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Thread: Seeing vs listening to opera, 2 opinions, what's yours?

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    Senior Member Almaviva's Avatar
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    Default Seeing vs listening to opera, 2 opinions, what's yours?

    We recently in another thread had a discussion regarding Parsifal, and listening to it vs. seeing it got some of our members to express opposing views.

    I thought it would be fun to dig into this question in more detail - basically, the question of stage directing.

    There is one famous opinion about it, from George Bernard Shaw, and most of us here probably have heard it before. However, many may not have heard what Patrice Chereau said to counter Shaw's opinion.

    Shaw:

    "The best way to go to opera is to sit in the back of a box, put your feet up a chair, and close your eyes. If your own imagination can't do at least as well as any scene painter, you shouldn't go to opera."

    Chereau:

    "Sure, but you can turn that around. You can say that if the director isn't capable of doing better than the imagination of the spectators, he's useless. Maybe that's just my personal pride, but that's how I see it. Sure, we can listen to an opera eyes closed. But that would make the stage meaningless, it would mean there would be no point in having a live orchestra and live singers. If we go to an opera, it means we want to see theater. We want to see this thing that exists nowhere else, the thing you can only find in the theater: people living on stage who represent an action and who tell us a story with sentiments and emotion."

    So, which side is yours?

    (Mine is Chereau's).
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Senior Member World Violist's Avatar
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    I'd have to go with Chereau here. It seems almost ironic that Shaw tries to undermine the entire idea of gesamtkunstwerk that Wagner strove for, and as I recall he was as big a Wagner fan as the next guy. So to say that staging is useless would kill the whole use of trying for gesamtkunstwerk.

    Besides, if we should just imagine the staging, maybe we should just "imagine" the music also? Why do we go to concerts/operas if we could just imagine the music in our minds?

    I like Chereau's opinion because 1) it provides answers to all the questions Shaw brings up, 2) he's challenging himself and other stage artists to transcend the bounds of human imagination, and 3) he's doing a darn good job of defending his profession. Shaw is not.
    You get a frog in your throat, you sound hoarse.

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    Senior Member Almaviva's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by World Violist View Post
    I'd have to go with Chereau here. It seems almost ironic that Shaw tries to undermine the entire idea of gesamtkunstwerk that Wagner strove for, and as I recall he was as big a Wagner fan as the next guy. So to say that staging is useless would kill the whole use of trying for gesamtkunstwerk.

    Besides, if we should just imagine the staging, maybe we should just "imagine" the music also? Why do we go to concerts/operas if we could just imagine the music in our minds?

    I like Chereau's opinion because 1) it provides answers to all the questions Shaw brings up, 2) he's challenging himself and other stage artists to transcend the bounds of human imagination, and 3) he's doing a darn good job of defending his profession. Shaw is not.
    Exactly. But then, if we want to discuss stage directing in depth, we need to also consider other controversial points: regietheater, and updating.

    About the latter, I read another very interesting opinion from another stage director, Robert Carsen. Recently in the Six Essential Opera DVDs thread I listed the Salzburg La Traviata as one of my favorites. It's in modern dress. Some users were turned off by it (not necessarily because of the update), and the comparison between the Glyndebourne Cosi and the Salzburg Cosi (the latter in modern dress) also went the same way. Here is what Carsen said:

    "... La Traviata, say - it's important to know what that work represented to the composer. Why did he bother to write it? I mention La Traviata because the story was close to Verdi's heart. It was something he was living through; this woman who was treated so appallingly, and the hypocrisy of his age [he is talking about Verdi's wife]. He was tired of writing about historical subjects and wanted to write a modern piece. In a famous letter, he said he wanted to write about "un sogeto dell'epoca." Which is why it's ironic that opera audiences sometimes forget, or are not aware of that fact when they complain about La Traviata being staged in modern dress. It's betraying that Verdi wanted to do anything else. He wanted to have the audience look at themselves on the stage."

    So, I'm with him on this, I'm for tasteful updating when there is a good reason to do it, like the above.

