Sunday, April 10, 2011
An Opposing Guest Commentary On Modern Operatic Stage Direction: Are Directors The New Prima Donnas?
I read the last installment of Great Opera Singers, by Chloe Hannah, with considerable interest. (A Guest Commentary On Modern Opera Stage Direction: Why The Hump, Rigoletto?) The article was well written and made its points clearly, which I appreciate. While I agree on some, however, I do not agree with other points which Chloe Hannah made. She writes, for example, that :
" 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? 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."
This touches on the essential issue – what is opera? To me it’s a powerful art, dominated by sound and the human voice. Powerful because the human voice itself is an emotionally powerful instrument and means of communication. If one person says something important in a loud voice, it makes a significant effect on others. If the person sings something important at the top of their lungs the effect is greater. If that singing person is accompanied by a big orchestra, their voice and words possess huge emotional power. So opera at its best is a combination of beautiful, expressive, powerful sound, coupled with meaningful words. It’s neither pure vocalization nor a symphony, even if it is performed in concert, without sets or direction.
As for its visual side, everyone would like to see great acting, extraordinary sets, costumes and direction, but this side of operatic performance has its limits, largely because artists are selected for their musical and vocal abilities, not for their acting skills or beauty. The genre is so demanding vocally that it never enters anyone’s mind to teach a voiceless actor instead of a talented vocalist. If a talented vocalist doesn’t have acting abilities they nevertheless will be permitted to perform on the stage and perhaps will improve their acting. Similarly, no one dares to make ballet dancers sing during their performances. We know that Broadway musical artists can sing and dance very well, but ballet is too demanding to have artists do anything except dance. Such are laws of the genre. Opera has its own laws. No one ever banned Caballe , Gigli , Caruso, Tagliavini or many other great singers from the stage because all they could believably do was stand there and sing! They acted with their voices and it was easy enough to imagine them as beautiful heroes.
And then there is a purely technical matter—opera is so demanding vocally that most artists can’t move too fast, because they must control their breathing and voice. True, we can now see very athletic singers (Netrebko, for example) who can perform standing on their head, but I would suggest that it is at the very least questionable if their voices compare one hundred percent to those of the greatest singers of the previous generations.
It needs to be remembered that there have been—historically—many composers who were also good directors, especially Verdi, Puccini, Massenet, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. They had already directed their operas by debut time, and it was sufficient, generally speaking, to just listen to their music to imagine the emotional state and actions of the characters. There simply is no absolute freedom for directors there.
Libretto, I feel, is as important as music in many operas because composers took it seriously when they wrote the music. They imagined characters and their relationships— otherwise the music would have been different. So it seems to me that the modern habit of neglecting libretto only creates a "schizophrenic" effect. The recent Bolshoi production of “Onegin” is a great example. Its director is obsessed by the idea of confrontation between individual and society. He shoves this idea into every production of his, even if an opera doesn’t need it. In his version, Lensky became a creepy, nervous character; he insults Tatyana and shoots himself accidentally. The Larins became a bunch of stupid "pigs," always eating, shouting, drinking, and falling under the table. Olga became an aggressive bitch. The result was very interesting—a second set of characters suddenly appeared: musical ghosts. While artists performed something outrageous on the stage, the music and the lyrics created "ghosts" of real and absolutely different characters –the ones Tchaikovsky and Pushkin had written! These two parallel worlds (scenic and musical) created a schizophrenic effect, which the director didn’t plan. It was fun, even if unintentional! I think one of the reasons many modern directors are booed by audiences is because of their often egregious self-indulgence. These might be classified generally as a kind of lack of professionalism—laziness, ego, logical inconsistencies, and general ignorance of tradition(s). Even if they intend to depart from them, they should be aware of what they are departing from. Otherwise, we are treated to trendy outrageousness, which can easily degenerate into a tiresome kind of inverse snobbery.
Traditionally trained Russian singers were shocked when they went to Europe and saw what they were being asked to do by some directors. The directors had no notion at all about Russian operas, and shoved politics, Stalin, vodka, Rasputin and other vulgar stereotypes at them from the very beginning. Basically, they were insulted: "My idea is the main thing!" "Russian classics should be staged like that—inside out!"
Yevgeny Nesterenko explained it by the term "directors’ mafia.". No matter how the audience reacts , critics will call it a "success" or a "thought-provoking production" as though directors are real "kings" of opera, even though many singers and musicians understand their parts better than directors. A couple of examples: The Queen of Spades in a Latvian National Opera production. The production is visually ugly, though "inventive." The Countess decides to open a bottle of champagne and is killed by its cork( at 3:50):
Then there is the so-called “Brokeback Onegin”—a Polish production. Lensky and Onegin are gay. A scene which replaces Gremin’s ball:
There is a strange system at work in opera theaters. Singers and musicians have their duties. Singers must sing their part beautifully and precisely, just like the composer wrote it. Otherwise they would be booed , criticized or fired. The same is true of musicians and conductors. Directors seem to be the only ones who feel they do not have duties—they have only “absolute creative freedom” which, if it fails, won’t be seriously criticized, at least in theatrical circles. As for timelessness – it seems to me that some operas are timeless, others are not. It’s impossible to replace Tsar Boris by a modern President, even though riots, wars and revolutions still happen and problems of power are the same. Perhaps La Boheme is timeless, but La Traviata is not so timeless. It’s hard to imagine now a modern man can endanger his sister’s reputation by his relationship with a woman like Violetta. It’s not a contemporary problem.
I do agree with ChloeHannah about comic operas, however – they give MUCH more latitude to directors.
at 1:42 PM