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Lessons to be learned from opera?

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"The days of high modernism, when Pierre Boulez called for opera houses to be burned to the ground, have passed."

I found this two-month-old link this morning, and thought it an interesting article -- it's about planning the future of opera. I was struck by how different the approach of the people involved was, how different this article is from what one usually reads about how to insure that ballet has a future. No one suggests standing opera on its ear, kicking its butt right into the 21st century (perhaps they realize they're already there), etc. There's a reference to pushing the boundaries (something that most people would agree is necessary for the future of anything) but no implication that this is the only thing necessary to create art.

One point I would disagree with -- but it would make for an interesting discussion -- is the idea that opera could be directed by people who hate it. (The "if you don't like it, change it" theory.) My objection to this is that it invites tinkering by people who don't know what they're doing, by dabbling dilletantes. (Something that does happen in ballet. People who hate pointework, or find it artificial, thinking they should do a nice, new Sleeping Beauty.)

Why can't ballet do what opera does? Any thoughts?


[ November 03, 2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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I have often wondered what the result would be if a theatre producer were to be given the opportunity to stage a classic ballet. I would love to see the result of a Peter Brook Sleeping Beauty or a Trevor Nunn Swan Lake, someone who would approach these ballets with fresh ideas, but I would definitely not want an opera director allowed anywhere near a ballet company. In the UK we have been plagued for years with opera directors that openly declare their contempt for both singers and their audiences (I heard one in a TV interview refer scornfully to opera fans, as "Canary fanciers” wink.gif

While I appreciate that the spiralling costs of staging operas has meant that productions have been forced to become more and more minimalist, many concepts are simply unacceptable. I could give you a whole list of productions that I have sat through inwardly cringing and wishing that I had stayed home and listened to the CD. However I will tell you about the worst, which I witnessed last year at Glyndebourne. It was a production of Mozart's Don Giovanni. The costumes were weird, being set in no particular period but reflecting the fashion spectrum between the 18th and 20th centuries. However it was the sets that offended me most as the central feature of the stage was a huge pile of excrement and in the final act Don Giovanni’s feast was a dead horse from which he proceeded to pull out the entrails and then eat them. No, I am not making this up. People paid good money to watch this travesty and much of the audience was clearly outraged with cries of “Shame!” mingled with the booing.

In my opinion opera is already in the hands of those that hate it and I dread the same thing happening at the ballet.

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Interesting -- and frightening -- comments on opera.

I'd be wary of theater directors getting their hands on a ballet. Ballets aren't plays with steps in them, and I think that's how they'd be seen and treated. Since "choreography" includes all the spaces between the steps, and the actual way of moving, it's beyond the expertise of a theater director, unless s/he had ballet training. Danish critics have been advocating this for years, and the Royal Danish Ballet finally tried it, putting one of their best directors, we're told, on "Kermesse in Bruges" and it was an unmitigated disaster -- there was only one positive review, and this was by a critic who was very openly supportive of the project before and during. It just didn't work. He couldn't direct the ballet any more than he could conduct a symphony. It's more than just standing up and waving your arms -- and having a "concept" -- any concept, change the century, make the leading boy really in love with the villain not the heroine, make them all be Hari Krishnas, anything so that someone can say "my my -- he had an idea!" -- beloved of New Thinkers in the last half of the 20th century (and unfortunately, they're still hanging on in the 21st).

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I do think that there is 'hate' and 'hate' -- that is, if someone really has no understanding of an art form and nonetheless wants to direct a production in order to make a personal mark, I can hardly imagine any good resulting from that -- at least not longterm good for the artform in question. But sometimes hate comes precisely from a place of deep knowledge and understanding. I'll start with examples from criticism which are easier to pin down --

Andre Levinson's attacks on Isadora Duncan are often more revealing of her art than the praise of her supporters; he can write incisively about how her work counters classicism precisely because of his real grasp of what is at stake both in classicism and in its dissolution. (Another great example is Neitzche on Wagner.) But this kind of 'hate' comes from knowledge -- it's often hate as the other side of love...In actual productions, it might be found in the work of a choreographer responding in an aggressive way to the tradition. I suppose, for me, one plausible example would be William Forsythe -- though I have only seen some of his early works. In those the violence of the pointe work might be described as coming from a certain 'hate' (possibly not the word he would use...)of pointe technique. In terms of productions, the disorienting sets of Dowell's production of Sleeping Beauty(I've forgotten the designer's name) are, at the least, anti-Messel -- and, presumably, intended to shake-up of one of the Royal's signature pieces, alter its tone,w/o actually altering the choreography or story.

I don't think this often happens in ballet, at least not in a way that is artistically serious or worthwhile...much rather we get dreadful productions by people who don't even know that they hate ballet! Much of ballet history involves a direct honoring of traditions -- think, today, of Christopher Wheeldon. (And Balanchine -- who really did turn ballet on its ear -- did it, under the guise of the utmost conservatism. I had almost written disguise.)

But I still think that, at least in theory, there is a place for 'hate' in the serious progress of an art form.

NB The real problem for ballet though (opera also, but less so) is not that it inspires some kind of artistic 'hate,' but that it's simply not taken seriously even by its own purveyors. This creates a situation where people feel free to re-do the classics, because on some fundamental level they don't have even elementary respect for them as choreographic WORKS of art. 'Swan Lake' becomes the canvas rather than the painting...To be honest, I don't mind the occasional oddball production -- and even have quite admired some (ballet is, after all, a performing art, and a ballet was never meant to be a static object) but increasingly one has the horrible suspicion that any sense of a standard -- even a necessarily fluctuating standard -- is being entirely lost.

[ November 05, 2001: Message edited by: Drew ]

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As always, Drew, you raise some very interesting points. I agree with you that there is a huge difference between hatred based in understanding and hatred based in misunderstanding. Levinson and Duncan is a very good example -- but I wouldn't want to see what he would have done had he been given the opportunity to direct her (not that that would have been possible).

I've seen the "fairytale" ballets directed by people who hate fairytales. They don't buy into the genre, as it were -- which is fine. It's a very defensible position. But they may find themselves in the position of having to stage a Swan Lake or a Sleeping Beauty either because the company in which they suddenly, somehow, find themselves directing has them as a staple of the repertory, or because they sell tickets.

I also agree with you completely about the problem being more one of lack of standards than that this or that production of a particular ballet is "new and improved." If ballet (any art form) is healthy, it can take a lot of hits and still stay standing. In the best of all possible worlds -- when men of genius and good faith and love are working together to make art -- the shake ups can do what they're supposed to do -- re-examine tired formulas, avoid anything ordinary or rote. What we've had for far too long, though, is tampering with the externals, the cosmetics, because they don't know how to make the real thing work any more. Worse, the new improved versions become the standard -- because the people watching it, deprived of the real thing, can't find it any more.

As for the simpler form of the original question I would argue that if you hate an art form -- if you are not sympathetic to that art form -- you should stay away. Someone who hates musical comedies because they think they're silly, or don't like singing, etc., shouldn't direct one. Someone who hates what's happened to musical comedy, the present form of the genre -- that's a different matter.

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