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Q&A: William Friedkin

Highlights from Issue 24: The Chicago Issue

Director William Friedkin in Los Angeles, Oct. 2005 / Photograph by ZEN SEKIZAWA

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Friday, December 30, 2005

By James Hughes

What follows is an excerpt from Issue 24: The Chicago Issue

LIKE AN ACT OF GOD: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN

By James Hughes

On Tuesday Dec. 27th, the Library of Congress selected The French Connection (1971) as one of 25 films to be added to the National Film Registry. The film, which also won the Oscar for Best Picture, was directed by Chicago native William Friedkin, whose career in television and film spans six decades. Friedkin got his start directing live television for WGN-TV in the mid-Fifties before advancing to documentaries (The People vs. Paul Crump, 1962), network television ("The Alfred Hitchcock Hour") and feature films (The Exorcist, Sorcerer, Cruising, To Live and Die in LA).

A director known for his versatility, Friedkin has also achieved noteriety as a director of operas. In his interview with STOP SMILING — a discussion that focuses largely on his days growing up in Chicago — Friedkin took the time to discuss his thoughts on the opera, and his impressions of working on some of the world's premier stages.

Stop Smiling: In the past few years you've been active in the opera, directing several productions throughout the world.

William Friedkin: I just came back from Italy, where I did Aida for the Turin Opera. I'm now preparing Salome for Munich, and two operas for the Kennedy Center in the fall. I have several others in the works. I've been directing operas since about 1998. Again, I got into it quite by accident. I love it. It's a wonderful experience in all ways.

SS: Is there a difference between how your productions are staged in the U.S. and Europe?

WF: The different opera houses have different standards. The toughest place I ever worked was Israel, at the Tel Aviv Opera where I did Samson and Delilah. It's sort of a kibbutz mentality, where there's no one in control. Everyone has to have a say, which is not how I work.

SS: Regarding your approach to opera, you told the New York Times: “I don't think you need to perform it as though Victoria were still on the throne.” What then should the approach be of a contemporary opera director?

WF: The context for that is this: I try to fulfill the intentions for the composer first, as I understand them. My philosophy with an opera is the surgeon's credo, which is first, do no harm. Nevertheless, I realize that an opera like Aida was written and first performed in 1871 and was lit by gaslight, and Victoria was on the throne. I'm not going to do it so faithfully that I'm going to light it with gaslight. In fact, in some of Verdi's instructions to the singers, he tells the female singers to be careful crossing the stage at one point — that they lift their skirts up – so they don't get burned by the gaslight. My reference to that is, where I try to be faithful to the intentions of the composer, I still can't do it like he was alive. You're doing it now with contemporary sensibilities and equipment. That doesn't mean that I would take Aida, which is set in ancient Egypt during the reign of the pharaohs, and move it to Iraq and set it in the CNN bureau, or something to that effect. I don't think you need to change the time period to make a story relevant — it's about emotions that are extraordinarily relevant.

SS: Have you been to Chicago recently?

WF: I go as often as I can. My wife is on the board of regents at the University of Chicago. We like to go to shows, see friends and, in my case, hit the Art Institute and Berghoff's for a corned beef sandwich and a draft beer, or a 14-year-old bourbon. Chicago is easily the greatest American city today, in all ways: culturally, architecturally, the nature of the people. There's a sophistication, but also a small-town mentality, and it's a working-class city. I grew up there and loved the city. I realized how much I loved it, even now. When I go back, I see only improvements. The general level of corruption hasn't changed.

SS: How about a change like Maxwell Street being leveled?

WF: That's all changed, but for the better. I like what they did on the West Side, turning all those abandoned warehouses into incredible clubs and restaurants. Just in general — the feeling, the atmosphere and the things that I love there now are so rich and inspiring. The Chicago Symphony and the Art Institute and the Lyric Opera. Of all the people I've met — just as a group, and it's hard to categorize people as a group — but it's the friendliest city I've ever been in, and I've lived in many cities for long periods of time, here and abroad. Chicago is foremost in my mind and my heart.

For more on the Chicago Issue, click here


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