Sunday, February 23, 2014

Reading List: Warum Oper?

The last few weeks of my reading-on-public-transit time have been spent with "Warum Oper?" (Why Opera?) a collection of interviews with opera directors which was published in 2005. Barbara Beyer, herself an opera director, leads 14 conversations circling around this question. "Why opera?" quickly splits into "Why do you dedicate yourself to engaging with opera?" or "Why does (or should) society engage with opera?" The answers provided by those interviewed are remarkable for being both rigorously thought out and intensely personal. Working one's way through these conversations provides insights and opinions from a "who's who" of directors working primarily in German-speaking Europe: Calixto Bieito, Claus Guth, Peter Konwitschny, and Martin Kusej among them. Somewhat to my surprise, Karoline Gruber was the only woman whom Beyer interviewed. I loved reading the book, but its virtues make it difficult to summarize. Rather than working through a set list of questions, the conversations as reproduced here seem to flow from topic to topic, responding to issues raised, sometimes structured to provide contrast with (or responses to) other interviews in the book. As someone not very familiar with the history of movements and key figures in 20th-century opera direction, I enjoyed the background provided on previous generations of directors, and was surprised by the diversity of approaches and philosophies represented by those interviewed. I was also impressed by what all the directors (with the possible exception of Sebastian Baumgartner) shared: a deep passion for and trust in opera scores, and tireless willingness to challenge themselves.

Beyer's system of questioning brought out several shared topics, on which the directors expressed a range of opinions which (among other things) exposes the absurdity of the notion that anyone doing anything that could be described as Regietheater must be a member of some sort of iconoclastic cabal.  As Karoline Gruber points out, any way of staging an opera is an act of interpretation.The question of audience engagement brought out perhaps the most conspicuously diverse replies, from expressions of faith in the possibility of simultaneously challenging and drawing in an audience; to vehement disavowals of a wish to "educate" audiences; to hesitancy to speak of collective audiences, working rather with the idea of engaging as many individuals as possible. Hans Neuenfels offered in summing up that the public should sense that something is happening on stage that is being taken seriously, and that is not patronizing. The discussion of rehearsal process and concept development (used loosely, not as a translation of Konzept) might be of special interest to beginning professionals, but I found it fascinating from a lay perspective. The directors' points of entry for working with a piece range from extensive writing (Baumgartner) to being caught by one particular musical phrase (Esterhazy and others) and were often given as different from opera to opera. Claus Guth speaks of how he was inspired by Poe in taking on Der Fliegende Holländer; Christof Nel offers a meditation on feminist interpretations of music ("Salome's dance doesn't have to be a piece of perfumed orientalism; it doesn't have to be filtered through the male gaze") that made me want to revisit his work. Peter Mussbach discusses the score in most detail, but the music is central for nearly all. The rehearsal process is also spoken of as crucial--although not always in a positive sense--to a production's development; Wieler and Morabito, Baumgartner, and Gruber all described their rehearsal processes as heavily improvisatory. It was Calixto Bieito, somewhat to my surprise, who laid the most emphasis on the importance of positivity in rehearsal space.

So what happens when the work actually gets to the stage? Understandably, the book doesn't go into this in nearly as much detail, as what's on stage is of course available for assessment and interpretation by audience members all the time. Still, I would have been interested in more discussion of work with singers and stage logistics (there is some; the role of the chorus is discussed in some detail both by Kusej and Wieler and Morabito.) It is Kusej who points to the centrality of the work between the director and the conductor, and the importance of the latter not only in political terms but in getting a work to be heard anew. Andreas Homoki engages with the perennial question of clichéd ideas about operatic acting and choreography, concluding "a gesture doesn't have to be naturalistic; it does have to clearly arise out of a realistic emotion." A profound belief in the emotional power of opera, and in the mysterious alchemy through which the art form can communicate emotion, were also given eloquent expression. "For instance," says Paul Esterhazy, "that Gott! cry of Florestan's goes through bone and marrow together; those words spoken on a stage wouldn't reach that."

