Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Myths of the Traditionalists, or: Being Offended Does Not Make You Right (A musical huff in five parts)

1) Directors reënvisioning canonical works do not do so because they think the work isn't good enough to hold our interest. I'm particularly weary of the "what, Figaro isn't good enough for you?" cavil. It's either disingenuous or intellectually lazy.

2) Art that we don't fully understand is not meant to belittle us. I have never been able to make much sense of what's going on in that one bit of Act II of Nixon in China but I'm pretty sure Peter Sellars and Alice Goodman are not sitting in a bar somewhere laughing about me. Actually Alice Goodman is now a priest or something so maybe she is not allowed to drink in the first place. I don't really know the rules.

3) It is possible to have good ideas for directing opera without having a musicologist's understanding of the score or decades of experience in opera. Purely subjective example here, but Mark Morris is musically literate enough that he has conducted an orchestra, and if you ask me, his Orfeo shows no evidence of an aesthetic connection with the work outside of the dance sections and no evident feel for coherent stage pictures on the level of place as opposed to person. Whereas I don't believe Anthony Minghella was even a musician, and I'm fairly certain Butterfly was his first opera, and it remains the finest production perhaps of the decade, certainly of the Gelb era so far.

4) It is not a slippery slope from doing a radical restaging to rewriting your beloved opera. That is really not likely to happen. I'm sure someone did it somewhere, gerbilling! That does not mean you need to hide at home lest someone sneak up on you with a rodent/a version of Andrea Chenier where the text has been replaced by Dadaist found poetry from the C section of the Pittsburgh phone book.

and of course

5) That old production you are so fond of is not the embodiment of the composer's wishes. Nothing is, and nothing should be. I have already bitched about this but I'll say a few words more: performed art is dynamic and involves interpretation. That old production of La Gioconda you love loses none of its creaky charm and will be fondly remembered even if someone decides maybe there are other ways Gioconda might look.

I get that this probably sounds preachy. If you feel preached at and are thus turned off and the more entrenched in your traditionalism, then this was a stupid thing to write. Fortunately, the seven people who read this tend to agree with me on this kind of thing, so I think no harm is done.


An Actual Puccini Scholar said...

The comment section of Parterre keeps crashing my browser but, at risk of being redundant, can I also point out that a lot of the "original intentions" of Tosca's authors were a) wrong b) widely mocked by Roman audiences in 1900. Like, Puccini originally got the name of the church in the first act wrong, and there's nowhere to build a well behind it anyway. And didn't Sardou want to relocate the Tiber so that it flowed suggestively between the Castel and St. Peter's? Given this, the whole FZ authenticity thing seems a little misguided. Not that I can afford to see the Bondy...

Ernani Involami said...

You know, and I'm not just saying this because you made the Dada comment, but I really want to replace the "Giusto Ciel!" monologue in Adriana with sound poetry. I hope that won't upset you too much, as it would certainly give the traditionalist some much needed ammunition. But other than that, I think we should get married. I think point 2 especially hits the nail on the head.

Fan of Wagner's Works said...

Although I would probably be classified as a “traditionalist”, I must say that I am in not necessarily against the idea of any sort of modernization or “reënvisionment” of operas; I think that there are certainly times in which changing the time period in which an opera (or any other sort of theatrical work, at that) is set can be quite effective. However, I think that the criteria for judging whether or not productions of this sort are successful or not should be whether or not the process of changing the work from its original form to that which appears onstage diminishes any sort of experience which a standard, “traditional” production would provide. If, for example, setting Gianni Schicchi in the early twentieth century, as opposed to during the renaissance, somehow adds to the overall humor of the work, but does not in any way interfere with the enjoyment which any member of the audience may receive from the original work itself, then it is perfectly justifiable.
Unfortunately, however, it would seem that only a small portion of productions of this sort (or at least those which I have seen) have such constructive effects. It would seem that most modern productions involve taking some sort of interpretation which the director has drawn from the work and treating it as the exclusive focus of the performance. If the director was able to draw some sort of personal insight from the original work, should it not be possible for the audience to do so also? Anyway, discussion of this sort is the type that should happen before and after performances or during intermissions, not during the work itself; essentially, when a director makes a major change to a work so as to make a point, it is as though they were shouting out their interpretation during the performance. I do not reject any of the possible interpretations which may stem from a work, however I do not think that any one of them should, in a production, be favored at the expense of any other. An opera is a work of art which every individual views in their own unique way; when a director creates such a production, they force the audience to look at it through their own tinted lens.

Dan Johnson said...

