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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 2:24AM   |  31 comments
Orpheus and Eurydice

Blog written by Jairo Geronymo, pianist, Berlin, Germany

During my (too) many years as a starving doctorate student at the University of Washington, I splurged on subscriptions to the Seattle Opera (http://www.seattleopera.org/index.aspx).

Seattle Opera mounts gargantuan productions like the whole Ring of the Nibelungen by Wagner as well as non-standard repertoire as the Dialogue of the Carmelites by Poulenc and Florencia en Amazonas by Daniel Catan.  

John and Ruth Briehl, two friends of mine, attended the same performances as I did. We would meet at intermission to discuss the tenor’s acting capabilities, the soprano’s vocal clarity, how wonderful the contralto aria was, the scenery effectiveness, and, when lucky, the inevitable operatic ‘accident’. 

We actually witnessed a real ‘wardrobe malfunction’ as the Governess in The Turn of the Screw continued her high B flat, arms up in the air and one breast exposed. Three thousand people gasped.  She chose not to compromise the music. She waited until the end of the aria to get herself back into the dress.  Covering the whole stage with the train of her red velvet dress was a powerful but impractical symbol of blood.  What an unforgettable moment: dramatic music, red blood velvet, an exposed breast.

Since those glorious years with the Seattle Opera, Ruth Briehl and I have seen Zeffirelli’s production of Tosca with Aprile Millo at the Met (http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/) to celebrate her 80th birthday; Cosi fan Tutte at the historical Nurenberg Opera (http://www.staatstheater-nuernberg.de/inhalte/index.php?menu=100) and in a month, we will see our first opera together in Berlin.

Berlin has four government subsidized Opera Houses. As a result, the repertoire and production style can be unconventional: they do not  dependent on  monetary support from ticket sales.  The Staatsoper Oper is the most traditional. It is closed until the end of the summer for renovation. The Deutsche Oper is the grander, the Komische Oper is often the most innovative and the Neukollner Oper is ‘l’enfant terrible’.

On the specific weekend that we would like to see an opera,  the Komische Oper presents Abduction from the Seraglio (Mozart) and Fidelio (Beethoven), the Neukollner Oper presents Leben ohne Chris (Bohmer) and the Deutsche Oper presents Nabucco (Verdi) and Turandot (Puccini).  If I am going to pay seventy euros for a ticket,I want Puccini to make me cry so I am tempted to lobby for Turandot

I have seen Zefirelli’s gigantic production of Turandot for the Met with Eva Marton and Placido Domingo as well as Seattle Opera’s production with Jane Eaglen (http://www.janeeaglen.com/), whom I had accompanied a couple of weeks earlier....long story. These two grand, but traditional productions, are imprinted in my mind.

The Deutsche Oper’s production of Turandot is contemporary. In the famous “Riddle Scene” the Chinese princess Turandot wears a glitzy evening dress and the disguised prince Calaf wears a dark gray suit seated by an Ikea table while being watched by China’s emperor from a high Tribune that looks like a watch tower along the Berlin Wall (http://www.deutscheoperberlin.de/?page=spielplandetail&id_event_date=4612228). 

The opera world now is filled with stars like Anna Netrebko, recently featured in Playboy magazine’s list of the “Sexiest Babes of Classical Music” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Netrebko). The poster for Haydn’s Orpheus and Eurydice at the Bode Museum (as if Berlin did not have enough Opera houses - http://www.orpheusimbode.de/konzept.html) could be mistakenly taken as soft porn.  Operatic pornography.

The advertisement poster for Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball Tour shows her wearing a metal globe (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Monster_Ball_Tour) while the Deutsche Oper poster for Othello (Verdi) features the ‘blackened’ Barbara Schoneberger wearing a blonde wig and caressing an equally ‘blackened’ horse (http://www.deutscheoperberlin.de/index.php?page=spielplandetail&id_event_date=4606129).  Both posters are strangely sexy.

