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November 26, 2007

Staging Opera

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I know next to nothing about opera. I know next to nothing about music, as my four years as a lazy grade school and junior high school band zillionth-chair clarinet player attest. Therefore, no one can truthfully accuse me of being an Opera Snob ... though I am more vulnerable to being tagged as a blowhard for some obscure reason.

Nevertheless, I'm here to pontificate on the staging of opera -- from a near-Everyman perspective. So read on or tune out: your pick.

... Hmm ... anyone still around?

My pathetic accumulation of experience is as follows: At the top end, I saw Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" at the San Francisco Opera in 1982. From 2003 into 2006 I saw several operas performed down the bay in San Jose. A year or two ago I saw a partly-staged Beethoven "Fidelio" at the San Francisco Symphony. Early this fall I saw Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" at the Seattle Opera. Most recently, in Rome, at the All Saints church (Anglican) on the Via del Babuino a few blocks northwest of the Spanish Steps, I saw an unstaged version of "La Traviata."

The San Francisco Opera performance was the full deal. Large, purpose-built opera house with terrace upon terrace of seating. Elaborate sets with gauzy effects to evoke Spain's Mediterranean climate. No sub-titles. In the film "Amadeus" Emperor Joseph II complained that "Marriage of Figaro" was too long: he was right.

Seattle's opera house was drastically refurbished recently. While it lacks the grandeur of San Francisco's, it has plenty of room for fancy staging.

The first couple of years I saw San Jose performances, the operas were staged in a seriously small theater that limited the amount of scenery that could be deployed, so the contrast to San Francisco was considerable on most dimensions. At least they had English subtitles (as did Seattle) which I find to be a great help even though I have a smattering of knowledge of German, French and Italian. About two seasons ago the San Jose company moved to a renovated movie theater that provided a lot more seating plus a larger stage for more elaborate sets.

The partly-staged "Fidelio" was performed in the hall where the San Francisco Symphony plays. So there was no stage, no curtains -- just a few platforms at different levels where the cast could move about to a limited degree.

The Roman opera was, of course, basically a church setting for the audience. We sat on wooden folding chairs. A 15-20 piece orchestra (which performed well once it got over some raggedness during the overture) was also on the main floor of the church, in front of us. Ditto the singers for the most part, though they were sometimes able to take advantage of raised areas near the altar. The "Traviata" performers used a few props and moved around a little -- so it wasn't a static recital.

In theory, opera is supposed to be a multi-pronged experience fed by the music (via the composer and orchestra), ballet (in some 19th century productions, though seldom nowadays), the singing, the libretto, the staging (sets and so forth) and the setting itself (the opera house, theater or whatever). This can make it difficult to judge. What weight should be given to each component? I don't know.

I suppose I should have preferred the San Francisco opera because it featured "name" singers, a good orchestra and the most elaborate staging and setting. But I can't distinguish great operatic singing from adequate operatic singing, so "name" singers weren't really a factor. The opera house was most impressive as were the sets. Lack of English subtitles (seldom or never done at decent opera houses in 1982) was a serious problem because I couldn't follow the opera even though I had prepped myself that afternoon.

The Seattle "Dutchman" was okay, I suppose. I'm indifferent to Wagner's music and the gal who played the romantic lead must have weighed around 250 pounds, creating credibility problems. (On our post-performance rush to the parking lot I overheard another opera-goer singing the "Too-Fat Polka" -- "She's too fat, she's too fat, she's too fat for meeeee.")

I rather liked the San Jose company's work. The singing was adequate (as best I could tell), the sets were okay and the setting could be ignored. But the acting tended to be spirited and amusing show-bizzy bits were tossed in to help keep the audience in the game. The necessarily more-intimate settings provided closer contact with the performers; comparatively subtle acting details such as eye movements could be detected -- something impossible from one of the higher tiers in the San Francisco and Seattle houses.

If what one really wants is the music and where listening to a recording won't suffice, the un- or partly-staged performances can work well. I was pretty doubtful before "Traviata" got underway, but I found it satisfying once it did. Yes, the heroine died at the end. But that's a small price to pay for getting to listen to Labiamo ne' lieti calici at the beginning.



posted by Donald at November 26, 2007


"What weight should be given to each component?"

