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Sunday, April 10, 2011

An Opposing Guest Commentary On Modern Operatic Stage Direction: Are Directors The New Prima Donnas?

It is a pleasure for me to welcome Natalie to these pages, for a second time. (Photo on left). Many readers will remember Natalie (known to many by her Youtube channel name "younglemeshevist") for her piece on Sergei Lemeshev. Natalie was among the very earliest to present videos and recordings of both the great Russian tenor and the equally brilliant Antonina Nezhdanova, who are starting to become favored fixtures for serious opera lovers in the United States, again thanks to Youtube. Natalie here presents a very different view of Modern European stage direction from that presented last week by Chloe Hannah.


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.

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.