Opera Isn’t Theater

Our Hero, Walter Felsenstein (bust at the Komische Oper)

First, if you haven’t read James Jorden’s excellent piece at Musical America about the ailing Gelb regime at the Met, please go do so!

I want to look at one specific aspect of the issue. Peter Gelb thinks the way of bringing new blood into opera is to hire theater directors. But many of his recent imports–such as Michael Grandage (Don Giovanni) and Robert Lepage (the Ring, who granted has a somewhat longer history in opera)–seem utterly at a loss when confronted with opera. (The same goes for Dominique Meyer’s choices at the Wiener Staatsoper like André Engel and Eric Génovèse.) What makes the work so different?

A spoken-word theater director’s text is a script composed only of words. An opera director has a musical score of both notes and words. The music adds new and complex structural and expressive dimensions to the text. First, the timing of how the words unfold is determined not by the director and actors as in a spoken play but by the rhythm of the score and by the conductor and singers, which can make the theater director feel very constricted. What do you during this long orchestra bit? I imagine this is particularly a problem for directors like Lepage and Mary Zimmerman, who often write their own texts or are directing new works.

But much more importantly, the director is responsible for staging the music (in Peter Konwitschny’s term, Musik-inszenieren) as well as the words. In a number opera, this means confronting the structural divisions of the music–recitative, aria, ensemble, etc. In any opera, this means acknowledging, exploiting, and visualizing the gestural and expressive qualities of the music.

Here is a classic example, from La traviata. Gérmont is about to launch into his pitch to Violetta about why she needs to leave Alfredo and reveals the existence of his daughter:

Skip this paragraph if you don’t like music theory: The recit has been cruising through some unresolved diminished chords, which gives it an uneasy and awkward feeling. When he says “due figli,” “two children,” it’s finally clear why Gérmont is visiting Violetta. The orchestra correspondingly crashes in with the clarity of an accented major triad on A-flat, albeit in second inversion. Violetta repeats, “Di due figli?” and the orchestra resolves the cadential 6/4 into an E-flat major triad. Now she’s realized why he is there too. It turns out that this is the dominant chord of the [quasi-]aria’s key of A-flat major.

Version with less theory: As Gérmont finally gets to his point and announces his daughter’s existence, the previously unstable harmony settles, and we can hear Violetta start to listen to him when she joins him in a stable key, a key he continues in his “Pura siccome un angelo.”

Moving on: Gérmont’s line “Pura siccome un angelo” is rather suave, and the exact music repeats with the next line of the text. He’s hanging around middle C, a strong and highish part of the voice where a baritone is going to sound forceful. But he’s marked dolcissimo cantabile and is on the third of the chord, not the stronger root or fifth. And what’s with that sixteenth note neighbor-tone blip on “angelo” and “figlia”? It’s not harmonically important, but it gives the vocal line a little bump  that could be interpreted to mean any number of things.

That’s the thing: musical expression doesn’t have specific semantic content. These musical events could mean any number of things. Violetta could be shocked, injured, or even relieved when she repeats “two children,” but we know something happens in this particular spot when we switch from diminshed chords to major triads. It’s the director’s job to translate this musical expression into a plausible emotional narrative in the stage action. It can even go against the music, but it has to be conscious of it. You can’t just stage the words. You don’t have to be musically educated–though in my opinion it is a big, big help–but you need to listen with a sensitive ear to every note. And this is not something directors accustomed to working only with words necessarily naturally know how to do.

For the creative director, this can be a great opportunity. Since so much of opera’s drama is contained in the powerful but flexible narrative of music, it’s easy to depart from the specifics of the libretto (setting, events) as long as your alternative still makes sense on some level (enter Stefan Herheim). Unfortunately the level that most directors choose is “tradition.” The small rotating repertoire and short rehearsal periods of many opera houses leads easily to ossification of productions, performers and audience members, and for popular operas it seems way easier to choose the way everyone’s seen before. Even if no one can remember exactly why Don José always rips off Carmen’s mantilla in that measure, they do it because it is what is done.

The theoretical advantage of bringing in theater directors is that in all their operatic innocence they will see things in a fresh way.* But staging opera requires specific musical skills to create something dynamic and new, and recent new Met directors seem to have fallen either deep into a stogy tradition of which they profess ignorance (Michael Grandage) or a flatness that has no content at all (Robert Lepage). And that’s not staging opera.

