Thursday, November 3, 2016

OPERA Timeless & Timely

This blog post is based on a lecture Jonathan Dean gave as part of Seattle Opera’s adult education series at Seattle University on October 18, 2016. Next up in the series: on Tuesday, November 8 at 7:00 PM, Aidan Lang hosts a panel discussion with the cast and creative team of As One: composer Laura Kaminsky, co-librettist Mark Campbell, co-librettist Kimberly Reed via Skype, director L. Zane Jones, and conductor John Keene. Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven and baritone Jorell Williams will also join in the conversation and perform excerpts from As One.

Our opera industry today is built upon a handful of paradoxes. Opera has always been a tug-of-war between sound and sense, between music and word; today, the auditory and visual sides of the opera experience are sometimes struggling partners. (Should we cast for voice or look?) Another paradox: in our city, opera has an awkward civic double-duty of being both blockbuster entertainment AND high art; the opera company must speak accessibly to everybody, and at the same time offer caviar for those with especially refined artistic sensibilities.

But there’s a third such paradox which I’d like to explore: is opera timeless, or timely? Is opera a living, breathing art form, a forum where our community can gather to debate and ponder the biggest issues currently facing us as a group? Or is the opera house more like a museum or library, a place we go to access the beauty of great artistic masterpieces from the past, where dusty old relics from the ancient history of our civilization are occasionally reanimated for the delight of the curious?

It’s tricky to do both. Yet when our enterprise is successful, that’s exactly what happens; a great opera experience can connect everyone to each other, all of us in that great big room together; and at the same time connect each of us as individuals to the past, to history, to tradition.

A century and a half ago, when Richard Wagner pioneered what became modern art, he was enthusiastic about creating operas out of ancient myth. Why? Because myth, Wagner said, offers what he called das Reinmenschliche, the purely human—that is, truths of human existence that aren’t dependent on time and place. According to Wagner, the experience of being human is pretty consistent, whether you live in the ancient world, the early modern world, today, or the future. And opera, by its very nature, is abstracted from life. That is, if art holds a mirror up to nature, opera is a kind of fun-house mirror. Even verismo (or ‘truthful’) opera doesn’t present life as life; in real life we don’t all have amazing voices, we don’t patiently communicate in complex verse, there isn’t an orchestra playing all the time, and so on. Opera is life, stylized. That’s why Wagner felt that opera was best-suited to myth, to stories that aren’t too realistic, too dependent on details of time and place. When does the Ring cycle take place? Well...never and always. It must be timeless and timely. The same is true of every opera worth performing today, as we’ll discover by considering each of the operas we’re doing this season.

COUNT ORY: Timely Humor
Many of us have been to operas that were allegedly comic, but nobody was laughing. Humor is risky. If you try to be funny and fail, chances are you will either embarrass yourself or offend somebody. The high stakes of the situation comes from another fundamental paradox: humor, which feels so good, comes from hurt. We laugh at what’s uncomfortable. Humor is a natural, ubiquitous human phenomenon, found even in operating rooms and on battlefields, in Siberian gulags. Often, humor is a wonderful consolation for pain and suffering. But it takes two to make a joke successful: the person telling the joke has to aim it correctly, and the person hearing it has to catch the joke. At the opera, humor depends on the audience appreciating an incongruity, enjoying absurdity, and yielding to the frenzy of good comic music.

Most jokes are built on some shared assumption. There’s something unspoken that the joke violates. But with the passage of time, those shared assumptions go away. That’s why a great deal of comedy doesn’t outlast its time and place; ‘you had to be there.’ What is timelessly funny? The contradictions of human behavior. That’s how come comedies from ancient Greece or Elizabethan England can still provoke laughter today.

