Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Paris Bohème In Space: A defining moment in the bastardisation of Opera


I am not a fundamentalist when it comes to staging operas.  I can imagine (and have imagined—I have staged operas and even recently wrote a 9-minute opera) an opera being enhanced taken out of its precise setting.  However, the bastardisation of opera has been escalating since the early experiments with so-called Regie-Theater (Literally Stage Direction Theater).  Regie Theater, which was often referred to as “updating” in the early inceptions, was controversial but not necessarily unartistic.  The great mythology-based operas have been re-imagined from the compositional angle.  From Monteverdi to Gluck to Offenbach, we have seen revolutionary changes.  Myths offer us endless angles and naturally different creative minds (composers and librettists in this instance) will experience different aspects of the myths and will chose to emphasise certain aspects over others.  In the case of new compositions, the entire concept is re-imagined and a music is written that is specific to the libretto in question.  If the composition is successful, there is no contradiction between the text and the music.  

Furthermore, we cannot look at the role of music in opera as one-dimensional.  The orchestra forces are used: 1) to create atmosphere—Imagine the first brass chords opening Tosca!  The grand expanse of Sant’Andrea della Valle (I lived next to it for several months in the summer of 1991) is implicit in those chords.  The weight of the subject matter is also clear.  The “Gran Cassa” (bass drum) accentuates a certain violence.  Is it a wonder that Darth Vader’s theme in Star Wars is also orchestrated for Brass?  2) The music underscores emotion.  Mozart needs three chords and a single harmony to prepare us for Pamina’s emotional state of mind before “Ach, ich  fühl’s…” 3)  It is representative.  Verdi suggests the sound of an owl when Lady Macbeth wanders in in darkness knowing her husband had just murdered the the king, Duncan.  The owl is scored for flute and the entire cello section in unison (two octaves away from the flute).  Why not a sound more akin to the screech of an owl?  I would suggest, Verdi wanted something unusual but not a sound that would disturb the dramatic tension of murder in the air.  A decided subtle approach.  When I directed Macbeth on a shoestring budget in a setting that was not literally Scotland (No kilts on stage), I was very careful not to violate Verdi’s dramatic strategy.  All of it could be obviously experienced in the score…But I digress.  We come to Macbeth later. 4) Music provides dramatic structure.  A Stage Director who is curious would want to understand the inversive nature of the three chords in the opening of Tosca.  B-flat Major, Ab Major and E Major.  From E Major, we can proceed to D Major and then Bb Major and we are back.  Puccini uses the flexible nature of this theme in so many ways to underscore the entire opera and to remind us of specific musical periods that relate to dramatic timing.  Those issues cannot be avoided if the dramatic tension of an opera is going to be kept.  This is no different from the meter relationships in a symphony or a Schubert song cycle.  The composer who wrote the score, if he is as good as a Puccini or Mozart or Verdi or Wagner, imagined the time it takes for an important statement to be processed emotionally, the time it takes to walk and pick up a glass, or how achord or a snare drum roll accentuates a dramatic occurrence.  

When such musical considerations are not taken seriously, Opera can either appear choreographed and stogy in the hands of an unimaginative director or actor, or decidedly unmusical in the pursuit of more “natural or modern stage demeanour." What one-dimensional stage directors do not conceive is that natural stage demeanour is very easily achieved inside of a musical gesture.  The crucial mistake occurs when a so-called more natural physical gestures goes across the boundaries of two musical periods (gestures) and when the musical/emotional character of the music is violated in an attempt to make opera more “down-to-Earth.” 

There is nothing dull or uninteresting about Opera!  The problem is that the artists involved too often do not understand the complex structure of the art form and quite literally botch it!  

If a stage director or even music director  does not understand the structure of the opera from a musical/dramatic standpoint, the entire enterprise is already failed before the first production meeting.  When those authorities are given so much power and do not do their homework, they will abuse their authority to intimidate their singers and orchestras into submission.  Some conductors or stage directors would rather bully a singer who does his/her homework instead of admitting to himself/herself that s/he is not adequately prepared.  Such “leaders" would rather have less imaginative, less artistic singers who are happy to say “Yes Sir/Mam” instead of posing a serious artistic question.  Serious conductors and stage directors inspire conversation with their singers and encourage them to have an opinion.  There are too few of them and the administrators, who are mostly paper pushers and economists are hired for their business acumen and not for their artistic understanding.  Unfortunately the reach of such administrators impact profoundly the artistic product.  The question I would have for many such failing administrators is:

How can you assume to sell a product of which you know so little?  This is a business question!

