About a week ago (maybe longer? I’m only just recovering my sense of time after the madness of July/August), a commenter by the name of Antonio pointed me towards Re:Classical’s “5 Reasons Why Traditional Opera Kind of Sucks” post. The “About” section of my blog is getting rather ungainly, so I’m trying to start shifting discussions from the About section into blog posts.
Without further ado, here is my response…
Re:Classical’s post was written as a response to Zachary Woolfe’s NYTimes piece, “Uncertainty of Operatic Proportions”. I wouldn’t say I’m overly familiar with Woolfe – I’ve read maybe 4 or 5 of his pieces, but I do find him to be a little too “doom and gloom” regarding the future of opera. Maybe he’s just a little young (says the 27-year-old)? A little newer to opera culture? I don’t know. Opera has been on the verge of collapse throughout it inception. And in general there seems to be an obsession with declaring things to be dead in our culture – literature is dead, print media is dead, film is dead, theatre is dead, opera is dead. The king is dead, long live the king. Maybe it moves more merchandise.
Re:Classical’s opening sentence “There’s been some hand-wringing in the classical community lately about the massive budget cuts descending upon U.S. opera companies as a result of the recession” expresses a similar innocence. This is not recent. Did you miss the whole City Opera crisis? The dissolution of the the Baltimore Opera? The postponement of the American Ring Cycle in Washington DC? The ’08-’09 Opera Pacific cancellations? I think opera is actually doing better, recently. We’re doing better than the symphonies, and at least opera crises are getting coverage. But okay. I may think your premise is deeply flawed, perhaps a little ignorant, but I’ll bite. Let’s move on to the 5 reasons.
#1: No Good Actors
Yes and no. Yes, acting is a problem. The problem of acting in opera is one of my passions in life; however, Re:Classical’s assessment is simplistic, to say the least. Singers do understand dramatic beats, they certainly understand subtext (I’m pretty sure anyone who has been through high school English understands subtext), and they are champions of portraying operatic characters as “real” individuals. “Park and bark” performances do happen, but I find that one of the biggest problems in opera today is over-blocking scenes and lack of focus. There’s nothing wrong with standing still for an aria. A Shakespearian monologue delivered while standing still can be very powerful; why should it be any different for arias? It’s not the standing still or the blocking that’s the problem, the problem is the lack of dramatic focus. I absolutely believe that we need to reevaluate how we teach opera students acting. All opera students are taught acting, they know the process an the mechanics; and if you handed opera singers a script and asked them to do a cold reading, I think most of them would do quite well. The problem is much more subtle and has to do with the working environments of music performance vs. theatre.
My discussion of opera vs. theatre is very long and at the bottom of the post, if you wish to read it.
#2 No Good Directors
Well this is just wrong. There are lots of good opera directors and lots of good directors in opera. It’s interesting that they’ve put Robert Wilson’s Butterfly as an example of “bad directing”. I’m not a huge fan of Wilson’s choreography-style opera directing, but I’ve never found it offensive, and it’s hardy representative of opera directing in general. Nobody else does what Robert Wilson does. Re:Classical’s definition of “traditional” opera gets a little confusing here as well. Are you talking about the repertoire or a style of production? I’m not sure. I’ll just take a moment to list some of the “good” directors working in opera today (in no particular order): Peter Konwitschny, Frank Castorf (or he will be…), David McVicar, Jonathan Miller, Werner Herzog, Calixto Bieito, Nick Hytner, David Alden, Francesca Zambello, Stefan Herheim, Patrice Chereau, Hans Neuenfels, Graham Vick, Willy Decker… That’s 14 there, not even counting people like Julie Taymor, Robert LePage, Bartlett Sher, and Peter Sellars. Or the many film directors who’ve recently taken a crack at opera like Anthony Minghella, Terry Gilliam, Woody Allen, David Cronenberg, or William Friedkin. (Disclaimer: I don’t personally like all of these directors, but I wouldn’t call them bad directors… At the very least, these are all people who have made very successful careers as directors. I would even go so far as to say that they have all made some kind of noteworthy, positive contribution to either opera, theatre, or film.)
