Inspiring People

Founder and Director of the International Opera Company, Karen Saillant

Karen Saillant

Dramatic soprano Karen Saillant has received standing ovations in international opera houses. She began her study with Carl Stough in 1972. Now in her fortieth year as a teacher of singing, she is the Artistic Director of International Opera Theater, a project that presents world premiere Italian operatic adaptions of Shakespeare texts every summer in Citta' della Pieve, which is on the border of Umbria and Tuscany in Italy.

Karen has starred in opera houses in Europe and the US where she has received standing ovations and rave reviews for her artistry. In 2007 she was commissioned by The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, The Museum of Modern Art in New York and The Philadelphia Museum of Art to create new works of theater and music to highlight their collections, in 2007 The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned her to create and direct a new theatrical representation of The Pulcinella Suite by Igor Stravinsky for their family concert series in celebration of the 150th anniversary of The Academy of Music in Philadelphia.

She attended Indiana University and received her Bachelor of Music Degree from Temple University. She currently lives in Philadelphia with her two sons.

Karen Saillant’s story is one of extraordinary courage and generosity. Her commitment to the creative arts and her intention to contribute to humanity provides inspiration for those of us who want for our lives to somehow make a difference. I am especially moved by the work that she has been doing with children and the breakthroughs that they have experienced as a result.

DR: Tell me about your life and about your work.

KS: Right now I am very interested in a process that we, as human beings, go through to discover who we are and what's important to us.

I am interested in how music and the expression of music and the exploration of music in conjunction with theater and music and color and light on a stage, can inform self discovery. Ways in which we can maybe discover, not just things about ourselves, but things about the way in which we can accomplish a goal together.

I think there is a misconception about how one can go about creating a piece of theater that moves an audience to be empathetic. For example, when I was writing the script for Brundibar and the Children of Theresienstadt, I did a lot of research and I read a lot of documents and letters from prisoners in the camp. I took their writings and I removed all of the words that I considered to be left brain words and instead I simplified what they said, using their words but taking out any complicated adjectives. I found that as I read the script in this right brain version, I was able to feel more. When I put in these very complicated words, occasionally I found in the writing, I had a different feeling inside of me. So, when I was putting the script together I never used the word "Nazi" or the word "Jew" because I felt that these are exclusive kinds of words and, for me, the project was about children wanting to go home.

DR: Wow…

KS: That really is something that we can all relate to and understand, knowing inside of ourselves how important it is to just be able to go home.

DR: Even as an adult "home" is such a primal craving.


This summer I was invited to create a first piece of theater with a group of 7 autistic young people in Comunita' Terepeutica Riabilitativa, a home for Therapeautic Rehabilitation in Acquaiola, near the town of Citta' della Pieve, where I was preparing an operatic world premiere, based on Shakespeare. The 7 young people in Acquaiola, from ages 13-27, are considered the most severely handicapped in all of Umbria. Only one of these young people can communicate through speech:

As I interviewed my actors for the first time, the kernel of a fairy tale came into my mind, simultaneously with a character that was based upon the present condition and ability of each actor. I observed the movements and behaviors that each one had. Their actions inspired me to create characters that would logically have these types of behaviors. For example, the youngest boy, small and thin, had the behavior of walking around the room quickly, with outstretched arm, touching objects and people and smelling them. He would be our fairy. Soon his character would evolve into our Piccolo Mago, Little Wizard.

The movements and behaviors, as an actor, or character, gave meaning to what might have previously been considered meaningless action. I believe that this affirmation of behavior enabled each actor to begin to accept his/her actions (and therefore himself/herself) as natural, perhaps even more than natural, special or desirable, as each actor began to sense in some small way that their movements were accepted and necessary.

The typical audition sequence, where the director looks for a person with a particular ability to play a particular role was reversed. What occurred in this situation was that the particular ability of the actor determined the nature of the role and it became the job of the director/playwright to create a play and roles in that play that would logically fit the behavior of the actor. Logic is important.

The audience must feel the logic in the presentation of the character. Their imagination/memory must find some link, some access in order to accept the interpretation of the character. Even if this link is stretched to its limit, if there is the slightest possibility of grabbing hold of the character and thereby reeling it into the plausible, the audience will do so.The further the audience must go to find this plausibility, the more satisfying the performance.

Additionally, a path, or link, was created between my imagination and that of the actor. The actors' access to my belief in their ability was deepened through melding. This was a behavior that I had unknowingly practiced when I took care of my husband, who was in a coma in my home for 15 months. Almost immediately in Acquaiola I found myself going into this state with the actors. In this state, I was able to communicate, to transfer a possibility into the self image imagination of the actor. This created a link or path through which each actor, some more successfully than others, could see into the reality of my world-the present world and thereby not only sense my belief in him/her, but have a glance at my reality- one that can shift between many other possible realities.

