Michael Counts by John Zorn

Uniting three works of opera that span over 100 years, Michael Counts curates, directs, and designs his vision Monodramas for the New York City Opera. He speaks with musician John Zorn about the scale and challenges of the stage.

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Michael Counts. Photo by Jason Ehrich.

In his latest production, Counts takes to Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater as the site for Monodramas, titled after the genre invented with the scoring of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Pygmalion in 1770. Under Counts’s curation, direction, and design, the opera is more like an event that spans time and bridges artistic vision—that of Arnold Schoenberg (Erwartung, Expectation), Morton Feldman (Neither), and John Zorn (La Machine de l’être, The Machine of Being)—all united by three heroines. Expanding the traditional monodrama’s focus on the inner dialogue and catharsis of one character, Counts aligns three archetypical women and moves the production through a range of compositions that reach back to 1909. His partnership with composer John Zorn brings the genre to the present with a composition inspired by drawings made in a French psychiatric institution by Antonin Artaud. Contributions by contemporary visual artists are a part of each performance and include work by video artist Jennifer Steinkamp, laser art pioneer Hiro Yamagata, and Ada Whitney, while stills by Pipilotti Rist resonate the dynamics of Monodramas out into the lobby as part of the Parallel Perceptions display.

Michael Counts discusses his operatic triptych with collaborator and prolific experimental musician/producer John Zorn on the heels of rehearsals for Neither.

Michael Counts We just finished the Morton Feldman. Well, finished the first pass. I’d been working all week without my choreographer. He was doing another project and just got in last night.

John Zorn So there’ll be dance for the Feldman?

MC It’s mostly gestural, there are a couple of actual dances.

JZ Are you using some of the ballet people for that?

MC No, just the people I cast, my ensemble.

JZ You can bring your own people in?

MC Yeah, two of them I used to work with back in DUMBO. I knew they’d walk through broken glass for me, I mean, they’re just badass.

JZ I always have a group of people that I trust and that’s, for me, the only way to really get something done. How far back do you go with some of your people?

MC Fifteen years? Something like that.

JZ That’s like eight or 10 different productions?

MC Ten different productions with some of them—like with Kate Moran, who’s one of the Virgils, or Brian Bickerstaff, who’s the guy who does all the flying in the Feldman.

JZ All the flying?

MC There’s a lot of flying in the Feldman.

JZ Not gonna have any Spiderman problems, right?

MC No, no. I’ve flown people in many shows and I’ve never had a problem.

JZ Given the restrictions of working within, you could say, a union house, but also enclosing your work in this kind of fish tank of the proscenium stage, what was your approach?

MC I built a proscenium twice, well, once for a show that was exclusively proscenium in the warehouse that I had. That was a really neat proscenium in that it was 10 feet high, 14 feet wide, but 120 feet deep.

So it was just layers. We could only seat about 75 people at a time, and they’d sit just within the window of that space, which just went back and back and back and back and back.

JZ Working with perspective?

MC Yeah, always.

JZ That reminds me of the early Foreman Theater. The lower Broadway space was so amazing, and that’s what it was like, very long and very small.

MC I’ve seen videos and I’ve seen photographs of it, but I never went to that original space.

When I graduated from Skidmore, I came to New York, worked four jobs for six months, and saved about $8,000. Then, I went back to Saratoga with the idea that it was either New York or anywhere to start a company. In Saratoga, I had a built-in pool of actors—my first company—and people I liked and an art community, an audience, and a shop—my theater. So I went up there and rented this commercial space, like a storefront, that was very similar to Foreman’s old space. It was 16 or 17 feet wide, but it was a hundred feet long. It was great, we used it all different ways, but I was always reminded of Foreman’s space.

JZ Well, you’ve never had one dedicated space that went through many productions.

MC I did, actually. I had the GAle GAtes space in DUMBO from ’96 to 2001. We did five or six productions there. We did two more with that company: one at the Whitney and one out in East Hampton, at the Guild Hall Museum. But we were at the DUMBO space for five years and did some really big installations, exhibitions, and then I did five productions—one, The Field of Mars. People said that was the piece that sort of put me on the map. And we did a piece called Tilly Losch that was actually named after a Joseph Cornell box in homage to the dancer.

JZ That box with the balloon and strings? Wow. Love that one.

MC We did a piece called 1839, which was the year photography was invented—the year that everything changed in the visual world—and then did another piece that was probably our most successful, which was theDivine Comedy adaptation which had columns everywhere and the 12-foot ceiling. I think we used the proscenium to the best of our ability there.

JZ You had got everything you could get out of it, and it was time to move on?

MC We could’ve still been in that space. But there was a turning point, just after 9/11.

JZ Yeah, that was a turning point for everybody.

