|supposedly explains Why Tannhäuser Matters|
We live in an aggressively visual age; images dominate the popular culture. But which art form has the most to say about contemporary culture, and why?
I’m an unabashed specialist. I go to the movies sometimes and I watch Mad Men like any civilized person but basically I am a “classical” music person. So I don’t want to quantify how much other art forms have to say about contemporary culture. I’m going to talk about what I know, because I think as a blogger that’s the best I have to offer. (By the way, a very formidable woman is writing a book about the contest of the arts, so stay tuned.) It’s an interesting question, though, because the role of images in opera is a unique one.
Since its beginning, opera has posited itself as the union of multiple arts. When Wagner theorized the Gesamtkunstwerk centuries later, he was still at hand to shape his own music, words, and staging into a meaningful whole. But when we produce an old opera today, we no longer have this unity of time, place, and creator: the composer is dead, and enormous gulfs separate our culture from the one that produced it. For most new productions of old works, the music and words contained in the score are sacrosanct, while the visual elements are more flexible.* Sound comes to us largely dictated--yes, there are infinite ways to play a phrase, but the notes are still largely the same ones--while the visuals elements can vary wildly.
These new images can do things music alone cannot. Music expresses many things, but by itself it isn’t semantically specific. When tied to an image, character, or narrative (and to words as well), its expression is channeled into a more literal meaning. Certain kinds of operatic representation have become traditional and expected to different audiences in different times and places. La Cieca just wrote about this in terms of Anna Netrebko’s somewhat less than traditional take on Manon. (It’s exactly on point, particularly the question of why we want to see Manon as an innocent, and why we seem so reluctant to grant her autonomy.)
The operatic singing voice is not, unfortunately, something we often hear in daily contemporary life. This is not a sound that comes out of most of our throats, it’s too spectacular, too beautiful, too loud. This incongruity is used for comic purposes all the time. All sorts of cultural history has rendered the sound of opera, to many people today, fancy and old-fashioned. A traditional period setting gives us what we think we should see, domesticating the sound into one particular meaning. It presents it as something essentially decorative and anachronistic, an expensive curio (echoing the social meaning opera has traditionally held in American life, as a luxury social event).
Opera can only become contemporary when we stop this lazy tradition and fetishization, when we can see that Anna Netrebko’s Manon can be a figure of power rather than just an innocent, beautiful object. The superpowers of the operatic voice can be deployed in so many other, more creative ways--as Netrebko is doing here, bless her. I’ve written about the process of interpretive conceptualization before. The key is not how different everything looks from the usual but that no one takes the music’s meaning for granted--that is to say, before you looked, you listened.
Many of those who are resistant to so-called “updated” stagings fall into two broad groups:
- People who want their opera to stay abstract and find an unchallenging portrayal most conducive to their appreciation of the music as a socially disengaged object.
- People who are attached to their received meaning of a piece and don’t welcome the challenge of reassessment.
People who dismiss Regietheater are very fond of describing isolated images without context--“isn’t that dumb? A giant cat!” But context is everything. An image where context doesn’t matter, without a meaning behind its placement at that moment in the score--the reflexive step downstage center, the kneeling at the end of the aria--isn’t worth seeing. And it’s that alchemy between music and narrative, between past and present, between gnostic printed score and drastic performance that makes an old opera relevant to contemporary life.
*A director I studied with said a very wise thing: an opera text has three parts: music, libretto, and stage directions. When you’re going to produce it, each needs to be examined for its validity. Music ages the least, words next, and stage directions age the most. (He does not consider music unalterable and, rather infamously, does change things when he thinks he needs to.)