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Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Guest Commentary On Modern Opera Stage Direction: Why the hump, Rigoletto?

[I am pleased to present, for the second time in these pages, a commentary by "ChloeHannah." It was she, you may well recall, who did the piece some time ago on Anne Sofie von Otter, which was so well received by our many readers. Today "ChloeHanna," whose self-portrait appears to the left, speaks about a subject which has arisen many times in the Comments section of this blog—modern stage direction. "Chloe" is well qualified to speak on this subject, not only because of her university degrees (including a Ph.D.) in musicology and interactive media, but because she is still quite young, and offers our readers a point of view from a significantly younger generation than most of us belong to (speaking only for myself, of course:)

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My gratitude goes to our favourite blogger for offering me the opportunity to write about modern opera performances. He asked me to do this a while ago and I was reluctant because of the lack of video examples. But taking into consideration the kind curiosity of one of Edmund’s readers, I decided to give it a go.

I favour the modern production to such an extent that it has become an integral part of the opera experience to me. If I see that an opera is performed in traditional attire I am likely to skip it altogether. I would rather see it performed concertante than have to sit through yet another evening of hoop skirts and fake candles. I have visited the opera around 500 times, and a good chunk of the performances were traditional. If an opera follows every word of the libretto literally, the evening will either annoy or bore me.

Musicologists and opera lovers can be very protective of this form of art, and in the past I have had some aggressive responses to my point of view, so I would like to say that I do not want to press my opinion upon others, nor am I attempting to provoke the reader. Anyone is entitled to their own view.

With this disclaimer I hand you my thoughts on opera as I see it performed in central Europe. The few photos I was able to gather, and all examples mentioned are taken from my local theatre in Basel, Switzerland. It acts as a typical example of what a medium-sized, open-minded opera house presents today.

1. Innovation

First off, a modern production is new. Whether I personally love the performance or hate it, whether it be intellectually stimulating or just fun without any deeper meaning, it always guarantees the viewer something to ponder, a new interpretation of a well-known story. Part of the challenge is trying to crack the director’s thought process, much like attempting differential equations. What fun!

2. Visual Experience

A new interpretation can lead to visually enticing stage and costume designs. By no means is it all graffitied brick walls and miniskirts. This side of rococo furniture, the visual world of a modern designer is limitless and thus unpredictable: I have seen Macbeth take place in an airport terminal; La Bohème at a ski resort:

I have also see Lohengrin in a giant’s kitchen. Other performances are abstract in nature but nevertheless stunning. The sheer size of an opera stage offers so many architectural possibilities, from Maria Stuarda’s world jutting out dangerously across the orchestra to the many atmospheric facets of stage lighting upon a simple white background in Ballo in Maschera.

As a designer, the visual presentation is just as important to me as the musical one, and even with my musicological background I tire of people contesting that music is the most important of the elements opera consists of. If so, what sets opera apart from a symphony? Is it not a Gesamtkunstwerk where story, music and imagery are equals?

3. Humour

A new interpretation can lead to hilarious situations on stage. Certain operas call for humour, and what better way to entertain an audience than by redefining the libretto in an unpredictable manner? We all know the witch lives in a gingerbread house, but I have rarely heard as much laughter as when she appeared in a fridge, her high heels sticking out from below the appliance as she walked on stage and beckoned Hansel and Gretel through the fridge door.

If someone asks me which operas I like to see most, I always reply Rossini. I’m not even that crazy about his music; my preference lies closer to Stravinsky. But when it comes to modern stage performances of Rossini’s operas, I know the evening will be memorable. Barbiere’s Figaro as a dragonfly with a large ego, the rotund tenor as a bumblebee, and Rosina’s butterfly entangled in the mean-spirited spider’s web was a production I returned to see over and over.

4. Political and Social Issues

A modern interpretation of opera can be uncomfortably true to the spirit of the opera. Operas are not always fun. Some are downright tragic. I recently saw an incredibly difficult Aida. I can’t say I enjoyed the evening in a feel-good-There’s-something-about-Mary kind of way, but it has indelibly changed my view on the opera. Aida is about war, and war was what was shown on stage. How utterly out of place are Verdi’s enchanting, exotic dances in such a horrifying piece? It is something I had never before considered, and I am grateful for the questions the director provided me with.

