Who is Manon Lescaut? It was a question I asked myself over and over as I learned this opera and began to craft how I would put it on stage. She is an enigma to be sure. We like to call her a “sexpot” or a “femme fatale,” and she certainly embodies these things, but I think she is so much more. We meet her at such a young age – only 15 – and this allows us to watch the formation of a personality over the course of the opera. Working with Talise Trevigne has been a distinct pleasure because she is willing to explore Manon’s hidden depths with me, and on our spelunking mission we have discovered some very interesting things that have helped us make a well-rounded and mysterious character.
I think the most important thing to understand about this young woman is that she is not a nymphomaniac or a loose woman, but rather an opportunist. It just so happens that her body and ebullient femininity is what she has to give in exchange for the material goods and position in society she longs for so desperately. She is a bit Lilith, a bit Becky Sharp and a bit Scarlet O’Hara…and she’s not alone in this motley cast of characters. Her cousin, Lescaut, is the ultimate opportunist. Her third act lover, Bretigny, is an opportunist, the three actresses she reveres so much are opportunists. In fact, the only character who is NOT of this ilk is the Chevalier Des Grieux, and he is the one who remains to clean up the pieces of Manon’s messy messy life.
Besides the inimitable Talise Trevigne, I have been blessed with an incredible cast of acting singers who have been willing to let me guide them through the emotional minefields of this complex and gorgeous opera. It’s French theater at its finest and I am privileged to come to work every day and construct this 18th century world with the likes of Gran Wilson, Jonathan Beyer, Andrew Wentzel, Harry House and Scott Guinn. Each one brings distinct thoughts about their characters to our little room and I help them shape all of their dysfunctional personalities into a cohesive whole.
Our rehearsal process may not look interesting to most. There are a lot of hushed conversations about emotional direction, a lot of detailed repetition of when hands should touch shoulders and exactly when a look should happen in order to send those certain sparks directly into the audience. Detail is king in French opera, and I have a cast who pays attention so we work small in order to refine the big picture. My greatest hope is that what will result is a perfect little cut jewel, a bijou if you will, whose only flaws lie in the foibles of the characters trying so desperately to find their path to happiness.
(Keturah is the extremely talented Stage Director and Choreographer of Knoxville Opera’s production of Massenet’s Manon, find more about Keturah here)