The affirmation of the actors was strengthened by all of the love and talent and belief that my friend, David Zenini, the person who brought me to Acquaiola, the enlightened individual who so believed in the possibility of his young actors, poured into the days that he spent with them after my two afternoons there. In addition, David's colleagues, he tells me, were inspired, by my force of belief, to believe that such miracles as we were proposing, were possible. They gave David the support and affirmation that he needed in order to make our vision possible.

It was not just the performance that impressed me so much, even though I was deeply moved by it and well aware of the evolution of the piece which had taken place during the month between the times that I saw the actors and the presentation for family and friends. What impressed me the most was the behavior of all of the actors AFTER the play. During the party and celebration that followed, the behavior of the actors was so much more normal. Each one was much more connected to present reality and therefore more connected to their family and friends and the behaviors that normal people exhibit. Throughout the play one could feel the involvement of the audience in the realization of the actions of the actors. David, who was playing the servant of the only actor that could speak, would make statements that would cue the appearance of a particular object or person (always with the help of an assistant). On one occasion a large flag was to appear. David, as the servant, told the audience that the flag was coming. We could see it trying to arrive as it was visible high above the flat that had been placed in front of the stage, but we could see that it was not actually arriving. David kept telling us that the flag was coming and we in the audience sat there willing it to come, giving all of the force that we had to make its arrival possible. When the flag finally arrived along with the mildly confused faced of the bearer (and the assistant hidden well behind the flag), we all shouted and cheered and clapped. The face changed to one of realization, of realization that an action requested had been fulfilled. Then satisfaction filled the face and more cheers rang out from the audience. It was one of the most authentic and exciting theatrical moments I have ever experienced-a moment of complete unity between audience and actor when a goal, an impossible goal had been accomplished by the same type of will that enables a mother to lift an automobile off of her dying child.

I believe, in thinking about this amazing performance, that our flag miracle and so many other miracles occurred because the parents and friends of the actors were able to accept the new image of the actors that we had created. They were able to join with us on that path to communication. The self image of the actor was transformed and transferred and just as the mother of the young boy who had fallen from a window when he was two said, she never imagined that he would have been able to do such a thing. This boy is so gifted. He is the only one who can speak and it was thanks to his incredible imagination and creativity that the play was named and given its continuity as he spoke his lines. In the house, prior to the performance he told me "i can do this. I can do this. I can do this" over and over. As I hugged him, I reassured him that he was totally right. He could and he did and it was such a victory for everyone involved.

If his mother, who loved him so much could not imagine it, how would it have been possible for him to do this? Only with the deep imprinting and love and power of the imagination of others was this possible.

We must continue to talk about this miracle and we must keep making miracles like this happen all over the world!

KS: It is a craving, you are right and I think it is very primal. I am interested in those primal needs that unite all of us. At that level we are all united and we all have instincts and needs no matter who we are.

In Italy my projects are very much about a process called Ausstrahlung. It is a German word and it means emanation. Most new Operas are put together in over a period of a number of years because it is quite a long process. We put the opera together in one month and of course it would be wonderful to have more time but that is all of the time we have and all of he resources I have to support the opera financially. We bring singers together and artists together from as many different cultures as possible and then we proceed with the process called Ausstrahlung. That enables us to make decisions together based on the collective unconscious of the group. That process of connecting to one another is accomplished through a series of exercises that I have developed over the last forty years.

I also use fabric, large pieces of fabric, like sixty foot pieces of fabric and the cast manipulates that fabric. I find that the fabric is the most amazing conduit because it allows the unconscious mind to be free and express itself, if the actor is able to allow that to happen.

I think of the project in Italy as a sort of peace project, meaning that, people from different cultures are coming together and finding a thread that unites them and that enables them, through intuition or Ausstrahlung, to make decisions very quickly on the stage.

Their interpretation of the music allows them to organize themselves on the stage in the same way that we organize ourselves in daily life. For instance, there is no director, so to speak, when we go into a Starbuck's. People just sort of go where there is a seat or where they feel comfortable sitting and they organize themselves. It's kind of exciting to see that same kind of organization on the stage. That's what I am interested in.

DR: I would imagine that makes for a very authentic performance night after night.

KS: Well yes. It is based on Commedia delle'arte which is improvisation and the root of professional theater during the Renaissance period. Once the ideas are agreed upon unconsciously by the artist it is sort of set. There is a basic plan but the coming to that plan is the unconscious agreement of the director and the artists. There are always variations every night but nothing major that an audience member might notice as being very radically different.

