Pianist Manuel Arellano and singer Julia Migenes. Photo by Enci Box

Her portrayal of Debussy’s life gives a lesson in artistic integrity


On a recent weekday, director Peter Medak watched while mezzo-soprano Julia Migenes rehearsed “Debussy: His Letters and His Music,” a portrait of the great French composer in letters, song and solo piano music running through Feb. 25 at the Odyssey Theatre.

“Julia, after reading the letter, try walking toward and around the pianist slowly, so attention is brought back to him,” Medak said during a passage portraying Debussy’s youth.

Migenes’ accompanist, Manuel Arellano, played one of the composer’s early piano works, its warm coloration prefiguring the revolutionary tonal and harmonic explorations yet to come.

Migenes, following the director’s suggestion, said: “I like it.”

For Migenes, who was married to Medak for 15 years (they divorced in 2003), the Debussy project arrives in the context of what she sees as an ephemeral “America‘s Got Talent” culture, demanding creativity be served up hot and fast on television and social media.

“We’re living in a society where people worry, ‘Will it sell?’ ” Migenes said. “It’s important that artists don’t try to fit in all the time. Debussy had integrity and fight in him. He didn’t do sequels.”

A chair, table, extra piano bench and vase of flowers are all Migenes needs to give an audience a feel for the composer’s life and times as she reads the composer’s letters and sings sections from a few of his early songs accompanied by Arellano. Arellano’s solo piano also handles transitions between various periods in Debussy’s life represented by the letters. In solo passages throughout the show, he gives us a sense of the composer’s creative evolution.

Migenes took three years to select material and structure the show, which runs about 90 minutes without an intermission. Along with the primary source material of Debussy’s letters and music, she reads a shattering letter from the composer’s beloved daughter, Chouchou, written after her father died in Paris in 1918 at age 55.

Although people don’t need to have prior knowledge of Debussy, it’s likely many have heard piano masterpieces such as “Clair de Lune,” not to mention “Reverie,” which was played on a harp in the popular HBO series “Westworld” and has become an ongoing, tantalizing clue to the story.

“I’m doing this show for people who don’t know much about him,” Migenes said. “I want to give them the arc of his life and whet their appetite to find out more. It’s like having the hors d’oeuvres.”

Migenes said she recalled being moved after hearing “Clair de Lune” as a 7- year-old but wanted to make sure her portrait of Debussy avoided sentimentality and self-indulgence. “I could have tried to do Debussy’s entire life, but I had to let go of the women — that’s a whole other aspect of him. Otherwise, I’d have a 12-hour show and I don’t want to lose my audience.”

Medak, 79, who was born into a Jewish family in Budapest, recalled falling in love with Debussy’s music as a kid after hearing “La Mer,” a symphonic suite celebrating the power and majesty of the sea. He directed Migenes’ last two stage biographies, also presented at the Odyssey — “Franz Schubert: His Letters and Music” in 2009 and “Julia Migenes Sings Kurt Weill” in 2015.

The director is probably best known for the 1972 British black comedy “The Ruling Class,” which starred Peter O’Toole. Since then, Medak has directed many works for film, opera, theater and television, including episodes of “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad.” In his 1990 film, “The Krays,” about twin gangsters who terrorized London’s East End in the 1960s, Medak recruited Migenes to sing as Judy Garland in one scene because the Krays were reputed to be pals of the performer.

“She’s brilliant,” Medak said. “All I’m trying to do is enhance her show, which is mostly about the letters Debussy wrote at various stages of his life, and make sure she’s comfortable.”

Migenes, 67, joked that her marriage to Medak made for quite a Hungarian goulash, not least because of her Puerto Rican, Greek and Irish background.

“We are very different but meet in art,” Migenes said. “That was the glue, more than our personalities. He knows how to direct me. He’s the one who feels you, sees what you’re doing. He gives actors the feeling they can do anything.”

Both artists were dramatically exposed to the uncertainty of everyday life. “We were very poor,” said Migenes, who grew up in the Bronx. “I got some of my toughness there. I wouldn’t eat all day so I could afford a dance lesson.”

Eventually, Migenes’ dancing and singing lessons paid off. For two years, she performed the role of Hodel with Zero Mostel in the original Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” In 1985, she won a Grammy award for Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.”

Having grown up in Budapest, Medak recalled hiding out during the second world war in the basement of a building occupied by the Gestapo. After the Soviet Union invaded his homeland in 1956, the family fled. “It was an absolute terror,” Medak said. “I was 19 when we left for England, and English had been forbidden in Hungary.”

Migenes said immense stress was also part of Debussy’s life. Never out of debt, the composer lay dying in 1918 to the deafening sound of shells fired on Paris from long-range German cannons.

“He got sick fighting the system,” Migenes said. “It’s a reminder that it’s almost impossible to hang on to one’s personal vision — to what you hear and feel and love. But Debussy never compromised.” n