The Paris Bohème In Space: A defining moment in the bastardisation of Opera

I am not a fundamentalist when it comes to staging operas.  I can imagine (and have imagined—I have staged operas and even recently wrote a 9-minute opera) an opera being enhanced taken out of its precise setting.  However, the bastardisation of opera has been escalating since the early experiments with so-called Regie-Theater (Literally Stage Direction Theater).  Regie Theater, which was often referred to as “updating” in the early inceptions, was controversial but not necessarily unartistic.  The great mythology-based operas have been re-imagined from the compositional angle.  From Monteverdi to Gluck to Offenbach, we have seen revolutionary changes.  Myths offer us endless angles and naturally different creative minds (composers and librettists in this instance) will experience different aspects of the myths and will chose to emphasise certain aspects over others.  In the case of new compositions, the entire concept is re-imagined and a music is written that is specific to the libretto in question.  If the composition is successful, there is no contradiction between the text and the music.  

Furthermore, we cannot look at the role of music in opera as one-dimensional.  The orchestra forces are used: 1) to create atmosphere—Imagine the first brass chords opening Tosca!  The grand expanse of Sant’Andrea della Valle (I lived next to it for several months in the summer of 1991) is implicit in those chords.  The weight of the subject matter is also clear.  The “Gran Cassa” (bass drum) accentuates a certain violence.  Is it a wonder that Darth Vader’s theme in Star Wars is also orchestrated for Brass?  2) The music underscores emotion.  Mozart needs three chords and a single harmony to prepare us for Pamina’s emotional state of mind before “Ach, ich  fühl’s…” 3)  It is representative.  Verdi suggests the sound of an owl when Lady Macbeth wanders in in darkness knowing her husband had just murdered the the king, Duncan.  The owl is scored for flute and the entire cello section in unison (two octaves away from the flute).  Why not a sound more akin to the screech of an owl?  I would suggest, Verdi wanted something unusual but not a sound that would disturb the dramatic tension of murder in the air.  A decided subtle approach.  When I directed Macbeth on a shoestring budget in a setting that was not literally Scotland (No kilts on stage), I was very careful not to violate Verdi’s dramatic strategy.  All of it could be obviously experienced in the score…But I digress.  We come to Macbeth later. 4) Music provides dramatic structure.  A Stage Director who is curious would want to understand the inversive nature of the three chords in the opening of Tosca.  B-flat Major, Ab Major and E Major.  From E Major, we can proceed to D Major and then Bb Major and we are back.  Puccini uses the flexible nature of this theme in so many ways to underscore the entire opera and to remind us of specific musical periods that relate to dramatic timing.  Those issues cannot be avoided if the dramatic tension of an opera is going to be kept.  This is no different from the meter relationships in a symphony or a Schubert song cycle.  The composer who wrote the score, if he is as good as a Puccini or Mozart or Verdi or Wagner, imagined the time it takes for an important statement to be processed emotionally, the time it takes to walk and pick up a glass, or how achord or a snare drum roll accentuates a dramatic occurrence.  

When such musical considerations are not taken seriously, Opera can either appear choreographed and stogy in the hands of an unimaginative director or actor, or decidedly unmusical in the pursuit of more “natural or modern stage demeanour.” What one-dimensional stage directors do not conceive is that natural stage demeanour is very easily achieved inside of a musical gesture.  The crucial mistake occurs when a so-called more natural physical gestures goes across the boundaries of two musical periods (gestures) and when the musical/emotional character of the music is violated in an attempt to make opera more “down-to-Earth.” 

There is nothing dull or uninteresting about Opera!  The problem is that the artists involved too often do not understand the complex structure of the art form and quite literally botch it!  

If a stage director or even music director  does not understand the structure of the opera from a musical/dramatic standpoint, the entire enterprise is already failed before the first production meeting.  When those authorities are given so much power and do not do their homework, they will abuse their authority to intimidate their singers and orchestras into submission.  Some conductors or stage directors would rather bully a singer who does his/her homework instead of admitting to himself/herself that s/he is not adequately prepared.  Such “leaders” would rather have less imaginative, less artistic singers who are happy to say “Yes Sir/Mam” instead of posing a serious artistic question.  Serious conductors and stage directors inspire conversation with their singers and encourage them to have an opinion.  There are too few of them and the administrators, who are mostly paper pushers and economists are hired for their business acumen and not for their artistic understanding.  Unfortunately the reach of such administrators impact profoundly the artistic product.  The question I would have for many such failing administrators is:

How can you assume to sell a product of which you know so little?  This is a business question!

