STEVE HENDERSHOT: This is Cedar Cathedral, a podcast about artistry, craftsmanship and the creative life in the Great Lakes. I’m Steve Hendershot, along with Clare Hendershot, from The Diving Bell, our band in Chicago. Welcome to Season Two.
The operas directed by Matthew Ozawa are notable for their playfulness, their imagination and their dreamlike quality. For stages festooned with giant babies and rubber duckies, or a long skirt made of thick chains suspended from the ceiling, or wigs so enormous that they can and do contain ocean-faring tall ships.
MATTHEW OZAWA: I love a world on stage where anything can happen at any moment. It’s so very magical. And the idea of dreamscapes to me have always been fascinating.
CLARE HENDERSHOT: It’s a style that he’s been developing since high school, when he discovered Japanese Kabuki theater while traveling around Asia as an American kid attending a British high school in Singapore.
MO: Kabuki theater, you can change someone’s costume in two seconds. They have like all these riggings and costumes on the set where, like, you pull a string and suddenly you went from like a white kimono to a pink kimono, or this person moves through all these traps and suddenly appears somewhere else on the stage.
SH: You might be tempted to think of Matthew’s career like that, too, marked by magical bursts of light and wild flashes of inspiration. It makes sense, when you consider how quickly he’s risen: Matthew is just 34, and that this weekend he’s directing his second show of 2016 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago—to go along with other operas in Minneapolis, Houston, D.C., and Santa Fe, as well as concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center—and again, that's all just this year. But the striking thing about Matthew’s career, I suppose like any good bit of stagecraft, is that what’s happening behind the curtain isn’t magic but technique and discipline, along with a strange willingness to quit great jobs over and over again, usually at the Lyric.
MO: I mean, they joke now because I have left three different times. One of my friends she looked me up and she was like, 'Here in 2000-whatever you said goodbye to the company, Then you came back, and here in whatever you said goodbye to the company again, like you kind of keep saying goodbye.' At the same time the opera world kept bringing me back.
CH: On this episode of Cedar Cathedral we’ll head backstage at the opera house to chronicle Matthew’s peculiar path to the director’s chair.
SH: We are back, and we’re excited to be back with a second set of stories about people pursuing the creative life in the Great Lakes. This season, we’ll introduce you not only to talented artists, but we'l also peek into some fascinating corners of the creative world, including today’s foray into opera.
CH: We’ve also got some great music lined up, starting with the Grammy-winning contemporary classical ensemble Eighth Blackbird.
SH: Thank you so much for joining us. And please help us to build our show and community by subscribing, by reviewing Cedar Cathedral in iTunes, and sharing it with your friends. And also, while we are firm believers that we are living and participating in a second golden age of audio, it’s worth noting that if you happen to be a visual type, you can visit cedarcathedral.com or check out our Cedar Cathedral Instagram to get a sense of what these people look like. And in Matthew Ozawa’s case, it’s absolutely worth it to get a sense of the visual flair of his productions.
CH: Speaking of Matthew, let’s get back to his story.
ACT 1: CAREER ADVANCEMENT VIA QUITTING
SH: The early years of a career in opera direction are not glamorous. You’re moving around from city to city, show to show, trying to make a living and build a resume. None of it comes easy, including just finding a place to stay for a month-long run. Right out of college, Matthew used Craigslist, with mixed results. There was a place in Santa Fe where squirrels ran through the living room. And then a place in Chicago where his roommates made him miss those squirrels.
MO: After a couple weeks living there they knocked on my door late at night and they said, 'Hey, dude, we’ve never talked to anyone about this before, but we’re wondering if we could bring clients home.’ And I said ‘Clients! Oh, like you make your own jewelry online and you want people to see it?’ I’m like ‘Yeah, sure!’ And they said, 'Oh no no no, like we charge $250 for a half hour, we come as a package.' I’m like, 'Mmm, wait, so you’re prosti…'
SH: Within a couple weeks, Matthew was sleeping at the opera house.
