Okay. Promised this awhile ago, so here goes. As the Fall opera season heats up, I can’t help but join the chorus of opera lovers distraught over the pool of directors being convinced by well-meaning, but misguided managers who believe that their “innovative” and “contemporary” takes on classical opera are the only way to “save” it. The truth is and will always be in the music itself.
Most notably, of course, would be some of the more misguided productions coming from the Metropolitan Opera over the last several years. Two that stick in my mind (unfortunately) are Tosca and La Sonambula. I simply can’t believe anyone backed these productions, let alone paid to see them! It’s like the directors actually used Anna Russell as their guide on how to create their own operas! The idea of a “cinematic” Tosca with cheesy brick walls and no jump! I’ll bet dozens of colleges have done more believeable versions! So too, the idea that I want to go to the theater to see a set that looks like a rehearsal room which stays stagnant until the end when it magically disappears…! Come on. Really? If these “concepts” were anomolies I’d move on, but the reviews at the back of every month’s Opera News are filled with scathing reviews of these ridiculous and self-indulgent ego trips.
I seem to recall that many composers specifically set their operas in places and times, often bearing historical relevance. Has this notion of respecting the composer been obliterated in the desperate desire for “relevance” in our modern marketplace? Sadly, as fewer of us can afford to see opera live, HD broadcasts are providing more affordable access to many who might otherwise never get to the Met or other theaters.
I would argue strongly that what audiences are seeing is no longer the fairly straightforward broadcasts of the 1970’s, but an attempt to re-imagine the entire operatic experience. We now get shots and angles no theatergoer would ever experience (Aida from above) and in so doing, we are losing what little is left of the feeling of live performance. Want an example? How about Le Comte Ory? Three main characters on a warehouse of a stage lost in a faked, folksy “oh, look how we did theater back then” staging. On screen, with near constant close-ups and cut shots telling us where to look…not so bad at all. Clearly a great production concept for the screen. Not so great for the theatergoer.
What I think Mr. Gelb and those likeminded managers and directors are missing is that unlike a radio broadcast, where the announcer might describe the setting, listeners are mostly relying on synopsis or scores reflecting the composer’s wishes and imagining what the settings look like and what the characters are doing. Now, faced with live HD video broadcasts, the curious and the novice are faced with layers of direction, first for the stage and then for the camera. Clearly some directors, knowing that their work will be captured on film, are opting to ignore the live audience in favor of the videographer. That is why, so often I would rather just listen than watch.
Add in all the latest technology and we have an “Arts Ethics” problem not unlike our medical field. Just because we can create an effect, doesn’t mean we should or need to. While some of the “new and improved?” Ring was visually stunning, other sections left me glad to have the previous production preserved on film. I mean, those poor Valkyries riding on giant seesaws. I can hear Ms. Russell laughing! So engaged were the production staff in their mechanical devices, that they didn’t even notice the beauty in the use of a horse puppet at the conclusion. Why abstract in one opera (causing giggles, not majesty) and quasi-realist in another? They can’t even keep their symbology constant!
By now, you’re probably assuming I’m some champion of Realism. Not so. If you look back at the Met’s own history, you can find real innovation AND theatricality. Remember John Dexter anyone? How about his productions of Lulu, Le Prophete and Dialogues of the Carmelites, just to name three? Will anyone ever forget the white cross on that vast stage or the light curtain and the sound effects at the conclusion of Dialogues? What about the wagons rolling on and off during Lulu? Most notably, all had different designers!
Theatrically and visually dynamic does not have to mean abandoning the composer’s intent and yet in our age of director celebrity, the creator’s intent seems of little value. There is, of course, a famous stage director renowned for his avant garde re-imaginings of classical opera. While his work has always seemed for me to shift focus away from the music (hello people, it’s opera) and left me cold, at least his focus has always been on engaging a live audience in the drama, not on good sight lines for the cameras.
Perhaps this new era of forced accessibilty as the haves and have nots move ever further away from each other will indeed be the only way that opera survives for a new generation. There are already a shrinking number of opera companies with ever-shrinking seasons. What can’t be denied though, is the loss of authenticity. How it looks, sounds and where your eyes get to choose to wander should still matter! Opera will be irrevocably changed forever if the directors hired to transform theatrical events into cinematic ones continue to deny the inherent principles of that live experience to their viewers.
Opera managers may be boasting about the new audiences gained, but I’m not sure that what those converts are responding to is the music. If you are not going to the opera to engage with the score in an appropriate, thoughtful and theatrically valid setting, but instead attending an event to see the latest directorial work of Mr. or Ms. X, then the musical days of opera are numbered. This grand amalgam of all the Arts must always begin and end with the music itself. Lets put the focus back on the singing and not on the concept. In the end, it is only the quality of the music that should and does count. If I have to choose between a soprano who can do gymnastics while twirling a baton on fire and one that can sing runs and real trills with expression and emotion in her voice while standing still, dead center stage, there simply is no contest. I’ll stick with my recordings and let my imagination do the gymnastics. That’s what a good director should do for his or her audience.