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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?

By Anne Midgette  |  April 17, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  opera , random musings  
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"How far do you think a director should be able to go in interpreting [an opera]?"


Oh, the answer to that question is quite straightforward.

Keeping in mind that an opera is an original artwork created by its composer (no opera is the creation of its librettist), 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.

See how straightforward that is?


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | April 17, 2009 7:43 AM | Report abuse

First of all, please write your book.

One of the worst productions I've seen was the recent Traviata at DC. I thought it was so traditional as to be completely lifeless, and then when the grim reaper came in during the final act I got a fit of church giggles. I also found it bizarre that they did the old fashioned curtain calls at the end of each act. I get giving Violetta a moment at the end of Act I, but did we really need Flora (who has had about six lines at this point) trooping out as well? I also didn't much like the Met's Dr Atomic production (or the work) despite desperately wanting to.

Some of the best have been Baz Luhrmann's Midsummer Night's Dream in Sydney which he relocated to Colonial India, I loved the recent Grimes and Jenufa of two years ago in DC. I also thought the recent Pearl Fishers was quite a neat way to do the show without indulging in crazy exotica.

Posted by: ianw2 | April 17, 2009 8:29 AM | Report abuse

Every director (of a play or opera or movie) must make dozens of choices - time period, costumes, lighting, cuts in text/music, just the position and movement on the stage.

Even sometimes the choice of versions, such as 4 vs. 5 act Verdi's Don Carlo.

A quick specific response -- I really disliked the Zeffirelli (c1982) La Traviata, but loved the same opera at Salzburg staged by Willy Decker(2005).

Ken Wlaschin'S Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen (2004, over 800 pages!) has a lot of fun discussing the various productions on film and dvd,etc over the last 100 years.

Please write your book - maybe in chapters on this blog? In any event, a great topic, and good luck.

Posted by: BethesdaFan | April 17, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

I like opera productions that put the work first. I'm irritated by productions that seem to be about the director - look how daring, intelligent, outrageous I am (Peter Sellars is that to me, whether in opera or straight plays).
Ones I've liked: I loved many years ago in the Terrace Theater, a Washingotn Opera production of Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea, set in 1960's Chicago; I still remember the image of the fat, bald business suited guys slamming down their briefcases to the music at a conference table meeeting headed by Nero, or Seneca's students following him around with their bicycles in tow. Similarly, I loved a low-budget In-Series production of Mozart's Clemenza di Tito, done in English with slightly revised text, set in a contemporary White House, with the mezzo-soprano young lover couple played as a female-female relationship. Or a production at the Barns of Wolf Trap of L'Italiana in Algieri, done as a 1960's Italian sex comedy.
And at the other extreme a divine Der Rosenkavelier at Washington Opera, beautiful traditional sets and costumes, exquisite singing, terrific orchestra, and the stage direction so right, so with the music in every natural-looking move, I cried from the beauty of it all. When it's that good, I don't break it up into sets, costumes, directorial concepts; I think about how a great work of opera done that well is the best art form in the world.

Posted by: c-clef | April 17, 2009 9:35 AM | Report abuse

It is obvious to me that composer and librettist work together,and no libretto would materialize unless it is fully in accord with the composer wishes.
I totally disagree with the opinion that a director can do anything he wants as long as the integrity of the music is respected.
WNO production of La Traviata is very conventional,but on the other hand I had to endure the abominable production of La Boheme a couple of seasons ago.
Maria Callas have said in more than one interviews: "We are the servants of the composer",and if the composer working in tandem with his librettist composed and produced an opera according to his wishes,they should be respected as such,and not ridiculed in order to satisfy somebody's ego.

