I grew up listening to opera, mainly the Italian repertoire, but also ‘Carmen’ and ‘Faust’. I love the medium and the many great works composed in the genre. Much later, as a young professional pianist, I was fortunate to work as a repetiteur for the Australian Opera company at Sydney Opera House, an invaluable learning experience concerning singers, opera production and the multiple disciplines involved in staging a single performance of a work, and one which brought me into contact with several wonderful producers including John Copley, whose work I greatly admired, and Jonathan Miller, at the outset of his opera-producing career. I mention this in case anyone reading this blog thinks I dislike all opera producers!
The opera producer in our times is the person who directs the opera and gathers his design team. He should have a vision, a concept, of how the opera should be staged and then find the right people to create scenery, lighting, costumes and, if necessary, choreography, for which he may need a dance choreographer (many operas, especially those written for Paris, which Verdi called the “grande boutique”, have extensive dance sequences). He or she is a relatively modern invention and the origins of this particular profession seem somewhat hazy. If you tap ‘opera producer’ or ‘history of opera production’ into Google it is difficult to find information, perhaps just a listing of producers. As far as we know, there seems to have been no such person in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries: Schikaneder, who provided Mozart with the libretto for ‘The Magic Flute’ did everything himself as director of his theatre. Indeed, it was Mozart that said that “the text should always be the obedient daughter of the music”. In the nineteenth-century, Wagner with his helpers and conductors put on his own operas and when we come to Mahler, as well as conducting magnificently, he did his own producing, as far as I know: certainly, he worked closely with the great stage designer Alfred Roller, but he knew perfectly well what to do as one of the greatest composers and conductors in musical history.
By the time of Furtwangler, later in the twentieth-century, there was certainly a producer on the scene, which could create a lot of friction, because the overriding importance of the music means that the conductor knows (or should know) perfectly well what happens on stage and should, in principle, be able to direct it. In fact, it would seem that if the conductor (always assuming he is a superb musician and a great opera conductor – and Furtwangler was both) would be allowed to have his say, that would make the role of the producer less necessary, even superfluous. Even in the 1960s a conductor with a big reputation like Klemperer could insist on directing his own production of ‘Fidelio’ at Covent Garden, “to make sure that the musical conception shouldn’t be disturbed by what happened on the stage”. Von Karajan did many of his own productions as well.
However, by the 1960s, many imaginative, superbly gifted men had come along, like Franco Zeffirelli and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. By this time film was also becoming prominent as the medium to create originally-conceived opera performances in a way that could not possibly be done in a theatre: close-ups, dissolves, multiple cameras, outdoor scenes, and so on. In some cases this leads to the aesthetic whereby visual splendour and busy processionals are often more memorable than individual performances. There is no question that a good, imaginative producer can also help singers with moves, expression, projection of character and, well, ensure they don’t bump into the scenery, which could be the case with large, awkward singers (as I have witnessed). The producer may also take it upon himself/herself to change (or improve, or re-imagine, you can choose your word) the concept, time-frame, setting and action of the work, often very effectively, but here we come to a problem.
To take one example: in Ponnelle’s filmed version of ‘Madame Butterfly’, with Domingo and Freni, he does some wonderful things: some outdoor scenes for the love duet and family gathering, imaginative delineation of characters, (Goro is marvellous) and the Ponnelle specialty of having the character not mouth certain phrases, which is possible thanks to the pre-recorded soundtrack and a changed acoustic, showing their innermost thoughts (it works very well). Unfortunately, Ponnelle can’t resist monkeying around with the final scene: Puccini writes in great detail in the score (as he always does) what actually happens: the child is next to Butterfly, the chord where Butterfly plunges the knife is clearly written and both Pinkerton and Sharpless reappear and stay until the end, which is not only written but seems right, since they are both responsible for Butterfly’s tragedy. Instead, what do we get? The child is sent out, Butterfly waits until Pinkerton reappears and only plunges the knife at the very end in his full view, at which point he tears out through the flimsy wall, which is how the opera, unaccountably, began. Yes, Ponnelle wants us to SEE that Butterfly wants Pinkerton to SEE what he has done to her…but Puccini’s version is better, because the action is mirrored by the music, and it is what he wanted.
So, it is clear that even great, imaginative producers have made serious mistakes: these producers often talk about “fresh theatrical values”…but to achieve this the action must STILL reflect the music and the words and the producer/stage director should know every word of the text, every instruction by the composer, take note and respect it. But since the emotional message and much of the drama of an opera is found in the music he/she should know that very well too and have, at least, a working knowledge of the musical score: the musicians play the score in the pit as written, the singers (as far as their voice and intelligence allows them to) sing the music as written (we leave the matter of version and cuts aside) and the conductor has sufficient skill to enable the whole score to sound like a faithful approximation, never perfect, of course, because there is often too much going on. However, all too often, a bad producer does not take note of what the composer wrote, music or text. Puccini writes copious notes at the beginning of ‘Tosca’, for instance: there is almost as much there as I have written in this blog already and we haven’t even reached the tenor’s first aria ‘Recondita Armonia’, only five minutes into the opera!