Oh but don't you see, Puccini Scholar, when a singer, composer or writer takes a liberty, it's called "artistic license." When a director takes a liberty, it's apparently a goddam war crime.

An Actual Puccini Scholar said...

Thanks, DSJ, I'd forgotten that. Recondita controversia, for an opera about the dangers of confusing life with art!

Opera Geek said...

Hooray for the voice of reason! Thanks, Maury.

I am by no means a traditionalist, but I have to admit that Fan of Wagner's Works makes an important point. I have have seen several "creative" interpretations where the director got wrapped around the axle about some minor plot quibble, leaving the audience scratching their heads.

Case in point was Lyric Opera of Chicago's Rigoletto of about 10 years ago, which was turned into a really unpleasant feminist screed. Yeah, I get that the duke is a raging misogynist, but to focus solely on that one facet of the plot to the detriment of all others does injustice to a rich and detailed storyline. That one deserved to be booed, and was.

That said, the reaction to last two big Met "sacrileges" should an embarrassment to fans of the art. Sonnambula was wonderfully funny (esp. the "Aria" bit that offended so many), and the directorial conceit of the show-within-a-show was no more confounding than the "traditional" staging. I have not seen the new Tosca yet, but based on what I have heard and read it sounds like someone is finally interpreting the "shabby little shocker" as such, and that's great!

Every time I hear some toffee-nosed snob rant about how terrible [insert any name but Callas here] is, or how any tweaking of the traditional staging is an assault to the senses, it makes me wonder...

Can opera be saved from the operaphiles?

jfmurray3 said...

1) I have wondered if directors revisioning canonical works think the work isn't good enough to hold their interest. (I just assumed they wouldn't care about what would hold my interest.) I had wondered if Zimmerman's grad school deconstruction of La Sonnambula was her way of saying "I don't much care for this opera, but let's see how far we can take it in the next few hours while we bullshit about a nonsensical concept, and then let's see if Gelb is desperate enough to pay for it." I wish bad productions were passionately conceived and badly born. I fear most are badly conceived and indifferently born.

2) Art that we don't fully understand is not meant to belittle us. I used to adhere to the adage "If I don't understand it, it must be brilliant", and that the flaw was in me and not the art. Now, with a grander ego, I think that art I can't wrap my mind around is flawed. So, I suppose I need more humility.

3) What Mark Morris and Anthony Minghella seemed to share was a love of opera, a respect for its history, and the delight in telling a story. That joy came through brightly and loudly. I loved both Orfeo and Butterfly.

4) Radical restagings should be treated as palate cleansers. They declutter your mind of stale ideas, and then when you see another non-radical restaging, you will be even more open to it. I still think that all of this griping about staging missed the big point - if the opera does not succeed when you are in the house with your eyes closed or your eyes watching the pit, then it cannot succeed in any way visually. First, the music...

and of course

5) That old production you are so fond of is not the embodiment of the composer's wishes. But it might have been, for you, a perfect synthesis of composer's ideas (NOT wishes) - the director's ideas - and your mind's openness to engage with both. Don't dismiss beloved old productions. They epitomize the moment one fell in love with a piece. Sometimes new productions are like dating after a bad breakup. These dates can be awkward, impossible to see non-critically, and hard to wrap your mind and heart around. It takes a few dates before one can get back into the game, although the first love will always be prominent. Let's get rid of Bondy soon and get a new Tosca. It doesn't seem that hard to stage. (Certainly it does not seem hard to stage badly.)


Anonymous said...

Hi Maury,
I'm looking forward to the HD - I can't see the live, but the encore, and I'm expecting to like it well enough. I loved Sonnambula last year after all the griping, so I tend to make up my own mind about these things. And there are sometimes parts where I scratch my head, but for the most part, I can be pretty accepting of most of it. I'm really looking forward to this.

Kathy Boyce

Maury D'annato said...

Agh, so many things to respond to. One that sticks out, though, for some reason...JFMurray: in #5, I'm afraid you've misunderstood me. I'm not saying you have to like the production. I'm really specifically saying that when people call a production bad because it ignores the author's intentions, they are making a bad argument. I'm really not the champion of revisionist productions, at least not in any dogmatic way. I like the Zef Turandot a whole lot. But not becaause I think Puccini would have wanted it that way. I don't care what he would have wanted, and I can't know anyway.

Maury D'annato said...

Thanks for the extra insight, Puccini Scholar. Maybe go in the Spring part of the run, which isn't sold out, and just get Family Circle, or $20 rush if they're doing that this year, or hey, maybe if all the wailing leads people to avoid the production, you can get student tix, as it sounds like you may be a student. I'm not saying to beg borrow or steal to see this. There are better things to see this season. But if you're intrigued by the to-do over it, or if you just want to see it because you're an Actual Puccini Scholar, I bet you can.

