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Robert Altman invents his life as it goes along

Does anyone ever really think about the director of an opera? I'm not talking about opera professionals or music critics, who know all about such things. I'm thinking of ordinary ticketholders. We think about the singers above all, and then, in descending order, about the composer, the sets, the costumes, the plot, and the conductor. There's the libretto, which we think of primarily as a framework for the music. There's lighting, which we notice, and the person in front of us, who we notice even more if our view is blocked. Directors? Don't operas direct themselves?

One Saturday afternoon in November, Robert Altman was presiding over a rehearsal of "A Wedding," Lyric Opera's world premiere production, which opens Saturday and will have 10 performances through Jan. 21. Altman wrote the libretto with Arnold Weinstein; the dramaturg is David Levin, and the composer is William Bolcom.

Robert Altman is a director, all right -- one of the three or four best movie directors in the world, if you ask me. I've seen him at work on a lot of sets, including, for that matter, the set of his movie "A Wedding," which was filmed in 1977 in Lake Forest and inspired this opera.

He has a kind of conspiratorial style, as if he and the actors are putting something over on absent enemies. There may not be a director who likes actors more. He has a temper, and I have seen him angry with cinematographers and teamsters and prop men and lighting guys and critics and people making noise during a shot, but actors are his darlings and can do no wrong. When he asks for another take, there is the implication that he enjoyed the last one so much he wants to see the actors do it again simply for his personal pleasure.

On this afternoon, he is working with the famed soprano Lauren Flanigan, who will play a leading role, Tulip, the mother of the bride. Altman sits in a high-backed directors’ chair with the libretto open on a music stand on front of him. Standing at a podium next to him is James Johnson, the Lyric’s associate conductor. Beyond him are the rehearsal pianists, Alan Darling and asssistant conductor William Billingham. The opera’s actual conductor, Dennis Russell Davies, is still in New York, but his wife, Linda Kim Davies, is an observer. On Altman’s left, seated at the sort of long table you see in school lunch rooms, is Pat Birch, the choreographer. Next to her, stage directors Amy Hutchison and Greg Fortner, and stage manager John Coleman. William Bolcom, the composer, is conducting a workshop elsewhere in the Civic Opera House, but will arrive later. It takes a lot of people to stage an opera, and the attention of all of these people is focused on Tullip (Miss Flanigan), who is dressed in a loose-fitting scoop-necked white blouse that is ideal for what Pat Birch cheerfully calls “the Russ Meyer scene.”

What surprised me was how much care and detail they were putting into one brief episode. In the scene, Tulip enters the bathroom of a Lake Forest mansion, all in a bother. Behind her is a wall of mirrored doors, two leading to the mansion, the others to toilet cubicles. Tulip is up from Louisville for her daughter's wedding, and has just been propositioned by Jules Goddard (Jake Gardner), who is the bride's uncle by marriage. As a sensible Kentucky woman, she is uneasy anyway with the Sloans of Lake Forest. To have an affair? At her age!

She is flabbergasted, and says so in song, until she is interrupted by Goddard, who enters and passionately pursues his courtship while burying his nose warmly in her cleavage (the Meyer homage). She flees to a bench that circles a pillar, and he chases her around it until his nose finds its cradle again. It is all too much for Tulip, who begs him to give her a break. As he leaves, he hands her a single red rose. Overcome with emotion, she sings of her distress, and flings the rose to the ground. As she exits, her door closes precisely as another door opens and Buffy (Lauren Carter) enters. She is a bridesmaid, has overheard the whole exchange, picks up the rose, and inhales.

A fairly simple scene, you think. Not really.

First there is the matter of the choreography. Tulip and Goddard have to coordinate their chase carefully around the bathroom and time the business with the bench and the pillar. Done correctly, it will be high physical comedy. If the timing is off even a little, they'll look ungainly and will be wrongly positioned for their big exits. Then there is the business of the rose. To fling it to the ground and exit with split-second timing as the other door opens is not as easy as it sounds, particularly since Tulip is in an emotional turmoil and must fling it without looking, and yet aim it so well that it's the very first thing Buffy sees when she enters.

There are questions about the music. Flanigan thinks perhaps one lyric can be abbreviated so that it coordinates better with a laugh. Altman agrees. Pencils are applied to the libretto. They try the revised version with new blocking, and it works better, but not perfectly. She thinks perhaps if she rushes forward in terror before she circles in indecision, that will fit the music. Birch has a conference with her, and they try it that way. It works.

Then Jake Gardner enters as Goddard, and the choreography of their chase is worked on. It must seem reckless and impulsive, yet every step must be planned or the timing will be wrong. And there is the problem of a cushioned stool, which moves on four little wheels, and the circular bench around the pillar. Neither seems to be functioning well. Flanigan tries the stool, which seems dangerously ready to slip out from under her. The bench is precariously attached to the pillar, which is allegedly a structural element of the mansion, but can quite clearly be seen to move.

