Canadian theatre director Des McAnuff juggles Jesus and the devil in the U.S.

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TORONTO - Renowned Canadian theatre director Des McAnuff is juggling Jesus and the devil this holiday season.

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This article was published 05/12/2011 (3951 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

TORONTO – Renowned Canadian theatre director Des McAnuff is juggling Jesus and the devil this holiday season.

Last Tuesday he made his Metropolitan Opera debut with Gounod’s “Faust,” about a scholar who makes a deal with the devil.

Then on Wednesday he opened his Broadway-bound Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, Calif.

The Canadian Press archives Renowned Canadian theatre director Des McAnuff is juggling Jesus and the devil this holiday season. Last Tuesday he made his Metropolitan Opera debut with Gounod's "Faust," about a scholar who makes a deal with the devil.

“This is not by design. I wish it were. I wish I could claim that I put these together intentionally,” the two-time Tony Award winner said laughing in a recent telephone interview, while on his way to rehearsal for “JCS.”

“(Met general manager) Peter Gelb asked me to do ‘Faust’ back in April of 2007 and so I’ve been on that for a long time, and I only really decided to do ‘Superstar’ a year ago last summer. And it is pure serendipity that they would happen to open a night apart.

“But I suppose if there is anything that’s going to make you a believer it’s coincidences like that.”

McAnuff’s “Faust” — conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin and featuring tenor Jonas Kaufmann and soprano Marina Poplavskaya — will be broadcast live in Cineplex Entertainment theatres across Canada on Saturday as part of “The Met: Live in HD” series.

The cast also includes mezzo-soprano Michele Losier of Montreal, and Russell Braun, who was born in Germany but now lives in Glen Williams, Ont.

McAnuff has updated the story to the first half of the 20th century, beginning in 1945 with the detonation of the atomic bomb and Faust as a nuclear scientist holed up in his laboratory. The dream-like story also goes back to Faust’s youthful days in 1914.

“There were a couple of things on my mind there. One was quite simply it seems to me that the closest thing I can imagine approaching evil is a nuclear blast, a nuclear holocaust,” explained the Illinois-born, Toronto-bred McAnuff.

“It seems to me that the oblivion that comes with that is probably quite a good definition of hell.”

McAnuff said he was also thinking of the stories he’d heard about the late anthropologist Jacob Bronowski from his widow, with whom the director became good friends before she died a year ago.

Rita Bronowski told McAnuff her husband made the decision never to practise physics again after witnessing the aftermath of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki.

“That’s always had a strong impression on me,” said McAnuff. “It seems that those that were involved in the development of the nuclear bomb had, and have, a lot to answer for. So that was a kind of point of departure.”

McAnuff first directed “Faust” at English National Opera. His other opera credits include “Wozzeck” at the San Diego Opera.

He also plans to direct a couple of more yet-to-be-announced operas at the Met.

“It’s had a great impact on, I think, my work in the theatre,” said McAnuff, noting opera has further opened his eyes to the notion of letting the orchestration dictate the staging, instead of the opposite approach that’s often taken in the theatre world.

“This is really instrumental for me, forgive the pun, in terms of directing ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ I was very intent to look at that first recording as kind of a complete orchestration…. I hazard to guess that that’s one of the reasons we’ve had such great success.”

McAnuff was referring to the 1970 “Jesus Christ Superstar” concept album Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice released before they made it into an epic rock opera about the last week of Christ’s life.

Paul Nolan plays Jesus in the Stratford production, which opened to rave reviews in June at the southwestern Ontario festival, where McAnuff is artistic director. Co-stars include Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene and Josh Young as Judas.

The show is also netting wide acclaim at La Jolla, where McAnuff is director emeritus, and heads to Broadway with the same cast in March.

McAnuff noted there is a common ground between his productions of “JCS” and “Faust.”

“They’re both secular approaches to the stories,” he said.

“‘Superstar,’ I’ve described it as a secular love triangle. It certainly still works if you’re a believer but you’re not required to be a believer to, I think, partake of the remarkable events from 2000 years ago.

“And ‘Faust’ is similar.’Faust,’ while it’s involved certainly a religion and … the devil and God, it’s very much through the eyes of Faust and the other characters.”

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