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Choreographer's Intent


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#1 SanderO

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Posted 10 September 2010 - 04:31 AM

I saw an interview with Peter Gelb on Huffington Post where he answered a question about new interpretation of operas. He maintained that Verdi and Puccini both expected all the latest and greatest theatrical techniques to be included in current productions of their work, essentially supporting the notion that the AD has no obligation to reproduce the "original" aside from the notes and the libretto. Two things come to mind. Is this statement factually correct about those composer's view of future productions? Why is ONLY the music and the libretto sacrosanct and not the costumes, sets, era and so forth. Why are these aspects of their operas thought to be "disposable"?

How would this be applied to ballet? Here we have the choreographers often accept a score (perhaps mess with the tempi) and create the ballet on top of it or interpret in dance a story intended by the composer, who likely had little conception of the visual details when he composed (just a guess). If this is true, it makes perfect sense for a contemporary choreographer to create his own dance and visuals over the same "underlying" score and libretto, or even modify the "original" production.

What say you?

#2 Mel Johnson

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Posted 10 September 2010 - 07:13 AM

That's opera; this is ballet. The text of a ballet IS, for all intents and purposes, the choreography. If you don't reproduce choreography accurately, you're not faithfully preserving the work. Sometimes, choreographers don't even let the dancers know what they're supposed to be doing. One dancer from a Massine ballet was astonished to learn that he was supposed to have been portraying King Ludwig II of Bavaria. This was after the opening. He thought he had been playing a wolf!

#3 papeetepatrick

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Posted 10 September 2010 - 07:20 AM

This allows an important point to be made: No matter how important the music to a ballet (or any serious dance, or not-so-serious dance for that matter), it is not quite as important as it is to an opera, where the music is the most important element, even if not quite so 'purely' as in a violin concerto or symphony, or even lieder, where the visual and theatrical aspects are not so important or even are unimportant.

There are always discussions here of the way ballet music, I remember esp. Sleeping Beauty, and looked at the old Russian scores myself a few years ago, is changed and things added, e.g., Canary, Lilac appearing as interlude sometime maybe, etc....sometimes you'll see the Russian dancers from Nutcracker in Sleeping Beauty with that same music, there can be some fooling around. The music is decidedly secondary to the choreography, even in Balanchine, when it's revered. You can do a cut here and there (I believe Mel and others know a lot about how it's done in different scores, not just SB, but R & J and many others, even 'La Valse' may have been altered in different choreographers' versions, at least 'Valses Nobles..' but not sure about that.

There can be minor alterations in opera, esp. when it comes to spinto and tenor showpieces, they can do what they (and there occasionally extravagant tastes) want, but a 'real Wagner production' can't change the music and libretto too substantially, albeit some changes, in quite the same way as there are cuts in Shakespeare in the film version of Hamlet (I believe somebody was recently talking about this), or you just don't have the basic body of the piece.

Here we have the choreographers often accept a score (perhaps mess with the tempi) and create the ballet on top of it or interpret in dance a story intended by the composer, who likely had little conception of the visual details when he composed (just a guess). If this is true, it makes perfect sense for a contemporary choreographer to create his own dance and visuals over the same "underlying" score and libretto, or even modify the "original" production.


It doesn't occur in any particular order, but the story would be first the choreographer's, not the composer's. The composer, as far as I know, would never have the story of a dance in mind that wasn't given to him by the choreographer. It doesn't really 'make sense' for a contemporary choreographer to do 'visuals and dance over' certain scores except as parody (Mats Eck w/SB maybe), or rather, it's not really practical: Even P. Martins's SB is largely lifted. But other music, as 'La Valse', since I already mentioned it, of course--Balanchine, Ashton, and MacMillan have all done this, with very different results (I assume: I have never seen the MacMillan, although Jane Simpson mentioned it here once, I've never heard anything about it). Any choreographer could use almost any score, but it wouldn't be practical to do a whole evening-length ballet on the Swan Lake music, and only on rare occasions, as Balanchine's Swan Lake, can you have a special one-act version that will be accepted. There are lots of variations on these ideas, but the basic matter is that opera music is more 'the music is the sacred thing' than it ever is to quite that degree in dance, although arguably canonized things like Tchaikovsky/Petipa and other things like 'Appalachian Spring', which is subtitled 'Ballet for Martha'.