Posted by: zurga2003yahoocom | April 17, 2009 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the link to your excellent article in Andante! Finding new meaning in an opera through the eyes of a good director is always a great experience; after all we get tired year after year of the same old style set for the Traviata and we are thrilled when we discover new meaning in a new staging like the one that was presented in Salzburg with Netrebko and Vilazon. An excellent director, when supported by a great cast can bring new life even to some of the oldest operas. My absolute favorite was “Les Indes galante” by Rameau under the direction of Andrei Serban. We saw it in Paris at the Garnier Opera; it was absolutely fantastic and most of all very appealing to a younger audience through the beauty of its visual content in addition to the great music. The DVD is now available and is an example of how great staging can make opera very appealing.
My worst experience has been Mary Zimmerman’s recent “ La Sonnanbula” at the Met. I have no problems with directors who modernize operas but when they totally change the storyline and add actual noise on purpose to the score it is too much for this opera lover!

Posted by: Mike-Klein | April 17, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Mike-Klein--If you like Andrei Serban productions, you should know that his Turandot is coming to Washington Opera next month. It's not quite traditional, but definitely not modern either, and stays true to original intent.

Posted by: OperaLove | April 17, 2009 6:21 PM | Report abuse

I am shocked by some of these productions, the most recent being the Met's "Sonnambula". I am extremely wary when it comes to purchasing operas on DVD these days. I've been burned a couple of times by having to countenance productions that were downright bizarre. What gives with these stage directors? Could you imagine Maria Callas ever consenting to appear in such "Eurotrash" productions? And what gives with these singers? Why would Natalie Dessay (who reportedly loved this Met production of "Sonnambula") and Juan Diego Florez (who surely must have a lot of clout by now) consent to appear in such a production. I can only wonder what Mary Zimmerman will do to Renee Fleming's Armida performances next season. Does SHE not have sufficient clout to refuse to appear in anything as trashy as I'm afraid this production is going be be? If Zimmerman can ruin "Sonnambula", she can do even worse things with "Armida". If I were Renee Fleming, I'd be very scared.....very scared indeed!

Posted by: belcanto26 | April 17, 2009 7:39 PM | Report abuse

Am I correct in remembering that (some years ago on television)when Susanna was doing the laundry in the basement of the Trump Tower, she put Dawn instead of Tide in the washing machine? In any event, my point is that above all the direction should not be distracting. At the top of the list of absurd productions should be the visiting Russian Falstaff at the Washington Opera.

Posted by: earshape | April 19, 2009 12:35 AM | Report abuse

Earshape--If you're talking about Kirov Opera's Falstaff from 2007, Washington National Opera had NOTHING to do with that production. The Kennedy Center brought in the Kirov Opera. WNO does its own productions, it doesn't work with touring opera companies.

WNO will do it's own Falstaff (from Los Angeles) in the fall. It's fairly traditional, and Gordon Hawkins will sing his first Falstaff. No Russians.

Posted by: OperaLove | April 19, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

OperaLove: Thank you for the correction.
I ought to have made a clear distinction between productions that originated elsewhere, like the excellent Peter Grimes and the expected Falstaff (to which I look forward), and touring productions that I merely saw in the opera house.

Posted by: earshape | April 20, 2009 12:26 AM | Report abuse

“WNO does its own productions […] WNO will do it's own Falstaff (from Los Angeles) in the fall. It's fairly traditional …”

-- OperaLove

I guess we have different definitions of “own productions.” In fact, several, if not the majority, of WNO productions are from elsewhere, as indicated openly in the company’s seasonal listing.

(Also recall something about the WNO’s The American Ring being a co-production with the San Francisco Opera.)

I think that Washington (and New York City and Los Angeles) audiences have been fortunate to have been able to view numerous exceptionally fine opera productions from the Mariinsky Opera Theater of Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Washington was perhaps even luckier when the MET Opera used to visit the Kennedy Center annually.)

Was it the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times that recently called the Mariinsky Opera Theater the finest opera company in the world? (I don’t believe that the Washington National Opera has been called the ‘finest opera company in the world’ by a reputable newspaper or blog.)

