Pendleton returns to direct Opera Western Reserve production

Austin Pendleton learned early in his acting career about how music can tell a story and shape an actor’s performance.

The Warren native — who is an Obie Award-winning and Tony-nominated actor, director and playwright — was a student in the Lincoln Center’s training program in New York in 1962 (along with Frank Langella, Faye Dunaway and Martin Sheen) and studying with Robert Lewis, who Pendleton called one of the three most influential acting teachers of his career.

“Several times he would talk about the the musical values of a written text, and he would use the key change in ‘La Traviata,’ in that big aria,” Pendleton said. “He said things happen dramatically which motivate that key change. You have to understand the written text that way. And that made an impression on all of us … That’s one of the things I remember about Bobby Lewis. He thought musically about acting.”

Pendleton is bringing that same approach to Youngstown’s Opera Western Reserve, where he is the production director for Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” which will be staged Nov. 10 at Stambaugh Auditorium.

Music director Susan Davenny Wyner, who also is conductor of the Warren Philharmonic Orchestra, said the collaboration with Pendleton has been in the works for years and was worth the wait.

“I find Austin’s way of arriving at things is inherently musical,” she said. “The subtext, the sensitivity to what we would call the harmonic inflections that are in the music … are nurtured by the process he takes the singers through. It’s been very beautiful to see how the singers have reacted to him.”

This is the second opera on which Pendleton and Wyner have collaborated, and they previously worked together on two concerts with the Warren Philharmonic Orchestra. Both said that familiarity has made working on “Lucia” easier.

‘I love that we’re playing together,” Wyner said. “Eventually we find a structure that feels right but still feels alive.”

Pendleton said he spent time listening to various recording of Donizetti’s opera, but the bulk of his work as director started once he began working with the performers. It’s the same approach used by legendary director Jerome Robbins, who directed Pendleton in his Broadway debut in “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1964.

“He would sit and watch and then make something up,” Pendleton said. “His staging happened by taking on the energies of the particular people … You have to have thoughts about the story you want to tell, but the beat-by-beat way of telling the story happens in the room.”

Pendleton is best known for his work in the theater and has more than 140 film and television credits, but he has been a fan of opera since he was a child. He vividly remembered going to Cleveland when he was around 10 and seeing two different performances by the Metropolitan Opera in the same day. The movie “Carmen Jones,” directed by Otto Preminger (who also directed Pendleton’s big-screen debut in “Skidoo” in 1968) also made an impact.

“It’s not exactly an opera, but there’s operatic music in it,” he said. “The musical drama of that film really electrified me.”

“Lucia di Lammermoor,” which premiered in 1835, is a tragic opera about a woman trapped between love and madness when she is forced into an arranged marriage by her brother and separated from her true love, who is her family’s political enemy.

“This story is heartbreaking,” Pendleton said. “In the cosmic sense, there’s no villains in it. Everyone is just caught in their own need, which comes organically out of the lives they’ve already led. They’re all caught in this web that finally destroys every one of them. It explicitly destroy her.

“I keep telling them, ‘You’re never going to get over this. If you’re someone other than Lucia, this will change your whole life,’ because what happens is so intense and so profoundly unfortunate and so culturally inevitable.”