It's also true that, while most of us want to see ballet danced to music, there's no such thing as an 'unsung opera' or 'opera without music', unless John Cage types came up with a novelty gimmick for performance art or something.

#4 richard53dog

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Posted 10 September 2010 - 07:33 AM

I saw an interview with Peter Gelb on Huffington Post where he answered a question about new interpretation of operas. He maintained that Verdi and Puccini both expected all the latest and greatest theatrical techniques to be included in current productions of their work, essentially supporting the notion that the AD has no obligation to reproduce the "original" aside from the notes and the libretto. Two things come to mind. Is this statement factually correct about those composer's view of future productions? Why is ONLY the music and the libretto sacrosanct and not the costumes, sets, era and so forth. Why are these aspects of their operas thought to be "disposable"?


What say you?



Well, let me throw in my thoughts on the first part of your post, based around the interview with Gelb.


I think a lot of ridiculous statements are being tossed around today about opera composers "original" intents and their enthusiasm or abhorrence for theatrical creativity with regard to either following or adapting the details described in their librettos.

First of all, I think Gelb is erring in even combining Verdi and Puccini, (and Wagner as well as whoever else you might want to add into the mix). the two Italians came from different eras, with different staging conventions and traditions.
Puccini came from a period where realistic (or probably more accurately "heightened realism") theater was in fashion.
He admired Duse and Bernhardt and was very taken with contemporary theater, ie the Broadway plays of David Belasco.
Verdi came from an earlier era where drama was still more stylized.


But all of this background aside, I think the only honest answer is that we can have no idea what they would have thought of contemporary stagings of their works such Turandot staged in a modern Chinese take-out restaurant or Hans Neuenfels's bumblebee Nabucco. Or even, to try to rein this in a bit more towards ballet, Don Carlos with the ballet staged as the dream of the pizza delivery boys. Or to switch to the other extreme, Zeffirelli's gaudy Chinatown junkshop production of Turandot where he left the singers to do whatever stage business they wanted to do(or at least were able to do given the constrictions of the bulky costuming)


Both composers were men of the theater, and here Gelb is sticking with proven fact. And they both accepted compromises
to meet practical theatrical, or in Verdi's case censorship requirements. For example, Verdi reset his Swedish and French royal settings for Boston (Ballo) or Mantua (Rigoletto) to get around censorship issues.

And both men tinkered with their pieces after the premieres failed . Puccini reworked Madame Buttterfly over a number of times until it was finally a success. And Verdi also reset La Traviata in the 18th century when the idea of a current day courtesan was too scandalous for modern (mid 19th century)
audiences. (La Traviata)

All of this sort of goes along with the kind of script (almost surely someone wrote it for him) Gelb cites.

On the other hand, there are countless examples of correspondance where the composers wrestle with their librettists or the opera house managers (no real stage directors in those days). But it's just just as much of a conjecture to claim that Verdi or Puccini would have howled with anger if some effect in their libretto wasn't followed exactly.
My take is that both were realists , some details were more important to them than others, and both were extremely practical (unlike, to return briefly to him, Wagner).

So who really knows? I think neither man envisioned their works still having such prominence in the 21st century, opera in their day was constantly evolving, with new works in new styles constantly appearing. And the idea of an opera house's season based on works more than a hundred years old may have been quite unbelievable to them. 19th century opera house seasons were mostly contemporary works staged in contemporary staging methods. And new operas were usually dropped after their premiere to make way for the next new opera.

So again, how can we really guess what these composers would think of some of todays stagings? And how sacrosanct was a particular detail? My own take is that they would be thrilled to see their works still so prominently featured in todays opera houses. And the bottom line is that they would want these modern audiences to relate and respond to their works.
Perhaps Puccini would have been horrified to see Tosca omit placing the candles by Scarpia after she has killed him; perhaps he would have said, "Geez, that's old Sarah Bernhardt shtict, it's been done a million times, if it doesn't mean anything anymore, let's change it to something fresh"



And this is the very heart of the controversy that Gelb is trying to address. How do you do this? And WHICH segment of the audience do you try to relate to? The very conservative one that is looking for something they are comfortable with
or a more progressive one that wants to opera to be dramatically motived and wants to understand what makes the characters evolve the way they do? The very varied makeup of todays opera audiences is far more polarized than it was back in the 19th century.

