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