Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Is Opera Facing an Ontological Challenge?

It is not often that I get accused of being too nice, but that seems to have occurred in the wake of my efforts to set down my thoughts about the current production of Macbeth at the San Francisco Opera. This morning I read electronic mail from a friend who shares our box with us that accused me of being "WAAAAY too easy on the production." Given that I do not think I stinted on what I called "the down-side of the performance," I decided to reflect on what I wrote and why I wrote it.

Probably the most important thing I have learned from my experiences in criticism (starting with my work in the print media during my graduate student days) is that you have to pick your battles. Personally, I do not think very much of Macbeth as an opera. Yes, he and Piave did not take that many liberties with the dramatic conception; but, as far as I am concerned, there is no comparison between Boito's approach to Othello and Piave's treatment of Macbeth. Boito had a far more comprehensive understanding of both drama in general and Shakespeare in particular; and, as a result, he brought out some of the best in Verdi. Without being too dismissive about the whole thing, Macbeth is much more of an "entertainment" for the Italians (and later the French) of its day; and, from that point of view, I cannot be as provoked by a director who chooses to turn that "entertainment" into a Castro Street Halloween Party than I would be by one who took comparable liberties with Otello!

Then there is another point about my personal context. My wife and I first saw Macbeth at the Met when Peter Hall directed a new production for them. That production could well have gone into the record books as the worst Met production in the Eighties. Hall decided he was going to "fly" the witches, Peter Pan style; and the result was this confused muddle of women trying to sing while hanging on to their broomsticks for dear life. Then he had the idea of having Banquo's seat at the banquet on a platform that could descend below the stage and rise up again. The idea was that, in dark lighting, the seat could drop down and return with a bloody Banquo sitting on it. Not only did the device not work; but Hall insisted on having the image come and go, following the letter of Piave's text. This basically turned Banquo's ghost into a Jack-in-the-box, leading to my only experience of hearing audible titters from a Met audience! So, I have seen far worse things done to this opera than what I saw on Sunday! The fact that I could make it through the whole production without any titters or derisive laughter (like my reaction to the Venusberg ballet in the recent production of Tannhäuser) was a bit of a comfort for me, however small it may have been!

Having said all that, I think there is a broader basis for why this production of Macbeth should have provoked such negative responses; and that perspective can be found in my earlier efforts to write about postmodern approaches to staging opera. Nevertheless, as I tried to make clear, that post was one of "explanation rather than advocacy." Some postmodern approaches turn out to be a colossal waste of everyone's time (on both sides of the curtain); but there are plenty of more traditional productions that turn out to be just as catastrophic.

My feeling is that, when done with a seriousness of purpose and execution, postmodernism can offer an alternative point of view that departs from our conventional ways of thinking about what is being offered. Like most fairy tails, Hansel and Gretel, which I wrote about in the earlier post, is a scary story; but our century has inured us to the images and concepts that frightened our ancestors from earlier centuries. The postmodern production I described in my post tried to restore the disquieting impact of the story; and I was quite happy with how it worked when I saw it, first on the Ovation Channel and then at the San Francisco Opera. Similarly, the Tannhäuser story does not hold up very well against our own way of thinking; so Graham Vick's production explored alternative paths to get us to think more about its underlying themes. Both of these productions had a point of view that could hold my attention. The problem with Macbeth was that its points of view were scattered so far and wide over the map that it really did not have any "real" point of view. I can credit the designers of Hansel and Gretel and Tannhäuser with having given serious reflection to their task; I cannot give comparable credit to David Pountney.

However, there is a deeper question that underlies the decision to take a postmodern approach at all. I suspect that my interest in postmodernism has a lot to do with just where opera stands in our contemporary ontology, so to speak. The earliest operas were primarily about spectacle (as in Aristotle's use of the term in his "Poetics") and were usually little more than an entertaining distraction. Those "roots" were still pretty firmly in place as late as the nineteenth century. Then the twentieth century started to rock the boat, first with new conceptions of what opera should be (probably best realized by Alban Berg) and then with new ways of thinking about old operas. These days, in the face of so many competing "entertaining distractions," the boat is rocking more than ever, which makes things awfully hard for those of us who might want to reflect, rather than be distracted!

On the other hand I know full well that my opinion is not reflected by most of the people who buy tickets to the San Francisco Opera (let alone those who make the biggest donations that keep that "boat," to continue the metaphor, afloat in the first place). It is bad enough that opera does not know what it wants to be these days; worse yet is that it no longer knows how to market itself. So it tries lots of things, just as Roosevelt tried any number of things to get our country out of the Great Depression. A better world for opera is not "just around the corner;" so I do what I can to get something out of each attempt that I encounter!

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