John Caird brings blockbuster cred to L.A. Opera's 'Tosca'

John Caird, who's directing the L.A. Opera production of "Tosca" that opens Saturday, played crucial roles in launching two of the biggest stage blockbusters of modern times.

The fact that the British director remains somewhat below the radar, at least in America, speaks volumes about the difference between having blockbuster directing credentials on stage, as opposed to on screen.

In 1980, Caird teamed with Trevor Nunn to direct the Royal Shakespeare Company's 81/2 -hour theatrical adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Nicholas Nickleby," scripted by David Edgar. It was the most buzzed-about nonmusical stage event of its era. Even with a cast devoid of stars, "Nickleby" was reportedly the first $100 ticket on Broadway at a time when the best seats for the hottest-drawing musicals cost $35.

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Duly impressed by what Nunn and Caird had done with Dickens, producer Cameron Mackintosh enlisted them a few years later to adapt and co-direct an orphaned French musical called "Les Misérables," which Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg had based on the novel by Dickens' contemporary Victor Hugo.

According to the official "Les Miz" website, "the world's longest-running musical" has been seen by 65 million ticket-holders in 42 countries. It lasted 16 years on Broadway, and the original London production is still going, headed toward its 28th anniversary on Oct. 8.

Before corralling sprawling 19th century novels for the stage, the low-keyed, affable Caird had established himself as a leading director of Shakespeare plays. He hit one of his highest marks in the early 2000s, when he cast one of his regular collaborators, Simon Russell Beale, as a chubby, gentle-tempered Hamlet. The production was celebrated for having brought an unexpected, deeply moving dimension to a most familiar play.

Caird, who has stuck almost exclusively to the stage, says he has not seen last year's film version of "Les Miz" that has further enlarged the show's public, priming the pump for a return to Broadway next year that presumably will pay him more royalties. (He wasn't involved in the blockbuster film.)

Caird branched into opera in 2005, and his current assignment is directing Puccini's "Tosca" for Los Angeles Opera, remounting, but with a different cast, the production he first did for Houston Grand Opera in 2010. Mountains of gray wooden packing crates were stacked in a rehearsal room at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and will be part of the stage set — a reminder that one of Caird's calling cards as a director has been using relatively humble devices and materials to tell stories of sweeping scope.

If Caird had been around in 1900 to advise Puccini and his librettists, there might well be a singing role for the Marchesa Attavanti, an Italian noblewoman who appears onstage in the first act, but only in a blue-eyed portrait rendered by the tempestuously jealous Tosca's artist boyfriend. He thinks the opera could benefit from a second female character.

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"There are things that are not terribly well done" in the libretto, Caird said, "but you can't worry too much about infelicities in the dramaturgy. The music sorts out the problems. There is clunky dramaturgy in all operas, but it's always disregarded because the composer has the ability to woo you into the music."

This "Tosca" began with L.A. Opera's decision in 2008 to cast Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role, with Plácido Domingo conducting, according to the company's president, Christopher Koelsch.

Caird wasn't in the picture then, but his directorial take on "Tosca" in Houston caught the L.A. company's attention and made sense, given its emphasis on presenting productions of standard operas that are new to its audience.

Although Koelsch didn't see the Houston "Tosca," he'd been impressed by the 2009 Houston premiere of composer André Previn's version of Noel Coward's romantic film, "Brief Encounter," with Caird as librettist and director.

Caird had his first taste of opera-directing in 1991, when he stepped in after one of his former assistant directors had dropped out of a job helming Mozart's "Zaide" at a festival in Italy.

In the early 2000s, he ran his own London theater group, the Caird Company, focusing on developing new playwrights and directors. Serving mainly as an executive and a mentor, he missed hands-on directing and put out the word that he wanted to branch into opera. The Welsh National Opera hired him to do Verdi —"Don Carlos" in 2005, and "Aida" in 2008 — and he's kept going. Caird's busy itinerary for 2013 includes fall productions of Puccini's "La Bohème" for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto and Wagner's "Parsifal" for Lyric Opera of Chicago.

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The London resident will end his year back in Southern California — and back with Dickens, but with a substantial twist, in what sounds like his most liberal adaptation of classic fiction to date.

The show is "Little Miss Scrooge," a musical splicing-together of "A Christmas Carol" and "Great Expectations" that's scheduled to have its premiere in December at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura. The rock-flavored songs are by Paul Gordon, with whom Caird previously teamed for a musical version of Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre" and "Daddy Long Legs," a two-actor musical based on an early 20th century American novel by Jean Webster.

The action takes place in today's business world, with Wall Street titan Estella Scrooge as the protagonist — melding the "bah, humbug" guy and the beautiful and imperious heartbreaker from "Great Expectations." Another member of the creative team is Sam Caird, who is following his father into stage directing after literature studies at Oxford.

Dickens' Yuletide pull with audiences and theater companies is well-established, and Caird said that "our bet is that people will want to take a look at something completely new," but with familiar bloodlines.

Speaking of bloodlines, Caird notes that his dividends from "Les Miz" have included two of his four wives and five of his eight children.

He fell for Frances Ruffelle while she was cast as the first Eponine in London and on Broadway. History repeated about 10 years later when he met his current wife, Maoko Imai, while she was playing Fantine in the Tokyo cast. Eliza Caird, the daughter whose impending birth forced Ruffelle to withdraw from "Les Miz" on Broadway, is now making her way as a Brit-pop recording artist under the Shavian moniker Eliza Doolittle.

Caird said that he and Nunn — who on his own had directed a third 1980s mega-hit, Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats" — still toss around ideas for hatching another collaborative theatrical blockbuster. "We talk about it every time we meet: 'What's it going to be next time?' We have our little list we troll through."

For some artists, successes such as "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Les Miz" might have laid a trap in which anything afterward that wasn't a hit would feel like a failure.

"I'm the opposite," said Caird, the son of a prominent Bible scholar and theologian who taught for many years at Oxford. "I find success just slightly embarrassing. It's ultimately about the experience, and what people feel. It's how art and religion are connected. What I care about is creating art that can be deeply felt by all sorts of people in different ways."


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