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Helena Binder has lived creatively on her way to directing ‘Macbeth’ for Opera North

  • Director Helena Binder, of Thetford, right, confers with set designer Tony Cisek during technical rehearsal of Opera North's production of Verdi's Macbeth at the Lebanon (N.H.) Opera House, Wednesday, July 31, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Helena Binder, of Thetford, jogs off the stage after giving direction to the chorus during a technical rehearsal of Opera North's production of Verdi's "Macbeth" at the Lebanon (N.H.) Opera House, Wednesday, July 31, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Helena Binder, of Thetford, is directing Opera North's production of Verdi's "Macbeth," which runs from Aug. 4 to 10. She watches a scene during the show's tech rehearsal at the Lebanon (N.H.) Opera House, Wednesday, July 31, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Helena Binder vamps in a costume her brother made from a basketball uniform in her family's den sometime in the mid-1960s. She started performing at age 4 and couldn't get enough of it. (Courtesy Helena Binder)



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, August 02, 2019

When Opera North approached Helena Binder in January about directing Verdi’s Macbeth, she did what she usually does with a work she hasn’t directed before: research.

She reread the Shakespearean tragedy on which the opera is based, and she sat down and translated the libretto herself, not trusting any of the extant translations to tell her what Verdi and librettist Francesco Piave had made of Shakespeare’s story.

But when it came time to make a decision about the period in which the production would be set, all that meticulous work took a back seat to a personal experience. Binder, who lives in Thetford, had recently visited the Musee de Cluny, France’s national medieval museum, and was captivated by, of all things, a pair of leather shoes.

“I was completely transfixed by the idea that someone had worn those shoes in the 11th century,” Binder said in an interview this week at Lebanon Opera House, where the production of Macbeth opens on Sunday.

There was a King Macbeth in Scotland in the 11th century, but Shakespeare’s story diverges far from the facts of the real king’s life. The confluence of those details made Binder’s decision an easy one. “This is a story that is centuries old and keeps repeating and repeating and repeating,” she said.

To hear her colleagues tell it, this mix of intuition and hard work is classic Binder. Her Thetford neighbor, friend and theater colleague Maureen Burford describes her this way: “She has a really remarkable balance of inspiration and discipline.”

A resident of the Upper Valley since 2007, Binder, 64, has lived a multitude of creative lives. Her work as the stage director of Macbeth, in partnership with conductor and artistic director Louis Burkot, might be the most visible role she’s played in her years here. She directed the Christmas Revels in 2013 and 2014, and a production of La Cenerentola at Opera North in 2011. But this is the first crack at Macbeth for both Binder and Opera North. The Revels is one thing; Shakespearean tragedy adapted by Verdi is something else.

What’s more, though Binder still travels far and wide to direct operas, she is now fully enmeshed in the creative life of the Upper Valley. In addition to working with Opera North, she conducts workshops on improvisation and public speaking at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering and other graduate programs.

“She works with seasoned professionals and total amateurs and everything in between with ease and understanding,” said Bob Bernhardt, a longtime conductor who has collaborated with Binder on several opera productions with the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera in Tennessee. “She has an innate ability to adjust to the situation.”

A performer from the start

Theater has been a constant in Binder’s life, from her earliest days.

Born and raised in Schenectady, N.Y., Helena Binder (pronounced Hel-eena Binn-der) was “a child actor from the age of 4,” she said. Both of her parents — her father was an ophthalmologist, her mother an amateur actress, singer and director, as well as a talented writer — were involved with local theater, as were her two brothers who are 14 and 11 years older than she. Her younger brother dropped out of Yale Drama School to become a rabbi, but now also runs a theater company in Jerusalem.

She went to Union College, in Schenectady, and afterward pursued acting and singing, building a 20-year career, mainly in New York’s capital region.

An early chapter included singing in a band. She was in a production of Peter Pan and a couple of the pirates were forming a band from the rubble of an old one. “They invited me to see them in Saratoga,” and she ended up onstage, singing Going to the Chapel. For a time in the late ’70s and early ’80s, she worked at the theater company during the day and sang with the band, Blotto, at New York City clubs at night. She is likely the only Opera North director who has also played at CBGB, which billed itself as the birthplace of punk. The band had a hit record, I Wanna Be a Lifeguard, in 1980, but by the time they made a video for the song, Binder had refocused on theater.

