Sunday, April 3, 2011
A Guest Commentary On Modern Opera Stage Direction: Why the hump, Rigoletto?
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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.
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?
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?)
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.
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.
at 1:35 PM