Thursday, December 13, 2012

In Defense of Modern Opera Productions

I know how to read music, sing and act. People tell me I’m pretty good at all three. Bonus! It makes sense, then, that I have been supporting myself for over a decade in one of the only jobs that allow me to combine those three talents: opera. I love it. There, I’ve said it. I love opera. But when I say it, I doubt that I mean what you think I mean. Opera (stop saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means).

There are many people, for their love of opera, who take a stance against so-called “modern” opera, claiming it destroys the intentions of the great masters. In fact, on Facebook some clever person of German persuasion (I can tell by his or her syntactical errors in English) has created a page dedicated to trash-talking of modern opera productions. And it has a lot of followers, including some of my colleagues. 

This Eurotrash ‘pestilence’ must be stopped! This is only a trend, and surely the masters will stand the test of time! And of course we must blame ze Germans. Germany, after all, is where most of these ‘abominations’ are being produced.

Germany (and the German-speaking countries Austria and Switzerland) also happens to be the only place on Earth where you can have a full-time job with benefits as an opera soloist, and it has dozens of towns with really reputable opera houses putting on hundreds of performances (if not thousands) each year. So, if you ask me, ze Germans can do whatever they want with opera. They’ve earned it. 

I realize many people are not going to agree with what I have to say here. It is a matter of taste, after all. I never even said you have to like opera in the first place. There are people I know and love who say, “Opera’s not really my thing” without ever having seen one. Those people are much more deserving of my understanding, however, than the antagonists of my story, who purport to be opera experts (and as far as opera history goes, to an extent, they probably actually are), and yet refuse to let this living, breathing art form change. My ignoramus friends are far more likely to be open to the risk of coming to see a show I’m in and forming a fresh opinion about it (good or bad) than these stodgy opera critics who think they know what I, the singer, want to achieve in my performance.

Why is opera the only art form which is so reluctant to evolve? (I guess I should mention at this point that I am talking about new dramatic stagings of older operas, not newly composed works) Should we stop at Monteverdi? Mozart? Massenet?  Where is the line? Should we stop composing operas altogether?  And if you really were an opera expert, you would realize that the period in history which “they” seem to idolize was as guilty of non-authentic performance practices as we are today. Instruments have changed (once in a great while you’ll see delightful performances played on historical instruments -- sometimes mixed with modern staging, which makes me feel right at home, like in my living room furnished equally with antiques and IKEA); making cuts in the score is standard practice (*gasp* what would the great masters say!?!?); voice type-casting has also become a fashionable, arbitrary matter.

The fascinating thing about opera is that there is one constant - the music (including the voice and the style and technique with which the music is sung). Neat, huh? But how many times do we have to see a Rigoletto wearing multi-colored tights and a funny hat with a hunchback? For how many hundred more years? That's not what it's about. Whether he's a court jester, or a janitor in Trump Tower (MY idea, don’t steal it), it's still about the hypocrisy of the upper class.  And who cares about the political conspiracy against the King of Sweden in 1792? Huh? Yeah, that's right - no one. What we care about in Il Ballo in Maschera is Gustav falling in love with his best friend's wife, and wanting to ban them both to a far away land so that he can uphold his honor and not taint their friendship (a picture of the production from Erfurt is what gave me the idea to write this blog entry in the first place). Pity that everything gets screwed up and he ends up getting killed in the end. Because that can happen any day. In any costume. In any place. And I see no problem in taking these antiquated political plots and making them into something more accessible or relevant to a more modern concept, such as the Erfurt production in Ground Zero. Or what about that fascinating set at the Bregenzer Festspiele of the same piece? (Google is your friend: I won't post the photos here)

I wish I could placate the tirades of the traditionalists. We still use the instrument the way it was originally made, after all. Look at how much the camera has changed since people started taking pictures or making films, for example. I guess painters still use brushes and, well, paint. But look at the difference between DaVinci’s Mona Lisa and Picasso’s portraits of women. The techniques are totally different. Still, how do we judge what is ‘good’ in art? In painting, whether it be Picasso or DaVinci, we’re still looking at color, composition, or maybe chiaroscuro and brush-strokes. It’s how we can tell the difference between Caravaggio or the Dutch dudes who tried to emulate him.