And to add a personal opinion, I am not tied to either sleepily conservative or uber-edgy Konzept productions if the piece fails to connect with me. I want what I see on stage to be ALIVE, however that is accomplished.

I would add more on how this relates to ballet and the choreographer's intent, but my post is already too long. Briefly I think it's a different kettle of fish. At this point there is a long, long convention in ballet world to modify the original choregraphy, the characters, even in many cases which music is used. It's only really recently that the idea has taken hold in peoples' minds of what the original version of Swan Lake looked like.

#5 Helene

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Posted 10 September 2010 - 08:36 AM

Great post, richard53dog.

I am among the people who think that Richard Wagner would have gone nuts with cinema and computerization and that, if he were alive today, would have been IM'ing film directors left and right, as Cosima blogged about it. Some of his stage descriptions are like visions of interplanetary space travel that could only be accomplished by camera work and special effects. On the other hand, any director -- or film editor or director or camera person for DVD's -- would be getting the what-for from him. (I think of Balanchine positioning cameras in the movies on which he worked, over the objections of the studio head.) I think you're dead on about Puccini as a man of the theater. The question is, whether he would have embraced the directions in which theater has gone, or whether he'd think they were lifeless.

I think it's hard to generalize about what most composers would think of big categories, like "traditional" or "konzept". I think a lot of it depends on the production, and in the case of Wagner, whether ego would get in the way. It's hard for me to imagine, though, Verdi or Puccini being thrilled about the Zefferellization of their operas much more than over stage set with a row of toilets, and especially Puccini being taken by overly intellectual and static readings. But then again, without censors, who knows what Verdi would have embraced?

#6 papeetepatrick

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Posted 10 September 2010 - 09:01 AM

There was a discussion--maybe 10 years ago?--of Stephen Sondheim and Ned Rorem, in which the matter of 'changing the music' came up. This is somewhat related, because Rorem was pointing out that in the classical tradition from which his works come, once something is written, it is emblazoned in steel, you don't play with the notes, at least; and this is not the case with Sondheim's show music, no matter how one may enshrine and admire it over some other B'way composers (I don't, with a couple of exceptions, but some do.) There are interpretations by Barbra Streisand and Barbara Cook and Julie Andrews and Karen Akers of Sondheim songs and they can do pretty much what they want, in stretching out things, leaving out verses--and according to what their venue is, which is much more various than with art-song. It's informal by comparison. This is not true of any song Rorem has written, nor of any of his opera music, such as 'Miss Julie' or the others (I think the songs are much more frequently heard, but it's the same rule, you sing them as written, you don't ever here talk about 'great arrangements', etc., as in the old days of Peter Matz's arrangements for early Streisand records.

Ballet music is not an exact parallel, of course. If you do the Lilac Fairy Music, you might cut it out at certain places or maybe you'd hear some at a different place from what is ordinarily heard, or maybe one leaves out the Jewel Fairy in Act III (I'm just guessing, I imagine it's been done), but you never play a different version of that from Tchaikovsky's score. So in that way, ballet music and opera music are the same--you don't alter the scores substantially except by cutting them or placing them in different parts of the scene or act (or using it in another ballet, in a few cases.) But you don't get 're-orchestrations' or ballet or opera music, whereas anything goes with B'way music, just as it does with pop standards of any kind or rock, etc.,

#7 volcanohunter

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Posted 10 September 2010 - 09:18 AM

The very conservative one that is looking for something they are comfortable with
or a more progressive one that wants to opera to be dramatically motived and wants to understand what makes the characters evolve the way they do?

Do you really think that modern productions are better motivated dramatically? I recently watched two videos of Don Carlo with the same Filippo in both cases: the Visconti/Renshaw production from the Royal Opera House, filmed in 1985, and Willy Decker's newer production from Amsterdam, filmed in 2004. I can tell you that Robert Lloyd's performance was much more detailed, complex and differentiated in Visconti's hyper-naturalistic production than it was in Decker's stylized Twitch and Lurch staging, which, frankly, didn't seem to have much in the way of dramatic logic.

[size="3"]But I know that SanderO was asking about ballet, and here I'm in complete agreement with Mel Johnson. In drama or opera the staging can change in any number of ways without altering the basic "text," but in ballet, the staging, meaning the choreography, is the text, and once you've altered it, it's not really Giselle or Swan Lake or Apollo any more. So, yes, Odile must do the fouettés.[/size]

#8 richard53dog

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Posted 10 September 2010 - 10:07 AM

Do you really think that modern productions are better motivated dramatically?.




