There’s a lot going on in Ariadne auf Naxos—a mash-up of comedy and tragedy and a show-within-a-show. Is this opera safe for those who are new to the art form?
There is a lot going on here—two mini-operas set in a framework which provides a context for the whole thing. Is this an opera for a first-timer? Yes, I think it is, precisely because nothing hangs around too long and you do get three glimpses of our art form in digestible chunks.
To start with we have the Prologue, which is a delightfully sly send-up of the process of getting an opera up, especially those frantic last few minutes on opening night. And in it one sees that Hofmannsthal and Strauss had been there, done that, complete with the tempermental wigmaker! There are artists at every stage of the process, and each have their own very real needs and concerns, to make the overall show perfect.
Rozarii Lynch, photo
Then we move to the opera itself—the Ariadne story is a serious story out of Greek mythology, made into this tragic opera seria. And that’s counterbalanced by the comedians’ opera. They give their own little shtick, their piece which they’ve been asked to do, and they also improvise a section. And in between there’s an extraordinary virtuoso aria for Zerbinetta. So there’s something for everybody. It’s funny, it’s serious, it’s interesting to get this behind-the-scenes look, and I think it’s a fantastic piece for a first-timer because you see a cross-section of everything we do.
Rozarii Lynch, photo
What’s Fickle Zerbinetta and Her Four Lovers about?
The Zerbinetta troupe have been brought along to perform a little piece of commedia dell’arte theater. Their characters come from that tradition of comic Italian theater. So they perform a little tale of inconstancy, of playing the field.
Philip Cutlip sings Harlekin's song at Seattle Opera in 2004
In addition, they have a scene prior to their little performance, which they interject into Ariadne’s story, and the idea is, that scene is improvised. They’ve had a few minutes to work out what to do—they’ve been commanded to play their opera simultaneously—and such performers were skilled improvisers. There was an element of novelty to any commedia dell’arte performance. And in between those two performances is Zerbinetta’s aria, where she says to her guys, “Okay, enough, this is girl-to-girl talk, I’ll put her to rights.” And her philosophy is: there are plenty of men out there, you shouldn’t stay constant to one. Their play then demonstrates that philosophy: we see Zerbinetta playing the field. And Zerbinetta’s final little twist comes just as the opera is near resolution; there’s a marvelous line where she just echoes the end of her aria, as if to say, “Told you so!” Because a new god has come along who has transformed Ariadne’s very rigid viewpoint. But it’s a told-you-so spoken with great tenderness, borne, probably, of the five minutes Zerbinetta spent with the Composer. I think her encounter with the Composer has affected her. At that moment it isn’t really the character of Zerbinetta speaking, it’s the human who plays Zerbinetta.
What’s this serious tragedy of Ariadne about?
Like all Greek myths, there are many variants of Ariadne. She was the daughter of Minos, who guarded the Labyrinth; she helped Theseus slay the Minotaur, and when Theseus took her to the island of Naxos he abandoned her. In another version of the story, Dionysus (or Bacchus, as he’s called in the opera) transforms her into a constellation, making her divine. But what the Composer says very clearly, in one of his outbursts in the Prologue, is that for him, Ariadne is the embodiment of man’s isolation, his loneliness. That’s a very early twentieth-century view of man: our essential isolation, lack of connection. And that is of course the Composer, this young man who is so devoted to his art he cannot in any way connect with other people. And towards the end of the Prologue, in this beautiful duet, Zerbinetta reveals to him that actually she is not the character she plays onstage—she, too, is deeply searching for the right person, and there’s this marvelous frisson where you think: “Are they going to get together?” So the actress Zerbinetta has the same effect on the Composer as Bacchus has on Ariadne. A very fixed viewpoint is changed. So our view of this Ariadne opera is conditioned by our view of its creator, which is this character of the Composer.
Rozarii Lynch, photo
Which one are we supposed to believe? Who wins?
I think the point is no one wins. Strong idealism meets compromise, and in the light of that, something better emerges. Just as the Composer thinks there is only one truth in art, so Ariadne thinks she must be true to Theseus until death, and she welcomes death so she can go on to a higher plane rather than betray her beloved husband. And in both stories, by making a change, by making a compromise, a new and higher reality is awakened. Ariadne’s devotion to Theseus is overturned, and new feelings are awakened by the arrival of Bacchus, which help her rise to the status of demigod, transformed into a constellation. For the Composer there’s the hint that his walls may begin to come down now that he understands the person behind the façade of Zerbinetta. So it’s about not who wins! It’s about this fusion of pragmatism and compromise. We’re not opposed to idealism. But if you merge a strong idea with practicality, you end up with a better outcome. And of course that’s exactly what we do when we make an opera! We go in with a strong conceptualized approach to a piece, and but then reality intrudes: “Actually, you can’t fly that wall right there, because...” or “We’ve run out of money for paint...” or whatever. Reality forces you to think again, to deepen your initial idea, and invariably you come out with a better product in the end.
