Cherokee citizen enjoying opera production career
Cherokee Nation citizen Thaddeus Strassberger became interested in theater and opera early in life after his parents took him to shows at Theatre Tulsa and the American Theater Company. EVGENY POTOROCHIN/COURTESY
Cherokee Nation citizen Thaddeus Strassberger first directed the Italian-language opera “Nabucco” in 2012 at the Washington National Opera in Washington, D.C., and will do so again in October at the LA Opera in Los Angeles. “Nabucco” originally premiered in 1842 at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy, and follows the plight of Jews who are conquered and exiled from their homelands by Babylonian King Nabucco. COURTESY
In 2014, Cherokee Nation citizen Thaddeus Strassberger directed the opera “Satyagraha,” which is loosely based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi. The production garnered him the 2014 Bravo Award for Best Production and two 2016 Golden Mask Awards. COURTESY
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – When Thaddeus Strassberger began attending theater shows with his parents as a child, they couldn’t have guessed their casual interest would lead him to a career of directing and designing operas that have graced world stages.
“I was 4 or 5 years old, and my first theater experiences were with Theatre Tulsa and American Theater Company where my parents took me to see shows,” he said. “I don’t think they were interested in it in a professional sort of way. I think it was just part of the whole cultural life.”
Raised in Tulsa, Strassberger attended The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City after high school. And being a 2001 Fulbright Fellowship recipient allowed him to study the Corso di Specializzazione per Scenografi Realizzatori program at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy.
“In the beginning, it’s intimidating because you’re surrounded by people who are really knowledgeable about something that you want to do, but then you sort of get into a rhythm of it and realize nobody was born knowing these things,” he said.
Strassberger’s professional career began in 2005, the year he won the European Opera Prize in 2005 for “La Cenerentola” for the Opera Ireland and Wiesbaden State Theatre. His most recent achievements include the 2014 Bravo Award for Best Production and two 2016 Golden Mask Awards for “Satyagraha,” which is loosely based on Mahatma Gandhi’s life.
Strassberger compared his job to a Hollywood movie director as he works with the orchestra, casting, scenery, props, lighting, marketing and media departments to bring an opera to fruition.
“I’m responsible for the entire visual concept of what the production is going to look like and for all of the acting once we have the singers, what their movements are, what their intentions are,” he said. “I also work with the music director to work with the actual interpretation of the music and the text together with the singers to get the story told in the right way.”
Strassberger challenges himself to complete three to four productions annually in different world markets and takes on the task of bringing individuals together from multiple backgrounds to create a single idea. “I’ve worked in Russia, and when I walk into a place that has maybe a thousand employees, all with a very different background and culture and language and ways of working and mentality, then I have to make sure I get all of those people to focus their energy and talents in the way that I want to.”
While leading such projects can be overwhelming, Strassberger said the challenges are also what makes his job rewarding. “You get to take all of these incredibly talented people and focus their energy in one coherent direction that has a really emotional impact at the end of the project.”
Strassberger begins prepping for productions anywhere from a year to 2-1/2 years in advance of opening night. He said when his career was beginning, the decision to take on a project derived from its title and story. Over the years, his relationships with certain collaborators in the business have instead driven his decisions.
“I think the more experience I’ve gotten, the more interested I am in working with certain kinds of people and figuring out, once you’re together with those people, what story that it is you want to tell,” he said.
While his portfolio is vast, Strassberger said one of his favorite productions is 2016’s “The Passenger,” produced for the Ekaterinburg Opera and Ballet Theatre. The opera tells the stories of an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate and guard.
“It deals with guilt and responsibility over actions that took place during Auschwitz and concentration camps in World War II,” he said. “It wasn’t just talking about something and everybody nodding their heads and going, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, we understand what Auschwitz is,’ but really sort of opening up a new public’s eyes to the aspects of our history that are really difficult but need to be talked about in order not to repeat them.”
Strassberger’s next production, “Nabucco,” will premiere in October at the LA Opera in Los Angeles and stars the “King of Opera” Plácido Domingo.
“That’s just an exciting personal project for me because he’s kind of like the closest thing that opera has to royalty, and he commissioned the project from me five or six years ago for the Kennedy Center, but he wasn’t able to perform it at the time,” Strassberger said.
For Cherokees aspiring for an arts career, Strassberger advised to not to get too caught up in practicalities.
“I think we live in a world now where nobody’s job is very secure, no matter what kind of industry. I think that the world really benefits from are people following what they’re passionate about. Not letting the obstacles of too much reality get in the way because the reality is going to be there no matter what you do,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter where you’re from, it matters where you’re going and the kind of people you seek out to collaborate with and be inspired by.”
For more information on Strassberger, visit www.tstrassberger.com