The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila—which stars tenor Roberto Alagna and mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča and is conducted by Sir Mark Elder—marks the Met debuts of three members of its creative team. Director Darko Tresnjak, set designer Alexander Dodge, and costume designer Linda Cho have collaborated on dozens of shows over the past two decades, including the smash Broadway hit A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, which earned Tony Awards for Tresnjak and Cho and a nomination for Dodge. After the first day of technical rehearsals for Samson, the trio sat down with the Met’s Christopher Browner to discuss their new staging and their long-standing partnership.
How would you describe your vision for this new production of Samson et Dalila?
DARKO TRESNJAK: In general, I try not to impose a rigid psychology or conceptual idea that fights the information in the score. With Samson, I wanted to be fearless in my imagination and just embrace the piece. There is no attempt to update the setting or the story. Instead, our production is based on scant information of the ancient world re-interpreted through the lens of contemporary technology, art, and design.
ALEXANDER DODGE: We were looking to create a staging that feels ancient but isn’t didactic or literal in any way.
DT: In my research, I came across this image of Gloria Swanson taken by Edward Steichen. She’s staring directly into the camera from behind this delicate lace. She is intensely beautiful but also looks very dangerous. And that’s Samson et Dalila—seductive and dangerous. That became a repeating theme from act to act, that on the other side of the wall is something mysterious, but it could be dangerous.
LINDA CHO: We did a lot of research, looking at both very ancient silhouettes and at modern interpretations of what the ancient world would look like. We looked at stone carvings and early paintings and latticework on Moroccan screens. Then we took all of these historical pieces of research and incorporated them in a fresh way.
The three of you have created dozens of productions together—mostly musicals and plays. Does your approach differ when you tackle an opera?
DT: Yes—operas have a very different structure. They’re more like Shakespeare plays in how they balance the intimate moments and the epic. And you also have to understand the singers’ need to open up and how the acoustics work in your production.
What’s the key to your continued success?
DT: We have this trust where we never take each other for granted. There has to be trust, and there has to be love, and there has to be respect.
LC: And when we, as designers, have great trust in the journey that our director is bringing us on—when we understand his vision even if we may not see the big picture at the end just yet—we know that he’ll take us to a successful place.
How did each of you discover your passion for the theater?
DT: Well, I directed my first show when I was seven years old. I saw the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, and I thought “Oh, I’m going to do that.” So I staged the Olympics on the streets—lighting of the torch, medals cut out of cardboard, long-distance spitting competitions. I rigged it so I would win the most gold medals, and kids had to carry me down the street. [Laughter] I was the only kid in Belgrade with a pogo stick, and I had all of these other toys. So basically, if anybody wanted to play with my toys, they had to be in my shows.
Alexander, how about you?
AD: I grew up going to the theater and opera. My father’s a big opera fan—a big Wagnerian—and he’s also an architect. I loved architecture, but I wanted to do something different. It dawned on me that there must be somebody creating everything I saw on stage, so I started doing some theater design, and it just snowballed.
How did you come to design, Linda?
LC: Being Asian-American, you get to be either a lawyer or a doctor when you grow up. I actually have a degree in psychology. But I also took electives in music appreciation, in fine arts—basically anything to make me an excellent med school candidate. [Laughs] But I hated all my science classes and loved all my electives. Finally, my mother suggested, “Why don’t you do theater? You seem to like it.”
Do you ever bring the psychology in?
LC: Every day of every project. My process is kind of inside-out. I start with character, and I tell a story through clothes. I’m not just creating an exterior—I’m helping flesh out an interior life. And when I’m interacting with performers, I have to read body language and try to make them comfortable. All of that is absolutely psychology.
For this production, you have an all-star cast, led by Elīna Garanča and Roberto Alagna. Have you worked with them before?
DT: No. This is a good story, though. I was at my home in Connecticut listening to a recording of Elīna. I love her voice. And Peter Gelb called two days later and asked me to direct Samson et Dalila. I asked, “Who’s in the cast?” and when he said her name, I lost all cool. And I know Roberto’s work very well, too. I can’t wait to work with the two of them.
You really have the best across the board— a great cast, and it’s opening night, which creates its own excitement—
DT: Okay, now you‘re making us nervous! [Laughter]
AD: I’m actually surprised that I’m not so nervous. Being here with these guys, it all seems normal. I love opera, so creating a production at the Met has definitely been high up on the list for me. But to be doing a show with my good colleagues who are also my good friends, it’s a double treat.