So my initial question “Should the fat ladies wear Galiano or only Chanel?” does not apply to the singers but to opera itself.  Should opera productions remain traditional like a Chanel suit or can these productions be like a wild John Galliano dress (http://www.johngalliano.com/)?  Interestingly, the Tosca production by Zefirelli on the MET, that I saw in 2006, was on the news last year when a new production was booed at opening night (http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/musical/2009/10/05/091005crmu_music_ross). 

Again we face the same question, should opera lock itself in time?

The beauty of these operatic masterpieces will always speak to the public so why not break the barriers of tradition and present opera as edgy and sexy as pop music?  I often do not get amused by fancy video clips where the music repeatedly goes over the same three chord sequence so I think that Ruth and I should see a wild production of Turandot by Puccini.  I am sure that I will cry with Liu’s aria, even though in the picture she looks like a college student gone backpacking! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tB_GSbufVI4&feature=related)

 


31 Comments

Should opera lock itself in time? NEVER! The whole genre has a long tradition of being more than a little scandalous...Mozart wrote his "singspielen" for music houses, after all...being in the avant garde comes naturally.
The main danger I see is allowing the production values,the time, setting, costumes, etc., to overshadow the music and intent of the composer. What's left is a sort of "B" action thriller... all special effects and no substance.

Dear Dale,

Thank you for your very pertinent comment.
I agree with you that opera has been and should remain a bit scandalous.
I just bought for five Euros at a subway ticket booth a copy of the Magic Flute done in one of the new subway stations in Berlin. Avant garde not only on costumes and scenery but also on venue!
I think that we need to trust and allow the artists that conceptualize these new readings of main stream works to create something new. Will there be flops and unsuccessful versions? Certainly yes, but so it is with almost every artistic genre.
I disagree with you that it can feel like a "B" opera. I think it can look strange such glorious music with (maybe) such questionable staging, but the music will always hold the standards high. It might end up like a strange marriage, but never a bad one!
And as I always say: a night at the opera is always better than a night in front of TV!
Thank you,
Jairo

Really interesting post. I can't comment on whether or not opera should be experimental, but I consider similar questions concerning cinema very often. Tradition is less rooted with cinema, but nevertheless filmmakers are constantly wondering if they can score big with a production that deviates away from Hollywood standards.

I watched Martin Scorcese's "The Departed" again last weekend, and I was amazed by the editing. I imagine when most audiences watch this film they see it as nothing more than a well made cop movie. It is a well made cop movie which has an interesting and captivating story, but the editing is risky and radical at times. Young filmmakers like myself might not even think, let alone dare, to take similar risks.

All that said, I appreciate artists who root themselves in tradition and history and use this knowledge to stretch away from expectations. I believe the comparison this creates between expected style and experimental style allows for a new kind of art practice.

Hi Josh (Deal),
Thank you for your comments.
The question of how much to deviate from the main stream is pertinent to opera, film making, and almost everything else in life.
I think that it is necessary first to know the history of our craft and understand what has been done before breaking with tradition. Just breaking with tradition without a reason to do so can be meaningless. At the same time we need to trust our instincts and sometimes act even when we are not sure why. Great works of art have been created that way.
So I wish you well in your studies, so that you may understand what makes for a superb editing so that you can make your own superb editing!
Take care and good luck!

Jairo Geronymo

I personally feel that there is nothing wrong with bringing innovation, even if it is only wardrobe, into a classical on stage genre such as opera. Sure there are people who believe that opera is a tradition set in stone and it should not be changed but to those people I ask, "Where is your creative passion?" When people are unique and different something magical and new occurs. Without a specific set of rules to follow an experimental version of something, an opera in this case, can flourish and who knows, maybe it will become a new smash hit because it stands out.

