Opera: Lack of Direction?
I've been thinking a lot about operatic stage direction lately, that can-of-worms topic in the opera world, in part because of a piece I have coming up in the paper on Sunday (consider this a teaser), and in part because opera direction is one of my pet themes. (I may have been a little overenthusiastic in this article from a few years ago, but for the most part I stand by my views.) I've long talked about writing a book on the subject, a guide to an essential component of the art form that tends to be overlooked in most opera guides. (This plan has so far been stymied by the fact that no commercial publisher will touch such a book with a ten-foot pole.)
Stage direction, according to conventional wisdom, comes in two forms. There's the old-fashioned kind with ponderous realistic sets and minimal character development that leads to the canard that opera singers of the past couldn't act. And there's the scary new kind where a director comes in and transports the whole piece to some bizarre new setting so that Aida becomes a cleaning woman or films of dead rabbits dot "Parsifal."
One of the great barriers between directors and audience is simple fear: audiences faced with a non-traditional approach don't understand why the director is doing such strange things to a familiar story, and start to bristle in reaction. There's certainly a lot of bad directing out there, and audiences may be scared off by some of the more egregious examples (like Michael von zur Mühlen's "Der fliegende Holländer" in Leipzig last October, which provoked such a scandal that the leading man walked off and significant changes were made to the production after opening night). But it's important to distinguish between violating the bounds of what's acceptable and pushing the envelope in a productive, though extreme way. Not every reinterpretation is an act of destruction. And it's essential for the future of the form that it remain fresh and open to new impetuses; otherwise opera becomes merely an empty pageant, lots of pomp and no soul.
I've always thought he simplest way to approach this topic is to look at what opera directors actually do and ask them why they do it. Stay tuned.
And, to open the can just a bit: what are your best and worst experiences of operatic stage directing? How far do you think a director should be able to go in interpreting a piece? Did you ever see an unusual production that won you over in spite of yourself?
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