This is where Altman employs one of his favorite directorial strategies. No one in the room can do any wrong (indeed, no one has). But absent villains must be blamed. He fulminates about the props. Can the mirrored doors be made to close decisively? (They will be improved, he is told.) Can additional wheels be attached to the stool, so it balances better, or is such a simple task beyond the resources of Lyric? (The stool disappears and returns with more wheels.) Can the pillar somehow be anchored? (Well, no, a cable steadying it from the top would be visible, and you can't exactly bolt it to the stage.) Lyric is in fact well supplied with resources; the stagehand Glenn Haack unobtrusively comes to the rescue by adding additional wheels to the stool, and thinks he knows how to steady the candelabra.

All very well, but now the rose causes a crisis. There is almost no way that Tulip can convincingly erupt with emotional turmoil and yet precisely aim the rose so that Buffy will see it. Tulip's body language must not suggest the slightest calculation in her rose throwing. There are three or four run-throughs, the rose lands in three or four places, and when Buffy enters, she clearly has to seek it out, even though of course she isn't supposed to know it's there -- which is why it must be exactly in her line of sight.

The way Altman handles this is a study. Other directors would no doubt get up out of their chairs and conduct rose-throwing demonstrations. Altman's response is to seem intensely interested in the problem, and curious about how it will be resolved. At the next run-through, Goddad exits, Tulip sings passionately about the tempest in her heart, she darts about the stage, and then ...

“Wait! I’ve got a great idea!” Miss Flanigan says, interrupting herself in mid-lyric. “Go back to the beginning.” Davies nods, she sings, she darts, and then she flings the rose over the top of the set and out of sight. A moment later, as Tulip exits, enter Buffy, bearing a rose.

Brilliant, don't you think? Lateral thinking. In mid-aria, Flanigan realized that the toilet cubicles don't have ceilings. So Tulip flings the rose over the top, the offstage Buffy presumably sees it land in front of her and can already be armed with a standby rose for her split-second entrance.

The rehearsal is now in its third hour. Altman calls for one more run-through, and I am amazed by how well everything now fits together, how it works as music, as action, as comedy. The chase around the bathroom meshes perfectly with the music and the laugh points. The nose in the bosom is hilarious slapstick. Tulip's emotions veer from shock to curiosity to fear to remorse to perhaps something like lust. And the red rose turns up with perfect timing in the hands of the young lady, where it works as all red roses do, as a symbol of love. If the whole opera is as lovingly crafted as today's scene, it will be wonderful.

Altman looks pleased. Pat Birch comes over and they decide to lock in the scene. There is a coffee break. “These opera actors aren’t used to acting in this detail,” he tells me. “I’m not payiung any attention to the music. It’s none of my business.” Altman’s wife Kathryn, who entered quietly an hour earlier, joins him. She is a redhead, smart and sassy, who has co-piloted him through 33 major films and countless television and stage productions.

Altman was a journeyman for many years, directing episodic TV like "Peter Gunn" and "Combat!" between sporadic feature forays, before, in 1970, when he was already 45, he emerged as a major director with "M*A*S*H" and never looked back. He works all the time, averaging a film a year, and tells time by the films; when we were trying to remember what year he directed the Bolcom-Weinstein-Altman opera "McTeague" for Lyric (it was 1992), he asked Kathryn, "What films did that come between?"

In 2000, on the set of "Gosford Park," he told me: "When I'm not making a film, I don't know how to live. I don't know what to do with the time. I don't have an assistant director taking me to this little restaurant around the corner, and a production manager telling me about my hotel, and a driver to take me where I have to go."

You get the sense that he invents his life as he goes along, improvising it, spurred by happy chances. Consider his great "3 Women" (1977), which was inspired, right down to the dialogue and the casting, by a dream he had one night. While he was making it, the original idea for "A Wedding" came to him quite strangely. He told me about it in 1977 at Cannes, where "3 Women" was an official entry.

"We were shooting '3 Women' out in the desert, and it was a really hot day and we were in a hotel room that was like a furnace, and I wasn't feeling too well on account of having felt too well the night before, and this girl was down from L.A. to do some in-depth gossip and asked me what my next movie was going to be. At that moment I didn't even feel like doing this movie, so I told her I was gonna shoot a wedding next. A wedding? Yeah, a wedding.

"So a few moments later, my production assistant comes up and she says, 'Bob, did you hear yourself just then?' Yeah, I say, I did. 'That's not a bad idea, is it?' she says. Not a bad idea at all, I said, and that night we started on the outline."

Altman's laid-back directorial style is all the more confounding because he imposes such a distinctive personal mark on his films. Sixty seconds of an Altman film, and you know who directed it, and yet there is such democracy in the way he works. He loves big casts with a lot of speaking roles, and his famous overlapping dialogue doesn't insist on listening to the star all the time.

He's always up for something new; his most recent film, "The Company," was about a year in the life of a ballerina with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, and he filmed it like a kid aiming for Sundance, using a hand-held digital camera and staying open to improvisation. Right now, he's collaborating with Garrison Keillor on "A Prairie Home Companion," and his casting is as free-ranging as usual, with roles for Keillor, Lyle Lovett, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin and Tom Waits.

“Where the years have gone, I don’t know,” Altman mused at the end of the afternoon. “But they’re gone. I used to look for a decade – now I look for a couple more years.”

I advise him to keep on telling time by making films and he will never die, because it won't be in the production schedule.

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