I personally feel that there is nothing wrong with bringing innovation, even if it is only wardrobe, into a classical on stage genre such as opera. Sure there are people who believe that opera is a tradition set in stone and it should not be changed but to those people I ask, "Where is your creative passion?" When people are unique and different something magical and new occurs. Without a specific set of rules to follow an experimental version of something, an opera in this case, can flourish and who knows, maybe it will become a new smash hit because it stands out.

Opera, just like any other art form, will grow stagnant and boring if the same thing is done every single time. If the creative powers behind a performance aren't allowed or encouraged to let their creativity influence the piece, what is the point of having them there at all? I think that opera should always push the boundaries a little bit. After all, if nothing challenges our beliefs and sensibilities, where will we generate new ideas?

There is nothing wrong with putting a new spin on tradition- countless times in the past, old traditions have been brought back in a redefined package. The biggest example would be with music. As the days pass, music becomes more sophisticated due to inspiration from the past. Rock music formed from the blues. Metal music emerged from rock music... inspiration is usually triggered from an outside source. A great example would be symphonic metal. This genre emerged when distorted electric guitars were backed by an orchestra.

The same is true with films- one person (or a group of people) innovate, and others build upon the new discoveries made day by day. You must never forget your roots, however. Placing opera to a fancy video would give it a new twist. In fact, this is why many genres of cinema exist today. People tend to deviate from the norm and form their own genres.

The question of whether Opera should remain "locked in time" or not is much like asking if Broadway should focus strictly on Shakespearean production: that is, it shouldn't. Just as new plays are written and produced yearly, Operas should make sure to renovate their own content. This is a fundamental component of art, especially art as entertainment: in order to remain relevant to its native era, a work must be reflective of that era in some way. That doesn't mean that it has to be set in that time, but, rather, that it does pertain to it in some fashion ó indeed, fantasy works like Harry Potter often are imbued with metaphoric and allegorical elements mirror our own, less magical society. To remain "locked in time" is for an art form to commit suicide, for without relevance, there is not interest.

That is not to say a "traditional" performance need be considered a bad thing; a showing of Hamlet can still be a fulfilling experience, just as Chanel costumes can be in classical Opera. The important thing is to realize that such productions are also not the only style out there, that new ideas need to be proliferated for the expansion and survival of the medium ó and that, at one point in time, the Chanel dresses worn by Opera singers were considered a cutting-edge idea.

This question is one I've spent some time debating with myself. Although I love the new innovation and modern styles of the arts today, whether it be opera, film, theater, etc, there's also something to be said about staying classical. As much as I love and appreciated the boundaries that were broken down by Rent and Spring Awakening on Broadway, the simple fact remains that audiences will still pine for The Sound of Music and The Phantom of the Opera. You see the same thing in the world of film, in 1989 the movie theaters were filled with high action, modern, new technology films like Batman, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, License to Kill, Lethal Weapon, and yet what took home the Oscar? Driving Miss Daisy, a simple, classic, modest film that won the hearts of audiences nation wide. So I believe that keeping the arts modern is great, but some things are timeless, and we shouldn't forget about that. We don't have to put sequins on every piece of art, because sometimes the artwork with less is more beautiful.

I always looked at opera as traditional, but our culture grows and advances. We have advanced in films, plays and even fashion. We apply new advances to everyday life, and then new ideas begin. When i first read the word opera in this blog, I thought of traditional. As i read on all i could think of was change. Although we want to keep tradition we have to move forward. We can always keep in mind what once was and not forget.

Of course Opera, like any other art form, should continue to be dynamic and not lock itself in time. The whole idea is progression and we must continue to push the envelope and see how far it can go. Art changes over time and I am sure that every generation had it's skeptics that feared change, but without the progress of controversial pieces like Duchamp's fountain, art would not be where it is today. I think the initial question transcends all forms of art with the same issue and it should be treated in the same way by supporting Galiano over Chanel

I had never really thought about whether or not opera should change with time before I read this post. I agree that it shouldn't change completely but it should certainly adapt to the changing times. If opera stays as it has been it will lose followers rapidly as younger generations will be unable to understand and connect with it and therefore be unable to appreciate it.

