“Tradition” Doesn’t Equate to “Stagnant”
There are those in the world of opera today who consider presenting a “traditional” staging of a work the equivalent of being a “museum curator.” My reaction to this is that these people do not understand anything about opera.
Opera is a vibrant, living art form. It takes place only when all the elements are put into motion as the composer intended. First and foremost, these men of the theater – Mozart, Verdi, Puccini among them ─ had a great appreciation for the human voice, that most perfect of instruments. No other instrument speaks to the listener as the voice can; and in order to sing opera, singers put themselves through many years of dedicated, difficult, strenuous, sometimes heartbreaking training. They make sacrifices as few people do. They live to sing.
For over thirty-five years, I have worked with probably hundreds of people who wanted to improve their singing voice, and I can say this with authority: every voice is unique. I tell my students early on, “Your instrument is your entire body.” It’s actually more: it’s mind, body, and that third element which I refer to as soul. The mind helps them understand their instrument, which is produced through muscular control; but it is the soul which makes the voice soar, which makes the listener respond by striking something in his own soul, or heart, or whatever you want to call it.
This is the instrument which was vital to the composers of opera, obviously. For the most part, they understood the singing voice and what they could ask of it. This is why those of us who love opera want to hear it as much as we can; far better to hear it live, but we’ll settle for televised streaming, live radio broadcasts, or recordings. Anything to appreciate and be transported by those glorious voices and these magnificent works of art.
Here’s something else you can take to the bank: no great singer ever sings a song exactly the same way twice. Every time she sings it, something is bound to be at least slightly different – maybe a longer tenuto on this note, maybe an earlier diminuendo on that phrase. Because the great singers are always exploring the music, always finding something new to incorporate.
Also, as singers mature their voices undergo changes. Because of this, they find they are singing the same role in a slightly different way – often with more ease. Being a singer is a constant work in progress. The greatest singers never stop learning and trying to perfect everything they do.
And because of that alone, no opera performance, even with the same cast, is exactly the same as the one before. There are other variables: the conductor may vary a tempo slightly, simply because he’s human. He may feel it just slightly differently than he did three days earlier. He may not have had a good night’s sleep. It will be almost imperceptible, but it won’t be a carbon copy of the previous performance. That is not humanly possible. Because it’s a live performance, who knows what might happen. That element alone serves to create some excitement.
All his life, Giuseppe Verdi – who knew he was born to write operas – strove for the production of just one of his works that would approach the vision he had. He finally achieved that, at age eighty, with Falstaff, when the Scala in Milan acceded to all his demands. Not requests. He was finished asking. If the Scala wanted to perform Falstaff, it had to be his way or not at all.
With the opera he wrote before Falstaff, Otello, he finally had the libretto he had longed for all his life. Arrigo Boito, genius that he was, provided him with a libretto of sheer poetry. The first production of Otello was the best Verdi had ever realized to that point, and he thought it would be what he’d have to be satisfied with – not knowing that Boito would do it one more time.
To state the obvious, Otello is a masterpiece. Some of the most powerful, most passionate music ever written is heard in this work. In Boito and Verdi’s hands, Iago’s villainy is even more pronounced than it is in Shakespeare. Otello trusts Iago, whose jealousy and hatred of Otello have twisted him. Possibly Boito’s addition of Iago’s “creed” defines him as an inherently evil person; Shakespeare hints at that. Whatever the reason, or reasons, Iago’s sole aim is to destroy Otello. His course of action is to plant seeds of doubt in Otello’s mind about his wife Desdemona’s faithfulness, thereby causing her death and Otello’s downfall.
We know the story … Iago succeeds brilliantly, and Verdi and Boito give Iago his moment of triumph. At the height of one of the most breathtakingly beautiful ensembles Verdi ever wrote, Otello destroys all … the music, his marriage, himself. He falls to the floor unconscious (Shakespeare attributes it to epilepsy) as the offstage chorus thunders: “Eviva! Eviva Otello! Gloria al leone di Venezia!” (Long live Otello! Glory to the lion of Venice!) And Iago – according to the composer’s stage directions “standing erect and, with a loathsome gesture of triumph, points to the inert Otello” – sings “Ecco il leone!” (Behold the lion!)
That’s pretty much the plot. How it can be twisted and misunderstood by some self-styled “directors” amazes me. One man’s mad desire to destroy another.
The complexity and sheer brilliance of the music, the continuous movement of the plot, the extraordinary singers performing this, all the elements of opera at its best mean this work comes to life vividly on the stage, time and again. Yes, it can be performed a little differently. In just the scene I briefly described, “A loathsome gesture of triumph” certainly is open to interpretation. How does Otello fall? Is it apparent he’s had a seizure or not? How does Iago react to hearing the cheers of the crowd offstage before he delivers his scathing line?
Each singer in this opera will have his own understanding of whatever character he is portraying, and each singer will bring a part of himself to his performance. A part of his soul. In the hands of great singers and actors the opera will always – always – be fresh, exciting, engrossing, thrilling, moving. The audience will hate Iago and weep with Otello.
And I feel sorry for people who fail to understand this.