A Q&A with Stage Director Matthew Ozawa

Stage Director Matthew Ozawa made his Opera Colorado debut with the 2017-18 production of La Bohème. Now he’s back to close the 2018-19 season with The Marriage of Figaro.

By Tamara Vallejos

Arts education played an important role in Matthew Ozawa’s life. Not only did he spend fourteen years seriously studying the clarinet—including at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music—but his childhood also included dozens of operas thanks to his hometown company, San Diego Opera, and its student dress rehearsal program. Now, Ozawa is paying it forward: in addition to his work as an in-demand stage director, he was recently appointed to the faculty at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance at the University of Michigan. What’s more, he juggles those two careers with a third, running his own company that incubates collaborative art and artists. It all makes for a packed schedule, but he recently found some time to share his thoughts on The Marriage of Figaro, the importance of theater in our electronics-obsessed society, and more.

The Marriage of Figaro opens Saturday, May 4, with additional performances on May 7, 10, and 12, 2019. Limited tickets remain across all performances; for tickets and information, click here.

Stage director Matthew Ozawa speaks to Opera Colorado patrons during a 2017-18 panel discussion about “La Bohème.” Photo: Jamie Kraus

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you discover a passion for directing, especially after thinking for so long that you’d be a professional clarinetist?
My very first job in opera was actually at Santa Fe Opera, mopping and sweeping the orchestra pit. And I have to say, being able to watch Harry Bicket and Alan Gilbert and these fabulous conductors work, while also observing staging rehearsals, was like a dream come true. And Santa Fe Opera opened the door for me, through their apprentice program. I ended up being hired for the following three seasons in stage management, and then I landed an assistant directing job at Lyric Opera of Chicago when I was twenty-four. I assistant directed over thirty-five productions with some of the most famous singers and directors and conductors in the world, and was exposed early on as a director to both the most traditional forms of the opera convention and to new, cutting edge productions and new opera. And that’s when I knew that I wanted to be director.

What drew you to opera, specifically, as opposed to other forms of theater?
Opera is a synthesis of all the art forms. You have music, theater, visual art, sometimes even dance. There is a grandness to it, but it’s a spectacular art form that’s still rooted in storytelling—really good, dramatic storytelling. And to be enraptured by the music as you’re going along for the ride is so exciting.

Also, because of my background, I can read the scores and analyze the music. If you’re a director who can’t do those things, I think it shows up in the storytelling. I don’t think it’s always super obvious, but if you can combine motion or visuals with things that are happening musically, the audience can feel it, subconsciously.

You’re especially passionate about new opera, yet the two productions you’ve done at Opera Colorado—La Bohème last season, and now The Marriage of Figaro—couldn’t be more classic. What do you enjoy about the opportunity to do grand, traditional works like these?
I’m constantly growing as an artist, and when I work on these classics, I get better at the craft of directing. These operas are so amazing that every time I work on a Figaro or a Bohème or a Madama Butterfly, they constantly reveal new things to me that I hadn’t thought about previously. I think that’s really, really special.

Stage director Matthew Ozawa works with the cast of The Marriage of Figaro, during rehearsals for Opera Colorado’s season-closing production. Foreground, L-R: Ellie Dehn (Countess Almaviva), Maureen McKay (Susanna), and Ozawa. Background: Adriana Zabala (Cherubino) and Rebekah Howell (Barbarina). Photo: Kelly Maxwell

Speaking of Figaro: it’s often referred to as a perfect opera. Why do you think it remains so vibrant, even after more than 200 years?
I like to think of The Marriage of Figaro as a snowball heading down a mountain. As the show progresses, because all the drama is so intricately woven together, that snowball starts to grow and grow and grow. It can be tricky, because it’s a very long opera—but there’s no idle moment. Mozart put everything there for a very specific reason, which means that the evening flies by. It’s a masterful piece of theater.

When last we saw you, in the 2017-18 season, you had just taken on a new position as an associate professor at the University of Michigan. What are some of your biggest takeaways from your first couple years as a teacher?
I will say that I feel very confident in the craft of directing. Understanding unions and schedules, and the collaborative aspect of working with companies and designers and conductors, are all things that feel very fluid to me. But teaching is still a new realm. And I’m about to start teaching students who were born after 9/11, and who have a very different understanding of the world. Also, a lot of their behavior involves being attached to their electronic devices, but what we do as a profession is something that is live. You’re actually living and breathing with the performers, and you are experiencing a show with the audience around you. So part of my ethos as a teacher is to take away the electronic devices and help students actually be present to one another and also be present to their body and their breath and their own creative intuition.

Stage director Matthew Ozawa works with the cast of The Marriage of Figaro, during rehearsals for Opera Colorado’s season-closing production. Photo: Kelly Maxwell

Well, that’s also just the state of the world now. You could argue that opera is more important than ever, because we need those moments to disconnect and to be in a room with other people, sharing an experience in a very immediate way.
Exactly, yes! And those moments of transformation that you receive from being in a theater or witnessing art live is not something that you can replicate by watching Netflix. The art of engaging and caring and having empathy for what is happening on stage, with those around you—it is a very human, universal language that has been in existence forever. The Greeks were telling stories with other people, for other people. The art of watching and being watched is something that’s been in existence across time and cultures. It’s so valuable to keep that alive.

Also, this is a little bit of a tangent, but I’m one of the few Asian-American opera directors in the industry. So as a person of color who has been through over eighteen years in the industry, I also feel I have a duty to help give passion to and voice to artists of color who are interested in pursuing this path but maybe are nervous, or don’t know how, or may not feel the stories speak to them. Because, ultimately, we want opera to speak to as broad an audience as possible. I think that it’s got to be an environment where any human can tell their stories to the broadest audience possible.

3 Comments to “A Q&A with Stage Director Matthew Ozawa”

  1. Dear Mr. Ozawa,
    Thank you for sharing your personal journey to your current position as an opera director and assistant professor, and for the unique perspective you bring as a relatively young person of color in a field dominated by older white males.
    I agree that live opera brings together the musicians and performers, under the vision and direction of the director and conductor, together with the live audience for a unique and energetic, shared experience.
    I regret that I am unable to attend the Colorado performances of The Marriage of Figaro, one of my favorites! I look forward to viewing video clips of your production online.

  2. I’m flying in from Wisconsin, specifically to see The Marriage of Figaro with my daughter, who has always wanted to see this opera. I’m sure it’s going to be an excellent experience. I just wish I could have gone to some of the earlier programming Colorado Opera had for this opera.

  3. I direct Theatre and I get to pick my Production Team .
    How difficult is it for a Stage Director to be hired by an Opera Company, that rents a set from another opera company, and, maybe costumes for a different opera company. The director has in mind to set the opera in the period in which it’s written, but the set and costumes are modern and contemporary ?

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