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Opera director offers lessons in love

Sandell says 'Cosi fan tutte' is still relevant after two centuries
by: Matthew Staver, 
Elise Sandell makes her directorial debut with Portland Opera in

First-time director Elise Sandell says young people can learn much from the message in Portland Opera's upcoming 'Cosi fan tutte,' a play that debuted 220 years ago.

It's a story about men seducing women for fun, and 'it's a big mess,' she says.

'Its subtitle is 'School for Lovers,' and we play up on that. There are a lot of teachable moments.'

Sandell, 35 and a Portland resident for three years, makes her directorial debut with Portland Opera in 'Cosi fan tutte,' with performances Feb. 5, 7, 11 and 13 at the Keller Auditorium. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote the opera, with Lorenzo Da Ponte collaborating on the libretto late in the 18th century.

It's always a challenge to adapt an age-old opera into a more relevant performance, but 'Cosi' actually has been updated and takes place in 1950s Italy, a time of innocence and a perfect setting for lovers trying to find their way.

'That's where four young lovers being seduced by one another have to start from - a place of optimism and a little naiveté - for us to get to the point where they find out they really have an education,' Sandell says.

'Make it your own'

Sandell grew up in Chicago, attended Webster University in St. Louis and proceeded to live 'a vagabond lifestyle,' residing in Tulsa, Okla., St. Louis and San Diego. She moved to Oregon and has been an assistant director on many Portland Opera productions. She loves the Portland lifestyle - she lives near the opera's office in Southeast Portland and rides her bike to work.

The opera gave her the opportunity to be a director, a big step for a young artist.

'I'm enjoying it. I'm in seventh heaven,' she says. 'I am a bit nervous, because as a director, you find that every day you walk into rehearsal it's now or never. Lead someone in the wrong direction, it's not helpful to the show.

'But you become a lot less nervous when you're working with very capable people. In the end, you have to trust the artist, too. These artists are very easy to trust.'

It's also a challenge to direct an opera that has been done many times during the decades, notably in recent years by James Robinson.

'You have to allow artists to make it their own,' Sandell says.

'Cosi' was the third opera from Mozart and Da Ponce, in 1790, taking the theme of fiancé swapping. Two young men make bets that their girlfriends, who are sisters, will always be faithful, and end up seducing each other's lovers to win the bet.

'It's a complex opera, and a lot of people don't think the plot works - sisters' boyfriends trying to seduce them,' Sandell says. 'It's not just about what's on the surface. It's about manipulation and deception.

' 'Cosi' can be a challenge to direct, because some people think it's too silly of a take, some have a dry take on it and, trying to respect and stay true to characters. They don't find the humor in it. The challenge is striking the balance, and that's what drives this opera in the end.'