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Updates, continued

I was surprised that a number of the comments on my post about updating opera seemed to assume that updating is inherently a bad thing. If you’re going to update, the argument ran, then update everything: add new music, push the whole thing into a new era. But if you only update the setting without updating the music, you’re creating something that’s artistically flawed.

I’d certainly be intrigued to see more people play around with that kind of updating in opera. (And one of the best stagings I’ve seen of Mozart’s “Entführung aus dem Serail,” by François Abou Salem in Salzburg in the 1990s, did actually interpolate other music into the opera -- though that was less about bringing the opera into the present than about contrasting East and West, very powerfully and tellingly.)
(read more after the jump)

But there are dozens of ways to go about updating something. You can play with the time period, waking the audience up with flashes of anachronism (think Sofia Coppola’s film of “Marie Antoinette”). You can respond to the period in which the opera was written rather than the period in which it’s ostensibly set -- in my opinon, one of the best ways to deal with a lot of 19th-century Italian opera, which was often attempting to clothe contemporary situations in putatitively historical settings in any case. (I find it a little ridiculous to do extensive research into historical facts about druids when staging Bellini’s “Norma,” or into medieval Scotland for Verdi’s “Macbeth;” I doubt such facts have much bearing on what the composers had in mind when they wrote the works.) And you can simply set the work in a period other than the one that was originally intended. It’s almost silly to say that this is somehow a betrayal of the original - film and theater directors have been doing it for years. (I mentioned, in the comments, Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet” with Leonardo di Caprio: Shakespeare’s language, modern setting, big hit.)

It’s a truism, but it may need repeating, that it’s virtually impossible to present an “original” staging of an opera. What does “original” mean? In Baroque opera, using candles for illumination, for starters. Well, no, you might say, we use the technical benefits of today in the service of something historically informed -- but then where do you draw the line? Furthermore, however faithfully you try to reconstruct a historical period, the production is still going to reflect the period in which it’s created. (Witness some of the televised opera productions of the 1960s.)

And what are we being faithful to, anyway? Would a “faithful” production of Wagner’s “Ring” mean recreating the staging Wagner himself saw mounted, with which he was profoundly dissatisfied? Is a “faithful” production one that recreates the way something looked at the time it was first staged, or is it one that seeks to recreate the kind of effect it had on the audience at the time, the way it felt (which may entail updating the setting to some extent)? There's not a right answer to any of these questions, but they are questions that directors have to ask.

The point is: staging opera is always going to involve interpretation. It can be done well, and it can be done badly, but updating an opera to the present day doesn’t automatically make the production bad -- or good.

I think that sometimes what opera fans are really objecting to is the idea of challenging their own status quo. Washington National Opera’s current “Ballo in Maschera” is a traditional production in that the characters are wearing outfits that could represent historical Sweden. For the titual masked ball, the chorus is dressed all in gray, executing stylized gestures and conversations, holding up masks to their faces, looking not at all disguised. This has become a standard way to put on “Ballo”; in many if not most productions I’ve seen, the main characters stick out like sore thumbs, and the idea that they are “disguised” is a pleasant fiction. Is this really what Verdi intended? Isn’t the idea of a masked ball that it swallows up the individual, transforms people through disguise, like Halloween night? But however hokey the masked ball may seem, nobody’s protesting that this non-dramatic, formalized, rote presentation is going against the whole spirit of what the composer intended -- because the production is, after all, “traditional,” and therefore, somehow, allowed to do whatever it wants.

By Anne Midgette  |  September 15, 2010; 12:00 AM ET
Categories:  opera , random musings  
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I love sensible updating, but loathe it when it seems done solely because the stage pictures of dozens of trench-coats in shadowy lighting are so pretty. I think, for example, something like Giulio Cesare should always at least be set in the baroque era, because a toga is a very difficult and uncomfortable garment to wear, and putting a whole bunch of singers who aren't used to wearing them on stage is going to make it look like a frathouse. Which I suppose may have just contradicted my "don't update because you like the fashion" argument.

When, do you think, we may see a trend to set opera backwards (grand statements about the universality of human experience)- a La Boheme set in Gaul, perhaps.

