What’s Happening to Opera?
Something happened to the world of opera while I wasn’t paying close attention during those thirty years I was directing musical theater. The art form about which I am most passionate has been undergoing something of a “sea change,” and I – along with many others – find it disturbing.
During the fifteen years I lived in Cincinnati – first as a student at the College-Conservatory of Music, later as a wife and mother – I spent many memorable hours at the Cincinnati Summer Opera. In those days the opera was performed in a pavilion in the Zoological Gardens, and it was a wonderful and unique experience.
I heard some incredible singers. Some world famous, very great singers – some whose careers were winding down, but who still packed a punch: Risë Stevens, Charles Kullman, Jan Peerce, Licia Albanese, Italo Tajo. As time passed, I heard some young up-and-coming singers who had a future … chief among them, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes. I heard and saw Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle in their prime. I don’t really know how many operas I saw, but it was a bunch.
Some of the performances I saw in the mid-nineteen fifties were probably a little shabby, with set pieces that could have used some paint and costumes that were one step away from the trash bin, but they worked. They showcased the music and the amazing singers. The orchestra was excellent, the chorus quite good. The costumes, sets, and staging changed over time. Eventually, I saw a few more contemporary operas. I saw the handiwork of the great director Tito Capobianco, who was definitely a forward-thinker, but whose passion and reverence for opera was always apparent.
Passion and reverence for opera. Opera is a magnificent art form and deserving of that. Some of the world’s greatest composers provided us, the audience, with works of musical theater – for that is essentially what opera is – which fill our ears and eyes, our minds, our hearts, our souls. Through these stories that unfolded on the stage, we looked into the past in a way that is seldom possible. And we loved what we heard and saw.
Opera is undoubtedly the most expensive of all art forms to produce. Consequently, there must be an audience. In Europe, it seems the audience is there: opera is a part of the European culture and tradition as it is not in this country, and that is our loss. Without question, there needs to be a way to make opera more appealing to more people.
Please notice I said appealing. Generally the word more often used is accessible. There has appeared over the past three decades in the world of opera, beginning in Europe and spreading across the pond to our shores, a new thought about how opera should achieve this. The argument is that operas should be re-imagined, that directors can take a creative work and in order to make it more interesting, layer it with their own “creative” thoughts, thus sometimes making it all but unrecognizable.
Tradition: when I speak of tradition, I certainly don’t mean to suggest opera should be produced as it was in the nineteenth century with painted flats and none of the great staging that can be achieved in today’s theaters. I am very much in favor of any theater using the best and most up-to-date technology available and affordable. Tradition is a great thing, as are respect and passion. Keeping this in mind, it’s possible to successfully stage a much-loved opera in a new way. Taking a beautiful, treasured painting and lighting it differently, giving it a new setting and background, perhaps a new frame, enhances the painting – without altering it.
There seem to be some directors working today who believe their responsibility is to point out the underlying meaning in the opera, to find in the work that which makes it meaningful in today’s world, to search for “symbolism.” But these works were written in another age, and the composer had no clue what the world would be like in the twenty-first century. This symbolism, it would seem, exists solely in the mind of the director – and in that case, the director is ignoring one great rule of theater.
As a director, we serve the play. Or the opera, or the musical show. Our vision needs to be based on what we find in the text and the music, and sometimes even in the stage directions the composer has provided. If we start to speculate on what the composer might have meant, we have broken that rule and are now imposing our own flights of fancy on a work of art. We’ve taken that treasured painting and covered it with another layer of paint which presents a totally different concept. At worst, we’ve smeared it with excrement. And that seems to be what is happening more and more often in opera world.
Many much more eloquent people than I have written at length about this. Heather MacDonald’s carefully considered treatise, “The Abduction of Opera,” is well worth reading. The Europeans have a phrase for it: Regietheater, or “Director’s Theater.” You can Google it and read about it and draw your own conclusions, as I have. It seems to me much is dependent on the integrity of each director. You can also draw your own conclusions about that.
Opera will survive this, I’ve no doubt. But I hesitate to encourage people who’ve never seen opera to attend a live performance of some of the productions I’ve read about, most recently the Met’s production this past season of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. I think they would find them confusing and strange. It seems to me that sometimes what is seen on the stage is at odds with what the words and music are intended to convey. And when that happens, it ceases to be the opera which the composer wrote. That can’t be a good thing.
When I listened to the Saturday afternoon broadcast of Un ballo in maschera recently, I didn’t have to watch the strange things asked of the cast – the chorus in particular – which made absolutely no sense. I just listened to the wonderful music and appreciated what a genius Mr. Verdi was, and how beautifully it was performed by singers and orchestra.
That’s the sad part. Opera is meant to be visual as well as aural. Sight and Sound. Let’s hope the sight comes back and joins the sound before too much more time passes.
Un ballo in maschera, Act III, Chicago Lyric Opera, 2010