It takes a village to put together an opera, and one of the most important roles is the assistant director. Shawna Lucey, who is assistant director for Lyric's production of Puccini's Tosca (on stage now through March 14) gives a quick overview of her linchpin role—essentially acting as the translator for the director's desires to the rest of the company and the keeper of the "opera playbook."
Can you give a basic description of what an assistant director does? What is your role in the opera creation process?
An assistant director on an opera has many responsibilities—both assisting the director of the show as well as communicating the desires of the director to many departments of the opera company. The AD creates and maintains the blocking book—this has the entire score as well as pages with diagrams of the set to document the movement and motivation of every character onstage. This book is used as a reference tool when rehearsing understudies or when a production is shown at multiple theaters. It's almost like an NFL playbook!
The blocking book and production photo from Act 2 of Tosca with Tatiana Serjan (Tosca) and Evgeny Nikitin (Scarpia)
The AD is responsible for helping the director coordinate the schedule—making sure the correct people are called to rehearsal at the correct times. The AD communicates the director's desires to the chorus as well as to any supernumeraries in the show, making sure that they understand any notes given by the director. The AD also works closely with stage management and the technical staff to execute the necessary technical elements so crucial to the production.
The blocking book and production photo for the opening bars of Tosca with
Richard Ollarsaba as Angelotti
How does the assistant director collaborate with the director, in this case John Caird, before and during the rehearsal process?
It's been absolutely wonderful to work with John (pictured right). I think we've both enjoyed the collaboration on this show. John Caird was directing Bohème in San Francisco this fall, where I was assisting on productions of Norma and La Cenerentola, so we went out to dinner and had a great conversation—both about the production and his vision behind it as well as theater, politics, and football (we're both Packers fans). Before and after rehearsals we've discussed major ideas as well as truths about the characters. His patience, kindness, and cleverness have led to a delightful rehearsal process.
What do you find most exciting or thrilling about this production of Tosca?
John's directing is so detailed and so precise; this is a thrilling production of Tosca. He has put his heart and his mind to the text as well as the music, and what's resulted is a Tosca that hits deep in the audience's hearts and minds. I think the design is brilliant as well and welcomes us in. Each act is full of subtlety and excellent storytelling, so that when the opera reaches its tragic conclusion—which most people already know coming into the theater—John's directing creates the tragedy anew, having so delicately built the story to that irreversible point.
Scenes from Tosca starring Tatiana Serjan (Tosca), Brian Jagde (Cavaradossi), and Evgeny Nikitin (Scarpia)
What has drawn you to opera more generally? What is your educational background?
I majored in Italian at the University of Texas at Austin. I followed graduation with a post-baccalaureate semester at the Moscow Art Theater. After working in New York theater for two years, I decided to pursue an MFA (Master of Fine Arts). Not satisfied with the choices here in the U.S., I decided to move to Moscow and study there. I had heard that learning a third language is easier than learning your second. I didn't realize that didn't apply if the third language was Russian! While I was completing my MFA in directing at the Boris Schukin Theater Institute of the Vakhtangov Theater, my directing mentor said I should look into directing opera, since languages and music are two of my passions. I went to Santa Fe as a technical apprentice and fell deeply in love with opera. I haven't looked back since!
Did your fluency in Russian help with this particular production of Tosca, which has several Russian artists?
Yes—my Russian background did come in handy with this cast. Ms. Serjan speaks Russian & Italian, but not English. I was originally contacted by Lyric to work on this show because they knew they needed an assistant director who spoke Russian. I translated for Tatiana throughout the process. Evgeny Nikitin and Mo. [Dmitri] Jurowski both speak English, but it's been great to have an almost "secret" language that we can joke with each other in.
What's your favorite opera or what opera do you dream of directing one day?
My favorite opera changes all the time! It's so difficult to say because there are so many great operas to choose from.
This is your Lyric debut—do you have any observations about working with the company or being in Chicago so far?
This is my Lyric debut and I'm having a wonderful time. The staging staff, many of whom I knew from other houses, are some of the best in the country. That and the excellent crews here make for a fantastic first experience. The strength of these departments is reflected in the excellence of the productions here at Lyric. It's an honor to be here.
And what about when you're not working—how do you enjoy Chicago?
I'm really enjoying the city! It seems like a lively place. I saw a puppet show by Blind Summit at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which was excellent, and I am looking forward to checking out the jazz scene here!
- Shawney Lucey portrait courtesy Shawna Lucey
- Blocking book photos courtesy Shawna Lucey
- Production photos from Tosca at Lyric Opera of Chicago credit Michael Brosilow (first photo) and Todd Rosenberg (remaining photos)
- John Caird portrait courtesy John Caird