Posted by: ianw2 | September 15, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Brian Kellow's superb essay in the October Opera News, "The Crowd Snores," explores how the prevalence of certain types of directorial concepts sap the lifeblood out of the operas on which they are inflicted, and how the prevalence of misbegotten productions has left the entire opera world less effervescent and exciting than it might otherwise be. He directs this conversation to a different place, away from the "update, not update" impasse, to more fundamental considerations about what thrills an audience in the opera house. "Casting isn't an incidental by-product of opera;" he writes, "it's critical to the genre's success and survival." I can't repeat his entire article here, but I can't recommend it enough, either.

Posted by: ScottRose | September 15, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

GREAT PIECE ON UPDATING !!!!! The opera house is not a museum or a taxidermist's diorama. Hello! It's theater. You buy a ticket, the curtain opens, people in costumes play out a story. On another (but related) subject, how about the new cut-'n-paste Baroque opera at the Met? The purist purists, who know this was the tradition, will approve and the neo-purists will howl. Should be a fun brawl to watch.

Posted by: grergorysisaacs | September 15, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

I still don't think we can call it "updating an opera" if only the setting and costumes is updated and nothing is done with the music and characters or libretto. Maybe we can use the phrase "Resetting an opera"? That is what is usually done.

As for R&J, even if your “Romeo and Juliet” example works (I think it doesn't, but lots do.) it doesn't mean they all work or most work or few work or that it is easier to only change the setting for it to work. Certainly, it is cheaper. And of course, you're missing another reason this film worked... it isn't just Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet” but Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet” WITH Leonardo di Caprio. Even in the comments, you mentioned this actor. (Big names help new resettings in opera too!) And while it is Shakespeare's language it is not complete. It is abridged!

But here is where it is a completely different fruit: the medium. Theater vs. Movie. For something on the stage, I do not get a soundtrack, or a close-up, or any of a number of other things that are part of a movie. Shakespeare would have changed a bit if he wrote the screenplay too. (Amadeus is a good example if you have seen the theater work.) That's an adaptation of something to a different medium and not what you are talking about in regards to what goes on in opera or staying within the same medium.

Perhaps the Jane Austen and Zombie/Vampire books are a better example staying within a medium... definitely remade movies (again more is changed, the script, sexes of characters sometimes, etc.)... These could be examples in support of opera fans who don't like "updates" though since some people don't like those zombie books or remade movies of classics.

Posted by: prokaryote | September 15, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

I think, prokaryote, that you are being a bit pedantic with the word 'updating'. I would hope that any production reset to the 1920s has a directorial intent. Whilst I see your point between 'updating' and 're-setting', I think the usage of 'updating' in opera is now widespread enough to be acceptable to describe what the article originally refers to.

@ScottRose- I found that article to be interesting, but for a completely different reason. As a relatively younger opera-goer, nothing bores me more than moaning about a lost golden age. I found the author's central idea- that opera companies have abandoned the role of casting- absolutely false, and simplistic.

Posted by: ianw2 | September 15, 2010 9:41 PM | Report abuse

ianw2: I think, prokaryote, that you are being a bit pedantic with the word 'updating'.
Actually "updating" is in quotes in Midgette's printed review of Un Ballo in Maschera and that was what I'm refering to. I had thought it was "updating an opera" in quotes from my poor memory. If it is as widespread as you claim, why put the word in quotes in the review? (To be pedantic?) But if you want "update", fine. Then it should be a "stage update", because the music still hasn't changed at all.

Honestly, I suppose I would be more convinced of the need to modernize the stage setting of operas if this was common practice long ago. I mean, if for example they were restaging L'Orfeo as if the events occurred during the French Revolution way back in the early 1800s, and for some reason this practice fell out of favor and we're now bringing it in vogue again. But I don't get the sense that that is what's going on. I think the real problem is that opera companies, like the WNO, keep repeating the same operas every ten years when there is a vast perhaps-less-treasured trove of operatic works they ignore. I think someone wanting to see an updating of opera is really wanting to see any semblance of NEW opera. Frankly, I'd rather have the real thing and not settle.

Posted by: prokaryote | September 17, 2010 2:06 AM | Report abuse

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