Rozarii Lynch, photo
Tell us a little about Strauss, Hofmannsthal, and their partnership.
This relationship with Strauss and Hofmannsthal was of course one of the great composer-librettist partnerships. And yet they were very different people. Hofmannsthal was an intensely intellectual man, a man of words. A truly elegant librettist. And Strauss had an element of practicality to him. They really sparked off one another. Writing a piece about the act of writing an opera was right up both their streets. It’s a glorious confection—there’s so much in it! There’s almost too much in it, but I think you wouldn’t want to lose anything. This business about the nature of music, the high art, the holy art, the Composer calls it—her aria at the end of the Prologue is very much Strauss’s credo. Allied to the high idealism of the Composer, that aria reflects the intellectualism of Hofmannsthal as well. Both these men lived in the realm of high art. But at the same time both were aware of other art forms as well, and were happy to incorporate them, with great skill, into this opera.
Kate Lindsey sings the Composer's Aria at Seattle Opera
How is opera-going, in contemporary Seattle, different from what Strauss might have experienced?
Remember that when this piece was written, going to the opera, especially in major cities in Europe, was a very normal, everyday activity. You were going to see a show. You know, I always think it’s odd when people say, “I’m going to a show on Broadway,” but they don’t really make a distinction as to whether they’re seeing a play or a musical. They may say, “I’m going to see a play,” but they’re going to Les Miz. But neither one is opera; we have compartmentalized opera away from theater. One of the delightful challenges we have, dealing with opera today, is trying to bring people towards that day-to-day acceptance of the art form. So I think although yes, Ariadne is a piece of high art, audiences in Strauss’s day had less trouble in their minds deciding to go see Ariadne as opposed to whatever play was going on at Stuttgart’s Hoftheater. There’s been a big shift in the way opera is perceived, which I would love to reverse. My mission is to make opera-going a very normal part of the lives of the people in Seattle.
Rozarii Lynch, photo
Our production sets Ariadne in contemporary Seattle instead of Rosenkavalier-Vienna. What is gained? Is anything lost?
Generally, productions of the piece I’ve seen over the years have stayed away from setting it in the original time. It makes no difference when the piece is set; the idea of a commissioned entertainment, of whatever length, happens today.
I’ll give you a personal anecdote to show you that this kind of thing actually happens. While I was actually directing Ariadne—my wife Linda was playing Zerbinetta, we were in London—she got a job with another well-known opera singer and a fabulous pianist—to give fifteen minutes of post-dinner entertainment at a banquet given by the Lord Mayor of London, at the Mansion House, at which Prince Charles was the guest of honor. I went along to turn the pages. There was a good fee for all of them and a lovely dinner—they weren’t invited to sit with the guests, but had their own table out back. And there was a man—probably ex-army, maybe ex-military police, who was the Major-Domo, and he kept coming out to check that we were all okay, but his real message was: “Fifteen minutes and no more!” And it was the most brilliant thing because we were doing Ariadne and here we were, living Ariadne! So it goes on.
This unseen wealthy patron is the framework to Strauss’ Ariadne. And there’s another theme: the freedom, or otherwise, of the artist. Is he free to do what he likes? No. There are set parameters to this performance, as dictated by the guy who’s paying for them. And I love the character of the Butler or Major-Domo, he’s so condescending! And just like the guy at Mansion House, what’s most important to him is that they stick to the clock—we’ve got this fantastic display of fireworks! That’s what the Butler really wants to see. The constraints placed on art by this wealthy man are similar to what we impose as a company—we don’t want the opera to go into overtime, for example. We put budgetary constrains on our creative teams. That’s pragmatism. So the opera’s framework, as well as being witty and showing us details of life backstage, is itself a statement of the rigor which any artistic enterprise needs. Time and money.
Tell us a bit about the fireworks that conclude the production!
Originally (in 2004) they used live fireworks, but now we’re going to do it digitally. Why are the fireworks there? As Ariadne becomes a constellation, we send people’s eyes upwards and you have the sense of sparkling stars for a moment.