Maury D'annato said...

Fan of Wagner, while I am glad of your reasonable tone, I think we still disagree in the end. It seems to me that what you say still, albeit in a more nuanced way than the people I'm ostensibly addressing with this post, makes a false distinction. You write: "when a director creates such a production, they force the audience to look at it through their own tinted lens." But this is really what all directors do; it's just that the vision of some of them feels intrusive to you and to a lot of people. Zeffirelli, at risk fo making him the all-purpose face of traditionalism, forced an audience to look at operas through his own tinted lens as well. It's just a lens they're used to looking through, so they think it's no lens at all.

Maury D'annato said...

Kathy, sounds like the right attitude to me. Nobody's asking anyone to love every production that comes down the pike, just to go in ready to possibly love it.

Maury D'annato said...

Ernani: well and I know that I wouldn't mind if the entirety of Fidelio were replaced with a concert of Mariachi music, but I'm not expecting to get my way on that.

rapt said...

"It's just a lens they're used to looking through, so they think it's no lens at all."

Brilliantly encapsulated, Maury! From your lips to, if not God's ear, then the ears of all divos and divas in the audience.

An Actual Puccini Scholar said...

Thanks, Maury. As a general rule, Actual Puccini Scholars are too proud to sit in Family Circle. They spend their evenings grasping at fellowships through clouds of cigarette smoke, and dreaming about that time they got to sit next to Mercedes Bass.

Maury D'annato said...

Gurl (he said, trying to soften an earnest message with camp), real opera fans are not too proud to sit in family circle. Why, back when I was a pup I stood through Boris G at the matinee and Barbiere the same evening! Granted, yes, I am thrilled that I don't have to stand anymore, but it's been a long journey through the valley of the dolls down into the occasional balcony seat.

An Actual Puccini Scholar said...

Well said, and fair enough! But if I'm spending any of my not-terribly-hard-earned cash, I'd like more than a measly three prostitutes!

La Cieca said...

And may I just add: sing it, sister!

Will said...

Bravo, Maury--you and I are both saying the same thing, albeit each in his own way. And you say it very well.

Squirrel said...

Intelligent post. Without coming across like I'm not listening, allow me a Gegensatz:

Five Myths of the Directors-Opera Directors:

1. All "Traditional" productions are the same. There is only ONE way to stage a work in its originally intended, literal manner. Once you are sick of it, you've got to re-invent the plot details and mine the story to exploit some contemporary neurosis.

2. Spare and simple sets are inherently more interesting than detailed, grand ones.

3. Director's Opera is the future, and we'd better get with it because, if not, the Met will be left behind, forever encased in some culturally irrelevant jar of formaldehyde.

4. In order to identify with the passion and complexity and irony of the characters in a story, the work must be updated to a more recent setting. Otherwise the poor audience won't "feel" anything. (As if the music is good for nothing here.)

5. As long as I've tinkered with the two or three neurotic minutiae that I find useful, and conveyed this to the singers, they don't need to actually be blocked or "directed" because, really, isn't it so much better to just show up for the staging rehearsals and let them do their thing? I mean, don't they usually just come up with much better ideas on their own while the postmodernist lazy ass director sits back and congratulates them, rather than actually instructing them? (Well, it makes the director more popular anyway, and increases his chances of a re-engagement).

Maury D'annato said...

Squirrel, while I'm never one to say no to a good Gegensatz, I'm going to take issue with some of what you've said. Most specifically your item 4, in regard to which I refer you to my item 1, because I'm like that. :) You're imagining a rationale that I think is self-serving for making your argument, and I think not likely held by a lot of directors.

That all traditional productions are not the same is a point well taken, and probably one I'm guilty of ignoring. And yes, by all means, one would love to see evidence of some direction on the level of actor rather than setting, which does seem to get short shrift some of the time, but I think that's not exclusively true of "concept" productions.

Point 3 is interesting to me...I do think this is probably part of the Gestalt of the Gelb Met, and I think it's the question that interests me most in all of this because I feel it's the least settled. There really is some case to be made for an evolving theatrical sense as a draw for new audiences. Whether the Met has actually found that or aimed for it and substituted something else is not, I think, something that can be answered in absolute terms.

Squirrel said...

Hi Maury -
I am glad we (mostly) agree. As for my number 4, I don't think I'm making a self-serving argument at all.

When interviewed, directors will wax ON AND ON about the universality of the themes and the immediacy of the score. But the opera gets transposed forward several centuries anyway!

