Award-winning Stage Director Stephanie Havey Talks Opera

The conversation centers on the November production of Albert Herring and how one crafts a career in the field

November 3, 2023

Abbi Getty

woman with bob haircut wearing a green top
Photo credit: Courtesy of Stephanie Havey

Stephanie Havey, Oberlin's visiting assistant professor of opera theater for the 2023-24 academic year, found some time to sit down for a conversation in which she shares her thoughts about the framing of the fall opera production of Albert Herring, her love of working with developing singers, as well as women in leadership roles in the opera world.

What are you most excited about with the opera Albert Herring?

“The score for this opera is very complex and very clever. There are little hidden gems throughout the text and the orchestration that reveal that all of these characters have their own secrets. It’s such brilliant writing and I am really excited to see if the audience discovers those little moments. I have been working with the cast on how to bring that level of storytelling to the audience in a clear way, but without overselling it. It’s a subtlety, and that’s what makes good theater.”

How did your thought process and creative process impact the Oberlin production of Albert Herring?

“When I am creating a new production, I start with research—when was the opera written and why did the composer write it. This opera premiered in 1947 and, as Britten sets it, is meant to take place in the 1920s. We decided to set our production in 1947 because we think the story is a reflection of what Benjamin Britten was noticing in society at the time. It is both social commentary and a comedy—and that’s elemental to the story. 

Another big idea that went into our framing of our production was the relationship of how adults treat children. We wanted to tell this story from Albert’s perspective. As a teenage boy, in his world, the adults are the villains or the enemies. The adult characters in this story are all the leaders of the town—you have the mayor, the vicar, the head of police—who determine what’s acceptable in society, and they have the power to reward or punish a person's behavior within the society. Albert sees these folks as his oppressors and that he can’t really be himself. We are using two objects, the clock and the lamp post, as visual symbols representing the control of the society around Albert. 

There is also the notion of an ideal love that is unattainable and unknowable to him. Personally, I think the story is about Albert’s growth as a human in the pursuit of love, and he has to learn to shed some of the restrictions society has put on him and accept himself. In finding that freedom, he is able to attain romantic love. However, it is all very ambiguous in the writing of the opera—it was the 40’s and Britten had to be very clever about what he said outright in his opera because he couldn’t just speak about his homosexuality freely at that time.

What do you hope people take away from Albert Herring when they see the opera?

“I think this story is about accepting oneself and loving oneself, so that one can learn to love others. Albert’s journey is about finding the confidence to accept who he is, even if that means he is different from other people. And in the end, there is a joy and a freedom that we see Albert gain, and that acceptance and that discovery of joy allows him to form bonds with the other characters. In the very last scene, we see Albert becoming friends with all of the other children. He is never friends with them until that moment.”

How are you enjoying working with Oberlin Conservatory students?

“I began working with Oberlin in 2016 and I have been back to campus for other events, such as a summer high school vocal program. I was really excited when they asked me to come for the year. What I love about Oberlin is that the students here are unique in their curiosity and their fervor to go deeper in their work, to really get behind the why of what we are doing. As a director, it’s a dream to work with students who are actually very invested in storytelling, what are we going to communicate to our audiences, and why are we telling the story today. Also, the students’ musical excellence and musical preparation are well beyond their years. I always love working with developing singers because I think we learn together through collaboration.”

How is directing a professional opera production different from working with students?

“In the professional world, it is fairly common that the singers have performed the roles before because we repeat the same repertoire, so a lot of the artists come in the door with an expectation about how they might want to perform their character and perform their role. For example, I have done Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni many times, and every time we come together with a new cast it’s a completely new group dynamic, so you end up telling the story in a new way. I really enjoy collaborating with the other artists and discovering how we are going to tell a story that’s relevant to the modern day with each unique group of artists. 

With students, we still have the same aim, but the students are usually doing the roles for the first time, so there’s more of a sense of discovery. It’s a lot of fun to help them work through the process of learning the piece, learning who this character is, and seeing those moments come together in rehearsal, where the puzzle pieces fall into place. 

How did you start your journey in opera directing? And, what do you recommend to someone else who is interested in that?

“My first mentor who set my opera direction was a wonderful female stage director and mentor at a public high school. Thank goodness for wonderful public school teachers and art programs! I was a performer, and she said, ‘I think you should consider directing,’ so I started directing in high school—musicals and plays—and I directed all through college while studying vocal performance. I was always finding opportunities. I did a few student-led musicals in college, and that is where I first tried my hand at directing a big production with orchestra and scenery. Then, I did some guided projects with faculty, and they had me direct some opera scenes on the scenes program, or be the assistant director for the show. After that, I got a master’s degree in opera stage directing and immediately started working. So, the best thing to do if you are interested in directing, is to create your own projects and do small student-led projects.”

What’s your advice to any aspiring women artists that are going into music or opera? 

“I think it is really important for anyone going into the arts to develop a support network. As a creative in opera, you travel a lot and you work with a different company in a different city each month, and the work can be very demanding. You don’t have the same sense of community and consistency that people have when they work in the same city day in and day out. So, start developing that network while you are a student, whether it’s with a voice teacher, a coach, or other creatives in the field. And stay in contact with each other, build each other up, and be that consistency for each other.”

The role of women in leadership roles in opera is a newsworthy topic these days. What has your experience been?

“When I began my career, I did not spend a lot of time thinking about my role as a woman in the music industry…until I got the opportunity to stage an opera for the Detroit Opera. That company has been around for quite some time, and while I was there one of the singers who was in the production came up to me and said, ‘I have been singing with this opera company for over a decade, and you are the first female stage director I have ever worked with.’ She then introduced me to a crew member who had been there for decades and whose mother had been on the crew for decades before her, and they shared the exact same sentiment.

That was in the early 2000s, and it blew my mind to think that, first, there hadn’t yet been a female director there, and second, how huge it was and what it meant to other women in the industry. There were plenty of women working in the costume shop or singing in the chorus, but not in the leadership role. So, that was a big shift in my career and artistic approach. Now, I think about the responsibility of being a woman in a leadership position. A lot of operas have a female central character, and historically they have been directed by men. Now we’re trying to take back the narratives in those stories and we’re asking what is the female character’s perspective on the opera.”

In what other leadership roles do you think women need more representation?

“In my opinion, we still see a lack of diversity on the conducting podium. While there are now efforts, such as various grants and programs to help promote women in the conducting field, that is something within the opera world where I really want to see growth. 

What about creative teams—librettists and composers—who are bringing new works to the stage?

In terms of creating new works, we are repeating a lot of the same operas that have been done for hundreds of years, and mostly written by male composers and librettists. It cannot be said enough that it is time for new stories. Of course we are trying to prompt BIPOC artists to tell their stories, but a big part of that is also female stories. It is extremely rare that you have female opera composers and librettists, but there are a few significant creatives emerging in the field now. 

So, we’ve been asking cast members the same question—“What About Albert?

“Oh, Albert has a sweetness to him, a vulnerability, and I think he is very genuine. But he is caught in a place of wanting to please everyone around him—his mother, the elders, the town. Unfortunately, he is doing that at great sacrifice to himself. So, I think you fall in love with him for his sweetness in the beginning, but then you really root for him to grow into himself at the end.”

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