SHOW-BUSINESS professionals tend to regard stage-struck academics with a certain distrust, but the industrious Mary Zimmerman manages to juggle a full-time professorship of performance studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., with a nonstop career as a director.
Come to think of it, the word director does not quite describe her. Often her shows are original, developed in collaboration with actors from intractable source material like Proust's "In Search of Lost Time," the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and ancient collections of fable, including "The Odyssey," "Metamorphoses" and "The Arabian Nights." Nonlinear, visually striking, often highly colloquial, her work has attracted top prizes, among them a MacArthur Fellowship and a Tony Award.
At 49, Ms. Zimmerman might pass for a graduate student. "I've always taught," she said recently at the Metropolitan Opera, where her production of Rossini's chivalric fantasy "Armida" opens on Monday. "Both my parents were professors. I've never not been in school. I just handed my grades in the day before yesterday."
"Armida," a company premiere, stars Renée Fleming as a lovelorn Saracen sorceress with legions of demons at her command. "What performer in her right mind wouldn't want to play a character with a wand?" Ms. Fleming asked during a rehearsal break.
Working at the Met, the learned Ms. Zimmerman has found her most prestigious canvas yet, one that has increased her visibility exponentially. Since 2007 the company has been unveiling a new production of hers every season, beginning with Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" and Bellini's "Sonnambula." Those two were conceived around the scintillating soprano Natalie Dessay, and were shown internationally in the Met HD broadcast series, as "Armida" will be on May 1.
Of the trailblazing directors Peter Gelb has recruited since taking over as general manager of the Met in 2006, Ms. Zimmerman is the first to chalk up a third production.
"I'm not keeping score," Mr. Gelb said recently. "Certainly Mary is one of the directors I've been most interested in working with."
Do her frequent engagements in some sense make her the theatrical pacesetter for the new Met? "I'm not suggesting she isn't," Mr. Gelb said. "Maybe she is."
Not that her first two efforts were unqualified hits. In "Lucia" many found fault with her handling of the time-stopping sextet, which occurs after the fragile Lucia is coerced into marriage with her brother's political ally. Suddenly, out of nowhere, her supposedly faithless lover appears in righteous high dudgeon.
What happens next might as well be written in stone. Everybody sings. Nobody moves.
But this time the singers did move, like zombies, at the behest of an old-time photographer silently arranging a formal group portrait. The sequence ended as it had to, with a blaze of flash powder and a puff of smoke timed to the final chord.
Ms. Zimmerman knew full well that she was dealing with what she calls a moment of shock and awe. But somehow the jittery rhythmic figure leading into the big tune set off heretical notions.
"I've had to be photographed on the worst day of my life," she said. "I found it so poignant that in a stunned way the characters would continue with the ritual and convention of the marriage. People will do almost anything to avoid a scene. The singers loved it. It gave them something to play and to play against." The reception Ms. Zimmerman received at the opening-night curtain calls was merely polite.
But her encore, "La Sonnambula," opened to a scattered chorus of implacable boos, for which Ms. Dessay herself was partly to blame. Set in the Swiss Alps, the libretto tells of an innocent bride whose picture-postcard existence veers tragically off course when she sleepwalks into the bedroom of a visiting nobleman.
Exercising a diva's right, Ms. Dessay vetoed the traditional staging Ms. Zimmerman had in mind. " 'La Sonnambula' is so silly," Ms. Dessay said last week from her home outside Paris. "So a traditional production means a silly production. What we did was much more inventive."
To accommodate Ms. Dessay, Ms. Zimmerman concocted a parallel scenario involving a contemporary downtown opera company in rehearsal for a new production of "La Sonnambula." Anthony Tommasini, in The New York Times, called the life-imitates-art solution cliché ridden, a "cop-out."
While Ms. Dessay scored personal triumphs in both "Lucia" and "La Sonnambula," her remarks about Ms. Zimmerman on "The Charlie Rose Show" and in a profile in The New Yorker could hardly be mistaken for endorsements.
