Sunday, January 6, 2019

Why Regietheater Doesn't Work

Why Regietheater Doesn't Work

Hänsel und Gretel - Staatsoper Berlin

Okay, perhaps I got your attention - and you stand on one side of this argument or the other. Yes, the title is a misleading, particularly to those who know me as champion of a lot of regie productions, but the statement is also, unfortunately true. When inspired and when it workk, something not necessarily simultaneous as one might believe, regie can illuminate a familiar opera up to levels we'd not before thought of. It can provoke discussions on works too frequently "ho-hummed" despite their being well-attended, respected works of the lyric theatre. Good regietheater can shake us up, pull us out of the seemingly ordinary and elucidate a work as familiar as your staid, old Aunt Claire who for years has bored you to tears, until your discovering she was a topless dancer at the Folies Bergère and had a lesbian affair with Josephine Baker. Huh? What? Exactly.

Pelléas et Mélisande - Salzburg

Unfortunately, a good chunk of Regie fails for a number of reasons, but chiefly two: First, the director does not know enough about and/or truly respect the work entrusted to her or his care; and second, opera singers are not good enough actors to pull off the stunts required by those untrusting directors. I have a lot of opera singer friends who may get upset about that, and believe me, as a former (though never made it to the pros) opera singer, I mean that not as a slam in any way. I'll explain.

Pelléas et Mélisande - Salzburg

All opera singers are trained in acting and some, naturally gifted, could easily transition to the spoken stage and make a career there - athough why anyone would choose to not sing when one can is something both foreign and incomprehensible to me, not to mention ridiculous. Others not so gifted in the acting department (and that's the majority), can and often do succeed through sheer discipline, dedication to their art and guidance from their teachers, workshops, coaches and directors. These singers cultivate their skills to the highest level, and like any well-practiced skill, are often leave an impact that can be, and frequently is, stronger and more impressive than the so-called "natural." Think about how many performances you've attended where a singer, not particularly known for their acting, uses all of the tools of their trade to suckerpunch your heart and leave you in wide-eyed stun mode by what you've witnessed from them. These are the singers who have learned how to work with the music to serve the composer, how to create an effect that may on some surface level wow us, but even more importantly, dig beneath the surface and can transfuse the composer's music from their soul into our own. This is the magic of opera.

Tannhäuser - BayerischeStaatsoper München
When that connection is not understood by a director, there is a break in the chain between the composer, the singer and us, and this is never a good thing. Never. Ever.

We know a director doesn't trust the material (even if she/he is unaware of that) whenever We see them giving singers "business" to draw our eye to something, all while that something is remains in the mind of the director alone. It is not transferrable to either the singer, or to us, the audience., The singer may execute this business precisely as instructed, even to the satisfaction and delight of the director, but its meaning remains obscured to the point of being not only unnecessary, but actually intrusive.

Don Carlos - Düren, Germany

I recently watched a baroque opera where the director has updated the action and places one scene in a bar where two blokes are downing shots. One of them, the tenor, elaborately struggles to, then succesfully lights a cigarette, which he then waves around in what appear to be meaningless and distracting gestures. We look for some meaning in them, but there ultimately are none. He finishes his smoke, then mid-aria, his friend gestures for a smoke, the tenor offers him one, lights it, then reaches back into his pocket, withdraws and lights another for himself. Throughout the remainder of the aria he continues to perform the awkward gesticulations waving the cigarette about as if punctuating the text of this one sentence, da capo aria. At it's conclusion he tosses the cigarette behind the bar and storms out. What happened? It's anyone's guess.

Smoking onstage is a difficult enough thing to pull off, and is always an audience distraction with nearly everyone wondering: "is that a real cigarette? Is the singer a smoker? Doesn't the smoke bother other singers?" but most of all "why is this character smoking?" Too quickly and all too easily that unnecessary action it becomes the central "thing" to watch, and, instead of furthering the action or our understanding, only further separates us from the actual opera itself. Likewise, the singer, also is distracted by performing this hand ballet so irrelevant to the plot and to what he's singing about, all of it producing an effect wholly unrelated to the opera, and unnatural to the storytelling in every way possible. This is never a good thing. An actor from the spoken stage may be able to pull this off, but this is not the spoken stage, it is opera, and we all know things are wildly different in this world. That's why there's a difference. Of course, there's also the fact that like onstage nudity or unnecessary violence, more often than not, it's a cheap and uninspired gimmick and the lazy way out of putting meaning into a scene.

Too many theatre directors working in opera are or become self-indulgent and, instead of realizing the world in which they've chosen to inhabit, one filled with its own traditions, foibles, blessings and curses, imagine they are, instead at DV8 or La MaMa and working with beings whose bodies are trained for an entirely different kind of magic. We've seen and heard from directors how have even exhibited outright contempt for opera and its sometimes opera-sized singers. Of course there are elements that abound and abide in ALL theatre, which at its heart is nothing more than storytelling, but the manner in which those stories are told differ as widely - and as wildly - as the very art forms by which they're being told and defined by, be it ballet, opera, puppetry, Noh, Kabuki, or African dance.

Parsifal - BayerischeStaatsoper München
The traditions of every type of theatre must be respected and honored. We often witness that respect in every type of theatre, but, increasingly, in the opera house, we see less and less of it, despite the platitudes we may hear from directors who may say otherwise. Too many times I've heard a director say "I embrace the challenge of working with the diverse world of opera, it's vastness, the various shapes and sizes of its singers and history of traditions," only to see the final result being singers awkwardly shoe-horned into costumes and productions they are uncomfortable with and unnatural in.

There are those who will misread what I've written as a diatribe against regietheatre, when nothing could be further from the truth. What I'm against is bad regie, just as I'm against bad traditional productions which do nothing but present works as museum pieces, works that have earned their status as repertory pieces and deserve far more than to be preserved in mothballs.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,