However, I also agree that any type of art is beautiful in its original form and that opera should not be completely transformed by modern day thought, but should stay rooted in its traditional core.

I am involved in my local Opera Theater in Oswego, NY and I would often encourage my friends to attend our performances. My friends (being adolescent males) were often exceptionally skeptical about the value of attending. How I eventually got them to attend was by showing them photos from our recent production of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro which was done in modern dress. Initially my friends were surprised by the mise-en-scene of the opera, lacking the Wagnerian helmets and extravagant dresses. The modern costumes made the opera seem much more accessible. My friends, still hesitant, attended and I am pleased to say now understand why I enjoy Opera so much. Presenting an opera in costuming more original or daring can not only make the production more interesting and unique but also makes the opera seem accessible to "outsiders" who may be intimidated about beginning an interest in opera.

There's an interesting contrast between film and opera in that Opera can be updated and revived while a film remains the same (generally) as time goes on. So while an opera company can stage a production of Haydnís Orpheus and Eurydice with a new idea for the mise-en-scene to try and attract an audience, a film will always be the same, making it difficult to convince newer audiences to see. Add to that differences in the editing style people are used to today from music videos and commercials (rapid jump cuts and very quick editing) to that used in films in the past (Hollywood continuity editing and relatively slower pacing) and it's apparent why it is often difficult to get younger audiences to view such classics as Hitchcock's Vertigo.

I relate this subject to an interesting performance I just saw--at Ithaca College-- of the ancient Greek tragedy Elektra. The director attempted, in my opinion unsuccessfully, to modernize the play, dressing Elektra in jeans and giving the Gods cell phones and briefcases. The play should have been left as it was originally and not been twisted to conform to popular culture. Similarly, some operas and opera styles cannot be changed to be more modern.

I am, however, only talking about this specific play, Elektra. For other works, this can be acceptable thing to do. It is just important to be careful, as this is a touchy subject.

In some ways I believe that these kinds of changes can't be controlled. It is inevitable that the arts evolve and transform as time goes on. I love opera. I went to see Carmen when I was ten in New York City, and it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth to think about that production being modernized in any way. I guess I'll have to accept it since that's the way things go.

Personally, I think it is practical that opera productions are modernizing alongside the rest of society. As technology is continuously advancing, the film industry and other attributes of the arts advance as well, though at a seemingly slower pace. But just because opera is developing creatively by no means argues that the musical classics will forever be forgotten. Casablanca (1942) and Gone with the Wind (1939) are still appreciated today, especially by people who werenít even born when they were released. I donít see why the same sort of thing would not be possible for the opera. For those who truly love this art form, I feel that seeing both a classic and a newer presentation would be an enlightening experience. I think that opera is headed in the right direction in terms of productivity and new ideas. Where would this world be today if it werenít for creative minds?

The opera, like many other art forms, has obtained certain conventions by society. Like film genres, society expects a certain stylization when they go see a production. It may be viewed with discomfort when these certain boundaries are broken. Opera wishes to convey a story/message, like any other art medium, while providing emotional ties with the audience. This message can be conveyed through differentiation of mise-en-scene if the production wishes. This differentiated aspect can actually heighten a story, bringing it to life with a new perspective and forcing people to take notice. Why must there be one or the other in opera? What must opera either be viewed as just plainly conventional or unconventional if the roots are the same?

