As many once-proud but dangerously underfunded opera houses contend with today’s changing audiences and tastes, it is increasingly indefensible to stage an opera without putting serious thought into its theatrical impact.
There was a line in an opera review I read a while ago that wouldn’t leave my head. In the larger-than-life Bregenz performance of Carmen, on a rather huge stage that sits atop a rather huge lake, the character of Carmen was required by her director to leap off the set and dive metres out into the water. The reviewer commented on it thusly: ‘Though there was a judicious use of a stunt person as Carmen escapes by jumping into the water and swimming away at the end of Act I, it is still amazing what a singer must do to earn a living these days’.
One thing struck me more than the eternal question of how to earn a living in the cash-strapped arts, a question that even gets its own opera (La bohème, of course). It is the fact that in staged operas in Europe of the last forty years, the theatre and the theatrics have played a larger and larger role. An obvious result, intended or not, is that the demands placed on singers have grown considerably. The stagings are more elaborate, take more license, and are often commented upon in the press and by audiences more than the music itself. A Salome needs to be able to dance, a Carmen needs to be an acrobat, and sooner or later someone is going to insist that the baritone singing William Tell actually master the crossbow. The orchestra in all of this is (relatively) sacrosanct, as are the score, the text, and most any aspect of the music. The rest, however, is up for grabs.
There are plenty who would argue that this development comes at a price, and one that many are angrily unwilling to pay – particularly in America. At its core, their objection sounds reasonable: that many modern stagings of operas, some of which, let’s admit, really are too clever by half, detract from or even ruin the original intent of the composer or librettist. Dismissing several modern theatrical productions as ‘Eurotrash’, plenty of opera fans cherish the practice, still common in the United States, of offering almost exclusively traditional stagings, with the word ‘traditional’ often serving as the English translation of the Italian term ‘Zeffirelli’. A Facebook group called ‘Against Modern Opera Productions’ has over 50,000 likes, and it regularly invites its members to mock pictures of zany-looking sets and costumes. In 2003, the estate of a Texas oil heiress even sued the Metropolitan Opera of New York, accusing it of misusing her donation for a non-traditional staging of Tristan und Isolde, against explicit instructions given under the terms of her gift. This is the same Met that, fairly or unfairly, is scoffed at in disbelief in some corners of Europe for its dusty old productions and its stubbornly nineteenth century repertoire.
If the loudest versions of this debate are to be believed, then there is an enormous divide in operatic tastes between Europe and America, with the British, as is so often the case, caught somewhere in the middle. As many opera houses struggle increasingly to fill seats, it is tempting to see the issue in binary terms, though the current state of opera so obviously isn’t just reducible to a matter of traditional vs. modern. The fight goes like this: either the harshest Eurotrash sceptics are onto something, and the low ticket sales prove their point about audience backlash against infuriating productions, or the Europeans are right, as demonstrated by reasonably strong or even very strong audience numbers in those cities that offer almost no traditional productions. I imagine that many opera devotees in Europe see their local companies as decades ahead of their hidebound American step-cousins.
I find I now have, almost despite myself, a dog in this fight. Having first studied opera in New Orleans, which was the first North American capital of the art form, I am increasingly saddened at the limitations that the New Orleans Opera Company faces; it stages only four productions a year, usually borrowed ones, for two performances each. The good news is that Verdi is Verdi (and Mozart is Mozart, and Rossini Rossini) no matter what continent the music is performed on, and no matter what costume the characters are wearing, and no matter what tricks the sets have up their sleeves. (In New Orleans, the answer is usually ‘very few’.) Extremely talented people devote their lives to this music all over the world, and the fact that a city like New Orleans has an opera company at all – several American metropolitan areas of similar size don’t – is a testament to their tirelessness and love of their craft. Yet now that I have been living in Europe for the last three years, I am reminded how paltry, how tedious the experience of live opera can be when the theatrical element is neglected, compared to the embarrassment of theatrical riches available to me here.
