No opera plot is as fanciful as the 50-year romance between Bliss Hebert and Allen Charles Klein, collaborating (again) on ‘La Traviata’
Winspear Opera House,
2403 Flora St.
Performances on April 18, 21, 27 and 29.
Making the decision to work professionally with your partner in life can be one fraught with dangers. But for Bliss Hebert and Allen Charles Klein, it’s been a genuine romance — like something out of a fairy tale.
Or more exactly, an opera.
Hebert, now in his mid-70s, and Klein, 71, will celebrate 50 years as a couple this June, and for virtually the entire time have pursued parallel, but different, careers in opera: Hebert is an internationally renowned stage director; Klein is equally respected as a production designer. As a team, they have premiered 70 operas, and are working together again on Verdi’s masterpiece, La Traviata, which opens this week at the Winspear, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.
After so much history, they seem to have staked out their own roles in an interview: Klein is animated and loquacious in talking about a lifetime spent together in the footlights; Hebert is quieter and more reserved. But both are witty and regale with an endless supply of stories about everyone who was anyone in their field.
The collaboration — professional and personal — began in 1962, when Hebert was serving as general director of the Washington Opera Company. That summer, Klein arrived as an assistant designer.
“I was 21 at the time and Bliss was a just a few years older,” says Klein. “Bliss was already an established director. He was one of the founders of the opera in Santa Fe and I was just a beginner, fresh out of school. We fell in love and that was that.”
Back then, living as a gay couple was not as easy as it is now.
“Of course, you had to make accommodations, like twin beds,” Klein says with a laugh. “And we had to use the term ‘roommate.’”
“We called it being discreet,” Hebert chimes in.
Around 1967, even that pretense was abandoned.
“We just gave up and let it all hang out,” Klein says. “Of course, it was easy for us since we worked in opera and all of our friends were artists and singers. It would have been very different if we had an office job. We were lucky that we could live openly.”
In 1974, the pair made their Metropolitan Opera debuts in a mega-production of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman with a stellar cast that included Joan Sutherland and Plácido Domingo. It was a turning point in their careers, which soon carried them to the major opera houses of the world.
Over the years, each has worked with other artists, but Hebert insists they have accomplish their best work together.
“Directors and designers can be in separate worlds these days. Sometimes they don’t meet in person until the show goes into rehearsals because the Internet allows designs to go back and forth easily. We can talk about a production whenever an idea pops in our mind, even while we are doing the dishes,” Hebert says with a laugh.
The pair has an impressive history with Dallas Opera. Hebert started his association with the company in 1958 as an assistant — and he means that in the most general way. “I assisted everybody. I was a rehearsal pianist, coach, prompter. Whatever was needed at the moment, I did. I was like Figaro [in Rossini’s Barber of Seville], who is constantly being called on by everybody.”
Hebert and Klein seem tremendously pleased with the current production of La Traviata, even though it opens ominously enough on Friday the 13th. (“Can you believe it?” Klein exclaims.) But one of the joys has been working inside the Winspear Opera House. Klein is especially happy with how the sets and costumes (which he originally designed for the Florida Grand Opera) work on the stage.
They both enthused about the cast, including Myrtò Papatanasiu, who will sing Violetta. It was another Greek soprano, Maria Callas, who starred in this same opera in 1958 when Hebert was pressed into service as a prompter at the last minute.
“Of course, I was nervous, but it went well,” he says. “When it was over, she came to the front of the stage and handed me a rose while I was still in the prompter’s box.”
“I wonder what ever happened to that rose,” says Klein, with a smile that hinted of secrets and a lifetime of shared dreams — still rich and full, and fragrant with possibilities.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 13, 2012.