MC I had a big change of heart—not a total change of heart—but I felt a need to do work of a different style after that. I wanted to return to my original intention to create outdoor, site-specific work, for unsuspecting audiences, do things in New York and elsewhere, as gifts for people who came upon them, to put beauty out in the world. I actually did a piece just after 9/11 called Looking Forward, and it was a video installation in the clock tower in DUMBO. Work prior to 9/11 was dark and very self-focused and to a certain extent self-obsessed, and then after that I just felt a different impulse.

But going back to your question about proscenium in the case of Monodramas, if I could only work on proscenium stages for the rest of forever, that might get boring or limiting, but to me it is site-specific. I go up there, I sit, I listen to your music, I listen to the Schoenberg, I listen to the Feldman, and it’s made for this room, it’s made for this venue of New York City Opera and Lincoln Center, it’s made for New York City. I wouldn’t have been able to conceive it, sitting in my apartment. I needed to be in the space.

JZ Did you use a similar process to your earlier pieces for creating these three monodramas, like sitting in the space, or is it always different? I know you work with these boxes too. I’d love for you to talk about those boxes.

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Visual art element designed by Monodramas director and designer Michael Counts.

MC Those are sort of studies, in a way. Sometimes they are after the fact, sometimes they are before the fact. I would say my process in the last 15 years often included the creation of visual art as a companion to the performance. It includes being in the space, sitting and meditating with a painting, and making work in other media. I used to go to the Metropolitan Museum a lot.

JZ I still go to the Met a lot. Every week.

MC The Met was like my sanctuary as a kid growing up. I was a weird kid, a sensitive kid, you know?

JZ We share a lot in that.

MC Going to the Met is like flipping through a magazine for inspiration. I’d just walk around and find a piece that was relevant to what I was thinking or feeling or how I was approaching an upcoming production. As I was trying to shape some rough edges, I’d go there and it would help me. And a couple of times I found a painting that I ended up taking as a jumping-off point for the whole concept of a production—sometimes staging elements of it, sometimes building a whole stage set using the overall composition and then making it different, making it my own. The process is always in response to something—but the Met and visual art in general are, more often than not, key to that process.

JZ The work speaks for itself, and a lot of times the process is sacred in a certain way. You and I have talked about intuition a lot. How you don’t want to explain everything because then the mystery’s gone. Without the mystery—

MC There’s nothing.

JZ —you lose a lot of depth.

MC Absolutely. There’s the saying, “All art aspires to music.” Intuitively, I’ve always sort of known that. I’ve agreed with that for a long, long time. But I’ve always wondered, What exactly does that mean to me? Talking to you about our process—your process and my process and how they’re different—I realized that, to a certain extent, I stage and design and direct as I would make music. You pick instruments, you pick the elements that you’re going to play with, and then you’re following an intuitive process. You might have ideas, but ultimately it’s intuition. Does this sound right? Does this feel right? Is this gesture the right expression that, in an inexplicable way, is what’s called for? That’s how I approach the action on a stage. It’s never with a clear statement of, This is what I want to say in this piece. It’s more of an unfolding, a peeling of the onion.

JZ Or an environment it created that can then live on its own and create something on its own. You create a system, and then the system goes out to the audience and creates its own reality.

MC Absolutely. And then people can fill in—they can project themselves in the system and that’s key. All the art that I’ve ever loved, that spoke to me, that I felt I had a personal relationship with, made me think, How does the artist know what’s going on with me right now that she made this piece about me? It’s not about me, of course, but it is a vessel enough that I can put myself into it.

JZ People are also key in this process. Music-making, for me, is about people, which is why I like to work with the same people. You get a relationship. You get a real feeling of love between them. You can get a trust happening, and I think that’s similar in theater, too. You’ve worked that way.

MC An actor once described me as a “pack dog.” I find people that I trust. I find people that I feel safe with. And I know. I’ve said that often in castings, when I’ve done them—I’ll cast someone based on the time when they walk from the door to the place where they’ll stand. Which is to say, casting them or not is based on that initial feeling. With some people, there is an immediate connection and with others there is not. The rest of the “audition” process is sort of superfluous. Once you know, once you find people, so much doesn’t need to be said. They just understand and they know. It’s like that with Ken Roht, the choreographer: he and I have worked together since 1999. We understand each other. I understand his aesthetic. I understand who he is. He constantly surprises me, but it’s never the surprise like, Hmm, what? It’s a surprise within a universe that I trust, and that’s a wonderful thing.

That type of connection and creative trust is also very much at the core of this process in creating Monodramas—with Ken, with my performers, with George Steel, with you. Getting to know you and your art, and music and sensibility—I mean, I felt an immediate connection with you.