No, not necessarily. And that was the point I was hoping to make. Sometimes the very edgy opera directors such as Neuenfels accomplish as little in bringing an ensemble of singers into a motived, electric dramatically motivated performers as the very old fashioned, "motions by the book" directors.

Some of the Konzept productions end up all novelty and little else with performers mugging and jiggling as they would in a high school pageant. And this is as counterproductive as having an assistant stage director trying to traffic the cast on and off the stage based on the production book from a premiere 23 years earlier.

I consider both extremes here uninteresting and really not worth my time although what does happen is a performer (such as Lloyd) taking matters in their own hands and at least illuminating their own piece of the puzzle. But how much better
to see a whole cast that can interact in this way. And that's what I'm looking for and I'm not so concerned about the physical attributes of a production as I am about the electricity provided by a cast of singers that are all dramatically alive and working together to truly bring a piece to life. To tell the truth, I'm willing to take less than really thrilling singing if this happens.

To cite an example, about a dozen years ago, my Met subscription yielded a new production of Eugene Onegin production that was directed by Robert Carsen and included pretty much a Met "a" cast except for the Lensky, who was the cover (and much less known in those days) Clifton Forbis . The ensemble was beautifully directed and the production was pretty minimalistic rather than traditional although not at all polarized, and I was pretty much swept away by both the dramatic energy and the fine singing of the cast. And
I wasn't not that bothered by getting the cover Lensky rather than the much starrier Shicoff, the role is not that long.

But I left the performance most impressed by Forbis. Evidently Carsen had mined a vein in Forbis (the cover often figures prominently in rehearsals of new productions that the lead performers get "excused" from) and had struck gold. With a less than really glamorous voice, Forbis sang a Lensky that was the most tragic and touching I've ever seen in a live Onegin. But the singer has to have the basic vocal goods, no amount of ardent conviction mitigates wobbly or off pitch singing.

And I agree with all that posted that in ballet, the original choreography is the really non-negotionable component. But
here this idea is really only getting widespread agreement in the last 20 years or so. Prior to that, choreographers felt free to show their own "versions" either closely or loosely based on the original.

It would seem that opera got a more authentic treatment than ballet throughout history but even opera was freely messed with up until about 100 years ago. Rimsky rewrote Mussorgsky and Borodin, Wagner rewrote part of Bellin's Norma, Berlioz rewrote Gluck, Richard Strauss added new scenes to Mozart's Idomeneo and Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride and the list goes on and on.

I'd love to see a stronger "historical reconstruction" movement in ballet myself. It looked for a while as if the MT was
spearheading such a movement but they seem to have recently taken a very different direction, canonizing those K Sergueyev mid 20th century versions. Too bad. It looks like perhaps the Bolshoi might take this up, given a bit of a flurry of reconstructions. I hope so.

#9 GWTW

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Posted 12 September 2010 - 03:20 AM

Posted Image

I am among the people who think that Richard Wagner would have gone nuts with cinema and computerization and that, if he were alive today, would have been IM'ing film directors left and right, as Cosima blogged about it


I've always thought that James Cameron is a reincarnation of Wagner. :FIREdevil:

#10 dirac

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Posted 12 September 2010 - 12:28 PM

But I know that SanderO was asking about ballet, and here I'm in complete agreement with Mel Johnson. In drama or opera the staging can change in any number of ways without altering the basic "text," but in ballet, the staging, meaning the choreography, is the text, and once you've altered it, it's not really Giselle or Swan Lake or Apollo any more. So, yes, Odile must do the fouettés.


But in the past Odiles have substituted turns for the fouettes and still presented Odile. Balanchine cut not only his own choreography but Stravinsky's music, and his truncated Apollo was not the best Apollo but it was still recognizably Apollo. Giselle has been altered over the years. I'm not disagreeing with you, exactly - the choreography is the text - but the text can and has been changed. It's a question of what you can change without violating the ballet's essence.

It would seem that opera got a more authentic treatment than ballet throughout history but even opera was freely messed with up until about 100 years ago. Rimsky rewrote Mussorgsky and Borodin, Wagner rewrote part of Bellin's Norma, Berlioz rewrote Gluck, Richard Strauss added new scenes to Mozart's Idomeneo and Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride and the list goes on and on.


