Central City Opera Director Ken Cazan Tackles “Billy Budd”

Renowned opera director Ken Cazan will return to Central City Opera this summer for his 18th season to direct "Billy Budd."

Image of Ken Cazan

Renowned opera director Ken Cazan will return to Central City Opera this summer for his 18th season to direct Billy Budd. With this production, Cazan will have directed all but two works by the prolific British composer Benjamin Britten. Cazan, who has directed more than 160 productions in North America and Europe, lives in Los Angeles, where he is a full professor, resident stage director, and the chair of Vocal Arts and Opera at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music. Cazan was inducted into the Grove Dictionary of Music in 2017. See Billy Budd at Central City Opera from July 13 to Aug. 2.

What got you started with Central City Opera?
“I had worked with Pat Pearce [artistic director at Central City] in the late ’80s and had a great time; the opera called in 2000 and offered me a production. It was that simple. He offered me the job, I took it, and it started a cycle of me coming up every summer since. Central City is in this unbelievable location, so peaceful and wonderful, and there’s nothing to do but your craft.”

We’ve read you’re on a quest to mount every work by Benjamin Britten. What’s behind your quest? And what inspired you to direct Billy Budd this summer?
“I’m in my 36th year of directing, and Benjamin Britten’s music speaks to me on such a deep emotional level. It was not easy growing up as a gay man in a small town in Ohio. It took me a while to reconcile who I was. Britten always felt he was an outsider, so maybe that has something to do with it.”

This Billy Budd production is the largest show ever performed on the Central City Opera stage—was that a challenge?
“It’s such a big show and requires huge numbers of people. This production has 58 people, which is actually not even that many for Billy Budd. It’s a blissfully small stage and intimate space. That’s another reason why I keep coming back: Someone who sits in the very last row of this theater can still see every twitch, gesture, and eye pop. It’s the most rewarding experience because of that.”

This production features a score specifically adapted for Central City Opera. How is it different from the original production?
“Steuart Bedford adapted it, and he just reduced numbers. It will still have the same sonic effect of Britten’s orchestration. John Baril is conducting the piece wonderfully.”

This production is originally set in the French Revolutionary War era. Will there be a modern twist on the old tale?
“No. I love doing this period and don’t find it alienating at all. It was written in the late ’50s and still has a modern feel to it. It’s more about public vs private moments: The private moments will feel very contemporary, and the public moments more stylized.”

Did you cast the production, and will any of your students from USC or the master classes at Central City be performing?
“Pat Pearce, the artistic director, casts the productions and has some of the best eyes and ears in the business. I don’t think I’ve ever disagreed with one of his casting choices in my time here. He wants each voice to be the right voice. And yes, several of the students will be in the cast. I’ve had a number of students from USC work here over the years.”

In 2017, you were inducted into the Grove Dictionary of Music. What was that experience and honor like?
“Humbling. I’ve been so lucky in my life to get break after break after break theatrically, and I always seem to land on my feet. I got the phone call and I honestly cried and said ‘I just need about half an hour to take a breath and think about it and I’ll call you back.’ When I saw the entry in the dictionary, I was in the music library at USC and…it’s hard to find words. I spent my whole life proving myself to my father, and this is really something for him and my whole family. It’s been one of the highlights of my life, no question.”

Central City Opera
2019 Summer Festival, July 6-Aug. 6