“No Good Directors” is definitely not the problem. Alternatively, who do you think should be directing opera?
#3 Shitty Source Material
Here we are again, the old “opera’s are all a bit crap” argument. Well… That’s not really true either. Opera has great stories. Many of them could use some editing (and I am all for strategic cuts in opera – Konwitschny’s Traviata being a great example), but they’re wonderful, dramatic stories. The examples of opera’s “shitty source material” come from Boheme and Rigoletto. I hate to be put in a position to defend Boheme (probably the most overplayed opera in the rep), but the first act scene where everyone manipulates Benoit hardly defines the opera, nor is it even the sole source of humor in Boheme. Tom Bombadil is in The Fellowship of the Ring, but I wouldn’t call it a shitty book.
As for Rigoletto, part of the reason that opera is so tragic is that Gilda is so irretrievably in love with the Duke. Whether or not she was raped is up to the production and that’s something that has to be dealt with dramatically. If you get a good Gilda and a good Duke (which is hard to do), Gilda’s situation becomes much more sympathetic. Rigoletto is a series of unfortunate events, but I wouldn’t call it shitty source material (and it is Victor Hugo…).
#4 Who knew theatre could be so hetero
Huh? Have you been to the opera? The gay audience is huge. And when I worked at one of the big opera companies a lot of the admin, at least 40% of the chorus, most of the directors, most of the supers, and all of the countertenors were gay. I do think it’s funny that Benjamin Britten is “newer stuff”, that aside, Britten is a staple of modern repertoire – I think it’s unfair to marginalize his works like that.
Yes, most of the repertoire was written when homosexuality was neither part of public discourse nor acceptable in artistic works. Shall we ask Mozart to revise Marriage of Figaro for us? I’m pretty sure there are homoerotic productions of Don G (and surely someone’s done a Cosi that ends in two sad sisters and a pair of homosexual dudes). What about the Prince in Die Fledermaus? McVicar’s Herod in Salome is at least bi. I guess Lulu doesn’t count because it’s a “new” work. To argue that a homosexual audience can’t relate to stories based on heterosexual relationships (and/or hetero-normative characters) is to suggest that opposite also applies – that heterosexual people can’t relate to homosexual stories – and that is really not a helpful attitude.
#5 Everyone Calm Your Raging Hard-On for Wagner
Well, as someone who’s got a pretty big boner for Wagner, I may not have the most objective take here. Yes, the sudden “All Wagner, All the Time!” programming does have to do with the Wagner bicentennial.
I really think it’s important to place Wagner and his anti-semitism historically. George Washington was a slave owner and a racist, but we’re still comfortable celebrating him and his contributions to the modern world because we generally accept that it is unfair to judge him without placing his actions and attitudes within the correct historical context. Karl Marx and Henry Ford were also anti-semites. Gustav Mahler frequently made anti-semitic comments, but at least he was Jewish. Anti-semitism in the 19th century is not the same as anti-semitism today. It was not a radical or exceptional attitude, and ideas about Jewish people and “Jewishness” were very different. I do not advocate anti-semitism, and I have a lot of problems with Wagner as an individual and as a moralist, but it is unfair and unhelpful to divorce him from his context.
Wagner is important. His operas are arguably the ultimate realization of the form, he is the reason we have raked seating in theaters, seats are arced so they all point toward the stage, the lights are dimmed or turned off during performances; he created the orchestra pit, popularized the concept of the leitmotif, and is responsible for the modern director and the idea that all elements of a production should work towards achieving a singular idea or concept. Modern musical and theatrical history owe a lot to Wagner. He cannot be ignored.
Have you seen any Wagner operas? They’re really good. The source material is good. The stories are good. The music is really good. He has some really complicated and strong female characters. Wagners operas are nothing if not problematic, but there is something truly great amid those flaws. That’s a big theme in Wagner.
