with them.

I can’t help but notice that after a January directing gig in Minneapolis, your schedule is filled with much warmer destinations. Coincidence or planning?

It was a very happy coincidence. It seemed to be the consolation prize after spending five weeks in the tundra! But nothing will keep me away from the Twin Cities. I love the community there and look forward to returning, whether in the winter or otherwise.

Basil Considine