I agree with several of the other posts that opera should be dynamic and contemporary, but also should not lose sight of its classic roots. As someone who has never gone to an opera, the word produces images of middle-aged men and women in ancient suits and dresses singing indistinct words with incredibly dynamic voices (an interpretation probably due to modern projections of operas in films and on television). Therefore, a more modern and contemporary spin on the opera would draw my attention, and hopefully help solidify my loose grasp of what an opera truly is. I think that contemporary adaptations of operas would attract younger audiences and instill within them an appreciation for a wider range of entertainment arts - one that extends past television and video games.
However, the classic opera still maintains a solid fan base and should not be manipulated simply for profits and bigger audiences. I think there can be a balanced mix between classic and contemporary operas. The ladies could wear Chanel on weekdays, and maybe bust out in Galiano on the weekends. And maybe even throw on some Prada once in a while. To sum up, we love seeing Lady Gaga once in a while, but we also love Meryl Streep.

This post reminded me of the cinema term "intertextuality," or a reference to another work, time period, and so on. In many films, there are different references to different films, costumes, time periods (such as Breathless (Godard, 1959) and its reference to Film Noir). Intertextuality is not strictly used only in cinema. At The Mount, author Edith Wharton's estate, the present designers of her house put laptops on her desk and a refrigerator in her kitchen, as to reference a different time period rather than what one would expect. The same holds true for the opera. It could be nice to feature costumes, songs, narration, mise-en-scene of a different time period or style, in the shell of an old tradition.

Opera like any art form should not and can not become stagnant. It must modernize to stay relevant, and accessible for new audiences. If it fails to do this it runs the risk of being left in "the dust bin of history." This also applies to the classics to many times I have seen people sleep through performances, because the director simply fail to keep the audience engaged.

Opera has traditionally only been able to appeal to those of upper class backgrounds, or the supporters of the arts (usually one in the same). Art in general is about reformulating what it is already known into something new. Like in films, classic stories are reinvented over and over to appeal to the modern audience. If operas were able to do this, it would not only open up such a unique art form to more followings and prevent it from becoming an inevitably dying.

There is nothing wrong with a little innovation. Times are changing and with changing time you have to change or be forced to leave. No one person wants to believe that outside forces have any control over us but with this changing world and new technology in order to keep opera going strong I believe that change can be good. That is what any good business would tell you. Donít lose your roots, opera should always stat opera but a little innovation never hurt.

The main discussion in this post is wether change is acceptable or something that people are ready for. Change is uncomfortable; something that makes people feel unsafe and exposed. Many say they don't like change because of this.

Truly, I believe that people, even the people who cringe at the idea of change, actually love change. Something that disrupts their patterns are habits. Events that shock them and leave them stunned. This could be seen as a form of masochism that exists in all of us. We love incidents that throw us off.

Of course this doesn't mean that people don't enjoy things that their used to. But people do love to mix things up. Many are able to find a happy balance between change and consistency - a balance that is hard to achieve as some people are unable to find it.

When Lady Gaga stepped into the mainstream, she was like nothing we had seen. She disrupted our traditionalism of safe outfits, and guitars with vocals. Audiences ate it up! But yet sales of the traditional Taylor Swift country sound continue to rise.

Both change and consistency are necessary, and truly will always exist in our world.

"Should Opera lock itself in time?" Well that's a very difficult question to answer. Opera is a beautiful and impressive art form that should be appreciated for what it is, unfortunately traditionally Opera has been losing audience members for years. I had the wonderful fortune to attend an Opera last summer, true it was put on by a small community theater group, at a high school (not exactly the most stunning of performances) but it was a joy to see. I was very upset when I arrived at the show and saw that the Auditorium wasn't even half full, or close to it. Also most of the audience members were settled into old age. It was proof that modern audiences do not appreciate and are not interested in traditional opera. Since Opera is such a wonderful art form, it must survive this decline in interest. It seems apparent that the only way for it to survive is to adapt itself to modern audiences. Slight changes may increase it's appeal, and then people will begin to enjoy and appreciate it again. It should keep it's original traditions, but change is good and will help to awaken audience's interests.