CH: Yet somehow it worked out, because by the time he was 24 he’d earned a coveted, full-time position at the Lyric as an assistant stage manager. It wasn’t his dream job, but he was young and it was in the right building.
SH: So, let’s talk about assistant stage managing. If stage managers are like traffic cops, making sure all the props and people move smoothly on and off stage, then assistant stage managers are like the crossing guard. As in—you, get out there, now, and remember to carry the pearl-handled dagger in your left hand. This job can be hard, and it was during Matthew’s first year at the Lyric.
MO: They put me on Doctor Atomic by John Adams and Die Frau Ohne Schatten by Strauss. Both pieces which are really hard musically and I was one of the few people that could read the music, so for Doctor Atomic I actually was like over the headset with a little maestro cam and I would keep everyone on the music.
CH: So what helps Matthew succeed in this first job at the Lyric Opera isn’t his grand artistic vision, but his technical chops. He’s really good at reading music.
SH: So at this point Matthew is firmly entrenched on the ground floor at the Lyric. He excels at stage management. But his response to earning a little job security is to pull out, for the first time, his secret weapon in terms of career strategy. He quits.
MO: And I said hey thank you Lyric, it’s been wonderful. I don’t want to be in stage management, so I’m going to move forward. I think that’s always kind of been my M.O. Maybe it’s bad, I don’t know, but my M.O. has always been if I’ve reached a plateau in whatever I’m learning, then I just move on to the next thing.
SH: And in this case, it worked like a charm.
MO: And then they said, “what do you want to do?” Well, I said, I want to assistant-direct. “Great, you’re coming back next year as an assistant director.”
CH: Matthew had reached the next level. It was great news except for one thing.
MO: I mean, assistant directing sucks. It is the worst job on the planet.
SH: Okay, quick primer on assistant directing. As an assistant director, you’re out of the traffic cop business. But if moving the performers on and off stage sounded complicated, well, now you’re in charge of juggling a zillion arcane contract regulations dictating everything from how often and how long the orchestra gets to take a break, to how many people are required to help carry a table that moves on and off the set. You’re also in charge of making sure the director is happy, while also making sure the soloists are holding it together in what are invariably high-stress situations.
MO: You know, there are times I feel my job sometimes as an AD is also to be a therapist. You’re like helping people through these phases of their life where they’re singing at the top companies and the pressure is so incredibly high. Their voice is their instrument, and the minute it starts to go wrong — they start to crack, they’re a little flat — they’re kind of like on thin ice. And I think that’s really hard to emotionally go through over and over again, and to moving from city to city to city. Which also, in some respects, makes me feel better when they freak out. When they do yell, when they need their water. I mean, there are many times where a singer has had a lozenge in their mouth, they have to get rid of it, and so I’m like, put out my hand, and, like, ‘Here,’ and they spit it in my hand. I mean it’s just like, okay, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. Fine, I'll take your spitty lozenge from you.
CH: Matthew turned out to be a great assistant director. He also found it really hard to be that close to the director’s chair without getting to sit there.
MO: When you really want to be making art and you’re watching it happen over and over and over, and in situations where you do not agree with it or it’s not great art, that is when it really kills your soul.
SH: But this is where the apprenticeship ethic of opera really paid off for him. He didn’t really like assistant directing, but he did use the experience to learn how to become a better director. He fought that impulse to move on because he knew he had first, he had to master his trade.
MO: I would try to stage it in the style of whatever director I was working with. So it was invaluable. I mean, really, I don’t think I could be where I am right now if I actually hadn’t done all of those steps. And there were many times where I hated it, and I thought you know what, why am I not directing? I should be directing. I’m going to quit. I don’t want to do this. But, you know, you kind of like pay your dues, and and there’s now skills that I have that I really would never have had if I hadn’t assisted.
CH: And after a few years of assistant directing, everything started coming together. And once he was consistently excelling at the job, that’s when Matthew knew it was time—to quit again.
