- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 21, 2002

The golden sunlight of a late-summer Washington afternoon cascades through the wide-open windows of Marthe Keller's tastefully but plainly furnished hotel suite. A light, ineffectual breeze flutters the filmy curtains, scarcely altering the climate inside. It is still hot, and it is still humid.
"This is fine for me," the trim and sleekly attractive Swiss-born movie star turned stage director says as she gestures toward the windows. Clad in a black top and slacks, she seems entirely unruffled by Washington's notoriously steamy climate. "I can turn the air conditioning on, if you wish. But I cannot understand. People here seem to like it so cold." She shudders at the thought of it. We can do without the AC.
Miss Keller is in town to direct the Washington Opera's season-opening performances of Donizetti's tragic opera, "Lucia di Lammermoor," a gloomy tale set in Scotland's wild and lonely moors in the early 19th century. Its castles and its villain are as cold as the nation's capital is warm, and Miss Keller hopes to evoke the haunting and brooding atmosphere of this ancient northland.
"'Lucia' is like the old Scottish legends," she says. "In the north, they would sit by the fire and tell ghost stories and scare each other to death to pass the time. In this opera, you can feel the ghosts. But actually, there are no ghosts. It is always reality."
Alert and highly intelligent, Miss Keller, 57, possesses the maturity and poise common to European women of a certain age who embrace their advancing years as an opportunity rather than trying desperately and tragicomically to turn them back. With the passage of time, she says, she has found wisdom although this is not getting in the way of some preproduction jitters.
"Ah, I am so nervous about this," she frets, "and I am not sure you will understand my English." Her English, however, is nearly flawless. Her native language is German, and she is also fluent in French. Her Italian, she avers, is "OK."
Although not well-known to American audiences today, Marthe Keller has been in the public eye since her sixth year, when she commenced the study of ballet and which she adored. "I loved dancing onstage," she says, "and I grew to love the music, too, which was so different from popular music. Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky. I also saw my first opera during this time. Because of the ballet, classical music also became a part of me."
She dreamed of developing a career in ballet and was already well on her way as a teen-ager. But a skiing accident at age 16 damaged her knee and put an end to her aspirations. Nonetheless, she remained upbeat and resilient. She had been bitten by the stage bug and soon figured out another way to make her dreams come true. She marched upstairs in the same building in Basel that housed her ballet school and applied for and received a scholarship to a German acting school that taught the Stanislavsky method.
With the poise and confidence she'd already developed as a budding dancer, she readily adapted to her new career and began acting in small theaters throughout Germany. Soon she found herself in French films, starring in "Le Diable par la queue" ("The Devil by the Tail") and falling in love with its director, Philippe de Broca. She also won a prize for her role in the stage drama, "A Day in the Life of Joe Egg." Mr. de Broca is the father of her son, and she still maintains a residence in Paris, along with one in New York, with occasional trips back to Switzerland.
Intrigued by this exotic Swiss actress, Hollywood eventually came calling, and Miss Keller was memorably cast as Dustin Hoffman's love interest in the notoriously scary 1976 thriller "Marathon Man." The following year, she starred with Al Pacino in the racing film "Bobby Deerfield," and they became romantically involved.
But glitz and glitter was not for her. Miss Keller returned to Europe in the 1980s to resume her successful stage and screen career while largely disappearing from the American consciousness. She still occasionally appears in a U.S. film, however including "Time of the Wolf," a recent movie in which she co-stars with Burt Reynolds.
A surprising turn in her career occurred when she was offered an important role in a production of "Everyman," a medieval play with music that is a regular feature of Austria's famous Salzburg Music Festival. She felt comfortable in this ancient musical city and was subsequently invited to star in other quasimusical dramas, including an international tour of "Jeanne d'Arc," led by Seiji Ozawa, and a staging in Paris of composer Michael Jarrell's one-woman music drama, "Cassandra."
Having caught the attention of Salzburg's elite musicians and producers, she was nonetheless surprised when she was invited to direct performances of Francois Poulenc's opera "Dialogues des Carmelites" ("Dialogues of the Carmelites") there in 1999. Initially reticent, she accepted the challenge, and her vision of this grim tragedy received rave reviews, winning the French Critics' Award for the year's best opera production. It was not long after that Placido Domingo invited her to take on the Washington Opera's new production of "Lucia di Lammermoor."
She arrived in Washington directly from Hungary, where she was starring in a French film being shot inside an actual, functioning prison that is, in the film, supposed to be in Sarajevo. "It was harrowing," she says. I was working constantly. The film has 122 scenes, and I am actually in 121 of them. My dressing room was actually a cell right next to that of a young man who was there for murdering his mother. They said that after he killed her, he chopped her in pieces and fed her to the dogs." The film, not surprisingly, preyed upon her mind as she prepared to direct Donizetti's dark opera.
And what kind of concept had she developed for "Lucia?"
"Ah, that word 'concept,'" she says, warily. "This means something different in Europe, I think, than it does in America. Concept is where the director, perhaps, puts in other ideas that are not meant by the composer. This is popular in Europe, and it's good, but not in my world. If I did this, I would be saying, 'I'm better than Donizetti.' But I'm not.
Miss Keller, in fact, has tried to blend what she imagines to be the vision of the composer with the abilities of her singers to convey the intentions and innermost feelings of their characters. "I did a lot of research on this opera, a lot. I still feel I could have done more, but there is never enough time, rehearsal times are so short here," she says. "Only five days onstage. Disaster. But this cast is wonderful, and they are able to do it. They are so wonderful, like a family to me. Like Placido, I love to help young artists do better and better."
Although Miss Keller avoids "concepts," she does have a vision for the opera a vision she believes she shares with the composer. "It is an opera of light and dark," she says, again gesturing toward the sunlight. "It is about opposites: warmth and cold, and about how rain, snow, nature influences the hearts of people. And it is the hearts of people that you must really show, and how they change."
Miss Keller encouraged her cast, even in the short time allotted to them, to explore the complexities of their characters. "Is Enrico [the villain] only mean and evil?" she asks. "If so, this is not good. There are other things in a character, and these must also be seen. I think I am really an actress, still, and not a director, and these are the things that are important to me," she says. "Characters must learn and grow if they are to be believed."
She is confident of her cast, yet nervous about the production. "I feel speechless, now, like an imposter, but what can I do? It will be better after opening night," she says.
"Lucia" in Washington is not the end of 2002 for Marthe Keller. There are more beginnings to come, more shows, more events, and never enough time. "I am next going to look at a project in New York," she says mysteriously, as the deal is not yet inked. "I will also be doing 'Midsummer Night's Dream' in Europe, 'Persephone' in Boston, and 'Lucia' again in Los Angeles. Life is always busy and interesting. I don't think I will ever retire."


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