    Regietheater on the other hand I'm not fond of. The same director also says about Der Rosenkavalier, that he was struck about two details that many people don't notice (or they do, but don't grant it much importance): "She's called the Feldmarschallin. The Feldmarshal is the head of the Austrian army. ... We're only told one thing about Sophie's father, Herr von Faninal, apart from the fact that he is incredibly rich: he is an arms dealer and supplies the army which is stationed in Holland. ... And I thought, that's interesting. It's the Zeitgeist: the opera was composed two years before World War I, when Austria was arming itself. ... Hofmannsthal made her husband, this dark, threatening force who frightens everyone all the way through the opera, the head of the army. I thought, well, you can't ignore that. I pushed it very far, and the Austrians got cross because I set the whole thing at the end of the Hapsburgs, just before World War I. And when Sophie and Octavian sing at the end, "it's a dream, it can't really be" I showed, behind them, the Field Marshall leading the army into battle - so in fact the dream is about to end the next moment."

    OKaaayyy... Sounds interesting... but it is indeed a bit of Regietheater. Justifed, or not?
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Senior Member World Violist's Avatar
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    There are some curious ideas in the above post. However, I think that, like music at the turn of the century, all of these "regietheatre" and "eurotrash" things will have made their impact. Not to say they'll be the only thing happening in 30 years, just that their importance to the zeitgeist will have made itself known and when directors choose to move toward a more conservative, integrated style they will have a greater pool from which to thoughtfully and (hopefully) tastefully draw. Besides, for all the junk people give Schoenberg or whoever, you have to keep in the back of your mind that this was progress, and progress is almost by definition haphazard, risky, and treading the line of good taste.

    So yes, I do think regietheatre and updating are all very important things, if only for 30 years down the line. As for right now, though, I mostly agree with you, although I can't keep my mind out of the "30 years down the line..." scenario. The Glyndebourne L'incoronazione di Poppea DVD is in modern dress and has people toting guns etc., but I think it was significant. I watched the little special thing and found it very well reasoned, and the effect of the opening especially was very good and pronounced etc. I haven't gotten through the whole thing yet (I really must just sit down and do it), but I imagine the rest is similar in effect.
    You get a frog in your throat, you sound hoarse.

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    Senior Member Almaviva's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by World Violist View Post
    There are some curious ideas in the above post. However, I think that, like music at the turn of the century, all of these "regietheatre" and "eurotrash" things will have made their impact. Not to say they'll be the only thing happening in 30 years, just that their importance to the zeitgeist will have made itself known and when directors choose to move toward a more conservative, integrated style they will have a greater pool from which to thoughtfully and (hopefully) tastefully draw. Besides, for all the junk people give Schoenberg or whoever, you have to keep in the back of your mind that this was progress, and progress is almost by definition haphazard, risky, and treading the line of good taste.

    So yes, I do think regietheatre and updating are all very important things, if only for 30 years down the line. As for right now, though, I mostly agree with you, although I can't keep my mind out of the "30 years down the line..." scenario. The Glyndebourne L'incoronazione di Poppea DVD is in modern dress and has people toting guns etc., but I think it was significant. I watched the little special thing and found it very well reasoned, and the effect of the opening especially was very good and pronounced etc. I haven't gotten through the whole thing yet (I really must just sit down and do it), but I imagine the rest is similar in effect.
    This is an interesting way to see it, World Violist - to project ourselves 30 years ahead and see what will be left of these extreme productions.

    I'm on a quoting mode today. Not that I wouldn't want to express my own views on this, but I'm willing to get into this thread the opinion of true professionals in the field, to enlighten our discussion of these issues. So here is what, this time, a conductor said - and a mightly good one, I'm looking forward to his Met debut a couple of weeks from now in Cosi, I'm talking about William Christie, and everything I've seen with his Les Arts Florissants, I simply loved!

    So here is what he says about updating and regietheater:

    "Can you imagine a Wagner revival with the costumes and scenerey of the 1870's and 1880's? You've seen the photos. Can you imagine the Rhinemaidens today as they were originally? We can do that, but it would be pretty horrible." I loved what he said here...