(Your Number 1 point is a different, wholly irrelevant problem. I concede that it is indeed a myth, this idea that directors re-set and re-envision operas out of hatred for them. But they also seem to distrust the audience to see the universality in the characters.)

Each generation should get a chance to re-imagine a faithful, accurate, and classic version of these repertory works. Rosenkavalier at the Vienna State Opera, created in 1969, looks positively sixties, like a visit to grandma's house, in spite of being set in the proper (1720s) era. The gaudy Zeffirelli Tosca looks positively 1980's, as well.

It's so much more interesting to see the Zeitgeist manifest in the DETAILS of a production; when designers and directors must flaunt their ability to attune their work to the times, they show how poor and thin their art has become.

kitty said...

I wouldn't mind the new interpretation that actually made sense. But very few of them do. It seems like in many cases in these new productions the stories are moved from one period to the next for the sole purpose of creating something new. Or maybe because directors lack imagination to create new and interesting production set in the original time and place. What exactly was the purpose, for example, of moving the time of Lucia in MZ production? So that photography is already invented and we are unable to actually listen to the sextette without distractions? And by the way, some of us do speak Italian, how are we supposed to understand "Spento il Guglielmo, accendere vedremo al trono Maria" as related to Enrico's political problems in the new time/place? Did MZ bother to actually read the libretto or did she just go by synopsis? Do words matter anyway?

Some other new and creative things don't make sense in these productions. Like Tosca - whoever Scarpia is, he is still catholic, he is still Italian, and in this production he lives in Napoleonic times. Fine, but can anybody who has any kind of knowledge of history - which seems so rare nowadays - to imagine an Italian catholic in the 19th century trying to hug the madonna? He may be a villain, but he is still a catholic.

The characters' sensibilities in an opera or any story written at some time in the past generally reflects this time; so do the words. In fact, if one actually knows the words and not just synopsis, than one notices a whole lot more things that don't make sense in these productions. Now, some stories may work fine in other periods but not others. Imagine a Jane Austen novel with completely unchanged dialog set in modern times. A lot of back story and characters' sensibilities not to mention words (when "making love" actually means sitting and chatting) just don't make sense anywhere else.

Or take La Traviata. Alfredo's sister cannot get married because her brother is involved with a courtesan. Yes, this sure makes sense today. Also, what exactly is the modern equivalent of 19th century French courtesans, part of French demi-monde? They aren't prostitutes. They aren't selling themselves every night to a different man - they are kept women that can live for months supported by a single rich man who wouldn't be at all happy if his kept woman cheated on him; not much different in fact from a rich man's girlfriends. They are also women from a society where the only two ways for a poor girl to survive - be a servant or be a courtesan. Turn Violetta into a prostitute, and the whole character is changed as well as the whole story.

I also don't buy the argument that we don't know what life was like in these periods. We may not know it in the opera set in some ancient times, but from 15th centuries onwards, we could find zillion of literary works that can provide plenty of insight.

Nope, the directors don't need to be expert in music. But listening to the music at least once to understand the emotions and also to notice moments when public may just want to listen and not be distracted would be nice. Also, maybe reading the libretto. Maybe also understanding historical context a bit. A director doesn't need to be an expert, but is it too much to expect for him or her to do a bit of homework?

I also don't buy that new productions are likely to bring new audiences to opera. Opera is music first. There are people today who just don't like operatic singing. They aren't going to go to an opera no matter what. There are people that would've liked operatic music had they were exposed to it - the way to reach this people is by exposing them to operatic music. And then there are people who like opera - these people go to opera to listen to music. As to new high concept productions - they can put off just as many people from opera as they can bring in.

squirrel said...

I just finally saw The Tosca tonight and so naturally I'm aching to fight with somebody over it. I'm dealing mainly with the production, not the cast nor music.

The production does not seem like a fair trade. It seems too lacking in balls to be daring or inventive. Really it's offensive not for being new or shocking but rather for seeming directionless and empty.

Also I have to take issue with the gaudy and tasteless second act. I side with the several reviewers who found Scarpia's sex den a bit condescending. Scarpia is so much more interesting as a villain than just a hedonist who gets fellated in a la-z-boy.

And may I please point out that the emperor has no clothes? What is the point of anachronistic sets? Scandinavian modern furniture and bright velour? Accent walls??? I'm sorry but Bondy and his team are obviously way over my head here. Or perhaps they are even over their own heads.

The jump was cool. You just don't think she's really going to do it, it's so high, and then she starts to and you say OH SHIT! REALLY?!... and then FREEZE! I liked it.