Here is how Willy Decker stages the Traviata moment. Despite some overacting from Thomas Hampson it is well done:

*Grandage said he wanted a production that would be comprehensible to new operagoers. JJ rightly calls him out on this point. I’d like to add that as a member of the Youthful Demographic most of my non-opera buff friends think that opera is frumpy and old-fashioned. Some of them like a good ruffly dress-up, but just as many if not more would like to see something modern and fresh. And give new audience members some credit, they aren’t so easily confused. You know Grandage called some 22-year old to get him or her to explain Inception to him.

Previously in Regarding Regietheater:

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  1. I couldn't agree more. The English National Opera has had a host of recent disasters (the hapless nadir probably Rufus Norris's Don Giovanni) at the hands of theatre or film directors who know nothing of music, and seem to wish to know even less. Herheim and Konwitschny are of course both musicians, which explains a great deal. There will always be exceptions, but it strikes me as a very odd thing for a director to have the nerve to stage a musical drama if he cannot read the score. A few souls will prosper, but for the most part, it will at best be akin to staging Brecht in German without understanding the language.

  2. Totally! Listening to a real opera director like Christopher Alden talking about how it all starts with the score really underlined this for me. One question it does raise in my mind though is why Broadway directors typically make such a hash of opera. I treat "Tony award winning" as a dire warning.

  3. operaramblings, that's an interesting question. What about musical theater? What I think of first is that almost all musicals are more recently written than our standard rep operas and feel closer to us culturally (plus their books tend to be more topical, it's the nature of pop culture), so less work is required bridging centuries of change. Also, the music tends to involve more dance, and the choreographer often takes the lead at many points. The stage director still has a lot of spoken dialect to take care of, and the challenge of an entire story told in music is rarely a factor.

    Dr. Berry–you know we're getting your ENO Faust next at the Met. Ahhhhhh I've got a bad feeling about this, though Faust is a pretty weak piece to start with… on the other hand you're due to get the Konwitschny Traviata from Graz at ENO in a season or two and it is a model of his Musik-inszenieren!

  4. "you know we're getting your ENO Faust next at the Met"


    Very penetrating and illuminating. Of course you're right that good opera direction (of whatever provenance) should be in confluence with and reinforce the music. The best opera direction does so in a way that is apparent even to relatively new (if interested and attentive) listeners/viewers.

    In the MA article you link to there's a quote from Grandage about how he's trying to make the story accessible to those seeing it for the first time. I don't know the precise composition of the Met audience but there are obviously many repeat visitors who are likely to return to the theater (and the particular opera) much more frequently and dismissing them in this way may not be such a good idea.

    In any case, to the extent he's trying to make the opera easy to follow or interesting to the newbies he seems to have failed quite miserably in at least this instance. This was a first Don G for friends who visit the opera very occasionally (2-4 times a year, give or take) but fall within the category of attentive and careful listeners mentioned above who are able to discern effective direction of the music. They were neither especially familiar with any of the singers nor particularly tempted by Grandage's name. But Don G was a "Famous Opera" they hadn't seen yet and the NP seemed a good occasion to do so. While they enjoyed the music a lot they found the action difficult to follow and uninteresting, the scenery undifferentiated and (somewhat) unattractive.

    The clumsiness, expense and dramatic (and sometimes technical – I was at the "accidental" perf.) inadequacy of the Lapage has been well documented. I dread the Faust.

  5. operaramblings, I believe Grandage's Tony Award was not for a musical but for Red, the play about Mark Rothko.

    So I guess the next question is what did people think of his Billy Budd at Glyndebourne and his Butterfly at HGO last year?

