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SOA's Andrei Serban, Niky Wolcz Make Their Debut at the Metropolitan Opera

By Kristin Sterling

Andrei Serban

As classmates in elementary school in Romania, Andrei Serban and Niky Wolcz dreamed about their futures together in the theater. That seemed unlikely to materialize when Serban moved to the United States to work at LaMama Theater in New York's East Village, and Wolcz moved to Germany to teach, direct and act. Despite the distance from one another they kept their dreams alive working together on nearly 15 projects in theater and opera throughout Europe over the past 20 years. Today both are in New York teaching theatre arts in Columbia's School of the Arts and making their debut at Metropolitan Opera, in tandem.

With Serban as director and Wolcz as choreographer, they will bring to life for the first time at the Met, Hector Berlioz' "Benvenuto Cellini," which premieres on Dec. 4. This production is one of the highlights of the Metropolitan Opera's two-season-long commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Berlioz.

"Berlioz's music is rich and powerful, and so advanced for his time," says Serban. "I am glad that James Levine, artistic director and conductor of the opera, is equally passionate. One should enjoy every minute. After the Met, it is hard to reach higher. This is the top of the opera world."

In "Benvenuto Cellini," Berlioz tells the story of a 16th-century sculptor with the title name. According to Serban, it is the story of a reckless, genius artist who lives his life as a rebel, falls in love with the daughter of the finance minister, and is commissioned by the Pope to create a statue of Perseus. The climax of the opera occurs in the second act carnival scene.

Niky Wolcz

"It is a magnificently composed act, where the commedia -- as a play within a play -- gets center stage in an opera for the first time," he says, referring to the masked performance having roots in the ancient roman theater and invented in the Renaissance. "In the third act, we feel that Berlioz's own presence is filtered through the voice of his alter-ego Cellini. Here the artist must defend his artistic vitality in an age of puritanical censorship. Cellini must create a piece on command, under the watchful eye of the Pope. As Cellini's statue Perseus comes to life in front of the audience, you feel the triumph of art and the entire opera becomes a lyrical inquiry into the mystery of creation," says Serban.

The statue used in the production is a replica of Cellini's Perseus, which still stands in Florence's Loggia dei Lanzi.

Opera is both different from and similar to theater. Serban explains that "Both tell human stories, except in opera the only way to communicate is by singing, and it has its advantages -- music is what we all wish to feel -- and disadvantages -- limitations of how much singers can do, whereas actors are more spontaneous."

In practical terms, Wolcz notes that in opera the costumes and sets are done well in advance of the production. In theater, where there is less money, more imagination is needed.

"The working conditions at the Met are exceptional," says Wolcz. "The departments are very professional and you are given so many opportunities."

Perhaps the greatest difference is that in theater, the director casts the actors; but in opera, the conductor makes the selections. Serban explains that this can be a challenge to the director because "sometimes you get stuck with an extra-large, middle-aged Juliet. Still the melody makes you fall in love." Last spring Serban worked with Marcello Giordani, who performs the title role of Cellini, in Verdi's "Les Vepres Siciliennes" at the Paris Opera and they became friends.

Members of the Benvenuto Cellini cast rehearse at the Met.
Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

There are more than 200 performers in the production, including actors, dancers, mimes, acrobats and singers. While Serban and Wolcz did not select the singers, they did have the opportunity to bring 15 alumni from the School of the Arts acting division to work at the Met.

"These actors were very intensely trained by Niky, who is a master in commedia and he taught them advanced skills," says Serban. "This is a great opportunity to make the Columbia acting program known at the Met."

"This is my fifth collaboration with Andrei and Niky and it is an incredible opportunity to perform at the Met," says George Drance, SOA '98. "Working in a setting like this I can see how the training we had at Columbia has really encouraged us and prepared us to 'jump in.' It feels like the School of the Arts group shares a common language and can respond to Niky and Andrei's leads quickly. When I first began the program, I was warned that we were being trained for a theatre that does not yet exist. Perhaps through experiences like this we can begin to bring it into existence."

Serban strives to do just that. He is renowned in the United States and throughout Europe, working on the world's most prestigious stages, winning international awards, including several Obies and a Tony for Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" at the Lincoln Center. He has worked extensively with Ellen Stewart's LaMama Theatre, the Public Theatre, and Robert Burstein's "ART."

In terms of opera, he has directed at the Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Zurich and Bologna Opera Houses, as well as the Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles operas, to name a few. In the spring, he will direct the opera "Othello" at Paris' Bastille Opera.

Wolcz is an actor, director and teacher who has worked in New York, Germany and Switzerland. He has taught acting in Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Bern, Limoges and Bucharest and directs workshops on a wide variety of topics. In the spring, he is directing "Twelfth Night" together with SOA professor Kristin Linklater. The project was selected for an international European festival in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Serban and Wolcz have come a long way from their childhood home in Romania, winning accolades and breaking new ground in their respective theatrical disciplines. And today, they are finally fulfilling their lifelong dream of working together at the Met.

Published: Dec 02, 2003
Last modified: Dec 02, 2003

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