Family Business

Rarely on the same continent, identical-twin opera directors Christopher and David Alden return to native soil

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Pablo Delfos for TIME

Christopher, left, and David Alden, photographed in Amsterdam on Feb. 4. On Christopher: shirt by Raf Simons; jacket and sweater by Dries van Noten. On David: shirt and jacket by Raf Simons; sweater by Dries van Noten

Known for their audacious, pro- vocative takes on masterpieces, identical-twin opera directors Christopher and David Alden have been at the pinnacle of their field for three decades. “It is strange,” says David, “to have someone else in the world who looks just like you and does the same thing you do, and often with the same people, but never at the same time.”

Or, for that matter, on the same continent Christopher is based in New York City, David in London, and both are in constant demand all over the world. This year, however, both Aldens are taking on high-profile assignments Stateside: Christopher with Don Giovanni for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, David with Un Ballo in Maschera for New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House. (See below.)

The brothers grew up in Manhattan, sons of playwright Jerome Alden and ballerina Barbara Gaye, who, while pregnant, danced in the original production of Annie Get Your Gun starring Ethel Merman. “That probably explains why we became who we are,” Christopher says. “All of Merman’s screaming prepared us to spend our lives around opera singers.” Immersed in theater and classical music from childhood, they were drawn to opera for its combination of the two art forms. By their teens, they were “fanatical standees” (David’s phrase) at the old Metropolitan Opera house.

Though they share a calling and maintain a close relationship, the Aldens have always pursued independent careers. “We tried to direct one opera together — Così fan Tutte for Daniel Barenboim in Chicago — and we lasted all of one day,” Christopher says. “We were overlapping ideas, and that is not a good use of time.”

If there is a hallmark of the Aldens’ style, it is the fusing of the political and the intensely personal. One of David’s most famous productions, for the L.A. Opera in 1988, was of Berg’s Wozzeck, a tale from the early 19th century of a soldier whose uncontrollable rage leads to his tragic demise. Alden updated the story to reflect the conflict in Vietnam. “There is nothing more political than an opera production because of what it allows you to discuss,” Christopher says. “It totally polarizes people, whether they realize it or not.”

“Opera is a dream that functions on an unconscious level,” says David. “It is a combination of the basically rational elements of words with the completely irrational thing that is music.”

The Alden Agenda
This spring, Christopher Alden stages Mozart’s Don Giovanni for the L.A. Philharmonic in Frank Gehry’s iconic Disney Hall, with Gehry designing the scenery, Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy creating the costumes, superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel leading the orchestra and suave Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien singing the title role (May 18, 20, 24 and 26). In New York City, David Alden directs his first new production this fall at the Met, Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, with a dream cast including Marcelo Alvarez and Karita Mattila. The plot includes assassination, witchcraft and a masked ball — catnip for opera fans and opera directors (Nov. 8 – Dec.14).