Three performances from last week alone in Zurich prove my point. I could just as easily use experiences I have had in Helsinki (with an absolutely lovely Cunning Little Vixen) or Stockholm (with an astute and moving Parsifal) or Lyon (a full-on Japanese Nō production of Britten’s Curlew River that I will never forget). Given, though, that Zurich’s company staged three different Italian operas with three superb productions over five nights last week, what better way to make the case that theatre is absolutely essential to the future of opera? They showed what opera is capable of, even in overperformed works from core repertory, when opera’s theatrical potential is so intelligently embraced.
Take Jan Philipp Gloger’s production of Vivaldi’s La verità in cimento (The Truth on Trial), which premiered in Zurich in 2015 but was brought back last week due to its popularity: his approach was to set the story in the modern era, giving the well-heeled Swiss audience a view of their own world and showing in fresh and jarring ways how Vivaldi’s characters could be at home in 2018. The opera itself, a dramma per musica, was not just trimmed but partly rearranged – so much for sacrosanct music – with the all’s-well-that-ends-well lieto fine removed, and a final aria-switcharoo that would make Tin Pan Alley songwriters for a 20’s-era musical blush (Gloger found the conventional ending too boring, so he simply stole another aria from L’incoronazione di Dario).
The programme notes were insightful: conductor Ottavio Dantone argued for a ‘philological’ reading of the score. This was a production that, both on the stage and in the pit, was committed above all to its task of conveying meaning to its audience, not just to playing historical music. The music came out all the better for it.
Gloger and his team dispense entirely with the orientalist harem of the original story. (A line that Mozart is made to say in Amadeus comes to mind: ‘Which one of you wouldn’t rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules?’) They give us not a sultan but a wealthy banker-type (Mamud). Read the following plot synopsis of Vivaldi’s original story and ask yourself whether this subject matter doesn’t lend itself to our day and age.
Mamud switched his two sons at birth, the one born in wedlock, the other conceived with his housekeeper. His wife (Rustena), meanwhile, is none the wiser, because she’s a bit dim. The two sons love the same woman (Rosane), but the one raised in wealth gets to marry her; the one raised by the housekeeper (Damira) has to watch. Damira doesn’t love the son she raised (Zelim) because she knows about the switch; she loves her birth son (Melindo), the one raised in conjugal wealth. Rosane, the bride-to-be, loves Melindo, but in her sentiment is unable to cut off Zelim, and when patriarch Mamud finally tries to set things aright, she vacillates between the two sons, uncertain which one stands to inherit his father’s vast wealth.
Melodrama, sure, but ripe for theatric picking. Gloger’s version of Damira the cunning housekeeper is a bleak one, his emo Zelim bleaker still; his dopey-wealthy-housewife Rustena is trapped in her jewels and perm, his Melindo is violent and entitled, and his version of father Mamud is painfully naive, as many rich men are when it comes to their families. Is this Regietheater run amok? Well, let me put it this way: you try setting this story as a light comedy with a few melancholy arias, sticking with some guessed-at Venetian notion of an Ottoman harem, and see how many people are in your audience. According to Operabase there has been only a single Vivaldi opera performed in the entire United States in the last two years, traditional staging or otherwise. Meanwhile, the (small) Zurich opera house was at least seventy percent full on a Tuesday night for this version, which, I repeat, is a revival from four years ago.
Could this production have misfired? Sure; Gloger and Dantone took several risks. But the applause was hearty and heartfelt. An opera that in a strictly traditional telling could have ended up resembling Aladdin instead has all the weight of Ibsen and all the humour of Buñuel. More important is that you don’t need to be an opera buff to enjoy it; the theatre of the thing spoke for itself, and Vivaldi sounded great.