She had begun to direct theater productions in upstate New York, and she moved into opera after taking her son to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, N.Y., and falling in love with the quiet town. A mile down the road was Glimmerglass, the celebrated regional opera company. She auditioned for a Glimmerglass production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, by singing Neverland from Peter Pan. In 1996, she choreographed a production of La Calisto helmed by theater legend Simon Callow. She also worked with director Christopher Alden, who took her on as assistant director. She went with him when he moved to New York City Opera.

“Next thing you know, I was a director at City Opera. Badda bing, badda boom,” Binder said, in true New Yorkese.

She directed her first production there in 2001 — Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse. The original director backed out after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “He decided he didn’t want to come, and he said, ‘Helena can direct it,’ ” Binder said.

City Opera is the smaller of New York’s two main opera companies, dwarfed by the massive Metropolitan Opera, but directing a production there was a big break that led to more directing work, both at City Opera and elsewhere. “It was a learning experience to be in charge of such a large production,” she said.

A comfortable rehearsal

Binder’s move to the Upper Valley was precipitated by her meeting Jim Zien, then the director of the Aloha Foundation, which operates several summer camps and the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Fairlee. They met online. Their first meeting in person is winningly described in their wedding announcement in The New York Times, dated Aug. 28, 2009: “In any event, Ms. Binder said that when they finally met, ‘he was waiting for me in his tuxedo and flip-flops.’ ”

Burford, a fellow Thetford resident, has gotten to know Binder as a creative force who isn’t stuck on herself.

“She’s not cocky about her gifts,” Burford said. “She’s just really good about what she does.”

Her primary gift as a director is to make everyone comfortable in rehearsal, Bernhardt said. A stage director has to strike a balance between allowing everyone to speak up and making decisions that move the production forward. Binder’s preparation, her way with people and her sense of humor “make the whole experience ... entertaining as well as fulfilling,” Berhardt said.

He cited a 2009 production of La Boheme in Chattanooga in 2009, as the fallout from the Great Recession hit nonprofit arts groups with reduced funding. “We all knew it was going to be the last opera for a long time,” Berhardt said. It wasn’t clear that opera would ever return.

“Something about that combination of casting ... the entire process for that opera was so beautiful and so warm,” he said. “We all got along so well, cast and crew.”

He and Binder felt, “You know, if this is the last opera we ever do, this is some great way to go out.”

‘Macbeth’

It wasn’t the last opera for either of them. They’ve collaborated since then, and Binder has continued to work at companies around the country. When Macbeth came up, a director with a long background in theater seemed like a good match for an opera based on a Shakespeare play, said Louis Burkot, Opera North’s artistic director.

“What’s really exciting about working with Helena, she’s basically getting the truth from these singers,” Burkot said. Opera North brings in seasoned veterans to sing lead roles, but the company’s Resident Artists are young singers on the rise. They have vocal talent, but often have much to learn about acting and character development, which makes Binder’s work all the more important.

Binder was eager to work with Burkot again, calling him “a wonderful creative partner.” She also was keen to direct something she hadn’t before.

“I’ve done nine Madame Butterflys,” she said.

She took the job with the stipulation that she would choose the set designer. Tony Cisek designed scenery that, depending on how it’s lighted, looks like stone walls, bare branches or veins, imagery that reinforces the “nature” in “human nature.”

Macbeth is an unusual opera in that the tragic figure is a man. The title character hears a prophecy that he will accrue power and become king, and when part of it comes true, he sees the kingdom as his destiny and takes matters into his own hands, which soon become bloody. Macbeth, once a loyal soldier, and his wife descend into gore and madness.

As she read and researched, Binder’s sense of the story’s timelessness grew. “I felt that this was a story that was particularly resonant today,” she said. “The idea of a quest, a need for power and how that power becomes an obsession, an all-consuming corruption ... that’s why I thought of the veins; it’s something that’s permeating.”

While she’s not trying to make a political point (she cited the old saw, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union”), the parallels to the creeping authoritarianism of the current moment are hard to miss.

“We see it over and over again,” Binder said, “where the taste of that power, the taste of that recognition and the need to maintain that position overtakes the responsibilities of the job, essentially.”

Macbeth was Verdi’s favorite of his operas and he crafted it with great care and attention to Shakespeare’s language. The timelessness of the story helps it connect with audiences, and Binder made the point that a viewer need not be a regular operagoer to grasp it and love it.

Opera is simpler than people think it is. It’s storytelling with music, she said.

“I don’t want people to be scared off if they’re not familiar with opera,” she said. “It’s a story that begs to be told.”

Opera North’s production of Macbeth opens Sunday at Lebanon Opera House. For tickets ($25-$90) call 603-448-0400.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.