The opera season ended last weekend at both The Met in New York and locally with Chicago Opera Theater’s very-winning and beautifully sung production of Jake Heggie’s “Three Decembers” starring Frederica von Stade in her final opera appearance in Chicago. The season’s end seems a good moment to think about changes taking place in the opera world.
Even infrequent opera-goers can surmise that this four-century-old art form is in a period of transformation. The changes are vocal, economic and technological. Most are changes of degree rather than radical in nature. One or two, however, strike me as unprecedented. Taken together, they add up to a U-turn or two in opera programming and performance practice.
My thinking on this topic was provoked while examining the 2010-11 season brochure for Lyric Opera of Chicago. Sure, theater directors have, over the past 40 years, directed operas from John Dexter and Harold Prince to Sir Peter Hall and Peter Sellers. But Lyric’s eight productions next season feature six directors with strong past theater ties. Only former opera star, Renata Scotto, and John Copley of Covent Garden are primarily opera directors.
So, I started out exploring the following changes that seem to break from past operatic practice: 1) the greater use of theater directors, 2) opera moving beyond its own four walls, 3) the decline of the proverbial “Fat Lady” and 4) growing use of modern-dress productions.
I spoke with Chicago’s two operatic leaders—Bill Mason, general director of Lyric Opera and Brian Dickie at Chicago Opera Theater.
Both men shared memories gleaned from 50+ year associations with opera companies. Mason’s time has been spent entirely at Lyric, beginning with a walk-on role as a lad of 12 while Dickie spent over 30 years with the renowned Glyndebourne Festival Opera and Wexford Festival in England.
Both general directors played down any surprise about the use of theater directors overseeing opera productions. Names like Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Jonathan Miller, John Copley and Peter Hall were bandied about. The trend
has been more common in England than here which Mason attributed to London’s centrality and lively arts scene. “It happens more in England. Most theatrical talent is focused in London” while the same concentration is less prevalent here.
I asked both men when using a director more versed in the spoken word of theater than the musical language of opera makes sense. “It’s all about the music and sensitivity to the text but also the musical text,” said Dickie. “(Good directors) must have that language in their bodies. Directors can’t make singers do something that clashes with the musical text.”
Mason’s view on how to employ a theater director and insure a successful production is “it helps if both the company and director know the challenges the work presents to insure the best collaboration. At the first presentation of the director’s ideas for staging the work, it is necessary to establish artistic parameters. Sometimes a director comes with a conception at odds with our view and you need to make changes or economize.”
Both men threw out the names of favored directors who had handled that transition very successfully. Mason cited Jean Pierre Ponnelle, Copley and David McVicker while Dickie named Carl Ebert at Deutsche Oper and gave particular praise to Wieland Wagner and his role in reestablishing the Bayreuth Festival in the 1960s.
However, Lyric and The Met’s greater reliance on theater directors, such as Charles Newell, Gary Griffin, Peter Sellers and Mary Zimmerman has contributed to two other changes: a focus on appearance and greater stage movement.
Not every such engagement is a successful marriage. Pierre Audi’s static direction of Verdi’s “Attila” at the Met this past season is a case in point as are the two productions Mary Zimmerman has staged there as well, a “Lucia di Lammermoor” and this season’s “Armida”, both of which received very mixed critical receptions. There’s a general feeling that her acclaimed use of improvisation and movement in her theater work is not as transferable to opera.
Another major change is tied to our society’s obsession with being thin, fed by our celebrity culture. Deborah Voigt was cut from a production of “Ariadne auf Naxos” in 2004 because her weight made it impossible to fit into an infamous “tiny black dress”. The director asserted her heft made her unbelievable as the svelte and sexy female lead. The signal was thus sent that visual appearance had entered the opera world and rendered the saying, “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings” moot. Mason admits European houses “give more importance to the physical look.”
We want our Carmens to be smoldering femme fatales and Lyric intends to give us the goods next season, even while Mason says, that “at the end of the day, I’m moved by great singing and great dramatic conviction. Without that dramatic tension, all the bells and whistles can’t help.”
Dickie admits that, while he greatly admires Jane Eaglen and Birgit Nillson in her prime, “in the last 10-15 years, increasing attention is being paid to the plausibility of singers. If you can avoid an overweight Isolde, you should do it.”
Peter Gelb at The Met in New York assumed his post in 2006 with a mandate to shake things up. He has done precisely that in his short tenure. He has insisted on staging many new productions in an attempt to make the classics more appealing to contemporary audiences.
His two signal achievements are the unprecedented telecast of Met productions to more than a hundred movie theaters around the country and a simultaneous telecast of the opening night performance of “Madame Butterfly” in 2007 onto the Jumbotron screen in Times Square. These moves have created an invaluable visual archive for future artists and audiences.
While the changes have generated hosannas and catcalls, Brian Dickie is a fan. “Anything that increases interest in opera can be a good thing.”
A final trend that is increasing interest in opera is the increasing use of computer technology in productions and situating characters and the action in the more recent past, retiring tired costume dramas sporting silk hose and medieval armor and set in the 17th or 18th Century.
Perhaps that’s why I’m going to more opera these days. An element of surprise and anticipation has re-entered opera. When it’s good, it’s better than anything on any Broadway or West End stage. And believable characters, strong dramatic action, a winning artistic concept and glorious voices make it an art form that should survive another century.