Having been to a lot of operas this year, I find myself thinking that although there are many different types of production, they tend to fall into a number of set categories. It’s interesting to muse upon what those categories are, and then to consider why things are done that way. First, the overture If the opera has a substantial overture, it tells you a lot about how the production is going to pan out. Directors take one of three approaches:

  1. The overture is there for the audience to settle down and get a feel for the music they’re going to hear in the rest of the evening. Leave the curtain down, and let them listen.
  2. The overture is an opportunity to give the audience a sight of some of the characters and scenery - perhaps those in the first scene, perhaps others.
  3. The overture is an opportunity to introduce a dumb-show on a subject that complements the action in the opera: this is often a flashback or a preview of things to come, but may have only an indirect relationship.

If the director has taken the third approach, you can be pretty sure that he thinks the material in the opera is insufficient and/or dull, and is going to introduce some additional visual material of his own to spice it up.

The setting and costumes One of the most obviously visible differences between productions is the choice of setting and its associated costumes, allowing the director to place the opera in space and time. Here again, there are three broad categories; I will use Rigoletto as an example.

  1. Set the opera as described in the stage directions: in the case of Rigoletto, in the ducal palace in sixteenth century Mantua. An extreme example of this was this year’s movie filmed in the ducal palace itself.
  2. Pick an abstract setting which gives free rein to the art director, for example David McVicar’s long-running production at Covent Garden, in which the audience can’t really pick the place or time but there’s a defined overall artistic effect.
  3. Pick a different setting which is felt to match the story and the characterisation, for example Jonathan Miller’s setting of Rigoletto in Mafia gangland, dressing the courtiers as gangsters.
There nay be practical considerations at play: much classic opera is period drama set in the houses of the nobility, so playing it straight can get very expensive on costumes and furnishings.

The sets Once again, there are three main choices: the traditional set of different backdrops and furnishings for each scene, a set which transforms itself from one scene to the next (usually using a turntable), or a minimalist set in which not much changes physically but in which lighting and video effects are used to create the different scenes. Once again, I suspect, practical considerations often have a big impact on the choice.

Where a turntable is used, directors often choose to rotate it for purposes other than scene changes. The purpose of doing this is sometimes clear (Rufus Norris’s Don Giovanni did clever things with rotating bedrooms in the bedroom farce scenes) and sometimes more opaque (in Martin Constantine’s Norma at Grange Park, the scenery rotated at various inexplicable times).

If video projections are used, the director is able to introduce a wealth of visual material to direct the audience’s attention to things that may complement the narrative of the opera.

The chorus A director wishing to do something innovative has an important tool available to him. The chorus consists of as many as several dozen people who are, broadly speaking, unemployed for much of the time. There is endless scope for introducing things for them to do during the rest of the action. The possibilities range from things that are really quite close to the original narrative (in the David McVicar Rigoletto, for example, the courtiers spend much time beating their swords on the ground to taunt the jester), to things that spice up the narrative (in the same production, there is much orgiastic sex replacing the ballroom scene). Sometimes, there's no apparent relation to the action at all (in Katie Mitchell’s Idomeneo, chorus members spend much time bringing on trays of food and drink to the protagonists, while in Rufus Norris’s Don Giovanni, they do a lot of shifting of scenery and running around looking spooky).

The principal singers While there is much flexibility over what can be done with the chorus, it’s different with the main roles: singing with enough power and control to fill a major opera house is just about impossible unless you’re standing up facing the audience and not moving too much. There are exceptions, of course - in the Met’s I Puritani, Anna Netrebko sang a mean Elvira from a prone position - but it’s not easy. Opera directors must look with some envy on the directors of musicals, who haven’t suffered from this problem since the advent of radio mikes attached to the singers’ costumes or on headsets.

The main dilemmas It seems to me that the overriding dilemma for a director stems from the fact that not much new opera gets performed. If the audience is established and opera-savvy, the chances are that many of them will have seen the opera before, perhaps on several occasions. In this case, the director can fall into one of two opposite traps: if the production is straight, he can be accused of being dull and boring. If the production has too many new and whacky ideas, he can alienate the audience. Or he can fall between two stools and satisfy neither the traditionalists nor those thirsting for novelty.

Alternatively, the director may be trying to make opera accessible to a wider audience. For many of productions, directors state in interviews that this has been their goal, as in the Santa Fe production of Rossini’s Ermione in which Jonathan Miller clothed the opposing Trojans and Greeks in Confederate and Yankee uniforms in an effort to make the opera more accessible to an American public.

Cards on the table... As I watch more opera, I’m beginning to understand my own tastes better. They can be summed up by the following acid test: does the production aim to enhance and amplify the original opera, or is it trying to distract me from it by providing additional material? If it’s the latter, I’m not interested, thank you: opera is plenty complex enough for me to take in the music, story, drama and singing quality without my needing a whole bunch of extra stuff thrown in. If I want to see an opera about the Manhattan Project, I want to go and see Dr. Atomic - not to see Faust with models of nuclear weapons suspended from the ceiling (as done by Des McAnuff).

I don’t take much of a view on whether a production should be modern or traditionalist. Good period costumes are easier to relate to the action, whereas good modern costumes can be striking and artistic (and probably at a fraction of the cost). What matters to me is the story and the drama, as intensified by the music and singing.

I must stress that this is a personal view, and I don’t know how widely shared it might be. It may well be that the director is trying to attract a younger audience who don’t know opera and have the low attention span engendered by three minute rock tracks and short-clip TV programmes. Maybe it’s essential to provide a lot of extra visual material to hold the attention of this kind of audience. Personally, I suspect that all the extra stuff makes opera more difficult to take in, not easier - but that’s a gut feel based on zero evidence, and it would be interesting to know the reality. After all, opera has a long tradition of divertissements with tenuous if any relevance to the main action - just think of the ballet interludes in French grand opera, or the Italian aria di sorbetto given to a minor character to allow time for sherbert vendors to hawk their wares.

About novelty In the absence of a deliberate ploy to attract a particular audience, the director may simply be trying to be new and different: if you’re doing La Traviata for the hundredth time, you may get a little desperate to do something different from the ninety-nine preceding ones. And this syndrome would be greatly alleviated if we were seeing less “classic” opera and far more in the way of new operas written by today’s composers.

I would love to see a boatload of new works written within the operatic tradition but with the direct intention of appealing to a wide opera-loving audience. But that’s a subject for a different article...

15th November 2010