AMERICAN THEATER | What is opera, director?
Natalie Dessay in the production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” by Mary Zimmerman at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo by Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera) Taken on February 21, 2011 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
What is the main difference between opera and theater? The answer, in formal terms, is simple: one is based on the music, the other on the text. The plays have actors, opera singers. There is also a contrast in scale and logistics: a piece does not need an orchestra or a conductor, a choir or an army of extras. The theatrical spaces are therefore often smaller, more amorphous and malleable, while the “house” opera is a lodge For a reason. Obviously, these contrasts are a little less pronounced when it comes to musical theater compared to opera, but even the Gershwin Theater, the largest of all Broadway homes and the longtime home of Bad, is about half the size of the Metropolitan Opera.
Contrasts on paper likely translate into practical working differences. Directing an opera requires a different set of parameters, collaborators, and considerations than a play or musical. One starts from a scenario, the other from a score. But what about the state of mind, the aesthetic necessities of each? The late opera, theater and cinema director Patrice Chéreau once insisted that “to me they are exactly the same – telling stories with actors”. But beyond this commonality, how to manage the artistic necessities specific to opera?
When Peter Gelb took over as managing director of the Metropolitan Opera, he offered to “modernize” the house, a move that markedly relieved the more traditionalist tendencies of his predecessor Joseph Volpe. In addition to increasing the number of new productions and inviting as yet unknown artists to the Met, he spear a collaborative effort with the Lincoln Center Theater and opened opera to directors who had never conducted an opera before, that is, theater directors. It makes sense if the goal is to keep the Met more up to date, as theater evolves at a fairly rapid pace, in terms of mounting new productions of new material, while opera companies tend to release the same archaic repertory productions year after year. . Case in point: the current Met season features both Franco Zeffirelli Bohemian from 1981, as well as his 1987 Turandot.
Two directors that Gelb recruited early in his tenure were Tony Bartlett Sher (he / him) and Mary Zimmerman (her / her) winners. The two have since become mainstays of the Met, directing productions throughout Gelb’s reign, including the current season.
Sher, who in recent years has staged acclaimed covers of nearby Golden Age musicals at the Lincoln Center Theater, and whose successful production of Kill a mockingbird is still going on on Broadway – has garnered positive reactions for its forays into opera, starting with its adaptation of Rossini Il Barbiere de Siviglia. Created in 2006 during Gelb’s inaugural season, the production was greeted through The New York Times as “inventive” and “ventilated”. Sher’s central vanity barber was not to update the action or plot, but to expand the frame of the opera – literally, by expanding the stage to the orchestra, allowing some action to take place within the audience himself.
This expansive attitude towards the material also appears in Sher’s version of Offenbach’s work. The Tales of Hoffmann, emphasizing and developing the psychological underpinnings of the play using Hoffman’s mental makeup as the plot framing device. The choice garnered praise of NYT, who called Sher’s vision a “rationale” for Gelb’s decision to invite home theater directors. The attention to the frame returns in Sher’s Count Ory, in which Rossini’s opera is staged like an opera within the opera, supplemented by a reduced working scene.
In an interview, Sher insisted that his approach to theater versus opera is not that different. “The work I do is the same, whether it is opera, theater or musicals,” he said. “My job is basically the same: I rehearse, I prepare, I start from there. However, he conceded that “what distinguishes an opera is that I start from the music, I do not start from the text”.
For Sher, the process begins with acclimating, even immersing yourself in the score. As he said, “I go through note by note with four or five selected recordings, studying the previous score and musical approaches, as well as previous interpretations of the opera. There is a whole period of three or four weeks where, before I can even decide what kind of performance I could tackle, I really have to learn the piece. It’s different from getting a script and sitting down and learning it and reading it. You have to get into the structure of the composition, you have to get into all of these things that contribute to what is interesting and unique about an opera.
As Richard Wagner wrote in The work of art of the future (this “work of art” being the opera), “The work of art of the future is an associated work, and only an associated request can arouse it. This “associated demand” refers to the existence of opera at the junction of various artistic disciplines, and it requires the dedication and care described by Sher in order to fully understand and channel its captivating and artistically compelling qualities.
For her part, Mary Zimmerman, a veteran of the Met, whose theatrical work includes Metamorphosis, The thousand and One Nights, and a staging of The jungle Book– expressed a similar thought, explaining: “In general, there are huge differences. You know, it looks a bit like theater, but it acts different and it behaves differently. The difference comes from the directing musical supremacy of the opera. Unlike a play, the rhythm is not defined by the actors or the directors, but by the orchestra, a change which radically alters the role of a director. Zimmerman continued: “I’m not saying there is no interpretation [from the director]-There are. But the conductor sets the tempos, and the music, the score itself, sets the pace for the evening. I think a lot of what you do as a director, and creating my own work and doing my own scripts, tries to understand the emotional rhythm of the night, the rhythm of the scene and the exchanges, creating feelings and meaning from it all. But this is all out of your hands at the opera.
The interpretive nature of Zimmerman’s practice may be the cause of his occasional ruffle of opera reviews. His 2007 production by Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor included the controversial decision to stage the Act II sextet “Chi mi frena in tal momento” not as a purely reflective moment, as specified in the libretto, but as a wedding photo, a movement that led the NYT comment: “The tension is internalized in the soaring and elegant music. Instead, Ms. Zimmerman invents an action: wedding attendees and guests are brought together by a photographer for a formal photo. Although the moment was beautifully directed, this staging device, once again, overwhelmed the moving performance. “
His departure from the tradition continued in his 2009 The Sonnambula, by Bellini, with Zimmerman staging the work as an opera rehearsal for the Opera. The NYT once again denigrated the choice, writing “As a director’s concept, ‘This is just a rehearsal’ has become almost as cliché as ‘It’s a dream.’ »His next two productions, the 2010 Armide and 2017 Rusalka, remained more in line with traditional management and therefore received more favorable reviews.
Zimmerman’s interpretive practice can indeed pose a barrier: added layers of meaning can both reveal and obscure. She was exhausted at first Lammermoor is a first-rate exhibition. In this case, what is the NYT insisted that the performance also added a unique layer of psychological insight. Zimmerman explained that her take on the scene was inspired by the fact that she once had to participate in a work-related photoshoot during one of the lowest moments of her life.
“On social occasions, embarrassment is something we want to avoid,” she said. “Even when it’s almost life or death, we just continue with the social ritual.” Far from a derailment of the drama, its staging reveals the deference of the characters towards, as she puts it, “the iron fist of social decorum”.
In their own way, the practices of Sher and Zimmerman stick to the same central idea: to rely on the music rather than the text. In Sher’s opinion, when you conduct an opera, “you don’t explore something as much as applying the things you’ve learned beforehand.” Ultimately, the director of the opera is, according to Zimmerman, “a servant of this music.” The method of serving this music, of course, differs from director to director and is unique to each work. Matthew Aucoin’s current production of Zimmerman Eurydice, adapted by Sarah Ruhl from her own play of the same name, poses a unique situation: it’s all new. “Because this is the first production,” Zimmerman said, “I didn’t want any interpretive layers.”
Sher, meanwhile, tackles warhorse Verdi Rigoletto for the coming season. We will soon see their different approaches to staging these very different missions. But in both cases we can assume what is always the case with opera: it all depends on the music.
Veronica Maldonado (she) is a writer and critic of classical music and culture. She lives in Brooklyn.
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