JZ I know that you’ve managed to weave the three pieces, the three monodramas, together, and I think that’s an integral part of how you work, visually.

MC The juxtapositions force the connection. I’m trying to create a bridge between them. You could get a different director to stage each piece and have these totally separate works.

JZ Was that the original idea?

MC There was a point where I was just going to direct La Machine de l’être and someone else was going to do the Schoenberg and the Feldman and then that didn’t work out. So they invited me to direct all three, and I was really glad that they did. I mean, I was excited about being able to focus exclusively on La Machine, but I think that it actually expanded into something bigger—being able to dig into all three works and create subtle connections. You’d never get that with three directors. Because I was able to draw on some stylistic and visual aspects in all works, I believe the whole production ultimately benefited. Without giving too much away I’ll say that there are elements that carry through all three productions—the ensemble of performers, for example; and the gestural world that Ken brought to the three of them; or the colors of the design, like how gray is the dominate color of La Machine, and black and white are the dominant colors of Erwartung, and then Neither uses all the colors of the rainbow—there is a progression. They were also very generous with letting this production grow from what, I think, was supposed to be the small production of the year to being—

JZ —the big production of the year! Is that what it’s going to be? (laughter)

MC I think it’s grown to be on the scale of what they normally do. I don’t know if it’s big relative to others, but I know that it’s certainly complicated.

JZ That’s the miracle of George Steel, I have to say. That guy really runs with it. Really trusts you, lets you do your thing, lets the artist go the whole route without compromise. That’s an amazingly rare thing in this world these days.

How and where does divine inspiration come into play in your work?

MC The idea is that I treat it site-specifically. Part of the inspiration for all of my work is the Metropolitan Museum. Not in any academic way. Not even in a way of knowing at nine or ten years old what all the art was—but just walking through and experiencing, in the context of seven minutes: Temple of Dendur, to 19th-century painting, to the Modern wing, to African art. All in sequence like that, and then finding the dotted lines—or not even the dotted lines—the direct lines between those things. That gave me the freedom to make those connections from an early age, to have ideas emerge that I don’t necessarily understand, to follow my own intuition, my own hunch. I’m one of those people that believes that the conscious, rational mind is like this little island in the ocean of the unconscious, subconscious, intuitive, maybe Jungian mind where these ideas bubble up from. And if I had to understand, Why do I want to put that here?, and had to rationalize it, I would be trying to take something so much bigger and put it through this little filter of my rational understanding and what a limiter that is—

JZ If it’s a filter, it’s a limiter. If it’s a prism, it can function to—

MC Absolutely. I feel like that’s ultimately what I mean, because of course there’s a conscious decision in taking an idea that is abstract, or something that is contradictory, or something that I may not fully understand, and then putting it on a stage. That to me is the process of putting it through a prism. It’s not a limitation. It’s a willingness to be in the process of discovery, of uncertainty, of exploration, which I think is an uncomfortable place. I think that humans, in a certain way, want to know and understand and categorize and restrict. I think it’s in many ways part of how we’re educated.

JZ It’s one of the mistakes in how we’re educated. Because retaining mystery and the unknown is an essential part of the artist’s life.

MC There are a variety of quotes that kept showing up in journals of mine through my life and one of them was—I’m pretty sure it was Einstein who said, “Mystery is the fundamental human emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” That’s the thing that’s always drawn me into the art that I love. Being, myself, a filter examining and creating a relationship with your music, listening to it a hundred times upstairs, and wondering where does it take me? What do I see when I close my eyes, when I look on stage?

I have a fairly good ability to see on a blank stage what I want to put there, and then I can sketch it. I do lots of drawings and storyboards so I can create a picture, and then have those pictures move into other pictures and create a journey effect. I don’t know if that is a vision? Or is it just creating my own relationship with something?

JZ A journey. So limitations in that sense become liberating, actually. I don’t think that people think of limitations in the same way. The outside world thinks it means everything’s all constricted, but to an artist it opens everything up.

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Drawing by Ada Whitney for her animation inspired by Antonin Artaud’s drawings.

MC Structure to me is freedom where I can exist within that and discover. I mean, I feel like I’m on a quote roll now.

JZ What’s the quote?

MC Something that John Cage said. I always have to think about it for a second … He said, “Structure without life is dead, life without structure is unseen.” It’s the reason they put the pyramids in the desert. It gave a ground zero. It gave a point and then anything could be factored after that point. I think that’s what he meant about structure. You need to put a frame around something to have it become visible, a spotlight on something to help isolate it from everything else. That’s why I’ve always felt that I need to be working in the place where I’m going to do something. Sometimes that’s spiritual. Sometimes that’s ritual. It’s always sacred; I create a sacred relationship with the places where I work. Ultimately, I think the underpinnings of all my work and my ideas about work in general have a spiritual underpinning.

