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A Gunfight at the Opera

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Out director Francesca Zambello previews HGO’s ‘West Side Story.’

By Don Maines

The groundbreaking ethnic musical about teenage violence—which out director Francesca Zambello is staging with the Houston Grand Opera April 20–May 6—sounds like something from the latest news cycle.

But West Side Story began as a 1950s collaboration by four gay New Yorkers—and is actually based on Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed 16th-century lovers from rival families.

Stephen Sondheim and the late Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Robbins changed the story’s setting from Verona, Italy, to a blue-collar neighborhood in New York City where a white gang, the Jets, and a Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, battle for turf. The musical’s Romeo character, Tony, pledges allegiance to the Jets until he falls in love with Maria, whose brother is the leader of the Sharks.

“I love every character,” Zambello says, “but I think my favorite is Maria, because of how she goes from being an innocent to a person with a voice who can articulate herself so powerfully about guns and violence.”

“Now, I can kill, too,” she screams at the end, “because now I have hate.”

Francesca Zambello

Zambello hesitates to “make a connection” between the show’s final bloodbath and today’s gun-control debate, shrewdly allowing the senseless violence in the material to speak for itself.

Zambello was born August 24, 1956, and recently celebrated her sixth wedding anniversary with her wife, high-powered Manhattan attorney Faith E. Gay. Their wedding was in Cooperstown, New York, where Zambello works in the summertime as general director of the Glimmerglass Festival.

Zambello was born in New York City, but grew up in cities throughout Europe. “Paris, Vienna, Frankfurt—it was great,” she says. “My father, Charles C. Zambello, worked for TWA, so we got to travel a lot and I developed a love of travel.”

Her mother was the late actress Jean Sincere, who played the school librarian in the 2009–2015 TV series Glee that entertained a big gay following. “She was the first to introduce me to the theater,” Zambello says. “I grew to love music and storytelling, and I have always enjoyed the extremely heightened emotions of opera. They range from the very real to the very fantastical, and they have the power to communicate effectively. Discovering opera as a way of expression, I felt like, ‘This is me.’”

As for coming out, Zambello says, “Like most people, I got a crush on someone, and something happened. My parents were very understanding.”

In 1984, Zambello was an assistant director to the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle when HGO’s former general director, David Gockley, tapped Zambello to direct a production of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. In it, a woman disguises herself as a man and works as a jailer’s assistant in a plot to rescue her husband from the dungeon where he is being held as a political prisoner. Gockley, who would leave Houston in 2005 and retire as general director of the San Francisco Opera in 2016, gave Zambello an important break. “I owe a lot of my career to him. He was an amazing general director and collaborator, as is Patrick Summers,” HGO’s current artistic and music director who succeeded Gockley.

In 1987, Zambello debuted as a director in Italy at the Teatro la Fenice in Venice, with Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda.

Zambello has returned to the Wortham Center to direct several productions, including 2012’s Show Boat, in which she cast Montrose favorite son Tye Blue as Frank Schultz, the star of the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River steamer. However, West Side Story will be performed at the George R. Brown Convention Center’s Resilience Theater—actually a convention exhibit hall that HGO’s production team has transformed into a performance space for its post-Hurricane Harvey season of “triumph over adversity.”

“I think it’s fantastic,” says Zambello, who visited the space prior to rehearsals for West Side Story.

What: West Side Story
When: April 20–May 6
Where: Resilience Theater, 1001 Avenida de las Americas
Tickets: HoustonGrandOpera.org

This article appears in the April 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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