Meet The Director: Matthew Ozawa

Baritone Heath Martin (Alcindoro), Stage Director Matthew Ozawa, and Assistant Director Eve Summer. Photo: Opera Colorado/Kelly Maxwell

By Tamara Vallejos

Matthew Ozawa, who is making his Opera Colorado directorial debut with La Bohème, is an in-demand director who loves new works and putting his stamp on productions. But this time around, he’s taking a more traditional approach. We sat down with him to chat about his thought process behind what the Boulder Daily Camera calls “dynamic” and “visually arresting” direction. Read on—and then make sure to experience one of the remaining performances of La Bohème on November 10, 12, or 15!

Assistant Director Eve Summer and Stage Director Matthew Ozawa. Photo: Opera Colorado/Kelly Maxwell

What’s your history with La Bohème?

I’ve only been involved with two productions of it, but I’ve seen millions of them. My first exposure to actually working on La Bohème was with Renata Scotto, the soprano. She was directing it at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and it was my first season at Lyric, nine or ten years ago. It was phenomenal learning about the piece in the most traditional context ever from the lady who was Mimi forever at the Met. It was really wonderful to see the vision and understand the tradition from her perspective and from a company that was all about tradition. The first time I directed La Bohème myself was for Opera North in New Hampshire, about seven or eight years ago. I haven’t touched it since. Actually, my specialty is new opera and unusual works in musical theater. I tend not to do traditional pieces that often!

Since you generally don’t focus on traditional productions, why did you decide to take this one on?

I wanted to come back and do a little of the tradition. I did a Madama Butterfly and a Marriage of Figaro last year, so I’m slowly bringing that rep back into my foray. Because I do love it, and I keep questioning, “How do we transform the tradition to bring it to new audiences?” I also think, as a multicultural and young director, I am continually questioning. As someone who has a degree in theater, a music degree, and all of this dance experience, I think I’ve witnessed enough traditional productions that really don’t do it for me—or many others of my generation.

Yet, this Opera Colorado production of La Bohème is very traditional. How do you square that with your typical approach?

What I have been doing, as a director, over the past couple years is asking, “With the traditional works, how do you unearth and unpack the tradition? How do you make them feel contemporary and relevant for people who have never experienced them?” For example, when I do Madama Butterfly, I have my Ozawa stamp on that thing. But this is one of the first times where, maybe because I’m getting older, I’ve sat back a little and said to myself, “I’m directing a more traditional version, and I want to honor what is there.” I just want to let the thing unearth itself as we’re rehearsing.

Stage Director Matthew Ozawa, baritone Heath Martin (Alcindoro), and soprano Monica Yunus (Musetta). Photo: Opera Colorado/Kelly Maxwell

How does that play out in rehearsal?

This is something I always tell people when I’m coaching arias: whenever we approach a piece, we’re all approaching it as who we are right now. When everyone did these roles in the past, when I directed it in the past, that was informed by where we were in life then. Ten years ago, I had dealt with love to an extent and some form of loss, but not to the extent that I have now. So it’s so much more meaningful to me now, and I feel that I’m approaching it from a much more mature perspective—as we all are. It’s not like this cast is fresh out of college; this is a very wise and experienced group of professionals, who have lived with these characters for so long. But you can always find new things.

This is definitely a beloved opera that people return to many times throughout their lives. What do you think makes La Bohème so appealing?

The key things that everyone loves about La Bohème is that it’s so universal, it’s very truthful in its humanity. These are characters who are really down on their luck, and they’re not doing their best. But, it is all about hope, it is all about the idealism of these dreams and their passion for life.

And then we start to see them get older. It’s not like they just fall in love and they’re in the honeymoon period forever and everything is wonderful. They’re going through very deep trauma that proves what it means to be in a relationship, what it means to grow with one another. People always forget that Mimi doesn’t know that she’s deathly ill until she overhears Rodolfo confess it to his best friend. In this one moment, Rodolfo says, “The reason why I have to separate from her is because I am inadequate to take care of her. I can’t give her warmth. I can’t give her money to buy medicine. I can’t take care of her, so she has to go elsewhere and be with someone who is rich and can take care of her because I’m responsible for her.” Now, Marcello didn’t know, and Mimi didn’t know. In that moment—that is a very huge, impactful, adult moment. How does everyone respond to this? From that moment onward, from the middle of Act III all the way to the end, these characters make it all about community. In many operas, it’s about the two leads. Here, it’s about the ensemble, every single character, and how they work with one another to live in a difficult situation and find beauty and find compassion with one another.

What do you hope the audience experiences with this production of La Bohème?

What I’m hoping people actually get from this production is that they’re awakened a little bit to all the life around them, and I’m hoping that they experience something in La Bohème that they never have before. That’s going to be different for every person. I hope that people actually find something new in the experience, given where they are in their lives right now. For example, maybe someone first saw it when they were in their twenties and thirties and they connected with the idealism and love, and of course they were crushed by Mimi’s  death. But it may be very different for them now. It will be very different for people in their fifties and sixties, seventies or eighties, when they’ve gone through more of these experiences and these relationships. They have lived with love and loss. They will find something very different in it. I just hope people feel, actually feel.

Soprano Monica Yunus (Musetta), and members of Opera Colorado Chorus. Photo: Matthew Staver

What’s next for you, after La Bohème?

I go back to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I just moved to from Chicago. I’m a professor; I’m shaping young minds. [Laughs] I’m at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, in the

voice department as an opera director. I only started about two months ago and then came to Denver, so my poor students are like, “When is Professor Ozawa coming back?!” Of course, it’s so nice to be doing what I’m used to doing, which is being on the road and directing opera, but teaching has been a great change of pace.

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