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The Vixen Diaries
Stuart Isacoff | The Wall Street Journal | 22 June 2011

Last spring, the New York Philharmonic offered a spectacular staging of "Le Grand Macabre," György Ligeti's opera about the end of the world. Directed by Doug Fitch, it was artistically profound, fitfully funny and consistently surprising. The obvious question was, how could the orchestra's music director, Alan Gilbert, possibly follow it up?

Here's how: Mr. Fitch is back, directing another whimsical, provocative opera, "The Cunning Little Vixen" by Leoš Janáček. "Actually, we conceived the two projects simultaneously," explains Mr. Gilbert. "But, of course the triumph of the Ligeti created a demand on us to do just as well, if not better."

The new work is substantially different. Ligeti's opera was steeped in otherworldly symbolism; Janáček's is rooted in nature, with a cast of characters that includes foxes, birds, bees and frogs. Ligeti's music was ultramodern. And while Janáček's music was ordinarily "spiky, quirky, impulsive and unpredictable," says Mr. Gilbert, his "Vixen" score is often "warm, and lush, influenced by Debussy and Wagner." The Ligeti production included Mr. Fitch's trademark "live animation," projected onto the stage; the only projections in "Vixen" will be the supertitles, though in an unusual twist they will feature artistic typography and appear above the heads of the characters, like cartoon bubbles.

That seems fitting, since the opera's genesis was a comic strip in a Brno newspaper, based on drawings by the Czech artist and forester Stanislav Lolek. The cartoon quickly became the talk of the town. "People went mad," recalled Rudolf Tesnohlidek, an editor at the paper who supplied the narrative. "I got hysterical letters and rude postcards, songs of praise and so on." This response was so unexpected that when Janáček expressed a desire to turn the strip into an opera, Tesnohlidek believed the composer was making fun of him.

Yet Janáček's "Vixen," which had its premiere in 1924, turned out to be a real treat, exploring themes like love, courtship, death, remembrance and renewal, all the while remaining great fun. At rehearsals last week, Mr. Fitch, boyish and brimming with energy, honed the ensemble's theatrical approach with a seemingly limitless stream of creative ideas.

Perhaps he came by his gifts genetically. Among the myriad objects mounted in his Brooklyn loft is a kinetic artwork by his younger brother, Chris, called "Tantalus Mackerel." It's a fish futilely chasing a fly, based on the myth of the son of Zeus who was punished for his indiscretions by being tantalized with water and fruit that remained just out of reach. "He's sort of halfway between an artist and a scientist," Doug Fitch says of Chris. "My older brother, David, is an evolutionary molecular genetic biologist."

The Fitch family started out in Philadelphia but soon moved to Fargo, N.D., where at age 4 Doug took up the violin ("We had a little orchestra in Fargo, and I'd go to rehearsals at 6 a.m."), and began performing in community theater productions with his father, a painter and professor of chemistry. By age 9 he was studying puppetry at the University of Connecticut. "That's what got me into Harvard," he reports. "I brought a puppet to my interview. They liked it and connected me immediately with theater director Peter Sellars." Harvard is also where he met fellow student Alan Gilbert. (Who was so impressed by his talents he eventually asked Mr. Fitch to design his house.)

It all helped Mr. Fitch frame his current approach. "Whether you are doing puppets or scenery or acting," he says, "it's about a continuum of storytelling." At the time of our initial meeting last fall, he was just envisioning the "Vixen" production. Among the thoughts: using three large screens for projections, placing the orchestra in a field of sunflowers, designing the costumes himself. He agreed to share developments periodically over the course of the season.

By December, the production had hit a snag. The budget had to be slashed, he reported. "When audiences come to these performances, they assume it has all gone smoothly," Mr. Fitch mused by phone. "From the inside you see how fragile the whole system is." He was scaling things down and abandoning the idea of the three screens. "In any case," he said, "I want this opera to be about the singers as much as possible."

When we spoke a couple of months later, the budget issue had been resolved. But access to the hall was limited: There was concern about finding rehearsal time to try out the staging and costumes. Nevertheless, Mr. Fitch was excited: A book featuring the painted faces of Ethiopian tribes had led to some new concepts. "These people have no mirrors, and the waters in their area are muddy, so they only see themselves through the reaction of others," Mr. Fitch said. "It brought to mind an aria sung by the vixen when she discovers that she is loved by the fox: 'Could it be that I am beautiful?' She couldn't really see herself. I started to think about the relationship between the insects and creatures in this opera and those Ethiopian nomads."

It helped address the challenge of differentiating between the creatures and humans on stage—a facet of the production with which he had been grappling. A trip to St. Petersburg last summer had also made him aware of the expressive possibilities of clown makeup. Suppose the animals wore colorful costumes, he wondered, and the humans wore colorful makeup?

Just days before the performance, these and other artistic decisions were still in flux. But there is little doubt there will be magic on stage. "Doug is perfect for this," Mr. Gilbert says, "because he gets the symbolism, but he also captures the spirit of childhood."