Modern opera directors are often labeled the enfant terrible, the provocateur. Their operas are booed at, the singers are interrupted by angry outcries in the audience. But the ideas are nearly always rooted in the original piece. (As a side note, I feel compelled to say that if an opera speaks of sex, which frankly occurs a lot, do we really have the grounds to protest against some steamy action on stage?)

5. Timelessness

Every single opera libretto is timeless, I am convinced of this. Must Rigoletto have a hump to manifest his social marginalisation? He may blame his misery on his physical deformity, but we all know that his moral bankruptcy and habit of throwing married ladies into the arms of a ruthless womaniser are greater issues. What could the deeper reason for Rigoletto’s behaviour be? I have seen six different productions of the opera, and the answer was never the same twice.

6. History

In an historical context I usually point out that ‘back in the day’, opera was a very different type of entertainment. Singers carried a suitcase with their favourite arias, and the stage director would simply mix and match. It was not a strict, by-the-book form of art. The auditorium was not dimmed, talking and drinking was allowed, and prostitutes lured in the boxes. Barring public prostitution, I do wish we could regain some of this lax attitude, because it might also help with my final thought:

7. Attracting a younger audience

Opera has so many facets! Let us colour and animate it to draw a younger audience to the theatres. This tends to be the only argument conservatives will agree with. Presenting opera in a fresh manner will call forth more enthusiasm in a young crowd than a stuffy presentation of a – let’s face it – rather obscure form of art.

These are my thoughts on modern opera. I am only sorry that I don’t have any videos to show just how fantastic, beautiful, hilarious and fascinating some of my visits to the opera have been. But for all the modern efforts made by this central European city, the theatre has yet to embrace the technologies the world wide web offers.


Edmund said...

Thank you so much! This is another excellent article, and I really appreciate your having taken the time and effort to do it. I feely admit that I am one of those who, I guess, didn't quite get it. However, I would lIKE to get it! I really want to get my head around this whole issue! Thanks again, and I hope I'm not too old to change my ways of thinking! You are welcome to write here any time you want to!

JD Hobbes said...

Hmmm. This one is difficult because it depends on personal taste and bias. I, personally, do not care for modernizing things like Shakespeare, opera, etc. I am sure younger people do. It is probably more fashionable in Europe, because I have the feeling that young people in Europe are trying to throw off the iron constraints of centuries of tradition and custom that limit so much of their lives. I do remember an essay by Goethe, "Amerika, Du hast es besser," in which he argued that the freedoms of America helped people escape those harsh limitations of the past in Europe. I also remember that "Traviata" was a fiasco when it was set in modern times. Verdi placed it in the past, and then it was successful. So much depends on the content of the piece and how one interprets or understands it as part of a certain milieu.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks to ChloeHannah for the most interesting article. It perfectly explains the point of view of the people who love ‘avant-garde’ direction. My opinion is different, I understand why many contemporary directors are booed. I agree though, that period costumes and artificial candles can be boring, just like period films. New visual effects and styles are important, I agree with this too, but in general it seems to me that ‘freshness’ and ‘innovations’ are different things. Innovative direction can be dead and boring in spite of all the new visual effects and mese-en-scenes, if the director lacks understanding of the music and characters’ emotional state. A traditional production can be fresh and moving, if the direction is emotional and precise. Tomorrow I’ll try to explain my point of view – the subject is huge.


Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you very much for your comment, Mr. Hobbes. I always look forward to hearing from you. Yes, you raise an interesting point, the Traviata reference being particularly interesting. That premiere was indeed ruined, both by the (then) modern setting, and a soprano of what one critic called "more than ample integumental upholstry" who sent the audience into peals of laughter when she announced she was dying of tuberculosis. Later, moving the opera a century into the past, and sans fat soprano, an operatic legend was born. Something else is clearly going on now. I am ready to concede that operas with a 150 year tradition are antiques that might benefit from a new dressing. But what about the music? That can't be changed. Can the cognitve dissonance be overcome? I find it a bit hard to argue with the Europeans because it is their art, historically, that we are talking about, and they may intuit something important about preserving the music and the theater. Perhaps they will hit upon something new. Maybe these steps in stage direction are primitive efforts that will soon yield something unsuspected! Maybe Chloe, who is a super-bright young woman, with a huge artistic talent and education, is on the right track when she raises the question, toward the end of her article, about what interactive media and cyberworld may yet have to contribute. I'm an old man, and I listen with ever increasing interest to what young people have to say. What an fascinating problem!! Thanks again for your comment!