JZ Structure is critical for me, also, and in different projects I use structure in different ways. Sometimes the structure or overall arch comes first and then the details get filled in later, like in my extended studio compositions SpillaneGodardInterzoneDictéeFemina, etc. For some artists fleshing out moments that have been decided in advance is tedious. I think of Hitchcock. When he has finished his scenario and storyboard, with every shot decided and framed, the creative part is actually over for him, and the actual shooting becomes boring. He’s even fallen asleep on his own set! It is very important for me to be interested in every stage of the creative process. When I record the “file card” pieces in the studio with musicians, although the structure is decided in advance, it’s still very exciting—and realized more as a journey, so that a sense of discovery and surprise is retained. It becomes an intense adventure.

In my classical pieces like La Machine de l’être, I like to let the piece create its own structure as it’s growing in front of me. It’ll go where it goes, where it needs to go, and I try not to get in the way. Although I have a general sense of what belongs in the piece and what doesn’t, I don’t know from day to day or moment to moment where it might go next. That keeps me engaged and surprised. The piece is writing itself!

MC Sure.

JZ You pretty much conceived, directed, and designed your earlier works yourself, but these are pieces where the structure is already set for you. I can’t write music to text because the text is already there. It’s kind of dictating where the music is supposed to go, dramatically. So I try to stay away from that. That’s why there is no text in La Machine. It’s vocalise.

MC I’ve stayed away from text for a similar reason.

JZ So here you are. You’re given something that has a beginning, middle, and an end, as it were. How was it dealing with structure, a set structure, somebody else’s structure? Was it the first time you’ve done that ever?

MC No. I mean, I actually learned something significant when I did the Divine Comedy because that has such a clear structure—nine circles of Hell, Purgatory, Paradise—and I found that was the ultimate freedom. You know that in the third circle of Hell you’ve already gone through two and you have six more to go. Something in that gave me the freedom to take it wherever I wanted to go. I also think the structure allowed the audience to have a better sense of where they were. It wasn’t inaccessible even though it was abstract because they had this fundamental understanding by virtue of the structure.

I feel similar with this production. For instance, I’ve added edges to certain pieces. The production of the Feldman goes five seconds longer. The music ends and the whole scene continues on in five seconds that are, to me, the most visually and experientially intense moments of the whole night because it’s like the whole thing just goes off a cliff. Adding the introduction of the Virgils before really stepping into La Machine: that, to me, is deviating a little from the structure, sort of dancing with the structure. Ultimately, I take it as it is and respond to it. I want to respond to you. I wouldn’t want to change anything about who you are, the things that you’ve said, the few words that you gave. To me they’re an opportunity. Same with Antonin Artaud’s drawings—I dove in and created these animations out of them.

The challenge that I’m finding right now is that each of the elements is so strong in its own right. You could just sit there, nothing on stage, and watch Anu Komsi sing it and that’s incredible.

JZ Well, I think this is, again, where our processes intersect. You look at each and every detail and you make it as good and as pure as it can possibly be. As the director, composer, mastermind, overseer, you put them all in the right place so that it’s balanced. Each and every element is perfect.

I don’t see how some dancers like to work with weak music because they think, Well, I don’t want the music to overshadow the dance. That, to me, is the biggest mistake. You want every element of what you’re presenting to be as strong as it can possibly be. That’s the only way I can see making work. And that’s something I got from hanging out with Richard Foreman, who also spends hours and hours tweaking and tweaking and tweaking. He added, I think, 15 minutes to the beginning of our opera. It was like an opening tableau of 10 or 15 silent minutes, which was amazing. You added only five seconds to the Feldman? Maybe you should make it five minutes! (laughter)

Reduction is a very big thing right now. Everybody wants to reduce things to the lowest possible denominator so everyone can understand it. And that’s not often very good for artistic vision.

MC It’s that idea of being a medium—of not creating as much as being a filter for work that is coming from somewhere else. We’ve talked about shamanism as the origin of art and music, of the stuff that we do. By that I mean, the job of the shaman or medicine man in a primitive tribe was to go on a vision quest—to have a spiritual experience that they were uniquely capable of having—and then to return to the tribe and translate their experience for everyone to share in it, to understand it, or just to have access or the benefit of the insight that the shaman derived from his experience. In that is a sort of translation—or bridge-building, if you will. To me, in this project, I saw my job as going on a journey with these three very challenging pieces of music and then to create a staging that helped make them accessible to more people—to people that might have said, I don’t likethat kind of music or something. I guess it is like that John Cage quote, maybe I’m providing a structure that allows the work to be “seen.”

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