We've all been there before. You purchase tickets to your favorite opera. You get dressed up in your best evening clothes, and you arrive at the opera house nice and early. You find your seat, and wait in excited anticipation for the moment when the opening strains of that glorious music finally reach your ears. The lights go down, the conductor steps up to the podium, and the curtain rises on... Leporello, dressed as a chauffeur, driving a limousine made entirely of chairs. And that's it. That's the extent of the scenery. Just chairs. There's nothing else on stage, absolutely nothing, for the entire three hours. You sit there watching the performance and enjoying the music regardless of the scenery (or lack thereof), but throughout the entire evening, a part of you is unable to focus on the opera because you can't stop wondering what on earth the director was thinking.
I saw that particular Don Giovanni at the age of fourteen or fifteen, at a well-known opera house that shall remain nameless. And to this day, I can't figure out what the point of it was. The memory brings to mind my four-year-old son making trains out of our dining room chairs. Maybe there was some deep message there, and I just didn't get it. Or maybe the director was just trying to be different.
Over the years, I have seen many performances with "just chairs" scenery, in opera houses from Seattle to Tel Aviv. And the only one that has worked, at least for me, was the Metropolitan Opera's recent production of Eugene Onegin. But maybe that was because those chairs actually belonged there, and the director was going for minimalist simplicity rather than cutting-edge who-knows-what.
Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the encore screening of La Traviata in HD from the Metropolitan Opera. I had heard much discussion about the current production, which utilizes as its scenery an Ikea sofa and a giant clock. When I first saw the promotional pictures about a year ago, my initial thought was, "Oh, you have got to be kidding me!" But then people began talking about it, and the concepts intrigued me. I listened with an open mind, and I went to the theater with quite a bit of curiosity about what I would see. The scenery, of course, was no surprise, nor were the costumes. What I was waiting to see were the emotional, psychological, and atmospheric effects this staging would have. And I got it. I understood what the director was doing, and in a way, it worked. The production magnified Violetta's sense of isolation and despair in the midst of a sinister society that would completely consume her and cast her aside, easily replaced by the next girl to come along. She is haunted throughout by her impending mortality and by the knowledge that she cannot escape her fate. It was dramatically very effective, and yet I did not initially like it very much. I tried to put my finger on what it was that I disliked, and I realized that I have spent my whole life seeking out and admiring the most realistic, historically accurate productions I could find.
This realization made me do a lot of thinking. Even as I write this, I am reexamining my approach to modern productions of classic operas. I understand that these operas that have been repeatedly performed over the past 200 years or so, often in very similar productions around the world, occasionally need to be examined in a different light. While I always feel that the music should speak for itself, fresh ideas and new perspectives have the ability to add so much depth to the operas we think we know so well.
Now there are, of course, all kinds of updates. There are those that transport the opera to a different time period, often moving the action up a century or two in history; for example, a Carmen I once saw set in 1930s Spain, or that brilliant modern-day streets of New York-style Don Giovanni that Peter Sellars produced back in the early 1990s.
Then there are those productions that mix the old and the new, effectively removing the story from any specific time period, and thereby demonstrating the timelessness of these great works. Then you have your varying degrees of minimalist, surreal, and postmodern production, some of which work better than others. And of course, you have productions whose aim is to create controversy, such as Rusalka in a brothel and the so-called Brokeback Onegin.
So the question is this: With a growing number of opera companies opting for modern productions over more traditional ones, how much is too much? Should these traditional productions be preserved, or should they all be replaced? And to what extent should opera be updated? Do these new productions have to try to make some sort of point, or is it enough to just be different? When some productions provoke thought and others leave us scratching our heads, where should the line be drawn? For myself, I'm taking another look at my longstanding opinions. Where do you stand? I would love to hear your opinion!