This is how the Paris Bohème resulted in an epic fail! Looking at the set, one is quickly impressed by the detail work.  This is obviously a detailed vision, put together by theatrically savvy people.  The handling of crowds, and contrapuntal elements on stage is overall expertly handled.  The singers are excellent.  Not always at the height of their powers in their roles but by all accounts solid professionals who can meet the challenges of those roles.  Gustavo Dudamel is not only a special orchestral conductor but he is a sensitive operatic leader.  The music making between he orchestra and singers was freeing.  The music breathed!  The tempi relationships absolutely fluid.  Maestro Dudamel is worth all the hype.  But despite all the demonstrated expertise, this production failed for a single reason. 

 Klaus Guth, like so many of these “Concept Opera” directors simply does not believe in the power of Opera to move audiences.  Therefore the only way they can imagine to make an opera relevant is to change not only the setting, but the opera’s narrative itself to something they think an audience will find more accessible. But how can they come to any other conclusion when they are fundamentally incompetent.  Incompetent yes, on the single most important level:  Music!  Guth may be a remarkable theatrical technician, but he is utterly clueless about the power of opera on the musical level.  Why else would one consider La Bohème, of all works, to be set in space.  Sure it creates a lot of buzz.  But then when it falls flat on its face, we’re left with one more reason for audiences to avoid what they more and more believe to be an absolete art form.

A stage director who specialises in non-music theater, no matter how good, s/he is, will not succeed unless s/he comes to the enterprise with a level of humility before the music.  When renowned Shakespeare director, Travis Preston made his operatic debut in Don Pasquale, I played the title role (Yes I was convinced by an idiot music director to sing the title role, because he thought I could act it better, regardless of the fact that I was obviously a high baritone at the time).  Mr. Preston came impeccably prepared with an assistant who was very well versed in music theater.  Mr. Preston also asked lots of questions and managed a beautiful balance of being demanding on the physical acting side of things and inquisitive about musical phrasing and timing. The result was a triumph.  I learned a great deal as a young actor in that endeavor.  

The truth that active music directors and singers are afraid to articulate for fear of retribution from administrators is that stage directors who come from straight theater and film are most often out of their depths musically and so ill-informed about the various roles of the music in opera that they are at worst bound to fail miserably and at best not destroy the opera they are producing.  A pass for them is that they do not totally insult the work.

As for Regisseurs in the German opera system (There are brilliant exceptions—Thalbach, Herrheim and others), they are so busy trying to come out of the numbers of the dozens of competing productions of the same works that they chose the path of least resistance:  Controversy brings curiosity even at the cost of the work itself.  If many German theatres have closed, it is because they made themselves irrelevant by engaging Regisseurs and often conductors who are not up to the task, but willing to put up something so utterly stupid that audiences will show up just to experience the absolute disasters.  


Opera is not irrelevant in our times.  The people running it, by sheer incompetence make the art form irrelevant.  Opera is a complex business, which even at its very best, leaves room for improvement.  At its worse (we see more and more of that every season) it becomes an empty status symbol that repudiates the young audience it seeks to lure in.  The Metropolitan Opera, for all its quasi-conservatism, has a place in rebuilding faith in the art form.  Its “The Voice Must Be Heard” campaign shows a return to the inescapable truth that opera begins with great voices, not faux-models onstage pretending to sing opera.  Yet, as this Bohème disaster proves, even the voices are not enough to make a show.  Although great voices can save a failing production as was the case in Paris, they cannot carry it alone.  The staging (sets, costumes, acting, etc) must support the inherent musical-dramatic narrative.  The story telling and the music are inextricably linked in opera.  In a sense, the orchestra is the string that runs through the entire narrative.  Failing to profoundly understand that point guarantees operatic failure.  As far as this utter failure of a Bohème in Paris, Medici TV had the good sense to stream a later performance once the premiere was done.  We do not get to experience the audience’s targeted boos for the production team in contrast to their bravos for the vibrant cast of singers and the orchestra under the balanced hand of the fantastic Gustavo Dudamel.  Opera is Alive and Well!  Down with the Opera-haters inside the business!