Many of the interviewed directors were impressively articulate, and all were stimulating, but Peter Konwitschny proved decidedly the most quotable. His commentary on the fact that some audience members walked out on his Don Giovanni and slammed the doors so hard that the Komische Oper had to have them repaired: "That is stupid and dramatically false, but of course better than having them fall asleep." Beyer's attempts at polemicizing were consistently resisted, but met with impassioned explanation rather than stonewalling. Konwitschny was eloquent concerning his desire "to keep these sacred works of art [hehren Kunstwerke] grounded, through ordinary and sometimes through drastic situations." Hans Neuenfels offered a bon mot which I think deserves to be applied in reviews of numerous lazy productions: "You can't make a staging of an opera 'contemporary' by sticking a Porsche in it instead of a carriage." Many of the directors assessed similar problems in opera, as well as similar opportunities: reception traditions that detract from or obscure the real substance of works, and the relatively small number of operas in the standard repertory. For all that, I came away from reading with my own optimism renewed by the numerous examples of faith in opera as open and evolving; not a closed form or a closed system but always in conversation with--sometimes in tension with--the world which receives it.

22 comments:

  1. Why opera?

    It's very simple:

    In all great operas -- those that have never waned in popularity and relevance or those that have regained prominent places in the repertoire -- it's the composer's musical treatment of the dramas that has made them such compelling, and relevant, works of art. Other than the great, inspiring Shakespeare plays, few opera plot sources have
    had a long life of their own. The emotionally charged storytelling through orchestra and voices makes opera what it is. It certainly requires plot, character development, evolving tension, but these are only verbalized in the librettos. In a play performance, one has to think about such utterances to get the author's desired effect. In an
    opera, it's the music that makes them immediately and irresistibly powerful. And this is not just an issue of the great musico-dramatic talent of these composers. Modern research into music's special entry path into the fundamental emotional centers of the mind makes an additional case for the instantaneous power it can have, both in abstract composition and in works where plot, personality and emotion are evoked.

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  2. Any idea if it's been translated? My German is not up to reading the original but it sounds fascinating. I'm so tired of reading one dimensional criticism of "modern productions". I actually came on a variation of this that was worse. There were "modern productions"; which were OK, and "modernistic productions"; that weren't. The distinction seemed to be defined only by whether the individual concerned liked them or not!

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    1. Alas, I wasn't able to find any evidence of a full English translation. Some excerpts did appear in Opera Quarterly, though: Vol. 27, No. 2-3 (2011), 307-317. Let me know if you want that as a PDF! The "modern/modernistic" nonsense sounds so awful I'm chuckling… but then I didn't have to read it!

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    2. Thanks for the PDF. It's a really interesting read. I can think of a few local critics who would have apoplexy on reading it. Even the most experimental productions that I have seen don't begin to explore all the possibilities that, say, Baumgarten talks about. I'm really not sure where I stand on literal "deconstruction" but I do think it's useful to take the discourse beyond useless and stale ideas of "emotion" vs "intellect" or "respecting the composer's original intention" and the interviews quoted certainly do that.

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    3. Hi Lucy,

      Like John, my German is limited. I am afraid a copy of the original book would languish on my bookshelf. I'd love a copy of the PDF, too.

      As you know this is a hot topic for me, and I am always looking for more ways to boost my argument that "tradition ain't bad, but sometimes (often) change is good!"
      thanks in advance!
      Rob

      P.S. I admire your capacity for cordial conversation with your commenters.

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    4. @John Glad you enjoyed! I found myself disagreeing with Baumgartner on a number of points, but the interview did make me curious to see one of his productions (I only know of the Bayreuth Tannhäuser.) Agree about the value of expanded discourse… apropos "intention," I'd love to see more discussion about the modification and "coding" of most of the 19th-century repertoire for reasons of censorship.

      @Rob Done! Come to think of it, I could have aptly included a "See Rob's blog for more discussion" notice, so I'm glad you've chimed in on the comments. Also: thanks! :)

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    5. Thanks Lucy. I got the file and am looking forward to diving into it.

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    6. As I have thought more about the positions in the article the more I feel a desire to see more such productions and think about them in new ways. I do think it's a useful idea (one that crops up several times) to think of the rather overplayed canon differently from less frequently seen works. Ironically, of course, it's reinterpreting the most overplayed pieces that usually creates the most upset.