  6. Part 1!

    I disagree – I don't think the problem is that opera is not theatre, I think the problem is the assumption that environment and conditions of a theatre production are the same as an opera production. I think people like Gelb hire theatre directors thinking that the skills of the theatre director can easily transfer to opera and the only challenge is the music (which, surely, a talented and seasoned director like Grandage or Hytner can easily meet), but this is not the case. A theatre director also has to adapt to working with singers who, for the most part, are not actors. They do not approach staging and character work the same way an actor does (certainly not an actor from London's National Theatre or the Donmar Warehouse), they have not spent much time learning how to express themselves with their body (let alone express themselves physically while trying to fight the odd physical tics and habits of classical singing that many performers never really lose), and they certainly don't do acting warm-ups. Not to mention that, although operas have understudies, they rarely perform in an emergency (certainly not at the Met), so it is entirely possible that all the weeks of work you've spent developing a character and a production will go out the window 2 days before opening night. According to the Guardian, the Grandage production was quite good with Kwiecien and the work they had done on the characters was clear an interesting. I can't imagine that it would be enough to save that production, but it is worth noting. When I was an apprentice stage manager, we didn't have our A-cast Rigoletto until dress rehearsal. Domingo made it to maybe 3 Tamerlano rehearsals and didn't seem particularly worried about following all of his blocking (like allowing the soldiers to push him to the ground – instead his Bajazet heroically walked toward Tamerlano, and who's going to tell Placido Domingo to "please perform the scene as I blocked it"? And that was a production directed by someone who only directs opera. The Rigoletto was a bland Catherine Malfitano production with sets and costumes Frankensteined from other houses' productions.

  7. Part 2!

    I find that many non-opera directors do place a great deal of emphasis on the music. Terry Gilliam's Damnation of Faust may not have been terribly effective (I wouldn't know), but he spends a lot of time talking about the music in all of his interviews about the production. Sir Peter Hall has absolutely brilliant and insightful things to say about the importance of music in opera (and he's something of a pianist), and his productions are just as flat as the current generation of British theatre directors at the Met. I think they do understand the nuances of the music and they do try very hard not to stand in the way of it (that's why they have a chance at the Met – they demure to the musical standards).

    Likewise, many opera directors make equally dull productions. Zefirelli. David McVicar is an opera director, but he only seems to be interesting at Glyndebourne (a house known for dedication to high theatrical standards and for hiring singers who want to contribute to those standards – he's got better actors there). Catherine Malfitano's productions are pretty dull, though she certainly understands the music and has pretty good dramatic intuition (her problem is she can only really work with performers who already know what she wants). Peter Sellars was interesting once upon a time, but that was a long time ago.

    I do think opera is theatre, or it should be theatre; but opera singers are not equipped to deliver theatre, and most opera houses don't seem to see any reason in creating a working environment that would allow for performer development. There is a lack of respect for the dramatic process. There is no balance between the drama and the music when it comes to performer development.

    Now, as for Konwitschny, he can control who he works with (at least in Leipzig). He is experienced in theatre and opera; and, of course, he is directing in northern European countries where directors are at least given a chance to take the kind of risks that can utterly fail or completely transform one's understanding of the work.

    Sorry for the length and undoubtedly meandering quality of the writing.

  8. @ Caitlin C

    You make a number of interesting general points and I'm sure the specific examples you cite for the failure (or at least less than complete theatrical success) of the production in question are very illustrative. Still, on the one hand some of the difficulties are generally unavoidable and on the other they are in fact effectively surmounted, at least on occasion.

    The very unique musical talent required to sing opera is not always accompanied by an equal of even proximate dramatic ability and the great effort and time required to develop the former does not always leave the opportunity to develop even minimal accomplishment in the latter.

    Along the same lines the time needed to put together a musically functioning performance necessarily leaves less time for developing the dramatic component, much less for making up the above mentioned and non infrequently present discrepancy between the musical and dramatic gifts of the singers. This, of course applies a fortiori in the case of drive by performers like Domingo and repertory houses notorious for lack of rehearsal (Vienna being a particularly egregious case, as was so well documented by Zerbinetta during her sojourn in the former Hapsburg capital).

    Still, some singers are capable actors (e.g. Mattei – perhaps among the dozen or so most gifted vocalists before the public today – and Frittoli, while no Olivier and Hepburn were IMO dramatically superb as the Count and Countess in a London (McVicar) Figaro a few summer ago) and rehearsal periods, especially in the case of new productions, do in fact give some opportunity to develop the dramatic components of the story and sometimes present an interesting/new interpretation.

    It is therefore that much more frustrating when such an interesting/new interpretation fails to emerge from the (relatively) extensive rehearsal permitted for a new production. While there may be various reasons for this I think Zerbinettas's thesis about the the lack of musical sensibility of some theater directors identifies one of the reasons this happens. Of course musical literacy in itself is (as the cases you cite demonstrate) not in itself sufficient to create an effective production.