    But then, on regietheater:

    "Wicked, and evil sometimes, stage directors... someone who thinks he is more important, who thinks he has a better idea, or more talent, than the composer and the librettist. When someone says - This libretto is crap. We're going to change it, rewrite a few scenes. ... The whole regietheater, I mean,there are some things that are simply appallingly bad. There are things that can be quite good. But when someone says - We have to do something with these pieces, because they have to be appropriate to a modern age, they've got to say something to us - well, you can go off the deep end when you do that kind of stuff. Respect for music, respect for the singer, respect for the libretto, seem to me fundamental. I love mixing modern and old. I love Wagner in modern dress, as I love Lully or Rameau in modern dress. A production can be wild, it can offend people, but I like it to be immensely respectful of what the work is musically."

    Just as an illustration, I saw a Benvenuto Cellini that had a helicopter and two robots, one of them just like Star Wars C3PO. Pushing too far... going the deep end, in my opinion.

    But that Poppea that you mention, I saw it, and liked it as well, didn't think the guns were obtrusive.

    By the way, Christie also rejects the label of "authentic" to his Les Arts Florissants. He defends period instruments given some specific techniques of the baroque music that are less successful if played in modern instruments, and talks about a difference in pitch, saying that Monteverdi was played at a whole tone higher than the modern pitch. But he says that there is no way to be "authentic" since we actually have no clue about how they staged, played, and sang these operas at the time - and I'd add, we don't even have castrati...
    Last edited by Almaviva; Oct-28-2010 at 14:16.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Senior Member jhar26's Avatar
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    Well, I do my best to like modern and updated productions so that I can be as cool as everyone else. Sometimes it works for me, sometimes it doesn't. I guess you have to judge each production on it's own merits.

    Leaving aside the (to me anyway) obvious problems of referring to a guy who looks no different from you or me as a water goblin or finding out that people of the old Roman empire fought their wars with machine guns, musically too updating an opera can be at odds with the nature of a work and with what the composer had in mind. Take for example Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss uses a lot of waltszes in that opera because they evoke the time in which the opera is set. This is no longer the case if you update the work to the 21st century.
    Martha doesn't signal when the orchestra comes in, she's just pursing her lips..

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    Senior Member jhar26's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Almaviva View Post
    "Can you imagine a Wagner revival with the costumes and scenerey of the 1870's and 1880's? You've seen the photos. Can you imagine the Rhinemaidens today as they were originally? We can do that, but it would be pretty horrible."
    I've got a lot of respect for Mr.Christie, but this comment strikes me as a bit of a caricature. Nobody - not even the most convinced traditionalists would like to copy a production from 1870. Today they don't make movies anymore like they did in the 1920's either, but they might still tell the same stories with the same recognizable characters. And that's the essence of it all. The Rhinemaidens don't have to look like they did in 1870, but they still need to look like Rhinemaidens to me, and not like prostitutes.
    Martha doesn't signal when the orchestra comes in, she's just pursing her lips..

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    Senior Member Almaviva's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jhar26 View Post
    I've got a lot of respect for Mr.Christie, but this comment strikes me as a bit of a caricature. Nobody - not even the most convinced traditionalists would like to copy a production from 1870. Today they don't make movies anymore like they did in the 1920's either, but they might still tell the same stories with the same recognizable characters. And that's the essence of it all. The Rhinemaidens don't have to look like they did in 1870, but they still need to look like Rhinemaidens to me, and not like prostitutes.
    Interesting, I did comment here that I didn't like the fact that the Rhinemaidens in the recent Met production looked like sluts.
    Last edited by Almaviva; Oct-28-2010 at 14:17.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Senior Member Elgarian's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jhar26 View Post
    Take for example Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss uses a lot of waltszes in that opera because they evoke the time in which the opera is set. This is no longer the case if you update the work to the 21st century.
    Gaston's put his finger on the problem that I can never get past, but for me it's a more general one that I've mentioned before. If what we're hearing doesn't match what we're seeing, the artistic unity of the opera is lost, and when that happens, 'eyes closed' or 'audio only' is the best option for me.

    Christie (on whom be praise heaped for all sorts of reasons) is right when he says we can never know what the truly 'authentic' is, but the problem isn't one of authenticity in some nit-picking, scholarly sense. It's the jarring difficulty of having to reconcile music that sounds utterly redolent of its historic period with (let's say) the appearance of thugs with machine guns. It's like putting a Watteau in a modern stainless steel picture frame.

