Conceptual opera: how far is too far?
For the Herald
You can be innovate as long as you remain faithful to the original libretto
Readers of the Herald know that I disagree with the by-now lengthy trend of conceptual operatic production, a plague that started about 30 years ago and has contaminated opera houses all over the world. I am deeply convinced that it is ruining the art of opera and provoking in many people a mass exodus from live opera. However, there’s a substantial number of opera lovers (generally under 50) that support this development and consider that it has renovated what they think would otherwise be a dying art.
From its inception, opera has found its essence in telling a story through the combined resources of instruments and voices, plus proper scenery, costuming and lighting. By “proper,” I mean “adequate to the times that are evoked”. And even in the remote times of the late 17th century/early Baroque Camerata Fiorentina, the aim was to obtain as inclusive a work of art as possible. Greek mythology, not Late Italian Renaissance, was what inspired those pioneers, as vouch-safed by such early creators as Jacopo Peri (Euridice, 1600) and Claudio Monteverdi, author of the first truly successful opera: La favola d’Orfeo (1607). However, of course they weren’t classic Greeks and their views of Arcadic Greece were those of the Florentine and Mantuan intelligentsia.
As Baroque opera matured, favourite subjects of opera seria were those of historical Rome and Persia along with mythological Greece, while current history was neglected to avoid censure. But the 18th-century opera buffa — both in the Baroque and in the Classical period — came close to the people first with short intermezzi (Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona), later with full-evening comedies (Paisiello’s very successful Il Barbiere di Siviglia from 1782 antecedes Rossini by several decades): opera catered both to popular and aristocratic tastes and audiences.
And so it continued to be as the language of music evolved and became ever more complicated during the 19th century: Wagner gave us Mediaeval life with The Mastersingers or a huge tetralogy of mythical German times (the Ring) while bringing chromaticism to the very limits (Tristan and Isolde); meanwhile Verdi brought to us Babylonia or Egypt but was censored when he wrote about a relatively recent assassination in Un Ballo in Maschera. There was another more revealing case of censorship: La Traviata was a true revolution, since it was about a courtesan of Verdi’s time; at the première, the librettist had to transport the story to the early 18th century and only later was he allowed to offer it as inspired by Alexandre Dumas, fils’ The Lady of the Camellias.
Late Romantics as Puccini gave us wildly different locales and periods: Paris in the 1840s (La Boheme), early 1900s Japan (Madama Butterfly), the Pope’s Secret Police in Napoleonic times (Tosca). And so did Richard Strauss (Greek Elektra, 18th century Vienna in Der Rosenkavalier). But Berg’s Wozzeck (1925) was stark contemporary drama (Büchner’s amazing original, from 1836, was fully relevant in Berg’s time) with 12-tone music, and from then on, although there were skilled practitioners of older styles as Menotti, things changed forever.
You may think that I’m giving you a potted history of opera, but I needed this to give valid examples. In the aftermath of WWII, one singer-actress changed the stand-up-and-sing school: Maria Callas. But she didn’t do it alone: Luchino Visconti and Franco Zeffirelli were those that were essential in the enormous change which I fully back: Visconti in La Traviata and Zeffirelli in Tosca proved with Callas that opera was as important as drama, not just as a vehicle for singers. Visconti’s Traviata showed the right way: an absolutely precise evocation of Paris in the 1840s down to the minute detail, and within it an immensely moving love story: he gave us the mores of the times, and she offered the most heartbreaking interpretation within the purest singing. And so did Zeffirelli’s uncannily true Tosca: Toscas usually come on stage majestically, but not Callas; she was what Puccini wanted, an anguished jealous woman trying to find her supposed rival.
On the other extreme, Wieland Wagner revolutionized the staging of his grandfather’s operas by abstract symbolic designs and perfect lighting. But Wieland died and his brother Wolfgang innovated in the wrong way: Patrice Chéreau’s Ring was the starting point of the current trend, with Wotan in smoking and Siegfried’s anvil a modern factory. “Concept” staging was born...and we never recovered.
The culprit is today’s ahistorical generation; they believe only the present matters and don’t realize a glaring truth: the present is this very instant and all the rest is the past — unless we understand this, we don’t have a future. The fascinating thing about opera is that we are submerged into different cultures: Pharaonic Egypt (Aida), Napoleonic-era Rome (Tosca), Renaissance Mantua (Rigoletto), mediaeval Flanders (Lohengrin) and an enormous etcetera.
Why are young people impressed by meticulous evocations of mediaeval times on TV such as Game of Thrones or Tolkien’s world but reject the same principle applied to opera? It makes no sense, but producers and opera directors, unfortunately promoted by many colleagues of mine and audiences that want to seem progressive, do enormous cultural crimes. Cleopatra as Evita, Rigoletto in Las Vegas, our last dictatorship in the Ring, the Madonna in full frontal nakedness (Bieito’s version of Pepita Jiménez)...there’s no end to monstrous distortion. This is not opera.
Producers aren’t authors: they are interpreters of the libretto, as conductors are of the music. Now if a production accords with the libretto, it is panned by critics and some audiences. This is a troubling society: you can be innovative but faithful, and this is the essential point.