    In the case of the Grandage Don G, the failure is quite pronounced. I saw both the premiere with Mattei and last night's performance with Kwiecien and while their performances were quite different, Mattei's was actually somewhat more (dramatically) impressive when one considers the very limited time he had to rehearse. This being the case in spite of Kwiecien's own relatively considerable acting talents and the time he had to develop and interpretation.

    Subscirbe fully to your apology for length and quality of writing.

  9. The argument about great singers not necessarily being great actors is fair, and one I've heard many times. It is difficult. What are the odds? This question is one of the many things that have discouraged me from continuing to pursue opera production as a career path. Nevertheless, the entire process of training opera singers in this country (university and conservatory programs) and the rehearsal process in most major opera houses (again, my beef is mostly with US houses) places very little importance on dramatic development. Acting classes seem to be dropping out of university voice programs left and right. There is a sense that opera singers should be able to rely purely on "natural" acting talent – that if a singer is a good performer as a singer, bridging the gap to being a good actor is quite simple. It's just not true, though, and it's rather demeaning to the acting profession. And there are little things that are born of practicality but, unfortunately, hinder singers as actors; for example, classical vocal training happens individually, acting training happens in groups. Actors generally have a better sense of ensemble and relate to their fellow performers more effectively. Every time a singer actually looks at another singer and there is a clear connection – when they actually seem to be reacting to one another and playing off each other, it's like a miracle! And I know it's hard. Trust me, I know all the reasons why they don't; but set up some more maestro cams (we have the technology!), take a vitamin C and a breath mint, and if a singer is uncomfortable with a piece of blocking, they need to discuss it with the director. In the productions I've worked on, when a singer doesn't like a piece of blocking they either half-heartedly go through the motions, they voice their objections with some condescension, or they do whatever they want. Singers are not taught to engage with an opera production as unique a piece of theatre that they are contributing to.

    If I had my way opera production would be completely overhauled – standardized schedule of at least 6 weeks of rehearsal, keep opera houses under 2k seats (preferably closer to 1k) unless you're doing some massive La Fura dels Baus stuff, make time for acting training (even if it means sacrificing some vocal perfection – I am completely comfortable with that), and I would love, LOVE for directors and conductors to work in consistent teams. Rather than assigning a conductor to a director and vice versa, they need to establish working partnerships with each other so there's no strange, subtle power struggle in the rehearsal room and the leadership is on the same page and equally engaged in the specific production.

    It could well be that it's just not going to happen, but I think this is what it will take to make opera into good theatre. I don't think musicality will be the saving grace of engaging opera. It's not enough for the director to know the thing backwards and forwards and down to the last augmented 6th chord if we don't equip singers with the skills to deliver his/her vision.

  10. Hi Caitlin, thanks a lot for your very thoughtful comments. I'm sorry I didn't respond more quickly but I wanted to make sure I could when I had time to do so properly. I'm fascinated at your look at the logistical, practical side of the equation, which is not something that I'm really qualified to write about–which is why I didn't, not because I think it doesn't matter!

    I didn't want to make bring the thorny issue of nationalities into this, but I should say that my original post was outlining a specific method score interpretation of the Walter Felsenstein school, common for German-trained opera directors but not nearly so established elsewhere. It is my favorite school of thought for this kind of thing but hardly the only valid option.

    But I do think that musicality in some form is an essential quality for directors and often lacking in new opera imports, who simply aren't equipped to deal with a score. Close collaboration with a conductor could, as you point out, help with this. I feel like many directors have great *general* things to say about the music but often fail when they try to get to the specific gestural level. That's where a sharp ear is needed.

    As for training, what is your opinion of the ensemble model found in European houses? Places like Stuttgart and the Komische Oper Berlin aren't hotbeds of vocal glamor (though the overall level is surprisingly good) but they seem most successful in staging complex productions in repertory with consistent and convincing acting that DOES feature the kind of ensemble that you rightly point out is usually lacking–presumably because everyone gets used to each other. But this isn't plausible for American companies that only put a few operas a season, nor would it work for a company that wants to hire big names.