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    Senior Member World Violist's Avatar
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    These are all really interesting points, but being the non-opera buff I am, I'll not say anything else just yet.

    I would like to add another twist, though. Has anyone here heard of Bill Viola's new (well not really new, it's a few years old) "staging" of Tristan und Isolde that Esa-Pekka Salonen has been taking around the world? It's an art video production. I would have gone to see one of the performances if it was physically possible; the performances at that time were in Britain, and they were already sold out months ahead of the actual performances.

    Anyway, word has it that it is an intoxicating production, and I'm beginning to wonder if video productions might be becoming a new trend.
    You get a frog in your throat, you sound hoarse.

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    Senior Member Almaviva's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by World Violist View Post
    These are all really interesting points, but being the non-opera buff I am, I'll not say anything else just yet.

    I would like to add another twist, though. Has anyone here heard of Bill Viola's new (well not really new, it's a few years old) "staging" of Tristan und Isolde that Esa-Pekka Salonen has been taking around the world? It's an art video production. I would have gone to see one of the performances if it was physically possible; the performances at that time were in Britain, and they were already sold out months ahead of the actual performances.

    Anyway, word has it that it is an intoxicating production, and I'm beginning to wonder if video productions might be becoming a new trend.
    No, I haven't. It sounds scary, though...
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Senior Member Almaviva's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Elgarian View Post
    Gaston's put his finger on the problem that I can never get past, but for me it's a more general one that I've mentioned before. If what we're hearing doesn't match what we're seeing, the artistic unity of the opera is lost, and when that happens, 'eyes closed' or 'audio only' is the best option for me.

    Christie (on whom be praise heaped for all sorts of reasons) is right when he says we can never know what the truly 'authentic' is, but the problem isn't one of authenticity in some nit-picking, scholarly sense. It's the jarring difficulty of having to reconcile music that sounds utterly redolent of its historic period with (let's say) the appearance of thugs with machine guns. It's like putting a Watteau in a modern stainless steel picture frame.
    Yes, it's a valid point, but one that puzzles me and I keep getting really unsure about my own opinion on it. Maybe my true opinion would be that it depends on the opera, and that's why I keep liking updates sometimes, and I don't like them at other times.

    Take the modern dress La Traviata I've mentioned - it works perfectly. It doesn't detract from the music at all. That's what I think Christie has in mind when he says a production can be wild but can't disregard the music. And the argument that Verdi intended the story to connect with the current lives of the public does seem to call for modern dresses. I got the new La Traviata in Paris DVD, and was enchanted by how precisely it reproduces the demi-monde scene with the gorgeous Parisian locations and precise time-appropriate dresses. But I watched it with a sense of - "this is what it looked like in the real thing" since we know that there are hints of reality in the original story by Dumas, who wrote the piece thinking of a former mistress of his. But then, in spite of my enchantment with the perfect period characterization, it was like watching a pretty movie, but it didn't connect with me the way the Salzburg modern dress production did. I think the Salzburg had a lot more dramatic impact.

    The lavishly praised Les Indes Galantes has some amazing visuals... and amazing music. The staging is modern-looking but it is basically period staging. You can have spectacular, appealing visuals for a modern public, and still set the piece in its proper time period. The only thing I didn't like was that ridiculous huge golden turkey, LOL.

    On the other hand, I like my waltzes to be danced by people in waltz attire... For example, I think that Die Fledermaus in anything other than time-appropriate costumes would be a complete travesty, pun intended. That's because the specifics of the party music in that piece are so linked to a given period that they would feel completely out of place in another one. But it's not the same for La Traviata. Verdi's construction of his score has a lot to do with inner psychological states of his characters (I could go on and on about this, I studied this question a lot, but it would be too long to address here). These inner states exist unchanged it current people's minds... thus the fact that updating La Traviata is less of a problem than updating Die Fledermaus.

