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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.

Would you cast these men in Verdi's "Don Carlo"? Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson in the BBC's new "Sherlock."

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.

By Anne Midgette  |  September 10, 2010; 1:50 PM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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Nobody is resetting A Study in Scarlet in modern times with a Holmes "ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System"! Except for a few choice phrases, such as "Elementary!", no one creating a modern adaptation presumes to use the same words or nearly exact storyline as Conan Doyle. Almost everything is updated.

What is done to the music in an update of or a resetting of Tosca? Virtually nothing. Why not keep some melodies and create more music, change the script so some people who died live and some who live die, add new characters... Is this what is normally done? No. Mostly it seems to be a change of costumes, often on stage so there will be more skin, and a modern scenery or lack thereof. That is an adaptation of a set, not an modern update of the opera!

Take Violetta, make her an alcoholic or put her in Hollywood, I don't care. But if you leave the music alone... you haven't updated enough. It just looks and sounds silly now.

Posted by: prokaryote | September 10, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

I think its simpler, in that the acts of Violetta are totally contrary to how a modern (female) audience would behave. Its the same big problem in Figaro, in that the droit de seigneur simply cannot exist in a Trump Tower penthouse. The success of production relies on convincing an audience that in fact, it can.

Posted by: ianw2 | September 10, 2010 9:42 PM | Report abuse

Also a Sherlockian "purist", I think I have the answer to your question ("Why is it easier to accept Holmes and Watson reimagined for the present day than, say, _La Traviata_’s Violetta?", but I'll withhold it until October when I get a chance to see the new BBC miniseries as you did.

And why do I find it so satisfying to learn you're a Sherlockian "purist"?

Strictly a rhetorical question.


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | September 10, 2010 10:22 PM | Report abuse

"The plots bear no more than token acknowledgments to Conan Doyle"

I've finished reading "A Study in Scarlet" and "The Sign of Four" this past week, and I don't agree with this. "A Study in Pink," in particular, adhered quite closely to much of the original, and "The Blind Banker" shared many plot details with "The Sign of Four."

Regarding the opera issue, I don't think you're comparing apples to apples. Updating opera is similar to a director setting a Shakespeare play in a modern context without changing anything about the text. It may or may not be successful, but it's not the same thing as what Moffat and Gatiss did to Holmes, which was a reinvention with some similarities to the original. They didn't take the Holmes texts and shove the characters into a modern context with no updating of the script. There is a whole other set of inherent challenges when a director takes an opera and just slaps it into a new context without any change to the material.

Posted by: Pickwick12 | September 11, 2010 12:52 AM | Report abuse

prokaryote: In fact Sherlock, in this miniseries, IS ignorant of the fact that the earth moves around the sun, to Watson's astonishment. However, your basic point is well taken.

Rather frustratingly from my point of view, this post has generated three independent discussions: on Twitter, on Facebook, and here. A couple of other people had similar observations about the music not being updated, which is interesting. But I'd counter with the Baz Luhrmann/Leonardo DiCaprio "Romeo and Juliet," in which the language wasn't updated but the setting was, and which had tremendous popular appeal.

Posted by: MidgetteA | September 11, 2010 12:53 AM | Report abuse

There is a bigger issue here. In most creative arts, an "update" is done by an artist seeking a thoughtful retelling of a classic. With dance, film, theater, these are commonplace and renew the work for the artist and the public. Why opera, in America, is an exception to this rule is hard to understand.
While I personally hate lists, a European music magazine this month listed fifteen contemporary opera directors "emblematic of opera today." Not surprisingly, none were American.

Posted by: Frank991 | September 12, 2010 5:32 PM | Report abuse

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