Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Robert Innaurato - Opera L

No one has quoted Wieland Wagner: "Wagner literature written before 1950
should be burned," he once said, "together with the old Wagnerians. For
living theater, there can only be one style - that of its own period."

"Living theater" is an important concept. Humans go to the theater to live,
and to see life 'imitated' (mimesis). Yet there is reality in the
imitation. The actors are living in front of you, drawing breath -- and can
die right there (if you've gone to the theater enough, you have seen that
happen). Even in the simplest production of the most restrained play,
actors fall, injure themselves, faint, throw up, forget lines and on and
on. Audiences instinctively know they are bearing witness to actual as well
as fictional "life" in the theater.

"Living theater" also means the drive by individuals to participate in
communal activity. In fact the origins of Western Theater were a public
affirmation of community. Arthur Miller said, "the poor in the seats
upstairs can look down on the rich enjoying themselves, and feel equal for
a while." An audience is affirming that it belongs to a community and seeks
to have a 'universal' experience. That is why it is said that performance
art can change lives, exalt the public, inebriate a large group (there is
nothing more intoxicating than an audience laughing riotously,
spontaneously), profoundly move and haunt a large public.

It is the experience of the "real thing", the live thing, that draws people
to see performances, to spend unwisely to see them, to go back, over and
over, to what they have loved. Abraham Lincoln saw 100 plays a year.

Lincoln most certainly didn't see "realism" or "naturalism" the 'barn
burner' acting troops of the 19th century may have altered their bombast
depending on the likely sophistication and experience of a given audience,
but illustrations and descriptions suggest "theatricality" not "reality" in
presentation. If a character said, "so, this is the Athens of Plato," then
we were in the Athens of Plato regardless of how the sets looked or how he
or she was dressed. Shakespeare's plays have been invoked here. The
performances at the Globe recently, carefully researched, show no sets,
"contemporary" costumes (of Shakespeare's time), heightened sometimes and
occasionally doctored to 'suggest' the garb of classical times.

Further, men played women. The first Juliet was probably a 20 year old boy
(it has been shown that the onset of puberty began much later then, that
lad was probably not fully pubescent and could still manage an unforced,
natural sounding high voice), the first nurse was probably a middle aged --
old man who specialized in comic parts. All the men playing women would
have used conventionalized gestures to signal femininity but there's no
evidence that they were drag performers. An audience much less educated (?)
and worldly than most members of this list could juggle in their heads two
simultaneous realities. They were watching a girl suffer because her
beloved was an enemy of her family, they wept at her "banished" speech, and
they were perfectly aware that "she" was male.

Yes, the members of this list, old as most are (and I include myself) are
so desensitized by the unreality of mechanized performance (TV, movie,
"reality show") that they cannot make believe, as simple people have been
able to make believe throughout Western history (Antigone was no doubt a
middle aged man, Creon might have been any age, they both wore masks and
conventionalized costumes, they probably used a 'heightened' intonation in
delivering their lines, perhaps rising sometimes to song, yet according to
Aristotle, audiences were overwhelmed with emotion by plays presented in
that manner, able to understand that they were seeing a fiction presented
in a highly conventionalized way, yet swept into the powerful emotional
'reality' of the plays.) Moreover, the life long TV watcher has his/her
experiences in isolation. Just as ratings systems show, TV audiences are
not members of a community but separate and sometimes warring
'demographics'; the 'product' -- movie or TV or video game -- does not
affirm a community living life 'together', and mystified by it, by the
turns of fate, by the terrors in waiting, but instead, is aimed as a sales
tool at people found by research, inundated by corporate culture who've
been shown to buy more, understand more about pop culture, spend more time
on line and so on.

The "power" of a given opera has everything to do with the music (rarely
discussed here), and the archetypal impact of the narrative as expressed by
that music, and much less to do with scenic contrivances (or
the seduction of a particular demographic)..