    Cosi fan Tutte is another one that survives updates, and again, due to the same issue. Two friends end up sleeping with each others' fiancees, while manipulated by a sadistic-voyeristic-cynical older friend. You know, this stuff could happen these days (and probably does happen...). This plot is rich in conflicts that have to do with human sexuality, jealousy, man-woman power games and gender roles, class conflict, etc, who are eternal, even though some of it in the opera is time-specific with women at the time being in a less powerful position than they are nowadays. And Mozart's music is quite timeless as well, and when we see the recent Salzburg modern dress production, it's not too weird to listen to Mozart's score while looking at a modern appartment.

    The Chatelet Les Troyens - that's another story. Berlioz's opera is concerned with History with a capital H. He's talking about the founding of civilizations. He's talking about the origines of the Roman empire and Aeneas' sense of historic duty overwhelming his personal life and his love for Didon. In this case, you *have* to address the piece in a time-specific setting. But then, you can have a visually modern staging, you can have mirrors, striking visuals, etc - but it is still clear that the action is set in the legendary time of the Trojan War. Then, you have soldiers in modern dress and machine guns - was this necessary, does this add anything to that production? No, I'd say. I loved that production for several reasons, but the anachronism in that detail was unnecessary. It's a touch of regietheater that I didn't like. It didn't destroy the production since it is so strong in other ways, but it just wasn't necessary. They could have stopped the updating at the strikingly visuals, no need for an anachronism.

    The Poppea we've mentioned above, in fascist era dresses - well, that one worked. The oppressive nature of power just matched well the intentions of the original piece. In that one, the guns didn't disturb me.

    So, again, it depends. We can't pass judgment on this in a blanket, one-size-fits-all manner.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Senior Member Elgarian's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Almaviva View Post
    Yes, it's a valid point, but one that puzzles me and I keep getting really unsure about my own opinion on it.
    I'm unsure too (but then I'm unsure about everything). But seriously, I share your sense of mystification about why it works sometimes and why it sometimes doesn't. What's more, the reasons are going to be different for each of us.

    The sense of fun that pervades Les Indes Galantes seemes to sweep away all objections - even when they carry anachronistic suitcases it doesn't seem to matter - it seems like a gentle wink to remind us that this is really now and not then, and aren't we lucky to be enjoying ourselves like this. But then when a similar thing is done, like the boiler suits and the fluffy bunnies in Purcell's Fairy Queen, it sticks in my throat and ruins everything. I honestly don't know where the line comes.

    I was going to say more but have to stop!

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    Senior Member sospiro's Avatar
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    I'm replying to this from another perspective. CDs v DVDs.

    I started off with no DVDs at all & only ever listened to CDs. I followed the libretto if I had one & used my imagination for the characters & scenes.

    Of course I do now watch DVDs but sometimes I still prefer the version I created in my mind years ago.

    And in some cases I wouldn't even bother with the DVD. La battaglia di Legnano has some sublime music but this is what one reviewer said about the only DVD available.

    "January 8, 2010
    By Dr. Dragoslav Aleksic (Ljubljana Slovenia)

    This review is from: Verdi - La Battaglia di Legnano (DVD)
    Beautiful opera but done very bad. I is cut as almost did the Nelo Santi , who obviously hate the opera as most conducters.....is is short opera and to make cuts it is shocking. There is no second second verse of Lina's Cabaletta and there is a cut in beautiful duet from act I (soprano-tenore). Ugly and dull staging. Buy the version on CD Philips- Ricciarelli, Carreras, Manuguerra and you shall see what brilliant music this opera is."
    sic

    I wouldn't not buy just because someone didn't like it but after reading about the cuts, I won't bother with this.



    A couple of arias

    [YT]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RT1LTG1GMPA[/YT]


    [YT]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a398O3JQyfc[/YT]
    Ann

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    Senior Member Almaviva's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sospiro View Post
    I'm replying to this from another perspective. CDs v DVDs.

    I started off with no DVDs at all & only ever listened to CDs. I followed the libretto if I had one & used my imagination for the characters & scenes.

    Of course I do now watch DVDs but sometimes I still prefer the version I created in my mind years ago.

    And in some cases I wouldn't even bother with the DVD. La battaglia di Legnano has some sublime music but this is what one reviewer said about the only DVD available.
    Well, it may be an example of an incompetent production, but it doesn't mean other opera productions can't go beyond the public's imagination.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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