And in singing, whether the backdrop is a velvety, gilded king’s throne or a toilet in a butcher shop, for all I care, the voice is still judged by timbre, intonation, musicianship and consistency. Opera, no matter how you slice it, is still a collaboration of set and costume designers, directors, musicians and conductors in which the music is a catalyst for the drama (in case you were wondering, I was including singers under the category of musicians - yes, I am one).

The traditionalists want to bring back the Golden Age of Opera, because they blame the modern productions for dwindling audiences and killing the genre. Yeah, okay, so, bring back the days where people didn’t even pay attention - they walked around, ate dinner, talked to each other, left in the middle of the performance to get an ice cream during the Aria di Sorbetto. Now translate that to today: If somebody talked and used an iPad while I was performing, I'd bop them upside the head. No one would care if I broke character if they weren't paying attention, would they? I think it's fallacious to think of opera as anything else but theater (would you chomp on popcorn during Hamlet's monologue in the play? Didn’t think so), and even scarier to think that people can't sit still for more than five minutes. So, invent a "sciatica section", where people with back problems can walk around. Sure, bring in a glass of wine and some cheese, but please... pay attention!

There is a much more evil force out there threatening to kill your precious “opera” - the likes of Katherine Jenkins, Paul Potts, Charlotte Church and, yes, even Andrea Bocelli. And yet these people against modern opera productions catapult into a critical frenzy when they see one single photo from Erfurt’s Il Ballo in Maschera on Facebook or an excerpt from Bayreuth’s Lohengrin on YouTube, trading countless indiscriminate comments about how the ego of the Regisseur is killing the art form. You don’t like it? Fine. But back your opinion up with a few criteria besides one picture.

Heck, every now and again, I like to put on a pretty gown and sing a pretty aria. I, too, am proud to be a part of an art form that has existed over 400 years - even longer when you consider that the voice was the first musical instrument ever made.  But why do I sing? My answer to that question is not etched in stone, nor tattooed on my ass. I enjoy singing for singing's sake - I especially enjoy portraying a character, combining the music and the drama, expressing and creating something on a stage in the moment. It doesn't matter how Callas did it, how Deutekom did it, how Schwarzkopf did it, how Ponselle did it.... Yes, we can watch and learn, but we can also DO and learn, and find the answers within ourselves, together with our directors and conductors, our friends and colleagues, no matter what the set looks like or how the story is being told.

 As for opera’s “Golden Age,” the title character of Baby Doe says in Douglas Moore’s opera from 1956: “Gold is a fine thing for those who admire it. ... Gold is like the sun, but silver lies hidden in the core of dreams.”  We’ll see ... 

photo: Caroline Harvey


  1. I'm a composer from Argentina.In my country it's common now to see some "modern" ways of règie where,for example,The Mozart's Night's Queen aria is performed by a soprano with spacial catsuit,or something like that.I think that the succes of this,like every else only depends of good taste and talent of the regisseur,wherever be the stile he or she chooses.

    1. Hola Fernando - mucho gusto!! Estoy de acuerdo.
      I would LOVE to play the Reina de la Noche in a spacial catsuit!! Do you think you can arrange this? Meow.
      Please let me know where I might be able to hear some of your music. The next thing I do is "Love and Other Demons" by Eötvös -- I'm very excited about it.
      Saludos de Alemania

  2. Hi Christine! What a pleasure to receive your response so soon! You can hear something of my music here:
    And respect to the "Reina de la Noche" affair,what can I say...? It was just a metaphor.We have had some opera productions like Wagner Das Rheingold with "modern" règie you can see here:
    It's a production by the Teatro Argentino de La Plata.