What I like about the fabric is that it does help people to stay in the moment. The fabric has a certain amount of predictability but it is also unpredictable. One of the fabrics that I am very interested in is tulle because it is very light. It's inexpensive so there is a sort of metaphor there - I am not using silk for example. Yet tulle is extremely beautiful and it has a texture and a fluidity that allows it to become.

DR: There is also a strength to...

KS: There is a strength. You are right. We used it for example in Romeo e Giulietta. We had no weapons. I used the fabric as a weapon. They fought with the fabric. I also use fabric to represent love and to represent frustration. It has many different qualities and it can change depending on the intention of the person who is moving it. That is such a metaphor for life.

It really is all about our intention and about what we think about something and not about what a thing is. It's what we project into a thing.

I became really obsessed with exploring fabric and all of its potential in this lst production.

DR: What is the overall objective that you have for the company or the overall experience that you ant people to walk away with?

KS: I would like for them to experience a piece of art that will enable them to be inspired and that stays with them after the performance is over. I would like for them to be able to forget themselves and become immersed in the imagery and the expression of the music and the text of the piece. I would like for them to be able to let down their defenses and feel.

That is the ultimate goal; for people to experience their emotions. For the actors and singers I would like them to have discovered more of themselves and feel a sense of freedom and spontaneity on the stage. I'd like for them to be able to let down their thinking and to accept themselves as they are and to feel more joyful about the opportunity to perform.

DR: What is it that you get out of doing this?

KS: I have a vision of what I would like for opera to be in the world and it is of course the one art medium that combines all of the art.

What I am able to glean from this project is the opportunity to see my vision for opera coming to fruition and to be able to cry and laugh and to become frustrated and, when I watch these performances to be moved myself. I want to be moved. When I see an opera I am completely inspired to feel the expression of my fellow man, of the artists on the stage.

I feel part of something that is my vision.

And of course I am being healed after my husband was in a coma for a long time for sixteen months. I was his caregiver and then he was gone. He was my childhood sweetheart. I met him when I was twelve. I really knew my husband very well and then he wasn't in my life anymore and I felt pain and this absolute need to create this kind of work.

My husband had gone into a coma as a result of an altercation with somebody of a different culture and I felt if maybe there could have been the possibility of not having so many misunderstandings in life that these kinds of incidents would not happen in the world. I wanted to find a way, through my work, to move the world a little closer to that kind of cultural understanding.

DR: I wrote recently about the fact that I believe that one of the things that people want most is to be connected. So, it is interesting to me that I keep hearing these themes of being connected throughout our conversation. I wonder what kind of difference it would have made, with regard to the altercation that your husband had, if they would have been able to see one another as human beings not so different from themselves.

KS: Yes and I feel I need to learn that more myself.

That is another thing that I get out of this project. It really forces me to grow as an individual and to work out ways to connect better with people. I am constantly failing at that. I want to become better.

DR: What do you think is available to us when we dare to connect; to see ourselves in someone else, to empathize with someone else's struggle, to rejoice in someone else's good news?

KS: I think there is a feeling of diminution of fear; that the very thing that we have been striving for by not connecting is gone and there is an in the moment sense of total satisfaction.

Connecting with other people is the essence of a life well lived. Eating a meal together, stopping and sitting down in the midst of all the work you are doing and spending time with your children or talking with a friend on the telephone or sitting in the park having lunch and allowing a total stranger sit down is what life is about.

DR: What is the best part of your life right now?

KS: Making these new operas is just very exciting. But right now both of my sons are at home in a transitional period and I would have to say that being with them and with my friends is the best part of my life.

I am going to Sardinia to start a new festival with friends whom I love very much. I guess the best part is that my life is full with friendship and I didn't expect that. I have many, many new friends.

DR: What is it that you look forward to the most?

KS: Last October I started to take singing lessons again with my teacher from fifty two years ago and what I look forward to is singing in public again. I am sixty four and I am looking forward to performing again. I look forward to seeing my sons be happy in their lives.

DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?

KS: I would like to be remembered for being a loving person who was able to contribute to the field of opera.

Thank you Karen!

Envisioning Romeo and Juliet

This past summer, the International Opera Theater and International House, Philadelphia presented Envisioning Romeo and Juliet

Art inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy and IOT’s interpretation in collaboration with International Opera Theater

Musical selections below were recorded live
August 26th, 27th and 28th, 2008
Teatro degli Avvaloranti, Città della Pieve, Italy

Music by Emily Wong
Libretto by Tommaso Sabbatini

Maestro Concertatore, Simone Luti
Director, Karen Saillant

Francesca Menchini (Flute), Julieta Ugartemendia (Clarinet), Patrick Hines (French Horn), Megan Prokes (1st Violin), Tea Prokes (2nd Violin), Viola Mattioni (Cello), Maurizio Costantini (Bass), Michael R. Kemp (Percussion), Irina Feoktistova (Piano).

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