The art of the update
This summer, the BBC aired a new made-for-TV three-part miniseries on Sherlock Holmes. This sentence could have been written at almost any time over the last several decades. I’m not going to try to count how many film and television versions of Sherlock Holmes there have been over the years. Being a purist (having read the complete Sherlock Holmes repeatedly as a child, to the point of satiation) and thus regarding film versions as lesser incarnations, I haven’t followed them all that closely -- I even missed the Robert Downey Jr. showpiece last winter -- but this new BBC one got such glowing reviews that, happening to be in England, I watched it.
The gimmick of “Sherlock” -- apart from the fact that, as one critic pointed out, its star, Benedict Cumberbatch, may be the only actor around with a name more bizarre than “Sherlock Holmes” -- is that it’s updated. Holmes and Watson live in 21st century London. Some things don’t need adjusting at all: Watson, now as then, has just returned from fighting in Afghanistan. Some things do: Holmes and Watson keep encountering, and shrugging off, the assumption that they’re a gay couple; Watson is, of course, a blogger; Holmes is clearly on the highly-functioning end of the autistic spectrum, with a mind that works like a computer, and a firm command of contemporary technology. The plots bear no more than token acknowledgments to Conan Doyle, though the scripts are larded with references to the original stories. But the characters are recognizable, and credible.
(read more after the jump)
I mention this less to tout the series (though American audiences can check it out for themselves when “Sherlock” airs on PBS in October) than because it made me think about updating beloved old stories -- something we deal with all the time in opera. It wasn’t so much that the series won me over, as a Sherlock Holmes die-hard prepared to be critical -- it was that it won everybody over. There may have been tut-tutting at the anachronisms and the lack of fidelity to the original, but I didn’t encounter any of that. Contrast this to the to-do created when someone starts mucking around with “Tosca.” Though I suppose a better analogy is to the most notorious acts of updating of the recent past: Jonathan Miller’s Italian-mafia “Rigoletto” and Peter Sellars’s American Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy, which set “Cosi fan tutte” in “Despina’s Diner” and “Nozze di Figaro” in a Park Avenue apartment.
Why is it easier to accept Holmes and Watson reimagined for the present day than, say, “La Traviata’s” Violetta? Is it that the characters have been visualized so often, in so many ways, that we accept the idea that they can take different forms: they’ve become such a part of the cultural currency that we are secure that they can survive re-minting? Is it that they come from the world of entertainment rather than literature, while opera is supposed these days to be high art, and therefore inviolable? Is it that we accept conventions in film more readily than we do on stage; or simply that one group of opera’s passionate devotees feel that it needs to be defended from the modern world?
One key to “Sherlock’s” success is that it works. (Well, I didn’t think the second episode was great, but I’m speaking generally here.) That is, its authors, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, have created a fictional world that’s sound enough to pull us in; we’ll accept it on its own terms. I’ve said before that this is the basic secret to all updating or re-imagining of settings for productions: I’ll accept Aida in a prison cell or underwater or even in Ancient Egypt, modern or traditional, as long as the director can convince me I should believe in it. (For the record, I think both the Sellars and Miller productions mentioned above do this, for the most part, and despite some problems.)
But it's interesting that nobody seems to feel that the integrity of Sherlock Holmes is somehow threatened by a new version. In opera, by contrast, we have a ways to go.
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