The post closes by saying, “Some opera venues (notably music schools and conservatories) are getting the hint, in fits and spurts, that opera needs to be relevant to people other than themselves if it has any chance of surviving the next century.”
Are you arguing for new works? There are new works being written all the time. I agree that opera companies need to do a better job fostering new works and modern composers, but new works are performed quite regularly. Just because an opera was written recently does not make it more relevant. And just because an opera was written a few hundred years ago does not make it less relevant. A lot of companies and directors work very hard to try to make their productions relevant to and engaging for modern audiences. You can argue that they’re not successful, but to suggest that they’re not even trying to make their work relevant to “real people” is missing the mark. But I suppose I can’t expect a nuanced, hard-hitting assessment of “what’s wrong with opera today” from someone who clearly has very little experience with opera at all.
My long discussion of opera vs. theatre performance follows…
Most theatre classes take place in groups. In my years of studying acting in high school and college, I never encountered an acting class with only one student. With the exception of the requisite monolog unit, you are always working with or off of someone. You are always engaged with and reacting to someone else as a performer. Even during monologs you are constantly scrutinizing and under the scrutiny of your peers. Acting lessons : Theatre Performance :: Voice Lessons : Operatic Performance, and voice lessons are always taught individually. Operatic Performance is not built on a foundation of ensemble work the way theatre is, and so opera performers don’t have the ensemble instinct. Engaging with other performers physically and emotionally is not as natural for them. Of course there are exceptions on both sides (and singers are really good at vocal interaction), but what I have described is generally accurate (and I think being more aware of this difference would do opera training a world of good).
The second big difference is the director/actor relationship vs. the conductor/singer relationship. Theatre directors come in with an idea or concept for a production and (ideally) everyone is supposed to participate in shaping that vision. (Yes, there are dictatorial directors who have no interest in what the performers think of his or her ideas, but they’re the exception, not the rule; and, odds are, they’re not particularly good directors…) The director gives everyone their blocking, tells them what they think is going on in the scene, the actors do it that way once or twice, and then the bulk of rehearsal time is spent with the actors responding and contributing to the director’s plan. The thing that gets performed in front of an audience is not necessarily the production that the director walked in with. There is an expectation that things will change and that the actors have something valuable to contribute. If a director’s blocking isn’t working for an actor – if it doesn’t ring true or feels awkward to them, dramatically – the expectation is that they will say something and work with the director to find something that is meaningful and appropriate for both of them. Singers generally only ask to revise blocking if it doesn’t work for them vocally.
The conductor’s job is a little more concrete than a director’s. In a large orchestra, the conductor is the only person who knows and can hear everything that is going on musically. A play can get performed without a director. It may not be elegant or totally coherent, visually or dramatically, but the text can be intelligibly delivered. This is not the case with an opera score. A 30-60 piece orchestra, plus 10-50 singers trying to perform an opera score with out a conductor is a hot mess. If it’s a top-level professional orchestra and chorus and a score everyone knows backwards and forward, it might be okay, but there will probably be lag somewhere. Anyway, when a conductor tells you to do something it’s generally a about something technical, and you do what they say. If you’re having a hard time achieving their recommendation, you can discuss it with the conductor until you understand it, but a singer does not typically suggest a different dynamic or interpretive detail to the conductor. Singer’s don’t push back against directors the way an actor does, and when they do there’s a certain defensiveness about it that can add a lot of tension to the rehearsal room.
Part of the problem is the way operas are rehearsed. In theatre, you block the whole show right away, run through the blocking once or twice, then you do work throughs. Most of the work happens in the work throughs. You deviate from the blocking, you try different things, you rehearse the whole thing over and over until the actors are totally comfortable with it and can make it their own. In opera, you block the first scene, you play through it once or twice (singers will often raise objections during the blocking process, if they have them), then you move on to the second scene, and so on. The piece will not have been run through in its entirety until the last week of rehearsals which means the singers have had much less time to get comfortable with the scene work, and it shows.
Most opera performers’ backgrounds are in music.