Not to mention the opera singers who changed and interpolated freely.

Excellent topic, SanderO. Thank you for starting it!


#11 papeetepatrick

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Posted 12 September 2010 - 02:25 PM

[size="2"]



But I know that SanderO was asking about ballet, and here I'm in complete agreement with Mel Johnson. In drama or opera the staging can change in any number of ways without altering the basic "text," but in ballet, the staging, meaning the choreography, is the text, and once you've altered it, it's not really Giselle or Swan Lake or Apollo any more. So, yes, Odile must do the fouettés.


But in the past Odiles have substituted turns for the fouettes and still presented Odile. Balanchine cut not only his own choreography but Stravinsky's music, and his truncated Apollo was not the best Apollo but it was still recognizably Apollo. Giselle has been altered over the years. I'm not disagreeing with you, exactly - the choreography is the text - but the text can and has been changed. It's a question of what you can change without violating the ballet's essence.


I may have misunderstood the beginning of this thread, I thought Mel was responding to Sander0's saying the music and libretto were sacrosanct in opera (THE Text), whereas the choreography was sacrosanct in ballet and other serious dance (THE Text). The 'staging' includes other things elements than the choreography, doesn't it? which could therefore change as in opera, but the traditions would have to be researched to see how they compare, rather, to what degree 'staging' changes, esp. in the 20th century. And there is even this musical flexibility in opera, which Richard has given examples of--almost like the way Rubens painted over earlier artists works, including fine ones. In some ways, opera and ballet are more alike than I had thought: Nobody ever changed a Beethoven symphony's notes, a Schubert or Schumann quartet, or really any concert music except in transcriptions for piano, or other arrangements (and cadenzas to concertos, of course); and these tend to try to sound as much like the orchestral original as possible. A pianist playing 'Menuet Antique' will usually decide there is no way it will sound quite as luscious as it does in Ravel's orchestration, but the more he tries, the richer the performance (as Jean-Yves Thibaudet's recordings of Ravel prove in several pieces.)

Oh well, I take that back. I imagine pianists and violinists of the 19th century did change the scores to suit their virtuosities fairly freely, even though the original would always be clear as a basic 'text'. (Not referring to things like Liszt's 'Reminiscence de Norma', but rather Beethoven Sonatas even, during some of those Romantic periods.)

#12 volcanohunter

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Posted 12 September 2010 - 05:13 PM

[size="2"]I'm not disagreeing with you, exactly - the choreography is the text - but the text can and has been changed. It's a question of what you can change without violating the ballet's essence.[/size]

[size="2"]The answer I really want to give is, nothing should to be changed because any change is a violation. Perhaps this is a particularly sore spot of mine. For me the great tragedy of dance is the apparent impossibility of preserving its choreography faithfully, if at all, so different from the musical examples papeetepatrick listed. This ties in to another current discussion on the board about the preservation of new ballets.

[/size][size="2"]http://ballettalk.in...-ballet/[/size]

[size="2"]Obviously, notating movement--any sort of movement, even recording what a kid does when he climbs a chain-link fence--is exceedingly difficult, so I'm not at all surprised that notation literacy is so low among dancers. But on the other hand, this situation is madness. All classical instrumentalists are required to read music and be well-versed in theory. (Composers still more so.) Presumably all actors can read the texts they perform. But dancers are forced to rely on a variant of "oral tradition," terminological shorthand, and imperfect, idiosyncratic performances preserved on grainy videotape. The consequence is that 99% of ballets created have been lost.

I wouldn't mind Odile substituting other steps for the fouettés if I were confident that a standard "text" were preserved somewhere and could be retrieved easily at any time. I don't particularly mind vast sections of Shakespeare being jettisoned in live performance because I know that the actual text is safely preserved and that anything cut can be reinserted without difficulty. But, as you say, lots of changes have crept into Giselle over time to the point of it being practically impossible to know what the original choreography really looked like.

The other thing I think that the loss of most of ballet's choreographic history has done is to have stunted the acceptance of dance as a serious art form. I don't know about anyone else, but when I went to university and had to deal with the Library of Congress classification system on a daily basis, it used to drive me bananas that music was assigned its own letter (M), as were the fine arts (N), and that drama was treated as a subdivision of literature (PN)--all serious, respectable disciplines--but that dance was lumped under GV: sports, recreation and leisure.[/size]


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