Anonymous said...

Great article. I'm fairly new to opera, I didn't realize all this was going on. One thing I AM aware of is how expensive it is! Some of these sets look like they might make a production a LOT cheaper. I wonder if the ticket prices are a lot lower in Europe?

Edmund StAustell said...

I think as a rule they are, in smaller houses especially, but that has as much to do with government funding as it does with sets and constumes. They still use first rate singers, and they command pretty hefty salaries. Thanks for your comment, and welcome to Great Opera Singers if this is your first time here. You are always welcome!

chloe hannah said...

Thank you everyone for your kind words. To each his or her own, it is wonderful to hear your thoughts on this subject!

Rig The Walker said...

As a young person,I don't quite agree with Chloe's comments. Most young people have never listened to opera. If they go to the opera house, they're more likely there for the experience rather than to be there to listen to the opera. If they wanted something fresh, they'll just go to the opera house and go elsewhere after their first opera performance. To them, one opera's the same as another, regardless of the name or the story. That's because in their mind, opera's just a musical in which the singers sing in a manner totally different from what they normally listen to in a language they don't know.

The other thing is this, if I were a young person who's there to watch the production, why go to the opera house instead of the theater or the concert hall? The theater would be better since there's no singing.

I feel that modern productions aren't the thing to attract young audiences. There are young people who like the art of theater very much but to be honest, they're not the type who listens to opera, most of them, that is. The type of young people who do listen to opera are there for the singing rather than the production. I'm one of them.

Of course we want something different whenever go to the opera house but most of us are conservatives, there's a limit to how modern a production we can tolerate. We can tolerate the traditional production so long as the music and the singing is worth our money.

What I said applies to the tragedies, not to the comedies. I think that what Chloe says is more relevant for the comedies rather than the tragedies. Performing the comedies in a modern production would ''update'' the opera, thus keeping them relevant. I think that would match their composers' intentions and keep their audiences.

I understand that I'm not welcome in certain places because my opinions on certain areas are interpreted as lacking sufficient ground but I do hope that mine will be received.

As a final word, I hope to bring up the incident of the first performance of Ariadne auf Naxos in which Strauss and Hofmanstahl originally intended their opera to be performed as a prelude to the play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. The ones who were interested in the play were turned off by the opera and vice versa. I believe that people haven't changed much since then. The ones there to see the production are not there to listen, and could have gone somewhere else. The ones who are here to listen to it aren't that supportive of the production but they've to put up with it as a price for good singing.

Darren from Singapore (aka Firuzens)

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Darren, for a most interesting and very well written comment! Your opinions are always welcome here, and I hope you will stay with us. This might be a good place to develop a historical view of opera and its greatest singers. Our commentators, and readers in general, are remarkably well informed and bring a real wealth and depth of experience to these pages that never ceases to amaze me. If you sign on as a follower, you can get notices of new blogs when they appear. I try--barring holidays--to get a piece out every Sunday. I used to worry that eventually I would run out of singers, but I don't think that will ever happen! It's amazing how many there are! Edmund

Darren Seacliffe said...

Thank you very much Edmund for allowing me the opportunity to take part in this splendid blog of yours. I am sincerely grateful for that.

Speaking of which,I hope to draw everybody's attention to the article on Alfredo Kraus. I've a comment I'd like to add to the article which I feel would help improve the assessment of his artistry. It's dated July 2010.

I've very little experience in listening to opera singers. I've only listened to some in a select few operas so I can't quite comment on them much but I've listened to quite a few operas.

Edmund,before I proceed with that comment,will there be Rossinian tenors featured on the blog? From my experience, most of the people who really enjoy Verdi, Puccini and verimso don't really give much consideration to Rossini.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Oh yes. Rossini is eternal! I will eventually be talking about Cecilia Bartoli, a great Rossini singer, along with Mario Filippeschi and Salvatore Fisichella, among others.

Darren Seacliffe said...

Hi Edmund,sorry but can you please have a look at the comments I wrote under the Alfredo Kraus article dated July 2010.

They might be quite lengthy but I feel that they would offer another perspective in your assessment of Kraus' artistry. I feel that you've left out zarzuela (Spanish opera) in your evaluation of his singing. Zarzuela was Kraus' speciality.