It doesn’t hurt that Zurich gave birth to the Orchestra La Scintilla, the Baroque specialists who delivered Vivaldi’s score with trademark grit and grace. Countertenor Christophe Dumaux brought an Olympic vocal athleticism to his trills and arpeggios when singing Melindo. The young mezzo Deniz Uzun (in a pants role as Zelim) had an astonishing warmth and poise to her sound, making me eager to follow her budding career. Yet some of the singing was far too quiet even for Zurich’s small house, particularly that of contralto Delphine Galou, whose acting, however, deserves a Tony. The set, an impressive slide rule of adjoining rooms, may have forced the singers too far upstage.
Too far upstage? Because of the production? It is not lost on me that this plea for more theatre in opera has just casually conceded one of the main criticisms against Regietheater: that the wrong production can mar the singing, which is ostensibly opera’s raison d’être. The point is a valid one, which is why one shouldn’t reject complaints against modern productions out of hand; some of the ones accused on the anti-modern Facebook group of being Eurotrash do indeed look stupid.
The idea is to aid and enhance the musical storytelling, not usurp it. My argument is not in favour of total license on the part of directors. It is not one that is fundamentally opposed to restraint and taste. The core of it is simply that we must demand more boldness of vision in productions – that we all need more will for imagination, directors and singers and audiences alike.
Take Barrie Kosky’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth, another revival from 2015 that runs for two more performances this month: the abstract set isn’t revolutionary, but more than any other opera staging I’ve yet seen, it uses the stage to ‘show’ the psychological essence of the music. The result is not somehow the perfect marriage between drama and music; instead, it’s a way to use the dramatic telling of potentially ossified music to render that music more freshly.
For example: Act II, Scene 7. The coronation banquet. Opera loves banquets, and Verdi’s music for the tragedy of Macbeth consists of essentially the same musical vocabulary as in The Barber of Seville, but his task here is to depict a musical horror show of omens. This is a bit like commissioning a protégé of Monet to paint ‘Guernica’ – there would seem to be a ceiling on how drastic a scene could be yielded. Now, Verdi’s music is indeed powerful. He alternates forcefully between the ‘Si colmi il calice’ aria, in which Lady Macbeth tries with increasing desperation to celebrate her husband’s assumption of the Scottish throne, and Macbeth’s terror at the apparition of Banquo, when he sings ‘Va, spirto d’abisso!’ But Renaissance-fair costumes and rudimentary staging aren’t going to crack open your soul to direct experience here. We’ve all been to an opera where the Big Emotions coming from the stage don’t make it past the orchestra pit.
What does Kosky do? For a banquet table, he and set designer Klaus Grünberg use an oblong of unforgiving white light far downstage. That same oblong stands elsewhere in the opera for any number of things, as needed by the story: the throne of Scotland; conscious thought, surrounded on all sides by some monstrous id; vain hope, embraced by threat; power, with a moat of violence. A simple device, and all the terrible grandeur of this scene is made visceral.
Kosky and Grünberg have figured out that if Verdi’s music is limited in its ability to menace our overfed modern ears, then they can build a scene that doesn’t compete with the music, but frames it, frames it so tightly and darkly that you can only hear those sounds that reinforce the power on the stage. At no point does this production indulge any temptation to break with this tightness, either. Even at the beginning of the fourth act, when the tuneful, syrupy pathos of Macduff’s aria ‘Ah, la paterna mano’, gorgeous as it is, threatens to snap the audience’s focus from the abstracted wasteland before it, the oblong of light doesn’t budge.
Neither does the audience. At the performance I heard last week, an entire school class of Swiss teenagers was in attendance, sitting in the parterre, chewing gum, taking selfies, and giggling during the overture. Great, I thought, it’s going to be a long night. Once the story started, not a peep: over 40 young people were utterly tuned in.
The performers, too, married excellent singing with excellent acting. Baritone Markus Brück reprised his title role here, risking a mortified breathlessness in near-spoken vocal lines that nevertheless stayed integrated in his most excellent dramatic singing. Soprano Tatiana Serjan gave the listener goose bumps in the ‘Si colmi il calice’ aria mentioned before. I found her vibrato a bit overcooked in her early singing, but as the story descended into hell, her singing followed suit with marvellous power. Her final madness was utterly chilling. Wenwei Zhang’s Banquo and David Junghoon Kim’s Macduff were equally well sung.