In Traviata and Rigoletto the archetypal themes of betrayal, thwarted love,
impulsive sacrifice and the cruelty of fate are far
more powerfully expressed by the music than by any given setting. The
audience must juggle a dual reality -- people don't wander through life
singing everything accompanied by a fifty piece orchestra so it's not
'real' -- yet the music in these works if well realized, compels our
emotions to the point that what is happening becomes very real indeed.

To the TV watchers that dominate this list must be added the record
collectors whose primary experience of the form has been onanistic;
solitary, excited by their own fantasies, who it seems in so many cases
listen to music as background noise, stopping only occasionally to listen
to Zinka's or Leontyne's sharp, amplified high note.

So why should a bunch of fools be taken seriously (they certainly take
themselves seriously!!!). No one sensible, as read by me, has ever
attempted a TOTAL theory of ALL OPERA productions here. Some productions
are so bad that, yes, they're distracting, that is as true of literal
presentations with tired, bored performers who don't know the style and
uninspiring conductors -- and I'm going to stop there. Because I think
those productions are far more typical in America than "innovative"
production attempts, some of which, naturally, are better thought through
and more persuasive than others.

One unspoken question runs through all this though: it's obvious that in
the last seventy years there has not emerged a standard repertory of new
operas. There are a few works that have survived, and then a large number
of operas that have simply been forgotten after a few seasons. Yet in the
seventy years between 1830-1900 ALL the Wagner and Verdi operas were
written, as was most of the French and Russian rep that is important in the
standard rep. Puccini had written Manon Lescaut, La Boheme and begun Tosca,
Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci and Andrea Chenier had been written -- the
verismo movement was in full swing -- Debussy was writing Pelleas, Richard
Strauss had launched his career (Elektra came in 1906). But the most
recently composed familiar operas are one hundred and more years old --
where is our life? Where are our terrors? Where are the threats that
endanger us?

How opera was produced varied, sometimes commercially as at the Met, where
box office ruled (but Otto Kahn and other socialites were around just in
case debt loomed), sometimes subsidized and often a mixture of subsidy and
commerce. Without records to familiarize them with new music (La boheme was
considered a 'tuneless sewer' by reviewers in New York) people went anyway
and went back, learning to hear the tunes. In participating in any art form
there is risk -- one may hate it. But the adventure pulls the true lover
who may even be quickly bored by the over familiar, preferring to endure
the suspense of off putting stories and hard to hear music on the chance
that a thrilling surprise lay in wait, an unpredictable joy, even an
ecstasy one didn't anticipate going in. Joy and ecstasy are part,
the essential part, of an artistic experience -- and great art expands our
sense of what those words connote.

This is another problem of TV culture; sitcoms are all predictable, the
form was set up to be formulaic and palliative. All of our
widely distributed popular entertainment is palliative, numbing,
predictable -- Hansel and Gretel is a hit movie, the familiar fairy tale
given the novel spin of being told in a horrifically violent way. Our most
popular movies are sequels, remakes, imitations, bled of character and
consciousness. The gamer knows that s/he will be safe and can simply pull
the plug. But in the first audiences, who knew how Death of a Salesman, or
Streetcar would end? Who felt at ease in Streetcar when the heroine who is
so vulnerable and pathetic is revealed simultaneously to be a liar, a
sometime prostitute who contributed to the death of her gay husband? There
is something dangerous and risky in that play and it's view of sexuality --
but who today wants to feel those things? We want to know at the opera that
the high notes will be there, the vocal volume will be loud and of course
we know the music at least superficially, and can go home happy or not
because somebody cracked or nailed an unwritten high note, never moved,
disturbed, shocked, alarmed -- and without those risks, never truly
ecstatic either.

The biggest Not for Profits in this Country will go on of course, somehow
-- but who will care? And those who are among the most valuable humans, the
great living creators, will languish broke and die unknown. This list can
rest in peace, the many wealthy morons here have won.


No comments: