Sunday, September 14, 2003
There is warfare going on between the directors of opera productions and audiences, a large proportion of which cling tenaciously to the idea that the language of the stage IS and MUST BE absolute realism. We're talking America here, as experimental production styles were common in Europe in the 1920s and 30s and became solidly established after the Second World War. But American audiences resist non-representational scenery ("The libretto says it takes place on the deck of a ship and that didnt look like a ship."), non-linear narrative, visual abstraction, updating to the present day or to periods other than that in which the story originally takes place, and other staging devices that are the bread and butter of the contemporary stage. I have no idea where it will end, but one can have a really interesting experience at our major opera houses during the curtain calls. On the opening night of a new production, singers and conductor usually get strong audience recognition but when the director and designers (aka "opera-hating egomaniacs," "clueless less than 0s," "idiots," "rapists of the score," etc.) come out for their bows the crowd turns ugly with booing, cat calls, and insults.
It isn't just opera, of course. Painting isn't in such great shape these days and the symphony orchestra is an endangered species. In fact, a study of the performing arts done several years ago identified opera as the most fortunate of the performing arts because it is such a rich and big art form combining music, theater, visual design and voice. Then comes ballet and modern dance, then spoken theater and finally concerts--because"nothing happens" at a concert--ie. the orchestra just sits there. Supposedly, the MTV generation gets the kind of constant stimulation from opera it is used to (assuming it gives opera a chance at all) from music videos
and rock concerts.
But the influence works both ways. If opera is attracting the MTV generation to its
performances, it is because those performances are being placed on the stage by directors and designers of the first MTV generation. Their aesthetic was formed in large part by the earliest rock videos that in many cases were dazzzlingly surrealistic and creative. These directors will not accept a singer who cannot walk across a stage with at least some degree of authority, and they will not accept singers who don't have some visual credibility in their parts (what the French call "physique du role").
One precept I declare and support constantly is that change is the driving and renewing force in the arts. Try to stop the progress of the arts or freeze them in time and they will die. Whatever else happens to my profession, I know that it will look a great deal different in twenty years than it does now and I cannot wait to see just what that will look like.