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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.


JD Hobbes said...

Ha ha. I think Natalie would agree with Goethe in his "Faust." At the very beginning in the "Vorspiel auf dem Theater," the director and others are debating this very same thing.

There is nothing new under the sun!

corax said...

what's wonderful about this blog is its confluence of felicitous characteristics. let me name a few that are on my mind at the moment: [1] the value of the concept itself. how is it that there are not dozens of other blogs out there attempting the same thing? not to mention publications in print media. this blog meets a genuine need. [2] the continual excellence of the writing, both from the lead writer and from his guest contributors. [3] this particular exchange, which brings to the blog what i think bakhtin would have called *polifonija* -- the unhomogenized multiplicity of voices and subjectivities that deeply enriches the reader's understanding of the topic at hand. both these guest contributors have taught me a great deal by/from their differing viewpoints. [we have had this to some extent already in the 'comments' section; but it is another matter to have this kind of dialogue among main entries.] so thanks both to chloe hannah and to natalie for the toothsome dishes they have brought to this repast; and particular thanks to sir edmund st austell, the founder of the feast!

Edmund St. Austell said...

That is very true, Mr. Hobbes. This argument has been going on for a very long time, and it is interesting to think how it has been settled, historically. Who have the historical winners been? Now there's a consuming thought for the day! Thanks for your comment, as always!

Edmund St. Austell said...

To Corax: Thank you so much for your very fine comments. While I appreciate them greatly, I feel they properly go to the outstanding readership of this blog. People like yourself, Mr. Hobbes, Jing, Chloe Hannah and Natalie, our essayist du jour, have been faithful readers from the very beginning, several years ago. It is a daunting task to write for so intellectually profound a group--and there are quite a few others--on a weekly basis. It is like having to address a theater of distinguished professors--such as yourself--repeatedly on a subject that I very much suspect many, many know more about than I do. To all of you, thank you! We have had a growing readership (Mr. Google tells me about 40k now) so our discussion has an audience, and it's one that I treasure! Thanks again for all of your contributions.

The two writers, Chloe Hanna and Natalie, while young, bring an extraordinary amount of culture and intelligence to this discussion. Both present their points of view with razor-sharp precision, and make excellent points. I am still pondering where (if at all) I come down on this issue!

Anonymous said...

To JD Hobbes: Thank you for the comment. I forgot about Faust, but I’ve re-read the prologue –you are absolutely right . It’s a very old issue. Fyodor Chaliapin wrote about problems of modern direction in 1935, when Russian avant-garde directors started to ‘modernize’ opera, and it seems that he wrote about present days.


Anonymous said...

I completely agree with her viewpoint and feel that the current state of those whimsical directors-dominated opera productions is quite absurd and deplorable.

Anonymous said...

To Corax: thanks for the comment. I agree, it’s very educational to know different/ opposite opinions. Modern productions are interesting, I love some of them. The result is good when a director tires to create something wholesome and pays attention to all the components of the opera.

Anonymous said...

Edmund, thanks a lot for an opportunity to write for your blog, it’s an honor.



Edmund St. Austell said...

The honor, Natalie, is entirely mine, believe me! It was an excellent article; one you can be proud of.

DanPloy said...

My apologies for commenting out of context; I have just happened upon your blog after indulging myself with a little Bonisolli.

I just wanted to thank you for your insightful posts, especially those singers for which I have a special fondness such as Bjorling and Lauri Volpi: I am essentially a tenor person.

I just wondered if you would consider commenting on some other of my favourites such as Merli, Pertile and especially, my personal favourite, Giovanni Martinelli. Apologies for the self publicity but I have tried to gather some information on him on my own site, including a recording from La Juive which may tempt you to listen further,

Thank-you again for your insights and I look forward to reading more in the weeks to come.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for writing. Actually, I intend to do a piece on Martinelli fairly soon, Pertile after that. I appreciate your interest.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much Sir Edmund for bringing up the subject, and dear Natalie and Chloe Hannah for sharing your excellent, insightful arguments on this issue. Both the articles and commentaries provide enjoyable, enriching reads, as always. With our dear blogger's indulgence, I would just share a new/prospective audience's opinion. After all, we are the reasons modern directors tend to hold up for their eccentric productions.

