Ostwald / Zarko

June 2019

The waning days of the Second World War; as the advancing Allies are bombing targets in Italywhile the retreating German army is practicing a scorched earth policy, an Italian bishop and a German commander are thrust into their own conflicts in the town of Orvieto. Struggling to communicate in Latin, their one shared language, they grapple with perplexing dilemmas: Should they save artifacts or people? Does placing defensive weapons near historic buildings help save them or make them a target? What is the true nature of the miracle of transubstantiation? Through their conversations and a shared love for the music of Bach they develop and understanding that allows them to work together – and to save Orvieto.

As the bilingual handbill suggests, this two-man play celebrates the declaration of Orvieto as an Open City—an order which, at the last minute, saved this charming medieval Italian city from the Nazi’s bombs. It was produced in Italian and English with separate casts and directors. The performances took place in both languages on three consecutive evenings in June 2019 — a felicitous choice since June 14th was the fiftieth anniversary of the city’s reprieve. I was invited to direct the English-speaking cast. Together, David Zarko, the playwright and director of the Italian version, and I agreed to stage the piece in the three-quarter round in a small theater only blocks from the stunning Cathedral which was so fortuitously saved.

The Three Penny Opera


Weill/Western Opera Theater

April 1971

In 1973 as part of the San Francisco Opera’s outreach to bring opera to new audiences, I was asked to direct an opera to tour the streets of San Francisco. At first I was reluctant, but when Weill’s The Three Penny Opera was chosen as the vehicle, my hesitations turned to enthusiasm.

I decided that by staging it as a public hanging, at which the criminal, Macheath, told his story in an attempt to save himself would not only justify doing it in the streets, but would also accommodate any unplanned events or interactions between the performers and the audience — and there were some.

With wonderful set and costume designs by the painter Bill Martin, wonderful musical leadership by conductor, Calvin Simmons, and unflagging support from the staff of the Western Opera Theater, touring arm of the San Francisco Opera, it ended up being an unqualified success. Here are some excerpts from a film, which focused primarily on the interactions between the production and the community.

“The major strengths of the production are the sets and costumes by Bill Matin and the directing by David Ostwald. The physical layout of the set is similar to that of the mansions and plateau of medieval theater. In a closed-off street three platforms are placed in a semi-circle extending across the width of the street and onto the sidewalk. The audience occupies the central area as well as the windows of the surrounding apartments. The settings on the two side platforms remain the same throughout the play—Peachum’s home and the bordello—while the center platform houses the meat packing plant, the jail and the gallows…The most effective moments are at the end of the play when the prison procession marches Mack from the jail on the center platform around the audience; the same platform is transformed into the gallows by the time the procession returns. Then the messenger bearing Mack’s reprieve enters through the cheering audience on an old-fashioned bicycle.”
Jules Aaron, Education Theater Journal, 1971



Xoregos Performing Company


This 1972 production of Oscar Wilde’s play, Salomé, was an experiment in creating visual archetypal resonance to Wilde’s sensuous poetry through abstract dance movement. Shela Xoregos, founder and leading dancer in her company, The Xoregos Dance Company, offered me the opportunity to collaborate with choreographer Mary Shelton, designer Patrizia von Brandenstein and the dance ensemble to create this avant guarde work. Together with Shela, who performed the title role, and her dancer-actors who, quite astonishingly could say their words naturalistically and move their bodies abstractly at the same time, we were able to create this unique and powerful production. Patrizia had the inspired idea to use silver mylar, at that time a totally new material, to create reflective surfaces and large distorting mirrors.

Although this black and white video has deteriorated somewhat, I hope it still captures a sense of this unusual production.

A Masterful Salome in Modern Dance

“The Xoregos Dance Company has offered one of the jolts of the season – a carefully, stylistic, theatrically effective version of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. It has to be seen to be believed. Director David Ostwald used formal modern dance and gestures as a basic tool to bind the action into unity, and underline Wilde’s character studies. What emerged was more like a play in the ancient Greek production sense than either dance-drama or stage drama as we know them. Elements of acting and dancing were so interwoven that they ceased to function as separate entities…Ostwald, without being crude about it (a great rarity in the field), managed to suggest the perverse decadence of the action with wonderful bits of invention. The royal party was always there in the background but largely in tableau, so as not to disturb the eye too much. When they moved, they did things like hand out goblets of wine with their feet, held between their toes.”
Hewell Tircuit, San Francisco Chronicle, April 4, 1972

The Barber of Seville


West Bay Opera

February 2004

“The real star of the evening never sang a note. It was the director, David Ostwald, and he created in West Bay Opera’s production of the The Barber of Seville as vivacious an ensemble and as entertaining an evening as that distinguished company has offered in years. From Figaro’s little red wagon to three Zanni tossing silver rain, Ostwald led his players beyond farce and into ourselves. He plundered every laugh in the libretto, added multiples of his own, and used them to draw character and conflict. Better yet, he took his cues from the music itself…”

“…What a wonder it is to see a stage director understand cadence and use its musical meaning to propel the story…The most remarkable scene lay in Ostwald’s treatment of the famous “La calunnia.” It is a roguish paean to gossip and the curative powers of deceit. Here it steals the show. Wonderfully aided by the larcenous John Minagro as Basilio, the director created a remarkable set of images. Blue ribbons accelerated through the air, propelled by three sprites and Basilio himself. As the breezes of gossip swirled, they were gradually replaced by lengths of scarlet. Gossip became treachery, and color told the story. It was a brilliant and surreal gesture.”
Charles Barber, San Francisco Classical Voice, February 25, 2004