Look/See: Director James Darrah Has A Vision

James Darrah, credit Simona Kessler.

James Darrah, credit Simona Kessler.

At 34, Los Angeles-based director and production designer James Darrah has a vision for classical music and opera and he is forging a coalition to actualize it. “A gifted young director,” (Chicago Tribune), he is at ease whether directing for the stage or from behind the camera, an intuitive and inviting storyteller with fluency in modern media and film, having studied at UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television. This cinematic vocabulary “injects real drama” (New York Times) into his work, whether developing world premiere operas (p r i s m, Breaking the Waves, Proving Up), staging A-list concert productions (Bernstein Centennial at Tanglewood), directing provocative classical music videos (Jakub Jósef Orliński, Joyce DiDonato, Missy Mazzoli), or curating inclusive and experiential programs (ONE Festival, Music Academy of the West).

“It is not easy to find new operas that command attention, tell their story lucidly and create a powerful, permeating mood. Dark and daring, ‘Breaking the Waves’ does all this with sensitivity and style.” - The New York Times

In the contemporary realm, Darrah may be best known for directing Missy Mazzoli’s breakout successes, Breaking the Waves (Opera Philadelphia and PROTOTYPE Festival) and Proving Up (Opera Omaha and Miller Theatre). He makes his LA Opera debut in November 2018 directing the world premiere of Ellen Reid's p r i s m, a three-act work that he’s been developing with Reid and her librettist, Roxie Perkins, for the past four years. This original production of p r i s m travels to NYC in January as part of the PROTOTYPE Festival.

“‘[S]o often the assault or the murder of the woman is the pinnacle of the opera,’ p r i s m director James Darrah points out. ‘Carmen gets stabbed by a jealous lover and then it’s over. What’s interesting here is that we are exploring a psychological space. This story is about how we live our lives after we experience something deeply upsetting. Here we are watching a person recover, react, remember, and survive.’” - LA Magazine

Darrah debuted with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in August 2018, directing the Bernstein Centennial at Tanglewood. There he worked with Michael Tilson Thomas, with whom he has already collaborated eight times, including a new production of Boris Godunov last June with the San Francisco Symphony. The Bernstein Centennial, hosted by Audra McDonald, airs December 28th, 2018 on PBS in the US and throughout Europe and Asia, followed by a DVD and video release.

“It’s a vision quest,” says Darrah. “This is more than just a straight capture of a performance; it’s integrating the container and process of film into classical music.”

Darrah recently directed and designed an enigmatic music video to accompany countertenor Jakub Jósef Orliński’s debut album Anima Sacra launch on Warner Classics/ Erato. Alla gente a Dio diletta combines an expressionist palette and 21st century sensibility, and is hot on the heels of the music videos for Joyce DiDonato and Missy Mazzoli that contribute to what Opera Philadelphia calls his “pioneering, unconventional body of work.”

Opera Philadelphia, after presenting Darrah’s Ne quittez pas as part of its O18 Festival and calling it “a work of raw immediacy and voyeuristic intimacy,” approached Darrah to re-imagine Poulenc’s La voix humaine as an on-location film that begins production in June 2019. His bold perspective is pushing the project into the world of independent art film.

“The ONE Festival is about a residency of artists from multiple fields and mediums, and collaboration that defies expectations and gives our artists-in-residence time to forge new ideas. It provides new and unexpected partnerships and the time and space to create original productions, and projects that expand, advance, and redefine the operatic form.” - James Darrah

As Artistic Director of Opera Omaha’s ONE Festival, approaching its second season in April 2019, Darrah’s keen eye for spotting talent and ability to curate hospitable environments are forging what is arguably the most inventive opera festival in the country. For ONE 2019, Darrah invited acclaimed theatre director Lileana Blain-Cruz to lead a new production of Gounod’s Faust. He directs a new site-specific production of Philip Glass’ Les Enfants Terribles and installs an interactive, site-specific Ellen Reid and Zackary Drucker world premiere. He explores the integration of film and operatic themes by curating a series of Cinémathèque-inspired performances with Artist-in-Residence International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and their Co-Artistic Director Ross Karre. Last season the Festival boasted the world premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up, a story told upon pounds of Nebraska soil.

Most recently, Darrah has been tapped to serve as the new Creative Director of the newly formed Vocal Institute at the Music Academy of the West. In summer 2019, Darrah takes the helm from the retired Marilyn Horne to organize a unique training program for the next generation of opera singers that includes acting, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and mentorships with notable guest artists. In his first year, Darrah will also direct a brand new production of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, conducted by Daniela Candillari.

Abroad this season Darrah returns to Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe, where his production of Handel’s Alcina is revived for the 2019 International Handel Festspiele. He also develops Hecate House, a new play by Christopher Adams Cohen in Berlin.


Sarah Knight