A final case study: Take Ole Anders Tandberg’s production of Puccini’s La bohème. If the production of the Vivaldi mentioned above shows the potential power of a modern staging, and if Kosky’s Macbeth typifies the best of abstract staging, then this production meets them somewhere in the middle, and beyond.
Let’s start with the music, which was conducted with great verve and care by Speranza Scappucci. Guanqun Yu’s Mimì was acted and sung with plain sincerity; her voice was not sweepingly legato but this served her character’s timidity, as did her beautifully vulnerable upper tessitura. Yuriy Yurchuk’s Marcello was full of subtle dynamics and well-conveyed friendship, and the same could be said of Huw Montague Rendall’s very affecting Schaunard. Stanislav Vorobyov sang as Colline a perfect Act IV coat aria (‘Vecchia zimarra, senti’), atmospheric and intimate and bold. As for Benjamin Bernheim’s Rodolfo, I can start by repeating what I wrote in my notes: ‘Holy shit’. He found a sound that was at once sour, clean, full and sincere. His lanced his voice into elated fortes when he met Mimì, and its top had an aching, ringing purity. The next time I see the name Bernheim on a playbill, I’m there.
But to be honest, I am far more excited about the way it was staged, because this, too, was something of a revelation. A hundred daring and darling little touches constantly threaten kitsch in this production, and, never crossing the line, lend it all instead a most glorious sense of play. They don’t all work, mind you, some flourishes fall flat; but the staging is always hooking us in. Tandberg’s La bohème is sweetly human, extraordinarily full of charm and simple compassion.
For one thing, he gets there by showing real people who are full of life – until this production I don’t think I ever realised just how witty and nimble the Act I banter is between Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline and Schaunard as they burn their own artwork. Watching them was like watching I Vitelloni or a good episode of Friends that doesn’t exist. The other element that feeds the success of this production is its poignant transitions from reality to dream. Upstage landscapes of yearned-for peace begin to appear behind the crackling downstage doldrums of real starving artists, and by the fourth act the two have blurred together.
Mimì arrives in Act I through a simple wooden door that stands alone, unconnected to any wall, summoned as if through the will of Rodolfo’s imagination, and supporting the line in the libretto that ‘in te ravviso il sogno ch’io vorrei sempre sognar’ (‘in you I find the dream I always wished to dream’). The dreaminess of reality, for that is exactly what a burst of early love is, gives a cathartic softening of the blow felt at Mimì’s slow demise – until that same door closes in the end, extinguishing both life and dream. What artistic sleight of hand is that, to flesh out the pathos, almost via confrontation, without lingering in weepiness or despair?
And again, the performers here, who let’s not forget are first and foremost élite singers who have been developing their voices for decades by this point, were capable enough actors to carry out their director’s vision. It makes you wonder whether too little is asked, not too much, of those singers we see performing in the operas that manage to put us to sleep.
‘Yes’, you say, ‘but Zurich is filthy rich [point conceded], what are smaller companies to do, in cities where UBS and Credit Suisse aren’t headquartered?’ My answer is that while razzle-dazzle certainly has a high price tag, artistic creativity doesn’t always have to. (Obviously, paying good orchestras and singers and set designers and stage crew is still a major expense. Nobody is saying this stuff is easy.) How many university theatre departments produce graduates who would positively salivate at the chance to take more risks, to try more ideas on the stage, even on familiarly low budgets? Have another look: the Macbeth mentioned above doesn’t look like it broke the bank. How many members of the audience wouldn’t rather a simpler production that was intelligent and gripping over a lavish one that plods along like so many camels in the desert? Is the status quo only a result of lacking money or also one of lacking will?