This is how the Paris Bohème resulted in an epic fail! Looking at the set, one is quickly impressed by the detail work.  This is obviously a detailed vision, put together by theatrically savvy people.  The handling of crowds, and contrapuntal elements on stage is overall expertly handled.  The singers are excellent.  Not always at the height of their powers in their roles but by all accounts solid professionals who can meet the challenges of those roles.  Gustavo Dudamel is not only a special orchestral conductor but he is a sensitive operatic leader.  The music making between he orchestra and singers was freeing.  The music breathed!  The tempi relationships absolutely fluid.  Maestro Dudamel is worth all the hype.  But despite all the demonstrated expertise, this production failed for a single reason. 

 Klaus Guth, like so many of these “Concept Opera” directors simply does not believe in the power of Opera to move audiences.  Therefore the only way they can imagine to make an opera relevant is to change not only the setting, but the opera’s narrative itself to something they think an audience will find more accessible. But how can they come to any other conclusion when they are fundamentally incompetent.  Incompetent yes, on the single most important level:  Music!  Guth may be a remarkable theatrical technician, but he is utterly clueless about the power of opera on the musical level.  Why else would one consider La Bohème, of all works, to be set in space.  Sure it creates a lot of buzz.  But then when it falls flat on its face, we’re left with one more reason for audiences to avoid what they more and more believe to be an absolete art form.

A stage director who specialises in non-music theater, no matter how good, s/he is, will not succeed unless s/he comes to the enterprise with a level of humility before the music.  When renowned Shakespeare director, Travis Preston made his operatic debut in Don Pasquale, I played the title role (Yes I was convinced by an idiot music director to sing the title role, because he thought I could act it better, regardless of the fact that I was obviously a high baritone at the time).  Mr. Preston came impeccably prepared with an assistant who was very well versed in music theater.  Mr. Preston also asked lots of questions and managed a beautiful balance of being demanding on the physical acting side of things and inquisitive about musical phrasing and timing. The result was a triumph.  I learned a great deal as a young actor in that endeavor.  

The truth that active music directors and singers are afraid to articulate for fear of retribution from administrators is that stage directors who come from straight theater and film are most often out of their depths musically and so ill-informed about the various roles of the music in opera that they are at worst bound to fail miserably and at best not destroy the opera they are producing.  A pass for them is that they do not totally insult the work.

As for Regisseurs in the German opera system (There are brilliant exceptions—Thalbach, Herrheim and others), they are so busy trying to come out of the numbers of the dozens of competing productions of the same works that they chose the path of least resistance:  Controversy brings curiosity even at the cost of the work itself.  If many German theatres have closed, it is because they made themselves irrelevant by engaging Regisseurs and often conductors who are not up to the task, but willing to put up something so utterly stupid that audiences will show up just to experience the absolute disasters.  

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Opera is not irrelevant in our times.  The people running it, by sheer incompetence make the art form irrelevant.  Opera is a complex business, which even at its very best, leaves room for improvement.  At its worse (we see more and more of that every season) it becomes an empty status symbol that repudiates the young audience it seeks to lure in.  The Metropolitan Opera, for all its quasi-conservatism, has a place in rebuilding faith in the art form.  Its “The Voice Must Be Heard” campaign shows a return to the inescapable truth that opera begins with great voices, not faux-models onstage pretending to sing opera.  Yet, as this Bohème disaster proves, even the voices are not enough to make a show.  Although great voices can save a failing production as was the case in Paris, they cannot carry it alone.  The staging (sets, costumes, acting, etc) must support the inherent musical-dramatic narrative.  The story telling and the music are inextricably linked in opera.  In a sense, the orchestra is the string that runs through the entire narrative.  Failing to profoundly understand that point guarantees operatic failure.  As far as this utter failure of a Bohème in Paris, Medici TV had the good sense to stream a later performance once the premiere was done.  We do not get to experience the audience’s targeted boos for the production team in contrast to their bravos for the vibrant cast of singers and the orchestra under the balanced hand of the fantastic Gustavo Dudamel.  Opera is Alive and Well!  Down with the Opera-haters inside the business!

© 12/23/2017

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