Opera as Repertory Drama, or, What is a Concept?

 Your opera house is putting on a new production of repertory staple opera X. It’s on the schedule because Diva Y wants to sing the leading role, because your old production resembles a diorama in the Museum of Natural History and was condemned by OSHA, whatever. You call up a director and design team and they show up at your office to pitch their idea.

The director says, “This is a story about forbidden love in a time of chaos, authoritarianism, and paranoia. We’re going to set it in China during the Cultural Revolution.”

Your response is
a) We were thinking of going in a more traditional direction; there’s nothing about China in the libretto. Besides, Diva Y wants to wear a bustle.
b) Great! That’ll look nice on the bus stops and maybe we can get a new audience out of Chinatown. After all, they’re our future overlords. (awkward chuckle)
c) If that’s what the opera is about, what is your production about?

My answer is c). As a director, you’re given this relic, this opera. It’s a big book, but it’s also the weight of centuries of accrued tradition. Your job is to navigate a way through both of these things.

Opera still consecrates the idea that we, together in the here and now, become an essential element of a ritual. There’s a Holy Writ, namely the score, which is transformed, body and soul. When someone like Konwitschny breaks open this holy writ… he turns against blind pornographic indulgence and attempts to create the conditions to read theater as living theater must be read: alert and critical, with the belief that we can create a better life.
-Stefan Herheim

When a director does something unexpected, they are often reflexively accused by the conserverati of “hating opera.” Usually this is because the director dispensed with some detail to which the accuser has a sentimental attachment, and is ridiculous. But a director might benefit from hating opera a tiny bit–or at least hating opera as it is usually performed. It gives him or her critical distance from the work. He or she doesn’t sigh every time Tosca enters with her flowery stick in Act 1, and this distance is what allows them to do something new. Creating a space between the score and this particular interpretation of it lets the audience sees something living, something other than a comfortable rote reenactment of something they have seen many times before (something other than, one could say, operatic masturbation).

1. Make sets. 2. ? 3. Success!

While the setting created by the sets and costumes seem the most obvious way to establish an interpretation, they don’t do the director’s work for them. Even if they set the thing on Mars, the production will be empty unless it grew from a detailed and insightful perspective on the opera’s text. And productions with traditional looks aren’t necessarily traditional in their content. The director’s perspective doesn’t have to be oppositional or ironic–it just has to be there, and be comprehensibly articulated.

He or she has to listen to the opera and interrogate it, and listen to its reception and interrogate that too, and not take any meaning for granted. (Actually not being acquainted with operatic style or, more direly, the opera one is directing is an impediment–ignorance and unconditional love are two sides of the same coin.) Most likely, a lot of time has passed between the composition of this opera and the present day. What has changed? How do we relate to this today? How will the production confront those differences?

This makes it sound like the production is going to be a lot of work for the audience, but I think the boredom of sitting through something that has no conviction or coherence is a far more onerous trial that the challenge of being confronted with something new.

Previously in Regarding Regietheater:

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  1. I think you and I think too much alike! I don't care whether a production is traditional or extremely radical. I want it to have something intelligent to say and to succeed in saying it. I've been watching a lot of DVDs recently and analysing which ones touch my inner core and which leave me cold. The good ones range from the, on the face of it traditional as all heck, Gardiner production of Cosi to Bieito's Wozzeck in which Wozzeck isn't even a soldier. Productions that disappoint me tend to be the one's that take some gimmick and use it as a substitute for a production concept. Bartlett Sher's "play within a play" schtick for Le Comte Ory at the Met for example. Diane Paulus tried the same thing in her Magic Flute at COC with similarly lame results.

  2. Ah yes, the one trick ponies. Cool at first but you realize after around 20 minutes that this marginally interesting constraint isn't enough to structure three acts and it boxes everyone in and prevents them from going in any other direction…

  3. Lotfi Mansouri tried to get the Chinese community involved with SF Opera with singular lack of success. Or so he claims. His autobiography is probably best taken with a truck load of Morton's finest.

  4. Thank you for these thoughtful remarks. I think of myself as leery of the excesses of *Regie*-style opera or theater, but what in fact I dislike is brainless opera. It's just as bad to be bored by the Met's *Anna Bolena* (the Met's new motto: No Intepretation) as it is to be offended by any number of sophomorically outrageous Continental productions (take your pick). If the production team truly engages with the text and music of the piece, something interesting ought to result.

  5. operaramblings, I find that entirely unsurprising. Sensible and sensitive cultural outreach isn't modern opera's strong suit, which is what I was poking fun at above.

  6. Sensible and sensitive cultural outreach isn't modern opera's strong suit

    Los Angeles Opera has been desperate to tap in to the Latino market here during Domingo's reign of error, but it's been pretty risible so far. Things like doing The Merry Widow in Spanish (!!!) or trying to foist ghastly zarzuela vanity projects on the subscription audience etc. Luckily, they haven't tried outreach to gay men yet, I can only imagine how bad *that* would be.