This can only be a matter of personal taste. I love opera for the music. I find it difficult to sit through productions, no matter how stunning and elaborate, if I don't care for the composer.

But I will say that two operas -- both of which I love -- "Don Giovanni" and Stravinsky's "Rake's Progress" gave me a better idea of what a production design can bring to it.

Peter Sellars' (not the comedian) "Don Giovanni" was set in Harlem. Giovanni and Leporello were played by black men (the twin brothers Eugene and Herbert Perry) and the marvelously slutty Elvira by the unbelievably beautiful Lorraine Hunt. It was a gritty, wonderfully sung "concept" production. This is available on DVD and is the perfect remedy for anybody put off by the cliched "powdered wig" productions we see over and over.

As for "The Rake's Progress", I saw it in San Francisco around (I think) 1982. Again, I love Stravinsky's music (at least from this period), but the David Hockney sets were sensational.

Usually, though, for story I like novels and movies. For visuals I like paintings, photography, and movies. But I'm a music lover first. Frankly, most opera is just a very costly way to present music which may or may not be great.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on November 27, 2007 3:10 AM

I have mixed feelings about opera. To the extent that I like opera, I usually like it more on record than in real life. In person, opera tends to be expensive (and the cheap seats, at least in NYC, are WAY UP there -- like looking through a telescope and listening from a block or two away) and usually tends to be so slow moving. On record, it's easier to read the libretto and gloss over the parts that don't interest you. (I haven't experienced subtitles yet, though. I think they'd probably make a big positive difference in many instances.)

Most of my opera going experiences have been actually to see the theater rather than the opera -- and I'm definitely glad that I had those experiences (e.g., seeing the inside of the old Met before it was torn down).

My favorite opera performances:

Once in high school we were shipped across the street to another high school (with better stage facilities, I guess) to see a "junior" touring opera troupe give an English language performance of the opera buffa, "L'exir d'amour" (sp?). It was great!!! There was great rapport between the performers and the audience -- and the whole school seemed to taken with it. I think it was the combination of the intimacy of the theater, the young performers, good acting, and the fact that this opera was a relatively tuneful, fast moving comedy (that was probably also abridged for these high school performances).

The 1984 movie version of "Carmen" with Julia Migenes as Carmen. I don't remember if it was subtitled, but it probably was. But the story as presented in this movie was very believable and compelling. (And the music, as always, is incredible -- like a string of opera's greatest hits!)

A mid-1980s version of the Kurt Weil "opera" (which could also be thought of as a musical play) "Street Scene" at the New York City Opera. This is about a crime of passion (husband kills cheating wife and her lover) on New York City's West Side in the 1920s (?) and, as done at the NYC Opera, it was very believable and affecting. (Also, I saw it from great orchestra seats that were paid for by a tour group I was escorting.)

I've also enjoyed some opera recitals / lectures given as part of the "Meet the Performers" series at Lincoln Center. For instance, once I (and the tour group I was escorting) were entranced by a young, unknown opera performer leading us through parts of "La Boheme." I think opera gains a great deal when it is done in intimate, chamber music type, surroundings.

I also remember enjoying some operas on TV. But, in a way, TV is too intimate -- you get so close up to the singers you see the breathing and the occasional spraying of spit all over the place.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on November 27, 2007 1:18 PM

Anything but an opera queen myself ... But I've enjoyed some performances a lot, and of all different kinds: some that stripped things down a lot, a few big-fat-traditional-style productions, some that were barely more than staged readings, a few movies and TV things ... When it works it's really something -- stylized imaginative craziness that can really sweep you away. When it doesn't work it can be incredibly silly and boring.

Hey, has anyone else noticed that the Met has been "broadcasting" some of their productions in high-def into movie theaters. I haven't seen any such but am eager to check it out. Seems ideal, at least if there isn't too much spit in the closeups ... Plus it should be lavish and impressive but sooooo much cheaper than an actual seat at the opera.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 27, 2007 1:57 PM

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