Dressed in black, Benjamin Freedman teaches a dance class in a studio at the Tisch School of the Arts.

Benjamin Freedman teaches a class at Tisch School of the Arts. (Photo by Tracey Friedman)

Contemporary opera provides a dramatic setting for writer/director Rebecca Miller’s new romantic comedy, She Came To Me, which stars Peter Dinklage as an artistically-blocked composer facing the deadline for a new opera commission. While looking for inspiration, he encounters a tugboat captain (Marisa Tomei), who unleashes his creative juices.

Writing and directing a feature film is difficult, but making a movie partially set in the outlandish world of opera—where more is always more—represents another level of complication. Enter Benjamin Freedman, a Tisch School of the Arts teacher and alum whose professional credits include dancing, directing, and choreographing opera. Miller hired Freedman to stage and choreograph the scenes from two fictional operas at the heart of her film. She Came To Me, also starring Anne Hathaway, Brian d’Arcy James, and Joanna Kulig, opens in theaters Oct. 6.

Freedman and Miller brainstormed the concepts for the operas, the first about a black widow-like tugboat captain, the second an outer space love story.  Then Freedman gathered a troupe of dancers—including Tisch student Imani Frazier and dance alumni Evan Copeland, Jack Blackmon, Oscar Rodriguez, and Cole Lynn—to sketch out and ultimately choreograph the scenes. After working in studios around the city, the group moved to the United Palace theater in Washington Heights, where the fully designed and produced opera scenes were filmed the last week in April of 2022.

In the first, Freedman worked with internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, who plays the captain who lures men to her boat, channeling acclaimed director Robert Wilson to create its surreal style. The second scene is from an outer-space themed commission Dinklage’s composer receives on the heels of the tugboat opera’s success. It featured four singers, including noted baritone Greer Grimsley, and six river nymphs playing with glowing orbs and two henchmen dancers. Each scene took two days to shoot.

“It was fascinating. You see a ten-second clip of a movie and you think ‘That couldn’t take too long.’ But you shoot it from every possible angle,” he says.

The United Palace theater shoot also included filming reaction shots of Hathaway, who plays Dinklage’s wife, and Tomei as they watch the productions.

“We didn’t actually have the singers and dancers that day. Instead, first assistant director Josh Muzzafer and I were the only ones on this massive stage, running around and acting the entire scene as if 12 people were there,” he says.

A 2012 graduate of Tisch with a BFA in dance and psychology, Freedman has performed with Mark Morris Dance Group, the Sean Curran Company, and other concert dance companies where he had many opportunities to collaborate with first class artists. Those experiences led him to pursue more work in opera, including the Metropolitan Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, and West Edge Opera in Berkeley, California. Freedman has taught dance at Tisch since 2016.

Freedman tapped his Tisch training, love of opera, and experience dancing in and staging opera productions for his first movie work. NYU News caught up with him between classes to talk about his career, the experience of translating classical opera to film, and how the movie has changed his approach to teaching dance.

You have danced in contemporary companies and in operas, where you have also directed and choreographed. Why does opera appeal to you?

I just love classical music and being around amazing, talented musicians and singers. Opera is so collaborative. In dance, it can be a lot about your ego and being front and center. In an opera, you are a cog in a greater wheel and you really feel connected to a larger process, with a lot of different collaborators in the room.

How was staging and choreographing a fictitious opera for a film different from working on a real production in an opera house?

It was similar because it was a performance on an actual stage at the United Palace so I got to think of it spatially as if it were performed in a proscenium. So I didn’t think too much at first about it being different. I picked dancers and students I had worked with, and I was lucky enough to have time to have a mini rehearsal process to generate some material. Then we had a day in a big studio in Brooklyn, spacing it out and getting Rebecca’s feedback on what was working and what wasn’t. On the days of filming, we had to adapt scene by scene. I was watching with the director of photography, and after each take we’d go in and change things, or try something different. I knew that dancing for film, just like acting for film, the camera picks up subtlety, so less is more, rather than in a regular opera, where usually more is more.

What was it like watching it in the movie theater?

I was incredibly nervous waiting for the scenes. The movie is very heartwarming, the acting is incredible.

What did you learn from this experience that you have adapted to your teaching?

Be open to all of the possibilities. Especially in opera, because there are so many elements that are more important than the beautiful lines made in the studio. You have to be adaptable.  Tisch is training dancers to do that already, to be versatile. For this project, we used a lot of improvisation and collaboration. I think I’ll be bringing in more of a sense of play and openness to my class.

This movie, and your artistic contribution to it, is not a typical career opportunity for a dancer. Do you think it will inspire students—yours or other dance students—to consider opera as an outlet for their creativity?

I think a lot of young dancers have an idea of maybe three or four dance companies—big names—and they have to make it into these companies and that’s the only thing. But in dance, and being a dancer, there are so many different avenues you can go down. There’s a lot out there if you are open to it. The idea that they see it in action is good. They should think about what trajectory they want to go in. Think less about the accolades and more about who you want to be in a room with. What kind of people do you want to make work with? Something I really value is working with dedicated and collaborative people who share an openness and generosity of vision. The teachers I had the pleasure to work with at Tisch taught me to value the creative process. In my career, I’ve learned to savor the process and invest in the people I create with over anything else.