The great conductor Riccardo Muti mentioned in an interview that in the second act of ‘La Traviata’, at the moment when old Germont walks in for the great scene with Violetta, Verdi has written measured, heavy music, indicating an older man’s measured gait; but in the production he was referring to the singer was made to walk in quickly at the last moment before singing: this is contrary to what was intended and is a good example of a producer who doesn’t know his music. In a production of Verdi’s ‘Otello’ I saw in Budapest two years ago, the otherwise fairly unremarkable production was capped by an unusual happening. After Desdemona’s death and Otello’s suicide the final bars were accompanied by the bizarre spectacle of Desdemona rising from the floor and making circular, gyrating movements signifying, as the irate assistant producer wrote to me, that her soul was going to heaven. There was absolute silence from the audience at the end, whether from emotion or shock – only one boo was heard…mine! I was outraged that they could so spoil the ending to one of the greatest masterpieces of the lyric operatic theatre. I wrote an irate letter to the producer (who was an Italian, so no excuse possible that he misunderstood the original text) and I received a note from his assistant, who was hurt and shocked at my response. He suggested that, perhaps, I should stay home and just listen to my beautiful recordings. This was, of course, an excellent idea and I wrote again to say “thank you, that is exactly what I plan to do”!
The matter of changing the time and place and setting of an opera in order ‘to adapt it for the needs of a modern audience’ can, at its worst, turn out to be the most contentious and insensitive thing one could do, as it often fits neither the music nor the raison d’etre of the entire work. There are, indeed, many works where such a thing makes nonsense of the work’s meaning and psychology. Let’s take Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’. What is this opera about? It is, principally but not exclusively, about a nobleman’s attempt to bed his favourite servant-girl on her wedding night, thus exercising his ‘droits de seigneur’, by our standards an immoral custom that was greatly thwarted by the French Revolution. Indeed the first performances of it were greeted with alarm by many. It really makes no sense to put this into a modern context, and the same can be said for many other operas suffering this fate. Many years ago I saw a production of ‘Die Fledermaus’ where the party scene had been set in a disco, with costumes to match: the problem came when they tried to fit the waltz to gyrating pop-dance movements; that’s simply stupid. The text, as well, often refers to historical events or characters that completely lose relevance when the scene is set in a totally different context.
The puzzling thing is that nobody tries to fit a painting, or a building or a book to the ‘needs of a modern audience’. We look at a Rembrandt or a Goya just as he painted it, not counting some healthy TLC and restoration so as to keep it looking its best; we don’t add paint to the Empire State Building so as to make it modern: its beauty and genius is in the fact that it looks just as wonderful as it did when it was built. We don’t re-write parts of ‘War and Peace’ and we don’t re-film or change scenes from ‘Casablanca’, although we may very well film a second version (which is bound to flop because the original was so good – and in any case, who can replace Bergman and Bogart). We try to ‘update’ Shakespeare, often unnecessarily – but could you ever really update Wilde’s ‘The Importance of being Earnest’? Well, not successfully: the language, the characters’ psychology, the humour, are all tied up with people of that class in England, in that period – the plot, the humour and the irony all work superbly in that setting,
So why monkey about with opera? The producer’s prime function, and responsibility (together with the conductor), is to ensure that audiences understand and enjoy the work as conceived by composer and librettist, by taking into account the plot, the setting of the action and the psychology of the characters, as well as the musical score – however much he/she wishes to prod audiences into looking at the work afresh by being innovative, imaginative and provocative.
As I reach the stage of publishing this blog, a comment about the 2015 Covent Garden production of Gounod’s ‘Faust’, producer David McVicar, which was recently streamed online. A very imaginative production, some excellent singing and characterization. Two scenes stand out for me for their originality. First, the church scene where the statue in front of the Church comes to life as the Devil to torture Margarite is done amazingly. Second, the ballet, with its pregnant, screaming dancer – shocking and sadistic but extremely effective – but why, oh why is the waltz scene with students, girls, musicians and burghers turned into a ‘Cabaret of Hell’ reminiscent of the Moulin Rouge, unsuitable to the music or the period? Lapse of taste there and, to my mind, unjustifiable even in the context of this production.
I would end by quoting the most famous (and versatile) operatic tenor of our time, Jonas Kaufmann, on the subject: “Too many directors arrive at the opera house these days knowing little or nothing about music…I sometimes feel that directors…don’t trust the power of the music and are terrified of boring an audience. Opera is a truly magical art, but the magic originates primarily in the music that we singers work so hard to communicate.”