      I think exploring certain works from the POV of where would the original creators have gone if they didn't have to worry about censorship, commercialism, making sure there was a big aria for the composer's mistress etc would be a fun and potentially enlightening exercise.

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  3. Lucy,

    There is today a growing number of MSM classical music critics as well as ordinary operagoers who positively revel in the challenge of "unpacking" (to use their oft-used term) the meaning of Konzept Regietheater stagings of canonical operas as they might revel in the challenge of solving a clever rebus or acrostic; perverse stagings which today have become a pervasive practice worldwide.

    It never occurs to them (or you?) that any staging of an opera — any opera — that requires unpacking in order to be understood upends the very foundation of opera which seeks first and foremost to address itself directly to one's centers of feeling by virtue of its music rather than to one's intellect and is a veritable definition of what it means to be perverse in this context as such a practice reduces the music to the level of a mere (mostly inappropriate) soundtrack to the drama; a drama that rarely, if ever, bears any true relation to the drama created by the original opera's creator.

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    1. I think speaking of a monolithic "foundation of opera" is misleadingly ahistorical, obscuring as it does the different contexts in which and for which composers wrote. From Monteverdi to Mozart to Verdi and Wagner, to Britten and beyond, I can't think of a single composer (not even Leoncavallo, to pick a representative of verismo!) where intellectual and emotional content or response can be separated. I agree that hearing music as a "soundtrack" in opera is an enormous danger, one which is also acknowledged by many of the authors in this work, several of whom explicitly reject the strategy of a "Konzept." As I hope is clear from the rest of this blog, I relish the unique capabilities of opera for emotional communication, and I think this is much more easily reached with a staging that pays close attention to the music, responding to it and the drama, than one which functions as mere backdrop (whatever the aesthetics involved, in either case.)

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    2. Opera is a hybrid art form, made up of somewhat strange bedfellows. Music, words, and theatrical production will often cohere to create something memorable and moving. But these separate elements, these distinct art forms, nonetheless exist in an inherent tension, always threatening to MILITATE against one another

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    3. That's an interesting perspective… I don't think that tension is necessarily inherent, but it is certainly very common, and I find that becoming alert to those instances of friction has often opened up new ways of listening and understanding for me. Jens-Daniel Herzog, who directed Frankfurt's recent Vepres Siciliennes, spoke of hearing the dotted rhythms of "Merce dilette amiche" as betraying a profound unease, which helped me think about the aria as something much more deeply embedded in the rest of Verdi's drama than a ditty about flowers.

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    4. Forgive me, but this Marc Hansen dude needs to have his cut & paste function disabled.

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    5. Ach so! Thanks for the alert; sorry I didn't realize the text was lifted.

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  4. This is pure food for thought, Lucy. It comes just in time for me because staging has been giving me a lot to think lately. I have come to think that revivalism is a great escape when there is little money to finance opera--at least it's the case around here. If you cannot afford for more rehearsal time and have no money to pay intelligent and proactive directors, your best shot is giving singers the time to learn their roles by themselves (the music will be their main director). Otherwise, no one will have the time to learn the new contexts and the performances will be messy and loose. Instead, if you used the original "concepts" instead of engaging in time consuming "regietheater", you would get more natural (and efficient) results. I had previously advised you against reading my blog, but you might want to try a bit of Google translation for the latest post! Just for the record-and to Mr Neuenfels' discontent--I did see an Elisir where Dulcamara arrived in a motorcycle and at some point someone said "here's a carriage"! Not a Porsche but anyway...

