Wednesday, September 23, 2009

More Tosca Ravings

Like political, societal and religious affiliations, we seem to be dividing ourselves - almost polarizing ourselves - into camps in how we view the arts. Unfortunately, some seem to be becoming entirely intolerant towards anything even mildly different from the way they think things “should be.” Anything outside of their particular comfort zone is dismissed as a travesty, a sacrilege, an abhorrence, a __________ (fill in the blank).

ALL of this becomes a bit surreal when you think that what we’re talking about here – primarily – is after all, entertainment. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s a far loftier art than, say, fan dancing or karaoke, but nonetheless, it's still entertainment. We revere our composers – and we should – but this perpetual nonsense about embalming productions as we think they should be forever is just that, nonsense. The works (particularly the great ones) have proven themselves having more than stood the tests of time through not only mediocre performances and stagings, but downright horrid ones. This is not to say we should encourage them to be badly produced, but that they have (and will continue to) survive intact (or nearly so) whenever so done. Think of all those horrible Messiahs we've all had to sit through - it doesn't (or shouldn't) make you love Handel any less, right?

I received a lot of private responses yesterday and (amazingly) MOST of them were positive, and most of THOSE came from folk far older than myself - and it made my heart swell to know (or hope) that when I'm an old man (in the not too distant future!) there'll be plenty of freethinking, opera loving folk still around wanting to be challenged by works we've known and loved all our lives.

I keep seeing (not only here) the argument that stripped down, minimalist, rethought productions are killing opera. I’ve seen comments from those who refused to bring someone desiring to go to their first opera merely because they’ve HEARD the Tosca/Butterfly/Boheme was not traditional and that they didn’t want to subject their loved one to the atrocity of a non-traditional staging.

I did not see this Tosca, but (again) Bondy did not set this on the Moon, or in Vienna or a Rhodesian pig farm – but in an (apparently minimalist) Rome. So the sets were ugly - big whoop. Tosca is at its heart (at least for some of us), an ugly story. It's an ugly, tense, gritty melodrama, not the dreamily romantic tale of a glamourpuss diva and her artist boyfriend and the cop who threatens their love. It’s about betrayal (on every level) deception, political corruption, bad choices, and flawed but fascinating characters all of whom end up dead within the course of a single day. It still blows my mind.

Many like to go to the opera for the “pretty music” and the “picture postcard settings.” Fine – there’s STILL plenty of that going on – in pretty much every opera house in the U.S. Personally, I've nothing against it (and rather often prefer "traditional" myself), but when someone takes a sacred cow like Tosca and sets it on its ear, I say “Good for you, sir. And good for us, too.” Let the boobirds have their say, and I’m glad they were rattled and I'm thrilled to see discussions - pro-and-con - on the matter. Nothing like a bit o' controversy and minor discomfort to get the opera season off to an exciting start, I say!

No one I know is saying that Tosca (or anything else) MUST be updated in order to make sense, or have relevancy to today’s audiences, yet those of us who support /updated stagings are always attacked by the same argument we must be “idiots” if we can’t “get” what Puccini, et al. are trying to say. It’s a tired and false canard. Changing the time settings (and some instances locales) of tales operatic is nearly as old a practice as of staging opera itself.

Puccini has the power to move, but his (and his librettists’) tense, terse gritty work is, too frequently hidden behind the trappings of the familiar which can obliterate intended meanings, and allowing what is in actuality a frightening drama to become "stale" (I’m NOT saying it always does, but the risk is very real and it happens). This is because it isn’t LIKE watching the same thing over and over again, it IS watching the same thing over and over and the overly familiar can become routine and predictable. I’m sorry but routine and predictable are the last things that should ever happen to opera.

I demand that those who argue on the inane insistence that opera must only be given as the composer intended, immediately throw away their recordings and never attend another recital of excerpted arias, duets and ensembles and CERTAINLY never go to another concert performance of an opera. I mean, if you’re gonna make these rules – then by god, you gotta play by ‘em too. (I mean, just how DOES a tuxedoed Parsifal standing in front of a symphony orchestra catch a spear on the stage of a concert hall?)

I’m kidding, of course, but I do wish those so adamantly opposed to anything out of their comfort zone try to take a look at things differently, approaching them with an open mind. I’m not saying we need to sit tacitly by pretending something’s great because it’s “new ‘n different” - not at all; but I do wish we could see more open-mindedness which is, I fear, something I’m seeing less and less of not only in opera – but everything else in this crazy beautiful mixed up world. Tolerance really ain’t such a bad thing!

“People are wrong when they say opera is not what it used to be. It is what it used to be. That IS what's wrong with it.” (Noel Coward)