As a fairly new audience to opera, I have had my own share of dilemma ( on a much less sophisticated level, of course :) over the essence of opera and how operatic masterpieces should ideally be presented. Also as a supporter of innovation and modernization, I was surprised to realize that I had gradually developed a similar viewpoint as the one so eloquently presented in this article.

For what it's worth, I agree with Natalie's definition of this art form as "a combination of beautiful, expressive, powerful sound, coupled with meaningful words", and it is based on this assumption that I find the musical facet of opera should be the only natural and uncompromisable vedette of the performance!

I am also convinced that an opera audience needs to be a dreamer. So, considering the fact that (due to limitations of the material dimension) no extent of budget, visual technology or scenic creativity can match what mind can imagine, the highly individualistic interpretations of modern directors, ironically, seem to turn out to be too rigid to allow the public to feel personally engaged in musical daydreaming.

I apologize for my lack of sense of brevity and end this extra long comment by saying that, while writing off the idea of innovation in opera is would be a shame, audiences like me cannot help but feel intellectually demeaned by some of the fanfares presented as opera, with us as their 'target audience' .

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for providing a balanced and thought-provoking perspective on this interesting and somewhat troubling dilemma. What you say makes a LOT of sense, and I for one am going to go back a re-read it! A much appreciated comment!

Markella said...

When I was a teenager, I lived for three years with Tito and Tilde Gobbi on their estate in Rome, studying almost daily with Maestro while also singing in his public master classes in London and Firenze. I remember Gobbi frequently lamenting the gradual shift in focus away from the singer and toward the director. In his case, at that time in his life, he rarely attended performances anymore citing that as one of the reasons.

I have also experienced personally the shift, often observing with amusement some new 'hot' director being propelled into the upper echelons of the opera world frequently for less-than-ethical reasons, and often without appropriate merit. After 'arriving,' most behave like subhuman autocrats and a few seem humbled by their newly found fortune and try to foster an egalitarian sense of collaboration.

I recall one of my own experiences as Amneris dealing with Zeffirelli in his Aida at Teatro dell'Opera di Roma where his autocratic rudeness was beyond acceptable. I was rehearsing simultaneously Didon in Les Troyens with LSO, and had little patience for his antics, so I walked out and went back to London. After the management persuaded him to at least pretend to be human, I did return and do several performances, but I didn't talk to him. (My father always told me, "If you mix with crap, you risk becoming crap yourself."

While I recognize that Zeffirelli may have served a purpose at one point, by then I considered him cliched and even pedestrian. Unfortunately he had many imitators.

I prefer the Robert Wilson's of the opera world, where, in my opinion, the concepts are deep, profound and tremendously revealing if the audience actually is able to perceive it. Of all the directors I worked with over the years, he was one of the few doing things I felt were actually moving the art form forward. Doing Judith in his Bluebeard's Castle in Salzburg are still my favorite performances. Was he a prima donna? Well, yes he could be, but, to me, no more or less that any of us can be given the right set of circumstances.

I have noted over the years the best performances arise out of a spirited sense of equality between singer, conductor, director and everyone else involved in the production. I always gave the same amount of respect to the assistant stage managers as I did the conductors and directors. Of course, in all cases, the respect had to be earned. When certain directors realize that they need to behave in a manner that continually elicits respect, the opera world will be healthier. ~Markella Hatziano

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much indeed for a very authoritative and extremely well written commentary. The distinction of your own career certainly qualifies your views far beyond the ordinary range of opinions. YOu make exceptionally good points, and I think it would be very hard indeed to disagree with them. Thank you once again for visiting our blog, and for giving us the benefit of your vast experience in the opera world. Edmund

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

«I have noted over the years the best performances arise out of a spirited sense of equality between singer, conductor, director and everyone else involved in the production. I always gave the same amount of respect to the assistant stage managers as I did the conductors and directors. Of course, in all cases, the respect had to be earned. When certain directors realize that they need to behave in a manner that continually elicits respect, the opera world will be healthier.»

Of all the things I have heard about opera direction and production in recent times, this is the BEST. Reading it has made much joy in my day!