Fireworks music at the end of Ariadne auf Naxos
Now, there’s a difference between live fireworks and what we will do digitally. For me, when you bring into a theater things which don’t normally live in the theater—animals are a prime example of this—your framework shifts. The incongruity of live flame in this place—which could set the building on fire—for a moment takes you out of the contract you, as an audience member, have made with the theater. That is, you’ve agreed to enter a world of imagination. I think a very lavish digital display of fireworks will keep you within the framework of the theatrical experience.
What’s the trick to directing and designing a good production of Ariadne?
I have a very strong view of how you go about designing Ariadne. The big pitfall is that sometimes the framework of the Prologue, i.e. the idea that we are putting on a performance in a space, can radically compromise the Ariadne part of the opera itself. What you need to do is to start from the point of view of whoever was directing the Ariadne opera. How would we want to do that? And then work backwards. Of course you have to acknowledge the framework, but you mustn’t let it constrict the imagination needed to fulfill a truthful and creative rendition of the Ariadne story. The Zerbinetta bit’s easy. But, rather than always being reminded of the framework of the rich man’s house, like a TV camera we should be able to zoom in and enter Ariadne’s world.
Seattle Opera has put together a very starry cast for this show. Does Ariadne depend on star power?
Yes, Ariadne needs some fabulous singers to bring it off. It’s very demanding, and you need different sorts of singers. Not only Ariadne (Christiane Libor and Marcy Stonikas), Zerbinetta (Sarah Coburn and Haeran Hong), Bacchus (Issachah Savage and Jeffrey Hartman), and the Composer (Kate Lindsey and Sarah Larsen), roles like the Music Master—that’s a tricky, tricky number, and you need someone who has experience and presence to bring it off. (We have Patrick Carfizzi.) Part of the tongue-of-cheek humor of the piece is about star singers—we see them, warts and all, in the Prologue, as divas. That’s part of the fun. So it requires casting at a very high level, not only for its demands, but part of the fun of the piece is seeing very, very talented people performing.
And the reality is, if you can’t sing Zerbinetta, you won’t. We hire someone capable of sustaining an absolutely virtuosic twelve-minute aria.
Sarah Coburn sings Zerbinetta's aria at Seattle Opera
And you need an Ariadne who is capable of sustaining two very taxing monologues, one after the other, plus the big scene with Bacchus in the end.
Christiane Libor sings Ariadne's "Es gibt ein Reich" at Seattle Opera
And as for Bacchus—the old saying goes that Strauss hated tenors so he wrote an unsingable part.
The late Greg Carroll sang Bacchus when Seattle Opera's Young Artists Program presented Ariadne auf Naxos in 2010
Actually, you need a Bacchus who is capable of singing with great delicacy, with great sensitivity. A lot of his music is marked piano. It tends to get oversung. He enters in a strange frame of mind—he’s just had this bizarre encounter with Circe, and the more delicately you can get that opening encounter between Ariadne and Bacchus, the more interesting a scene you will have.
Rozarii Lynch, photo
It shouldn’t be about two monsters just singing at each other, because that’s not how it’s written. It is very important that that scene is directed properly. It can so easily feel grafted-on. Whereas actually it’s really a very well-crafted, well-written scene. But you need people for those roles who are sensitive actors, just as for the commedia troupe you need people who are physically adept and can give the impression of being old hands at this style of comic acting.
Rozarii Lynch, photo
What’s the conductor’s job with this opera? Tell us a little about Maestro Rennes, who conducted Elektra in Seattle in ’08.
Strauss wrote Ariadne for an orchestra of 39 or so players. There are the odd moments where it sounds a bit like Elektra—but that’s a red herring. It’s a large chamber orchestra, not an orchestra of 85, 90. Delicacy for me is one of the key words with this piece musically. It’s a very beautiful score, a very subtle score, where you hear individual string players rather than a full string body. It’s not easy to bring off. You need really good people, and the conductor must unite them so the work retains its integrity.
Lawrence Renes is a Dutch conductor, he’s recently been appointed Music Director of the Royal Swedish Opera. His repertoire is quite varied; he’s done a lot of John Adams, but at the same time he’s done Mozart and the orchestral repertoire. We heard when he conducted Elektra here that Strauss is in his blood, and the challenge for this piece is to give it its own unique quality. As an opera man through and through, I know Lawrence will do a fantastic job for us.
This discussion has also been released as a SoundCloud podcast. Listen below, or download it HERE.