Change can be uneasy, and it is not accepted by everyone. However it is inevitable. Opera is a classic form of entertainment, and people still love to and see the shows. A little innovation will not turn people away from the art. Some changes may actually attract more attention among different age groups and races. Opera should not lock itself in time because I do believe down the line people will begin to lose interest. In order to keep people interested, change can help. Opera will not die if it changes, but most likely flourish within this constantly changing world.

I believe that opera's appeal is retained in its tradition. Like a Chanel suit, it is a piece of art that will never go out of style. The beauty lies in its tradition and the timelessness of the story, the music, the costumes; the aesthetic and classic elements of opera. You wouldn't change the great works of literature in order to make them "edgier" so why would classical music differ? I can understand the motives behind modernizing such classic arts but I believe that we need to preserve the few pieces of classicism we have left.

Opera. I had the chance to take a school trip to the MET and saw La Boehme, the first opera I had ever seen. I loved it. The sets, the sounds, the general grandeur. In the crowd waiting for the doors to open my group ( a bunch of college freshmen, defiantly stood out amidst the fur clad, tuxedo wearing regulars). Yet, no one gave us mean looks. Or said anything inappropriate about are dress. We fit just fine together. The youngsters and the old ones.



I think that any change in opera will be part of the trajectory that it always has been on. New stage theatrical get invited and used. Most Operas are already about sex ( they might not say so explicitly, but the subtlety is there) . I think Opera will do just fine.

I agree that opera is rooted in tradition. If it where to make an attempt to change with the times that should be done in a way that does not take away from its timelessness. A change would be a positive way to attract new audiences and reach those who do not know much about the art. I know I would be interested in seeing an opera if I knew that it contained modern concepts.

There will always be a place for traditional opera because so many of the great performances were written in opera's hay-day, prior to film and television. If someone takes opera and reinvents it then only the highest quality performances will break into the public arena. This is because opera itself does not draw as large a market audience as it once did. Like many fads in the world of art and performance opera will have its comeback, at least in the American spotlight when someone creates a marketable yet respectable "new age" piece that attracts us with modern day themes yet still respects the true character of opera.

Something that struck me about this post is the comment on the significant advantage to theaters associated with and funded by the government. The very earliest subsidized theater in Germany, the Hamburg National Theater, failed miserably and it's incredible to see how this model has grown and persisted through history. The thought that being governmentally subsidized means not relying on money which would lead to innovation and risk-taking within the business is shocking because of the ominous past of the melding of theater and government. Decades of theatrical growth was completely destroyed because of the censorship in early London, with rebel playwrights imprisoned and sometimes killed (legally!).

Similar to many of the sentiments previous to this blog, I think that while innovation is important to make a show relevant and substantial so it has the ability to greater affect situational audiences, there is value in keeping the classic vibe. A lot of work goes into researching the historically accurate costumes/sets/jargon and people even look into the audience at the time of creation. Keeping the traditional aspects of the show allows the audience a very graphic window into the way of life at some point in history, as well as what was entertaining at that time. It is important for a balance to be stuck.

@ Emily Flemming
Emily makes the point that "opera, just like any other art form, will grow stagnant and boring if the same thing is done every single time." Contrary to this statement, one of the beautiful things about opera and theater in general is that not only is each production different, each and every show is unique in that the audience is different. It's one of the best things about live performance, that the show is able to accommodate it's varying audience every night.

@ Jackson Eagan
Jackson makes a comment about Ithaca College's rendition of Elektra and how he thought that modernizing the costumes were unsuccessful (in what, I might ask). Though many thought that this inconsistency served more to distract from the plot and seemed to be a failed attempt at engaging the audience, the fact is is that it kept us awake and questioning. If one was paying attention, the audience member would have noticed the 50's costumes applied to the Greek Chorus and the traditional garb of the Farmer and Orestes/Pylades. The point of the costumes was to indirectly imply to the audience that Elektra is a timeless show, that can be applied through all the eras. The production was not being "twisted to conform to pop culture," it was making a statement about the substantiality of Eurypides and the themes and concepts he employed in his epic work.



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