Posted by: snaketime | April 20, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Snaketime--you're correct in saying that WNO uses productions from other houses. Most if not all companies do rent productions and conceive/produce original productions. An example is the upcoming Siegfried, which Earshape correctly points out is a co-production with San Francisco. But companies that rent productions still use their own staffs, crew, contracted singers and directors, etc...this is what I mean by "own production." It's incorrect to say that WNO brings in touring companies such as the Kirov. That was my only point.

Posted by: OperaLove | April 20, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for clarifying your point, OperaLove.

Without splitting hairs (or whatever the proper metaphor should be), I would only note that Washington, D.C. is lucky, in my view, to have what you, apparently derogatorily, call “touring companies” complementing the quite limited (shared) artistic offerings of our currently comprised national opera company.

Back when Washington had the "Opera Society of Washington,” the visionary administrative directors of the Kennedy Center (and the State Department) brought over – among other national companies -- the Vienna State Opera for unsurpassed productions of Marriage of Figaro, Fidelio, Salome, and Ariadne auf Naxos; the Metropolitan Opera in unsurpassed productions of everything from Mozart to Fidelio to Don Carlos to Lohengrin to Parsifal to Elektra to the Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny to Jon Vickers in Peter Grimes; the German Opera Berlin for Götz Friedrich’s Ring Cycle; and, most recently, Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Opera Theater (the now correct name for what was previously known by the Soviet Union-era name, the Kirov Opera) for wonderful, opera-experience enriching productions of everything from Boris Godonov (with sets by George Tsypin, reminiscent of Dale Chihuly), Khovanshchina (not as powerful, perhaps, as the version the Metropolitan Opera brought to the Kennedy Center in the early 1980s), Otello, Pique Dame, Parsifal, and Prokofiev’s War and Peace (next season). [The Mariinsky Opera Theater reserved four of its most sophisticated productions – the George Tsypin-designed Ring Cycle, Rimsky Korsakov’s Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (brilliantly staged by Alexei Stepanyuk), and Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel and Semyon Kotko, for the more sophisticated New York City opera audience.]

So what if one -- of a dozen -- Mariinsky Opera Theater productions at the Kennedy Center featured cars on stage (Falstaff) given the other riches shared with Washington, D.C. audiences by the significantly more operatically and artistically experienced companies of Vienna, New York City, Berlin, and Saint Petersburg (and Paris, Milan, and Moscow). (At least there were no self-gratifying rabbits or infants represented on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage over all these years, to the best of my knowledge.)

Posted by: snaketime | April 20, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

I too have seen some wonderful Russian productions. But when thinking of bad ones I found it natural to choose the parking-lot Falstaff. It is, after all, an achievement to insult Verdi and Shakespeare in the same evening.

Posted by: earshape | April 20, 2009 10:07 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, earshape.

I actually missed the Mariinsky parking-lot Falstaff (as well as the Rossini Il Viaggio à Reims), but saw all of the other Mariinsky Opera Theater productions at the Kennedy Center (and most of them at the MET Opera House).

You are probably right to call out the Mariinsky Opera Theater so strongly for their parking-lot Falstaff. (I wasn’t impressed by the Washington Opera’s 1980s Terrace Theater “Blues Brothers” Monteverdi Coronation of Poppea, referenced positively by someone above.)

It would be sad if the great, now leading, Saint Petersburg house went the way of the several of the major German opera houses by cluttering their stagings with cars, chairs, cell phones, television sets, electrical transmission towers, video game projections, high intensity lights aimed at the audience, disco glitter balls, scrims on auto-pilot, huge shock wigs, and other flotsam.

(While the Metropolitan Opera’s fairly recent production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk received mixed reviews due to its modern European staging, I’d suggest that you keep an open mind about the Metropolitan Opera’s upcoming William Kentridge production of Shostakovich’s The Nose, next season.)

Posted by: snaketime | April 21, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

I look forward to the Nose, because I admire the story. I hope the director does not substitute some other part of the body.

Posted by: earshape | April 21, 2009 7:32 PM | Report abuse

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