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    1. Glad you found it stimulating! I agree with you that revivals are often a necessary economy, among other things (co-productions too… although discussing artistic implications of those probably a tangent!) I'm not sure if I understand your point about learning contexts, though, or "original concepts." (I did read your most recent post, but I'm sure I missed a lot of its nuances due to my lack of Portuguese, so apologies.) As it happens, I've recently experienced in Frankfurt very beautiful, well-done revivals of Regie or Regie-ish productions. At the Met, I'm afraid, I've experienced the opposite. While some old productions (Billy Budd!) have revived well, the recent Nozze, for one, was vacant and, to use your apt phrase, "messy and loose." (And come to think of it, some recent first runs have suffered from similar messiness, without coming close to anything resembling Regietheater.) Lack of rehearsal time may never cease to be lamented by directors and singers alike (and complex productions, correspondingly, a luxury) but I don't think shying away from strong directorial vision is a solution to it.

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    2. My point about learning new contexts versus sticking to the original concepts is basically that regietheater requires a new approach to the context of the opera. For instance, the Las Vegas Rigoletto at the Met. It's a whole new concept as you push the action 400 years into 1960s Las Vegas; the story changes so much, however you cannot touch the libretto. This means you're going to need a lot of specific work; every little scene and every little gesture is going to need updating. You just can't do that smoothly unless you're very careful and pay a lot of attention to the score. This obviously means weeks (perhaps months) of rehearsals--just for the sake of being different. Now, suppose you're not the Met and you can't even dream of having a budget like the Met has. In that case, you cannot afford for that much rehearsal time and you're most likely not going to be able to pay a regietheater guru to have operas staged for you. Like I said, your best alternative is to allow the singers to interpret the roles on their own (i.e., with the sheet music) instead of asking them to act a whole new Vegas concept. On the other hand, the original concept is in the music. Plus, there are many DVDs with classic productions where one can learn from. Vegas style is too specific for the singers to coherently make a production without lots of rehearsals and a good director. This is my example because someone had the brilliant idea of trying to copy the Met's Rigoletto around here. The ultimate result was a Rigoletto that looked like Slash and Bella figlia dell'amore in a brothel. Meanwhile, these [I don't know the English word] were being displayed for exhibition at the opera house: http://youtu.be/Zq7UaT6xEkM?t=4m21s Just think how more rational it could have been if they had just stuck to the original concept instead of venturing into a new one...

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    3. PZ, this may be partially an issue of translation, but the MM Rigoletto is an example of a carriage/Porsche trade rather than a directorial concept of the kind usually identified with Regietheater. (Perhaps relevantly, this is to date the only opera production he's directed.) Mayer's choreography is, in fact, remarkably close to the stage directions as in the score, and its musical attentiveness is a virtue. I would say that "being careful and paying a lot of attention to the score" is a necessity (or at least a desideratum!) for any production. Also, I don't see how "the original concept" can serve as a set of guidelines, since the interpretation of music is always subjective, for singers as for us mortals. Moreover, to remain with your example, 16th-century Mantua (not, incidentally, Verdi's original concept, but a compromise with the censors) would be no guarantee for compatible interpretations of the artists concerning questions such as: what does the Duke really feel for Gilda? How is Rigoletto's relationship with the court shaped by fear, resentment, rage, resignation? Is Gilda's filial devotion to be taken at face value, or is she feeling impatient and stifled--or both, and are these feelings coming to a point? Careful and precise musical/dramatic characterization made the last revival of Copley's 1970s Elisir fresh and charming, as its absence made the Nozze I mentioned above intensely frustrating.

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    4. Hmm I do think though that once you've chosen the context (say, 1970s Elisir), it's like accepting a specific paradigm. It is like looking at the same music through different glasses. One who wears the same pair of glasses should see roughly the same from music. I know this sounds weird, but I believe one should be able to read everything through the music. The music does tell us what the Duke's real feelings for Gilda are and it also provides insights into Rigoletto's true aspirations. If it weren't so, why would we feel compelled to say 'hey, that gesture didn't feel natural!' or 'that was just in tempo'? We seem to agree on this (obviously considering some people's opinions will diverge on occasion), but my second point is that wearing the glasses of the original sets and contexts is so much easier. It will probably not be enough for demanding audiences but it will do just fine when one doesn't have the means to try new glasses on.

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  5. Hello Lucy
    If you are not yet tired of emailing copies of the pdf, I would be really interested to read a copy. Thank you :-)

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    1. Hi -- I don't have your contact information, but do feel free to e-mail me at the address on my profile.

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