    Clearly there is a lot of geographic variation here–most of my knowledge such that it is of Central Europe, n.b. The American singers I know (that is the ones who haven't worked much in Europe) generally have, as you suggest, a much narrower view of operatic production and what they are willing to do.

    I wonder if in the US at least this has something to do with the marginalized role of classical theater. We have no national theater here. With a few exceptions most major theater productions here are every bit as literal-minded and predictable as opera, (though of course better-acted). It doesn't encourage people to think of the arts creatively.

  11. Part 1:

    No worries! And my apologies for using your comments section as a soap box – the issue is near and dear to my heart, and I was very excited to see you post about it. I spent my entire MA program coming to terms with the fact that my assumption that opera is theatre is, in fact, an assumption. It is now an argument that I am perpetually trying to refine. I apologize if I seemed to think you didn’t care about the practical aspects of opera – very few people actually write about the practicalities of opera production, so I certainly don’t blame you. The lack of practical knowledge is much more troublesome in areas like professional criticism and musicology!

    I agree that the Felsenstein methodology is very effective and a solid plan. It reminds me a lot of Peter Hall’s work with Shakespeare in the 60s that eventually lead to the establishment of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Hall argued that the correct delivery of Shakespearean text depended on a very close and careful reading of the text; that the natural inflection of words relative to the prescribed pattern of iambic pentameter, the division of line between characters, syncopation of iambs, etc. all indicate the tempo of the delivery and suggest the critical points of delivery: moments of tension and conflict, of resolution, etc. (This style of reading is laid out in Peter Hall’s book Shakespeare’s Advice to Players and the RSC’s Playing Shakespeare series, which is available on DVD.) This meticulous, text-based approach was and is extremely influential, particularly in the world of British theatre (particularly PARTICULARLY in the houses in an around the South Bank – the National and the Old Vic, which both served as settings for landmark points of Hall’s career and have hosted the works of many, if not all, of the British directors Gelb has brought in). Peter Hall, as I’m sure you know, also served as Artistic Director of Glyndebourne for many years. Given this environment, I find it hard to believe that Grandage didn’t approach the text very carefully. Same for Nick Hytner’s productions. I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t have noticed and noted in their scores all the little musical points of tension and emphasis. Now, Lepage… he’s Mr. Spectacle. I think he’s got some interesting technological ideas, but apart from the tech I don’t find his productions interesting. I wish Gelb would hire the La Fura dels Baus people if he wants spectacle – they have better technology and they’re pretty interesting from a dramatic standpoint. It’s probably not easy to ship their shows over the Atlantic.

  12. Part 2:

    The problem is nuance is easily lost (especially at the Met). I can’t help but wonder what Grandage’s production would have been like in a house a third of the Met’s size. Would have helped to see the texture of the set? Was it meant to serve as sightline-engulfing visual white noise to draw our attention to the performers? Would the performances have been more striking in a more intimate space? I think that might be the problem more than anything – theatre is rarely played in spaces that large (and certainly not willingly played in spaces that large). Also, there is an aversion to “literal” interpretations of the score – a fear of “Mickey Mousing”. I think the biggest problem, though, is that I can’t imagine singers in American houses memorizing and dedicating themselves to that level of detail in their blocking. I would watch blocking erode over the course of rehearsals (and this happens in theatre, too), and the director doesn’t have the time (or, sometimes, the authority) to demand and develop a more articulate performance. I think, as you say, all of the elements of the music that need to be staged are very clear to a careful ear, even without a background in analysis (otherwise audiences would be out to sea); and I think the directors who aren’t interested in engaging in a careful reading of an opera score wouldn’t even bother taking a job directing an opera.

    I love the Komische Oper, and you’re right – it’s probably not a model we can emulate in the US, which is a terrible shame. I still wished the acting was a bit better in the Komische productions I saw, but it never seemed at odds with the production. I wish the big opera houses (or theatres!) would host these productions, though. I’m not sure why we can’t have one or two productions a season that spend money on longer rehearsals rather than names. Wouldn’t this be a great function for the Young Artist programs? And technically, it would foster better performers for the future.

    Our relative lack of dramatic tradition does put us at a disadvantage. Certainly the countries with what I would call the most progressive theatre scenes are countries with state theatres, and it seems like the countries with good theatre have better opera. I often wonder if it’s more the class thing and elitist pricing of opera that fosters (or maintains a conservative attitude). The most conservative and ridiculously priced operas seem to be in America and Italy. Then there’s Bayreuth, which is increasingly seeming like one of the least conservative houses but also has some crazy prices. But, come on… It’s Bayreuth!

