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Opera Direction, Revisited

In Sunday's paper: Four Ways of Looking at Wagner's Ring, by Anne Midgette

On Sunday, I wrote a piece about four different directors’ views of the Ring. That piece represents the merest tip of the iceberg of four notably stimulating conversations, and I plan to continue to reveal a bit more of the iceberg on this blog in the days ahead.

But I've also been enjoying the ongoing discussion of stage direction in the comments section of this recent blog post. One comment that particularly stuck in my mind came from ACD (whose blog is well worth a look), who wrote

an opera director can do any bloody thing it strikes him to do in order to evocatively realize a dramatically and aesthetically effective translation of the composer's score (music and text) into its concrete physical realization on the stage so long as what the director does is consonant with the score at every point, and contradicts or diverges from it at none.

What ACD says is quite right. It also touches on a point that’s central to all attempts to present opera of the past in the present, which is: Who gets to be the arbiter of what “is consonant with the score at every point, and contradicts it or diverges from it at none”? What is the yardstick? I have seen some productions where I thought a radical interpretation was convincingly "consonant with the score" (like Deborah Warner’s “Don Giovanni”), but other viewers did not. Some of the discussion between the other commenters on this post shows how differently ideas of what is "consonant with the score" can be interpreted. The Ring in the DC Metro? "Falstaff" in a parking lot? "The Flying Dutchman" in a contemporary seaport city? (That one is Katharina Wagner's, and I know that if I'd only heard a description of it, rather than seeing it in person, I would never have believed how effective it actually was.) Of such stuff is heated - and productive - debate made.

I actually think that most good directors are trying to find interpretations that accord with the score. In fact, I think most good directors see many of the same themes in a given piece. One thing that struck me about my recent round of interviews was that each of the four directors I spoke to - Francesca Zambello, Stephen Wadsworth, Otto Schenk and Achim Freyer - said that he or she was primarily interested in the characters of the "Ring" as people, rather than as gods or symbols. Yet that primary interest became the basis of four radically different interpretations.

By Anne Midgette  |  April 22, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  opera , random musings  
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In my limited experience, even in a brand new work with the composer in the room sweating bullets, the director's views take priority over anyone's, regardless of what's in the score. This is not always a bad thing, as sometimes composers don't know what works on stage, but can be slightly weird.

Posted by: ianw2 | April 22, 2009 8:19 AM | Report abuse

The directors who dig deep into the characters of the gods and demigods of the Ring are likely to keep finding Wagner Himself. Remember Nietzsche's observation that Wagner was a ventriloquist -- of God.

Posted by: earshape | April 23, 2009 9:48 AM | Report abuse

"I look forward to the [Metropolitan Opera's production of Shostakovich's] Nose, because I admire the story. I hope the director does not substitute some other part of the body."

-- earshape [posted to the closed, discussion thread "Opera Direction, Revisited"]

No need for fear, earshape. William Kentridge is no Aichim Freyer. (That is, while Kentridge is certainly an equal to Aichim Freyer creatively and theatrically, he is more brilliant intellectually, and less obsessed with private and personal sexual activity.)

I do hope, however, that you like walking, fox-trotting, and stair-climbing noses; horses; and dadaism and Soviet futurism!!

Posted by: snaketime | April 24, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

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