Hmm..I'm afraid I was thinking more along the lines of the Rossinian tenors like Juan Diego Florez's teacher and manager Ernesto Palacio, Bruce Ford and Rockwell Blake along others.
However,I can't deny that Bartoli and Filippeschi were great singers. I'm not so sure about Fisichella though.

I'm sorry if the comments were too long but I'm quite a perfectionist when I give comments. Forgive if me I'm a bit too talkative here.

Darren from Singapore (aka Firuzens on YT)

Edmund St. Austell said...

Ford and Blake are also scheduled:)

Gioacchino Florio-Maragioglio said...

Well, this is all very interesting, and I want to redress a few things.

First: I agree, that fundamentally, the comic opera of Rossini such as «Barbiere della Siviglia» does give greater freedom to rework the story for the director than other operas. However, please be assured, where I have gone to the opera, San Carlo, any production of this opera where the characters and places were changed as you suggest were booed loudly.

Secondly: Doctor Hannah, it would please me to understand how you would suggest an opera like for example «Gli Ugonotti» or «I Vespri Siciliani» would be staged under your hypothesis. Or, how would you stage one of Pacini's operas such as «Il Corsaro» or «Carlo di Borgogna»?

Thirdly: who says the director has any right to "update" the opera? Again, with Rossini, who often only wrote the vocal and piano score, it is easier to understand, but what about other composers? Richard Strauss and his operas, such as «Capriccio» and «Elektra» cannot be easily transferred to other settings, nor can Puccini and Verdi, who had specific ideas about how to stage their operas.

To address your title "Why the hump Rigoletto?", well because the hump is a layer of analysis and understanding. The great thing about Rigoletto is you can take it at face value: the humped Rigoletto, the jester, in the very simple way that takes the joy of Verdi's melody. Or, you can analyze it more deeply as you do, and examine the psychological elements of the drama.

What you must understand is the reason in my opinion you cannot see a production that follows the composers orders because the singers of today are deficient in the characterization.

I see that, in particular, «La Traviata» causes you no end of dismay. Why? Germont fils and père, and Violetta can be characterized so differently: the tenor can emphasize the honorable aspects of Alfredo's character, or the joyous ones, and so followed. Violetta, too, can express her emotions so differently. She can take the coloratura approach, like Anna Moffo, in the tradition of sopranos like Lucia di Lammermoor, or she can characterize like Licia Albanese, who sang the role with the passion more like Manon Lescaut.

Another point about sexual scenes: including them often debases the nature of the story. I will refer to «Traviata» again. In between "Un dì, felice..." and "Lunge da lei... dei miei bollenti spiriti" it is plausible to suggest that Alfredo and Violetta may have engaged together between the acts, so it makes the latter aria much more meaningful: do not ever forget the power of suggestion. The story is much the same in «Un Ballo in Maschera», Riccardo and Amelia do not need to cavort like Alagna did, because this is suggested and implied.

I think the solution to these problems is clear and simple: more composition of opera. For example, use the same source of Rigoletto, Traviata, La Bohème and modernize them. Another composer could make the story of Andrea Chénier into Nikolai Dmitrivich, a poet in the Russian Revolution or in the Stalinist purges.

But, I beg, do not try to invest an opera with a purpose it does not have. Re-using ideas is the staple of fine arts. Altering and re-working masterpieces to fit an individual's ego kills the art-form.

I respect your degrees and your qualifications, Doctor Hannah, but I have one thing you do not: more than fifty years experience of seeing opera performed onstage, not in a heritage way, bolstered by public funds, but as a money-earning enterprise at the opera of San Carlo.

Aside from this, I am pleased to say that I am glad you articulate your ideas like this. Most people who share you views shout and make a disgrace: clearly the elegance of another time still has impinged upon you.

chloe hannah said...

Gentile Signor Florio-Maragioglio

Thank you for reading my post and for your many thoughts. It is always an honour to hear from Mother Italy (when it comes to opera) and I hope my respecting your opinion will be response enough. I would never dream of imposing my opinion upon others but by writing this article I had hoped, rather, that 'the other side' might be somewhat enlightened. Please rest assured that the modern productions are warmly received by my home town, and that I have witnessed very little shouting and disgrace.

Opera continues to thrive!