    I’m @GoodbyeFlorence Caitlin, btw!

  13. Actually Bayreuth is far cheaper than Salzburg and not that much more expensive than Munich. It's just inaccessible. (As far as I know Salzburg is the Most Expensive Opera Anywhere. Zurich is also extremely pricey.) But I think the money and funding issue is actually key here, to approach from the angle I know more about. When an opera house is dependent on the goodwill of a rich (and usually aesthetically conservative) donor base as American groups are it takes fewer risks and tends to rely much more on the star casting that can cause all these sorts of problems. The Met gets one of these really Gesamt, non big name productions once in a while–From the House of the Dead and The Nose come to mind–but they are generally of lesser-known operas that will attract an arty crowd (who would generally not turn up for Puccini) and not offend those in power (who only turn up for Puccini and famous singers and the like).

    Purely from my armchair position I think working this kind of thing into young artist programs sounds like a great idea–I've always wanted a return of the Mini-Met, particularly because giant American houses are so manifestly unsuited to Baroque repertoire (the US doesn't have enough orchestras that can play Baroque music properly either but that's another story).

    I have been sitting in the Family Circle at the Met recently for financial reasons (I don't usually have the time to wait all day in the rush line or sometimes even to buy standing room at the exact right time), and that's been a factor in how I've been seeing things, but it's also a real problem for directors. Even the sheer size of the Met stage seems to defeat many of them. I suppose The Machine was a way of dealing with that, but it's a mighty awkward and symbolically empty one.

    Gawd sometimes I want to go back to Europe even though the Wiener Staatsoper kinda sucks and there aren't any good cheap Thai restaurants near it.

  14. "I've always wanted a return of the Mini-Met, particularly because giant American houses are so manifestly unsuited to Baroque repertoire (the US doesn't have enough orchestras that can play Baroque music properly either but that's another story)."

    Toronto has Tafelmusik and they play for Opera Atelier's shows which are staged in a 1500 seat theatre. If only OA's shows didn't all look exactly the same as they have done for 20 years!

  15. As one who worked off and on as a set designer for about fifteen years and straddled the worlds of both opera and musical theatre, I'm not sure there are *any* directors out there capable of handling either art form these days. The biggest issue with tackling opera, IMHO, is that no one wants to trust the material; instead, they have to make it all "different!". One of my more vivid memories of this was working (well, attempting to work) on a production of TURANDOT for a Major Company That Shall Remain Nameless (sorry, it's a small world out there professionally). The director had no brief and, frankly, was looking to me as designer to give him something to work with.

    Now here's the thing: I love this opera. I was thrilled to be given the chance to go at it carte blanche because (again, IMHO) TURANDOT always struck me as one of those "let's bring out the Chinoise!" just for the sake of looking big and over the top and either terribly Zefferelli or terribly Hockney. So I presented my take: TURNADOT as a ghost story/Hammer film. It's a pretty sadistic tale, so I did everything in blues and greys, with a lot of spider webbing and ancient Chinese statuary to create an atmosphere that would have scared the living daylights out of the audience at key moments, all within the sensibilities of Puccini's incomparable score.

    Mr "I Dont Have a Concept" Director looked at it and promptly shot it down with nothing more than "I dont like it". That's fine, I responded, but what *do* you want? Turns out, he wanted (wait for it) Zefferelli. He wanted (you guessed it) Hockney. His staging was almost a carbon copy of the Met's: I could almost swear he went home each night to watch the DVD to see how he was to stage the scene the next day.

    And I've found this to be more and more typical, TTTT. Directors want to *look* terribly innovative (not that this guy — or Zeff, for that matter — are, but anyway…), but they havent a clue how to approach this stuff *conceptually*. The story gets lost in a lot of "Hey, let's set THE BAT in 1930s Berlin and put Act Three in a concentration camp!" kind of thinking. It's all imposed style and no substance — and a complex art form like opera deserves far better.

  16. The "regie" practitioners take themselves [and many here do as well], much too seriously; all they're trying to do is marry great music with images of their own imagining, thus, they are essentially misplaced film directors.