Sarah Coburn (Countess), Lawrence Brownlee (Count Ory), and Maria Zifchak in Count Ory
Photo by Philip Newton

This summer we presented Rossini’s comedy Count Ory for the very first time. Going into those performances, none of us were quite sure how it would play out. Yes, it’s funny, on that scale of timeless human behavior, to watch insatiable lust lead the ridiculous Count Ory into the silliest possible situations. But seen from a certain point of view, Count Ory concerns sexual assault, which is no laughing matter. How to encourage the audience to enjoy the joke, and avoid presenting Ory as a dangerous predator? As we developed the production, we discovered that the key to making it funny for our time, our audience, was not him, but her.

In the oldest (medieval) version of the story, Count Ory is an amorous lech who invades a convent and seduces the pretty young Abbess. He is successful, and originally the laugh was directed at the lusty nun. That crude medieval humor was considered objectionable in the 1820s, when the opera was written. The police who censored the French theaters in those days made it very clear that there’d be no nuns having sex on the opera stage! So the opera’s heroine became an aristocratic Countess, an idealized fair, chaste, cruel beauty, and Ory became unsuccessful; the opera ends with him getting kicked out of her castle just as her male protector arrives back from the Crusades.

All well and good for the 1820s. But as Director Lindy Hume and our cast prepared Seattle Opera’s 2016 production, we questioned whether our audience—not as obsessive about female chastity as nineteenth-century Europeans—would care much about that story. We found it much funnier if the Countess, in her way, was just as silly as the single-minded Count Ory. (Again, it takes two.) So Sarah Coburn played the Countess as a frigid control freak, an irritatingly self-righteous type who was desperately unhappy (and ridiculously over-the-top) at the beginning because she hadn’t succeeded in killing the urgings of her own heart and loins. Mozart wrote a deeply felt, serious aria (“Per pietà”) for a similar situation in Così fan tutte: a woman who hates herself for failing to live up to her own inhumanly high standard. But Rossini’s music doesn’t have Mozart’s depth of feeling. We discovered that the parallel scene in Count Ory works beautifully when you play it for laughs.

So the Countess came down from her pedestal, and became a figure of fun; and because of that, it was okay for Ory to mess with her. Our tenors did consciously try to play him more as a trickster, a Bugs Bunny-type, than a real creep. Yes, he lies and breaks into this woman’s house where he knows he isn’t welcome. But he wasn’t very aggressive about sex. It’s a subtle shift. The difference between Count Ory as sexual predator and Count Ory as bemused prankster probably depends on the positioning of an eyebrow, the timing of a smile, the energy of a take to the audience. We wanted it to read that he was more interested in playing pranks on people and having a good time than in conquest or aggression. Ory’s final victory comes when the Countess shrugs and gets into bed with him and Isolier, in their final trio. At each performance, the audience reaction at that moment indicated that people in 2016 appreciated our little story of “How the Countess got over herself.”

HANSEL & GRETEL: Timely Values
Many have pointed that our fall production of Hansel & Gretel functioned as a referendum on lots of timely, divisive current issues. This Glyndebourne Opera production, originally directed by Laurent Pelly in 2008, stimulated fascinating post-show conversations in Seattle about our current homeless crisis, the disputed minimum wage, pollution and environmental degradation, childhood obesity, and of course the current presidential election.

Anya Matanovic (Gretel) and Sarah Larsen (Hansel) at the Witch's House in Hansel & Gretel
Photo by Jacob Lucas

Of course we love stirring the pot and provoking (hopefully) productive discussion about such hot topics, and it’s gratifying when an opera does so without having to be ‘updated’ in an obvious way. (The issue of childhood obesity, for instance, probably wasn’t quite so front-and-center in 1890s performances of Hansel & Gretel. But both the original story and the libretto say that the Witch was fattening the kids up to eat them, so Pelly’s costume designs didn’t ADD anything; he just made sure we didn’t miss that element of the story, which is a bigger problem today than it was in the 1890s.)

But occasionally an opera presents us with an element which is neither timeless nor timely, but dated. For Hansel & Gretel, Pelly rewrote one scene in a big way, to keep the action meaningful to a contemporary audience. I’m talking about the Pantomime, the dream-sequence that closes Act Two.

The original stage directions for that scene read:

“Fourteen angels...pass down the staircase...[and] place themselves according to the order mentioned in the evening hymn, around the sleeping children.... [They] join hands and dance a stately dance around the group. The whole stage is filled with intense light. Whilst the angels group themselves in a picturesque tableau the curtain slowly falls.”
But in Pelly’s production Hansel and Gretel are visited, not by angels, but by television screens with images of food, almost commercials, with close-ups of maple syrup drizzling over pancakes, sauce hitting spaghetti in slow motion, and children’s mouths enjoying food. That’s a big rewrite.

At each performance our audience reacted audibly to Pelly’s visualization of the starving kids’ dreams of food. Would a ‘picturesque tableau’ of angels (whatever that means) have provoked so strong a reaction? Pelly’s guess was “no;” and moreover, many in our audience might have found such a scene pointless or distancing. Humperdinck’s opera assumes everybody in the audience goes to the same church, and that such a miraculous vision (wed to extraordinary music) will inspire faith and devotion. The opera even concludes with Father-Knows-Best explicitly singing the moral of Humperdinck’s story to the tune of the Evening Prayer (repeated a moment later by the full company): “When things look worst, God will extend grace to us.” He’s talking about a deus ex machina, a happy ending brought about by divine intercession. It’s a common enough phenomenon in traditional opera and classic theater, but one that tends to have an alienating effect upon a secular or skeptical modern audience. If a typical opera-goer in 2016 Seattle dismisses the deus ex machina as wish-fulfillment fantasy, why not use familiar modern wish-fulfillment fantasies—‘food porn’ commercials—for Hansel and Gretel’s dream? Pelly’s rewrite keeps us in the story, but updates the shared societal values. Humperdinck’s audience may have smiled at the simple faith of his little hero and heroine; we enjoy how they’ve internalized messages from the marketing arm of the food industry.

LA TRAVIATA & KATYA KABANOVA: Escape through Opera
The idea of escape powers many an opera plot. There was a vogue, in the late eighteenth-century, for what became known as “Rescue Operas,” operas whose plots concern escaping from jail or slavery or captivity. These include both serious works like Gluck’s Orpheus and Euridice (rescuing the beloved from the land of death) and Beethoven’s Fidelio (a wife rescues her outspoken journalist husband, who’s been imprisoned for his political views) and goofy comedies such as The Abduction from the Seraglio (freeing a European woman who’s been captured by a lascivious Turk) or The Barber of Seville (freeing the lovely young ward from her ogre-guardian). In the age of “Down with the tyrants! Liberty for the common man!,” such plots resonated powerfully with popular sentiment.

But the rise of modern democracy didn’t put an end to the fascination of such stories. They still resonate powerfully today, in a world where many, many people are fleeing and escaping terrible situations in the hope of a better life somewhere else. Coming up next at Seattle Opera we have two intense, intimate tragedies, Verdi’s La traviata and Janáček’s Katya Kabanova, both of which concern soprano protagonists trapped in hopeless, ‘damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t’ situations from which the only escape is death.

Curiously, all the great Janáček operas are about escape. Seattle Opera has previously performed this great composer’s Jenůfa (about a woman trapped by her own pregnancy) and The Cunning Little Vixen (who’s captured by the Forester in her opera’s very first scene). Down the coast at San Francisco Opera they’ve just given Janáček’s Makropulos Affair, about a famous opera singer who’s a prisoner of this drug that makes her immortal. And in Janáček’s final opera, From the House of the Dead, everybody’s a prisoner; the opera is set in a Siberian gulag (and, amazingly, is really an optimistic, life-affirming work!).

Katya Kabanova is a story of confinement and release. The show concerns a woman trapped by family and community in an extremely oppressive small-town environment. She finds a terrible kind of release in death at the end of the opera. Is it particularly important that the opera is sung in Czech, and takes place along the Volga river in Russia in the 1860s? Not only is the original setting unimportant, it could actually become a distraction and make the experience lose focus. Most of us in Seattle in 2016 don’t know much about life in rural southern Russia in the nineteenth century (except what we’ve seen in Fiddler on the Roof). If Seattle Opera were to do a great job of representing that world onstage, in our sets and costumes, you might find the location so interesing, so different, so unusual, so compelling, you’d fail to realize that the principal character is desperately unhappy and longing to get out of there! So our new production of Katya Kabanova (premiering next February) is going to feel a little bit closer to home. Our sets and costumes will look like rural America a generation or two ago, because we don’t want you tantalized or intrigued by Katya’s world. We want you to see it from her point of view, as a prison she must escape.

Katya’s dissatisfaction with her humdrum bourgeois life brings us to another level of escapism vital to the opera industry: when the experience of going to the opera itself represents an escape. Opera wasn’t originally conceived as a refuge from a crass and ugly modern world, but it has played that role for centuries. Emma Bovary, the bored housewife of rural France in Flaubert’s great 1856 novel Madame Bovary, experiences opera as escapism when she attends a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor:

“She was back in the books she had read as a girl--deep in Walter Scott. She imagined she could hear the sound of Scottish pipes echoing through the mist across the heather. Her recollection of the novel made it easy for her to grasp the libretto; and she followed the plot line by line, elusive, half-forgotten memories drifting into her thoughts only to be dispelled by the onrush of the music. She let herself be lulled by the melodies, feeling herself vibrate to the very fiber of her being, as though the bows of the violins were playing on her nerve-strings. ... Lucie, looking solemn, began her cavatina in G major: she uttered love laments, begged for wings. And at that moment Emma, too, longed that she might leave life behind and take wing in an embrace.”

There are loads of nineteenth-century European operas which promise romance, excitement, and a voyage to an exotic and fabulous land. The Pearl Fishers, which we presented last season, is a good example; escapist fluff, an apprentice piece by the very young Georges Bizet, who went on to write one more opera: Carmen. Opera companies sometimes TRY to sell Carmen as a exotic Rick Steves travel adventure: “Come to sunny Spain!” But the genius of Carmen is not its colorful charm; the opera is a timeless masterpiece because Bizet gives us a well-rounded portrait of a fascinatingly complex human character. He doesn’t reduce his femme fatale to a cliché or a cartoon: Carmen is a hero, and a villain, and the opera neither condemns nor approves of her.

At its famously controversial world premiere in 1875, the audience was appalled by its refusal to condemn her. At a famously controversial Seattle Opera Carmen in 1995, some of our audience came expecting a “Come to sunny Spain!” Carmen, a harmless piece of escapist fluff, and were appalled to find an opera exploding with sex and violence. It may be that some in our Seattle audience come to the opera wanting to escape the modern world by entering a place of beauty, elegance, and old-fashioned chivalry—which in practical terms means they like to see old-fashioned costumes when they come to the opera. After three decades at the helm of Seattle Opera, Speight Jenkins once remarked that nothing was more guaranteed to provoke crabby letters from contemporary American opera-goers more than productions in modern dress.

If you are one of those who comes to the opera in the hopes of seeing hoop skirts, be warned: you won’t see any in our next mainstage show, La traviata, which opens in Seattle in January in a provocative production by Peter Konwitschny. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with enjoying the sight of hoop skirts. It’s that in the end, glamorous mid-nineteenth century costumes are a superficial element of some productions of La traviata, and if you get hung up on that you’ll miss the forest for the trees. Yes, La traviata begins among a posh set of beautiful people living in a whirlwind of lively parties; but the point of the drama is that they’re miserably unhappy, and Violetta, like Katya Kabanova, longs to escape that world but can only find release in death. The Konwitschny production seeks to tell the story, clearly, immediately, powerfully. No hoop skirts.

Peter Konwitschny's La traviata at English National Opera, 2013
Photo by Tristram Keaton

Curiously, by keeping the costumes for La traviata up-to-date, Seattle Opera is doing exactly what Verdi wanted. At the opera’s Venice premiere in 1853, Verdi, a notoriously cranky and difficult collaborator, ended up in conflict with the theater over the choice of period for costumes (historical dress had only recently become the norm in opera). In a letter, the theater managers were told “The Signor Maestro desires, demands, and begs that the costumes for his opera La traviata should remain those of the present day...he declares that he is ready to assume responsibility for this as regards the public.” They ignored his wishes and set the period back about 150 years (so that Violetta and Alfredo appeared to be contemporaries of Manon Lescaut and Des Grieux), Verdi kicking and screaming the whole time. After opening night he wrote a friend, “La traviata has been an utter fiasco...either I’m wrong or they are.”

If Seattle Opera, in 2016, were to set La traviata in 1853, we’d be repeating the mistake made by Verdi’s producers—setting the period back some 16 decades. Those who come to the opera to escape the modern world might be delighted; but those who come in order to follow Verdi’s extraordinarily compelling musical drama may find that drama obscured by so many pretty clothes. Alfredo should look like an outsider at Violetta’s party in Act One (remember, he’s a middle class rube from the country, not one of Paris’s beautiful people). Germont, similarly, should look out of place and outclassed when he invades Violetta’s lovenest in Act Two. Despite his key role in the plot, Baron Douphol doesn’t get much opportunity to sing. So his costume must clearly tell us who he is (rich, powerful, despicable). The contribution the costumes make to the storytelling, in the end, adds more to the opera-going experience than the visual pleasure some opera-goers might take from an old-timey fashion show.

THE MAGIC FLUTE: Downplaying What’s Dated
The Magic Flute, returning to Seattle next May, is a great piece to consider, on this question of timeless or timely. It offers escapism, humor, and a fairy-tale plot which, you’d think, should hold some simple, endlessly relatable pure-human material. But The Magic Flute isn’t timeless; reading its libretto is a bit like watching a popular television show from 1791. From the perspective of liberal west coast America in 2016, the libretto is seriously objectionable, with issues of racism, sexism, and classism. Why should we care? We don’t go to operas for their librettos. Mozart’s amazing music is the key to The Magic Flute’s immortality. Yet that astonishingly perfect, timeless music grew, like flesh and sinew around bone, from this dated libretto. Mozart’s music is so linked to the words, you can’t simply swap in a different libretto. One challenge of presenting this opera in 2016 is to neutralize dated elements which might distract from our audience’s ability to appreciate what’s great about the opera. So let me first accuse The Magic Flute of being behind the times, and then explain how we attempt to mitigate the issues.

Set in a vague never-never land loosely inspired by the Arabian Nights, The Magic Flute starts out as a rescue opera: the tenor-hero sets out to free the damsel-in-distress soprano from the clutches of her lusty abductor. Alas, the villain of The Magic Flute is an eighteenth-century racist cliché. Wicked Monostatos is constantly putting the moves on Pamina, who’d rather die than yield to him. According to the libretto, he’s Moorish; originally he would probably have appeared in blackface, and Mozart’s music for the character jingles and tingles with 1790s European musical code for the world of Islam. Today, most opera companies adapt this potentially offensive characterization by taking The Magic Flute even farther into never-never land. Here’s what Monostatos looked like at Seattle Opera in 1999 and in 2011:

Monostatos, as designed by Gerald Scarfe for Seattle Opera's 1999 production (above) and by Zandra Rhodes for Seattle Opera's 2011 production (below)
Photos by Lawrence K. Ho/LA Times (above) and Alan Alabastro (below)

Such redesigns allow Monostatos to fulfill his role as comic villain, without unnecessarily distracting or offending our audience.

That’s a reasonably easy fix. What about the fact that the wise philosopher-king Sarastro, the moral center of the opera, is a big male chauvinist? The opera presents Sarastro as this kindly, benevolent authority figure; he’s a bit of a cross between Gandalf and Thomas Jefferson. But when he first comes onstage, he has a truly appalling line:

Mir klingt der Muttername süße; Sie ist es—
My mother’s name sounds sweet to me. She is that—

—und ein stolzes Weib!
--and a proud woman!
Ein Mann muß eure Herzen leiten,
A man must guide your hearts,
Denn ohne ihn pflegt jedes Weib
for without him each woman seeks
Aus ihrem Wirkungskreis zu schreiten.
to step beyond her appointed circle.

Sarastro’s sexist attitude may have been typical of rich white Freemasons in the 1790s. But the story takes place in fairy-tale never-never land, not 1791 Vienna (or Philadelphia, for that matter). The Magic Flute concludes with Sarastro’s victory over his arch-nemesis, the Queen of the Night, and the audience is supposed to cheer that outcome. Today’s audience would impeach a Sarastro who said that line, not cheer him.

Our 1999 and 2011 Magic Flutes found different solutions to this particular problem. In 1999, we sang the offensive German but rewrote the supertitles for the above exchange:

I honor my mother’s name. She is—

She is proud and defiant!
Once, your father guided her heart.
But now that he is gone,
she oversteps her bounds.

Sarastro still goes a bit nuts when Pamina mentions the Queen of the Night; it’s in Mozart’s music that he interrupts Pamina. But by adapting the supertitles we denied our non-German-speaking audience access to his sexist motto paraded as wisdom. The hope was that such a rewrite could allow us to consider Sarastro’s final victory a happy ending.

Well, that was our 1999 production, directed by Stanley Garner. For our 2011 production (which returns next May), director Chris Alexander found a different solution to this problem: instead of erasing Sarastro’s misogyny, Chris chose, at the end, to have the hero reject Sarastro. In the original libretto, Prince Tamino braves the initiation rites and joins Sarastro’s community at the end of the opera. In Alexander’s production, Tamino survives the ordeals but (silently, communicating through new stage action) declines Sarastro’s invitation to enter the brotherhood:

Tamino (John Tessier) declines Sarastro (Ilya Bannik's) invitation at the end of Seattle Opera's 2011 Magic Flute
Photo by Rozarii Lynch

That change to the opera’s plot didn’t ruffle any feathers in 2011. In fact, it became clear at those performances that our audience didn’t particularly care whether Tamino joined the brotherhood or not. We were more interested in the fortunes of Papageno and Papagena than in Tamino and Pamina.

Papageno sings the opera’s catchiest tunes and says all the funniest lines. He’s an easy character to love. Since he often addresses the audience directly, we have a wonderfully intimate relationship with him. But he’s a sidekick, and the more we connect with Papageno, the less we connect with the original hero and heroine.

Like many old-fashioned romantic comedies, The Magic Flute features two couples of contrasting social classes. Prince Tamino and Princess Pamina are idealized aristocractic characters who’d be at home on any eighteenth-century opera seria stage. As the plot switches gears from rescue opera (Act One) to initiation ritual (Act Two), these two undertake the trials to become enlightened members of Sarastro’s secret society. (Think of them as overachieving students, determined to ace all their classes and get into hyper-competitive colleges.) In the theater, their relentless striving proves a bit too much for many opera-goers. Like Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Prince Tamino represents an ideal eighteenth-century hero—something foreign and indeed suspect to many in our audience.

Meanwhile Papageno, who’s from a lower social order, proves unworthy and fails Sarastro’s trials. (Papagena appears more as his consolation prize than a fully developed character herself.) It’s easier to identify with failure than with success, so it’s little wonder that Papageno usually upstages Tamino. But caring about this loveable doofus drop-out really isn’t enough. Mozart’s music for The Magic Flute invests more energy in the ordeals of Tamino and Pamina than in Papageno, and unless the audience is rooting for the relentlessly self-improving heroine and hero, the opera can end up feeling out of balance.

So Alexander’s ending goes with the modern spirit. If Sarastro is impeachable and Tamino self-deluded in his idealized eighteenth-century nobility, it’s a happy ending when Tamino learns the wisdom that Papageno knew all along. Tamino and Pamina are liberated at the end, free from both controlling parental authority figures, ready to write their own rules and make their own future. Will the 2017 audience consider that solution timeless or timely? Only time will tell!

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