No less a figure than German composer Kurt Weill, when he left Nazi Germany for the United States, argued in 1937 that it was Europe where opera was stagnating, and that it was America that showed the way forward. The following appeared in the long-defunct American journal Modern Music. It is worth quoting Weill’s thoughts on these matters at some length:
What we have known for years in Europe is even more applicable here. The concept of opera cannot be interpreted in the narrow sense that was prevalent in the nineteenth century. If we substitute the term ‘music theatre,’ the possibilities for development here [in America], in a country not burdened with an opera tradition, become much clearer.
And, taking the words right out of my mouth:
The existence of opera was endangered because it was too well safeguarded, because it was intended for a too narrowly prescribed public. Its production demanded great subsidies which in the course of time had a detrimental effect on inner structure. The contents of the librettos drew farther away from the realities of life, from the simple natural relations between people, and lost themselves in artificial, false emotions, in a meaningless world of kings, knights and princesses, or in pure symbolism.
Why was Weill so confident in American society’s ability to perpetuate the tradition of opera into a new era? Because of America’s tradition of musical theatre, and because of its being ‘unburdened’ from tradition and allowing for more invention.
What is the future of opera, if not theatre? Is it new compositions? Sure, yes, obviously – but those need to be staged well, too. Is it better singing? Maybe, and I would certainly love to hear a great spinto soprano before I die – but singers alone cannot grow and maintain an audience. Singers who are celebrities are good fauna for opera’s flora, but your guess is as good as mine about how to turn an opera singer into a household name in the age of Instagram. And another thing: what percentage of the average opera audience is really splitting hairs about which singer’s blending of head and chest voices is smoother, or whose staccato sixteenth notes are more or less appropriate to an aria, or whatever else it is that we critics get worked up about? Audiences like opera for stories and singing, and no live opera can wash its hands of its job to tell a story as best it can.
Is it better use of existing repertoire? That’s a matter for debate; as I argued above, the best productions bring out the best in any music, regardless. I sympathise with the creative team in an opera house that is under pressure to keep their faithful patrons happy, even as those patrons’ numbers dwindle to old age, while simultaneously trying to earn the respect of other music fans via less-familiar repertoire. Too much Gounod, and younger audiences literally lose the plot. Too much Janáček (let’s pretend for a moment that there is such a thing), and a company would likely go broke from empty seats. Of course it’s ridiculous that in opera and in opera alone, works are considered new and exciting if they are ‘only’ a hundred years old. But then I’m not the one who has to balance the books.
What if the future of opera is decline? Could YouTube and Spotify or the next new platform kill live opera, or do they, if anything, stoke an addiction? Could the anti-government American right kill opera by sucking it dry of necessary state funding? Could decline come in the form of the Spaßgesellschaft, or rather the Verblödungsgesellschaft, as the great conductor Günter Wand described it, the increasing need for everything to be easy and fun, fun to the point of mental enfeeblement? That’s a question for another essay but indulge me through the following prognostication of literature’s future, offered in 1996 by American novelist Don DeLillo in a letter to Jonathan Franzen. The two despaired at what they viewed as their great genre’s decline, and sought a silver lining when thinking of its future. As a thought experiment, I have replaced the word ‘novel’ with ‘opera’, replaced ‘writing’ with ‘music’, and replaced ‘writer’ with ‘director’.
The opera is whatever directors are doing at a given time. … The director leads, he doesn’t follow. The dynamic lives in the director’s mind, not in the size of the audience. And if the opera lives, but only barely, surviving in the cracks and ruts of the culture, maybe it will be taken more seriously, as an endangered spectacle. A reduced context but a more intense one.
It’s worth posing the question whether this ‘reduced context but more intense one’ is something actually to strive for, assuming we think we see some sort of tunnel coming at the end of the light, assuming our beloved art form is growing increasingly obscure. I’m not sure it is, but the risk is always there, and of the many things the twentieth century taught us, the most important lesson here is that the most violent developments of humankind can almost annihilate entire modes of creation. Almost.