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Estival Festivals: IV. Santa Fe

In today's Washington Post: Natalie Dessay's "Traviata" and the world premiere of "The Letter" at Santa Fe, by Anne Midgette.

Monteverdi's "Ulisse" at Wolf Trap, by Mark J. Estren.

* * * * *

I have been going to the opera in Santa Fe for almost 30 years, and it always holds a special place in my affections. The new general director Charles MacKay, who is a Santa Fe native, appears to be hitting the ground running, and the festival seems to me in good shape even though I wasn't crazy about the operas I saw.

But here's a question that recurred during both "The Letter" and "Traviata": Why are audiences, artists, and production teams ready to jettison their usual sense of drama when it comes to opera? It doesn't take any special powers of perception to see that the 1940 film of "The Letter" is highly dramatic and the opera that premiered this weekend is not; why is it that we tend to be indulgent of opera not meeting the same standards as a stage play? And Bette Davis's performance, though in ways over the top, also displays a kind of restraint that is utterly foreign to Natalie Dessay, who as Violetta epitomized the kind of frantic non-acting that is today heralded (and not only from Dessay) as the pinnacle of the "new" operatic achievement. Why is it that in opera we are ready to accept this kind of thing as art?

By Anne Midgette  |  July 27, 2009; 6:32 AM ET
Categories:  festivals , national , opera  
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Anne, can you say more about what you mean by "their usual sense of drama"? What's missing or absent in the two productions you saw?

But I have two answers to your question:

1. In opera, the music carries much of the drama.

2. "The usual sense of drama" presumably has a pacing that works for speech - but sung speech is much slower, and stage action tends to unfold more slowly than in spoken drama as a result.

I'll have a few things to say about "The Letter" on my blog, I hope later today, since I was there too (and we could have met!). I did not think it fell down in the drama department at all.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | July 27, 2009 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Ask any actor if he or she can sing and act at the same time and you'll get your answer!(and I don't mean musicals)

Posted by: sallyreuel | July 27, 2009 11:10 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for speaking up about this. I love (and teach) opera/classical singing. The major thing that ruins opera-going experiences for me is the corny non-acting. If Callas' TOSCA was possible, then truth in acting is still possible. Forget all the nonsense about casting "thin and beautiful" people. If the acting is spot on, then the character will be believable.

I've studied acting at a Meisner-based studio for over a decade. I continually work to spread the word that acting - and singing - from the inside, out will be what brings people to the opera. This is more true than ever now that opera is HD in movie theatres.

I don't make excuses for bad acting in opera. It takes a lot of time and study, in most cases. But it's possible.

Posted by: studioshanks | July 27, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse

As Lisa Hirsch says, but I'd put it more strongly, opera is first of all about the music ("Prima la musica...") Joseph Kerman writes about opera as if it were, or should be, a dramatic form articulated by music. A stronger case, from history and esthetics, would be that opera is a musical form articulated by drama. If the libretto is dramatically convincing but the music isn't, the opera is a goner; strong music and a weak libretto, and it's "Il Trovatore." Which incidentally also explains the success of opera singers who can't act.

Posted by: JohnFrancis2 | July 27, 2009 3:50 PM | Report abuse

There is certainly a lack of quiet and restraint on the operatic stage. some may think they need to convey the drama physically because of the language barrier?

I personally would rather be drawn into a performer then have them project out. But maybe that's just me.

Posted by: operanow | July 27, 2009 5:56 PM | Report abuse

I'm reasonably certain that Anne Midgette, of all people, knows what opera 'is'. The poor singers are a bit torn at the moment- if they park and bark they're a throwback but if they emote they're hyperactive and putting the voice second (the blogs start howling about director-led opera at around this point).

For me, opera must make dramatic sense as it is a theatrical form. I'm much more content in the house if I'm thrilled by a whole performance than if the coloratura is note perfect and they've approached the cabaletta the same way Tebaldi did in '76.

All that said, good acting and the right look is not an excuse for musical sloppiness. But rehearsal time is expensive so I'm not sure what the solution is. I think the key is an excellent stage director who doesn't go 'soft' because he isn't working with straight actors, but also understands the very unique demands of an opera stage.

Posted by: ianw2 | July 27, 2009 6:22 PM | Report abuse

I would like to suggest that you retire the term "war horse" used in today's review of Santa Fe. One defination of war horse is "a piece of music that is familiar and hackneyed because of too frequent performance."

What is a war horse for a music critic may be a piece of music that many of us in the opera or symphony orchestra audience have never heard in live performance.

Posted by: CarlosMaryland | July 28, 2009 11:00 PM | Report abuse

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