Yet Ms. Zimmerman has no regrets. " 'Lucia' and 'La Sonnambula' sold every ticket," she said. "I couldn't be prouder or more in love with those productions." And her admiration for Ms. Dessay remains unshaken. As she told The New Yorker in that profile, "My bottom line about Natalie is she's either proof that God exists or compensation that he doesn't."
Third time lucky? Through the vagaries of long-term opera planning, "Armida," though the last to reach the stage, was the first piece Mr. Gelb invited Ms. Zimmerman to direct, with the wholehearted approval of Ms. Fleming, for whom the project is being mounted.
"I asked for Mary," Ms. Fleming said. "I had seen her 'Odyssey' in Chicago and just wept, I was so moved by it. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen. And 'Metamorphoses' was so gorgeous and sensual and modern. Every young person should learn the classic stories and myths like this."
As it happened, Mr. Gelb already had Ms. Zimmerman in his sights. And the prospect of a Zimmerman "Armida" took no great leap of faith. Like many of her most admired original creations, it reanimates strategically chosen fragments of a sprawling literary monument few but scholars can find the time or stamina to read. The source in this case is the Renaissance epic "Jerusalem Delivered" by Torquato Tasso, a 16th-century Italian long idolized throughout Europe, now virtually unknown.
Tasso's poem spins 11th-century yarns of magic and derring-do peopled by knights swirling though the Holy Land on the First Crusade. One popular arc concerns the tempestuous romance between the Christian commander Rinaldo and the wily enemy sorceress Armida. According to The New Grove Dictionary of Opera some 100 operas and ballets have dealt with the subject since the 17th century.
Long forgotten, Rossini's "Armida," of 1817, made a spectacular comeback in 1952, starring Maria Callas. Ms. Fleming first took up the musically and histrionically all-encompassing title role at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, Italy, Rossini's birthplace, in 1993. For all its excitement the piece remains a rarity, partly because the lone soprano is surrounded by an impractical half-dozen tenors.
Rinaldo is the most memorable of the lot, though audiences accustomed to naturalism may find him rather a cipher. Yes, he fights one blazing duel, but mostly he is Armida's boy toy, who exists to be spirited away to her bower of bliss, to enjoy her siren songs and then to leave, precipitating her flamboyant final solo.
As Ms. Zimmerman has shown, notably in "Metamorphoses," she has a sixth sense for the fickle stirrings of willing and unwilling hearts falling in and out of love. Three weeks before opening night, in an underground rehearsal studio, Ms. Fleming's Armida was circling Lawrence Brownlee's Rinaldo in a tightening spiral of seduction when he broke away and threw himself to the floor at one side of the stage, torn between love and honor. When she followed, he shot her a pleading glance.
For the better part of two hours Ms. Zimmerman had mostly just watched, beaming approval and reassurance. Here she suddenly sprang to her feet. "Don't be too childlike," she urged Mr. Brownlee. "You're conflicted, but you have resolve. Armida wants you to come to her for comfort, but you're not going to do that. You're getting larger than she is at this point. Stand your ground."
Such shadings spell the difference between empty vocal fireworks and music theater worthy of the name, in which those same fireworks shower sparks on a crackling human drama. Mr. Brownlee entered into the dialogue eagerly.
"Mary and I have been having a conversation about Rinaldo since Day 1," he said that evening. "His struggle between honor and love isn't exactly unusual in opera, but that doesn't mean he has to be one-dimensional. Mary keeps saying, 'Don't play him general.' I'm fighting for his identity. I have to show his strength and show the cracks in him too.
"The opera really doesn't tell us how Rinaldo first fell under Armida's spell. So I have to ask myself, what's his story? And more than that, what's their story? Did they fall in love at a glance? Did they have five minutes? Five hours? Five days? I think by opening night we'll know."
Ms. Zimmerman's theater thrives on such questions. "I'm cautiously ecstatic about 'Armida,' " she said. "This is my world. It's epic, it's multiform, it probably harks back to oral tales. Fantastical things happen. There's a debate between Love and Revenge. There's a ballet, there's a trio of tenors, Furies, a chorus of devils: all that stuff some people disregard or think isn't serious. But it's what I love.