© 12/23/2017

Monday, December 18, 2017

R.I.P. Lloyd Hanson: I mourn the loss of a great vocal pedagogue and mentor

We live in times more modern than our minds can comprehend, more devoid of human connection because so much of that has been replaced by the expediency of electronics.  And indeed much is lost in terms of refinement and finesse--I remember the artistry in writing a letter by hand to a loved one before the onset of the internet.  I cannot remember the last time I wrote a letter by hand.--  Yet in that world of human detachment and "virtual" relationships, I met a man who would have a profound influence on my development as a vocal pedagogue.  Before there were Facebook Groups and Forums, there were list-servs.  A prominent one for things vocal was "Vocalist".  There were thousands of singers and voice teachers there discussing and debating all topics vocal.  There was also an insane amount of "flaming"!  Because of this, one of the members created a smaller list named "Goonlore" and invited about 20 people from the larger list.  I, a very young pedagogue at the time, barely in my 30s was invited due to my contributions on the larger list.  Goonlore was an unexpected blessing.  On that group for a period of a couple of years, I was able to discuss profound topics on vocal development and performance with experienced professionals twice my age.  Among them was Lloyd Hanson.

He was the resident expert on many subjects, especially vocal acoustics, a passion of mine.  He helped me make sense of the fundamentals of formant theories and the more refined thoughts about source-filter theories.  Without that guidance, I could not develop and deepen my knowledge in the way I have since that time.  A lot of new information came up that gave broader perspective on those original thoughts, but the fundamentals as I learned from Lloyd still resonate.

He was generous and patient and like any good teacher, eager to pass his experience on to the next eager student.  I never met Lloyd live, but it often feels as if I did.  His lovely daughter-in-law, an excellent professional singer, knew of our online relationship and invited me to his surprise birthday party.  Unfortunately I was not able to attend at the time as it was in Arizona and I was commuting between New York and Berlin at the time.  I was sad not to be able to attend.  By all accounts Lloyd was healthy.  We were in constant contact through an e-mail list he created to share his thoughts with his closest friends and colleagues.  I was deeply touched by the deep sorrow he shared with us when his beloved wife passed.  It felt special to be allowed to share in that hurt.  He shared lots of thoughts about the dread so many of us had about the Trump candidacy and pending doom of a presidency.  He reminisced often about his unforgettable formation at St. Olaf College.  That was another point of connection.  His many nostalgic thoughts about his time at St. Olaf, reminded me of the unique education I experienced at Westminster Choir College.  We were from two unique schools that were driven by a special choral environment that enhanced our solo singing formation instead of undermining it.  Few people outside of those environments fully grasped the profound vocal knowledge necessary for singers to grow as soloists in a choral setting.  Through the St. Olaf experience and his own Scandanavian background, the subject of the Scandanavian (particularly Swedish) vocal tradition was a mainstay in our discussions.  It is remarkable that now I would be teaching in Sweden.  Lloyd never stopped researching vocal pedagogy, even after his retirement from Northern Arizona University, where he served as Director of Opera and was a celebrated voice teacher. --Incidentally, those duties are now administered by two close colleagues of mine.-- Lloyd's profound thoughts on vocal pedagogy and singing can be enjoyed through his website.

It is revelatory, as I write this blog, how many points of intersection we actually had.  It makes even more sense in my head now why I felt so close to someone I had never physically met.  But when the ego is taken out of the equation and two people discuss and debate in pursuit of the truth, without a need to be "right," a great intimacy can be achieved.

Lloyd was very healthy and I even expected to finally have that face-to-face with him at some point.  But on December 3rd of this year he suddenly collapsed and subsequently passed.  He lived a long life, but the unexpectedness of his passing is terribly poignant to me personally and receiving the news via that e-mail list through his daughter, I got a sense of the family's deep sorrow.  I offer the following Swedish song in his honour and in empathy with his loving family.  It's a song Lloyd knew very well:




Tanke, vars strider blott natten ser!
Thought, whose struggles only the night sees!
Toner hos Eder om vila den ber.
It prays for relief from you o tones (Music)
Hjärta, som lider av dagens gny!
Heart, which suffers through the day's tribulations!
Toner till Eder till Er vill det fly.
To you, o tones (Music) it wants to flee.

Text: Erik Gustaf Geijer (1783 - 1847)
Music: Carl Leopold Sjöberg (1861 - 1900)

© 12/18/2017