SH: Seriously, though, quitting was a brilliant move here. Because assistant director-hood is the sort of place where aspiring directors can inadvertently spend their entire careers. You get a reputation for helping directors achieve their visions, and people forget you have your own vision. In 2013, Matthew left the Lyric to start a performing arts collaborative called Mozawa. Mozawa does the sort of avant garde, experimental work that he wasn’t getting to do within opera. For example, this spring Mozawa produced a show featuring self-portraits from 55 different millennial artists, each working in the medium of their choice.
MO: The art of collaboration is very, very difficult. Most people don’t know where to start, or how to actually chisel through the sort of wall that is in between their collaborators. And so part of my task and job in helping others create is looking at things from a much broader vision and perspective. And I think having been and dabbled in so many art forms, I’m able to swap back and forth between other people’s brains and mediums to be like 'Okay, how are you now seeing it? Now let me try to translate that into your language to help you understand their language.' And that is something that I actually really love and it’s actually really a part of my directing style, to bring out people’s strengths and take their weaknesses and make them strengths.
CH: This work was gratifying on its own, but it also had a serious side benefit: showing the opera folks that Matthew Ozawa wasn’t just an assistant director, but a capital-A artist. Someone with directorial potential.
MO: Suddenly they thought, 'Oh wait, this kid isn’t just — he’s not just good at scheduling. Like, wow, he has this company and it looks really fascinating and it’s unusual and it has this following and people are you know doing interesting things.' Suddenly people saw me in a different light.
ACT 2: NEVER STANDING STILL
CH: Now Matthew is a rising-star director, working around the country and world. This Saturday, he returns to the Lyric Opera of Chicago for the first of six fall performances of Don Quichotte, a little-known, hundred-year-old French opera based on Miguel Cervantes’ 400-year-old novel about the romantic, star-crossed adventurer Don Quixote.
SH: Don Quixote is famous for his, well, quixotic wandering. But his meandering path has nothing on Matthew Ozawa. The difference is that in the opera—spoiler alert—Don Quichotte dies on a mountain pass attended only by his loyal squire. Matthew, on the other hand, is just getting started. The question for Matthew is, now that he’s finally not just sitting in the director’s chair but has all the directing work he can handle, how will he develop and refine his emerging directorial style? Expect to see his personality come through, in terms of a production aesthetic, sure, but also in terms of the spirit he’s brought to his career—never standing still, never allowing himself to be content.
MO: I find that people need to be pushed, especially when it comes to the arts. They don’t know what they’re doing and they’re nervous and they’re trying to figure it out and they’re not willing to go beyond a certain comfort zone, and so I really kind of say look this is the standard. We all gotta come up to it.
SH: If you hear that as a performer or a costume designer or a set designer, maybe that philosophy is a little intimidating. Maybe it should be. Just keep in mind that when Matthew Ozawa tells you to challenge yourself, to venture out into awkward, uncharted waters, and then as soon as you get comfortable there, to do it all again, and then again—well, he’s only prescribing the same formula that’s worked so well for him. He’ll even understand if you want to quit—just don’t do it until you’ve absolutely mastered your role.
CH: For more on Matthew Ozawa, visit CedarCathedral.com. And check out his opera at the Lyric this season! We’ve got a ticket link on the site.
SH: At the end of every episode, we feature a song from a great Great Lakes artist. This week it’s Eighth Blackbird, a four-time Grammy-winning ensemble, based in Chicago, that collaborated with Matthew Ozawa this year for shows at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington. The song is Checkered Shade by composer Timo Andres, from the Eighth Blackbird album Hand Eye, released last spring on Cedille Records. You can buy the record on iTunes or Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.
CH: Cedar Cathedral was produced this week by us, Steve and Clare Hendershot from The Diving Bell. Thanks to our friends Eric Watkins and Jodi Gage for introducing us to Matthew Ozawa, and to Matthew for hanging out. And to the Chicago Police for the parking ticket we got while hanging out with Matthew. And also to Eighth Blackbird and Cedilla Records.