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Chaired by Victor Suchar
Director, Royal Opera House
21 September 2005
The speaker directed in London, Lucca, Shanghai, Rome, Strasbourg & Los Angeles, staging among other productions Fidelio with Josephine Barstow, Un Ballo in Maschera with Luciano Pavarotti, La Traviata with Carol Vaness, Don Carlos with Karita Mattila & Don Giovanni with Sir Thomas Allen.
The scope of my talk tonight is an understanding of what it is and what it should be to direct an opera. This is a broad remit, and my views on the subject are an eclectic mix of abstract reasoning and brute experience. I am aware that I enter something of an emotional war-zone where the public’s and critics’ apparent excitement over the latest stage antics all but dwarfs the genuine passion that generated the art-form in the first place; I also acknowledge that there is far greater expertise in the field than I shall ever possess, and so I offer my thoughts on directing opera not as a definitive theory or doctrine, but as a spur to further reflection. I have worked in the opera business for over twenty years, and I am lucky enough to have seen and heard some exceptional talent, as well as quite a lot of dispiriting mediocrity. My hope is that for some of you, my thoughts tonight will be an incentive to return with fresh eyes and ears to what Dr Samuel Johnson once described as that ‘exotick and irrational entertainment’.
I mention Johnson’s description of opera because it is often quoted: this is mostly in order to deny the integrity of the art-form, whether by those who have some political axe to grind, as in ‘Opera is only for the privileged few, so deserves no public funding’; or by those who wish to excuse the excesses of the latest exciting and novel production. Please, may we dispose of the ‘irrational’ immediately: what kind of serious discourse is going to allow that impostor into the debate? Moreover, opera by its nature involves diverse disciplines, and the participants often have conflicting agenda: and so we need to avoid not only the ‘irrational’ but also the ‘special pleading’ that one so often hears on behalf of the differing vested interests.
I wish to argue that the intrinsic worth of opera is to be found in its ability to function as a narrative experience. I am proposing that there is a primacy to plot, and that any approach to opera that ignores this primacy is effectively undermining the whole endeavour. There are important consequences to this basic argument: some that have a bearing on the art of the performers, some on the involvement of the spectators, and, as I shall try to demonstrate in conclusion, some that could affect the very future of the medium. None of what I argue requires technical or specialist knowledge – I know this because I find I have so little myself – and this means that we may dismiss Johnson’s pejorative epithet ‘exotick’. Since I have already ruled out the ‘irrational’ in the present discussion, that’s another blow to the Johnsonian dictum. Given the earnestness of my views, I fear some of you will accuse me of taking all the ‘entertainment’ out of opera as well. Apologies in advance for that.
‘Prima le parole, dopo la musica.’ – first the words, then the music – is how Richard Strauss in his opera Capriccio starts the debate about the respective merits of the two ingredients of opera. If we take ‘parole’ to mean literally ‘words’ then the debate is of little interest to me: I have always thought that if there is a conflict between the disciplines of opera, it is really between the demands of the music and the demands of the stage. In practice the sung or spoken words are relatively take-it-or-leave-it: even if, as with the current vogue for authenticity, a German opera, for example, travels around the world with all its umlauts intact, the text remains resolutely detained at the frontier, while only an approximation to the original reaches the audience through some technology like surtitles, or programme notes, or the audience’s vague recollection of their school O’ levels. And it is not just at the geographical frontier that the words are held back: there is also the barrier that the passage of time creates. The music by contrast has something of a passport to any place and any time. That being the case, it would seem that music has the position of predominance in an opera: it lasts and it travels while the words are but a poorer cousin. So poor, you might say, that it has even been known for them to be sung in translation. Horror of horrors! How hopelessly removed from the original vision of the composer, how insensitive to the precise articulation of the original language’s vowels and consonants, what brutality to the rhythms in the music, in short what a disastrous loss of nuance! Actually, and not entirely in parenthesis, the debate about translation is far from over. And it is not just that composers themselves have advocated the performance of their works in the language of the people to whom they were being performed. Stravinsky’s opera/oratorio Oedipus Rex exemplifies the point rather well: here we have a Russian composer’s setting of the Latin translation of a French version of an ancient Greek tragedy. For a contemporary audience (and excluding perhaps a few diligent Vatican officials) the text of this opera is almost solely a series of meaningless sounds. It is as though Stravinsky was paving the way for the current trend: opera sung, effectively in gibberish, and the sense of the gibberish conveyed to the audience by a simultaneous, but non-integral device: I am referring to surtitles. Two more points on this, while we are here. One, it is significant to me that the Italians, whose language we in opera are at such pains to preserve in all its ‘original glory’, as a matter of course dub all foreign films at their cinemas into Italian. So, no, not subtitles, but real voices speaking real Italian (and the film was made in Hollywood): this is the expensive option, but it is the norm in Italy. Could the Italians teach us something about the immediacy of drama after all?! Secondly, there is an absurdity in the daily striving towards the authentic opera in its original language: teams of language coaches training singers for whom the text that they sing often remains, crucially, meaningless at the very moment of articulation; directors, conductors, stage staff and crew desperately engaged in a more or less foreign enterprise, not to mention the poor benighted audience; but there is a deeper more unwholesome consequence to all this. In time, the events onstage, being identified with a particular language, become stereotypical of a culture, of a race, of a nation even; so that the performance, instead of awakening us to some shared experience of the human condition, merely serves to confirm our prejudices against the ‘humourless Germans’ or those ‘temperamental Italians’.
To return to Strauss’ expression ‘prima le parole, dopo la musica’, the interesting take on ‘parole’ must be ‘text, or story, or meaning, or idea’. And this accords with the practicality of how an opera is written. Verdi illustrates this most clearly: always demanding new ideas, new subjects and new themes from his librettists, it is as though he felt himself full of music just waiting to be written. The dramatic idea comes first; the composer’s creativity, his contribution in a sense, comes second. All opera composers owe their work to the invention or inspiration that follows from their dramatic imaginations. This is so obvious that it hardly needs saying. Except that so much of what is said and thought about opera betrays an ignorance of it, literally an ignoring, or a determined refusal to acknowledge this one core point: the music follows the drama. Now there are of course plenty of instances where the music is prior: music is frequently dusted down and used to accompany new dramas, or often just new dramatic moments, or even simply new images. We see and hear this daily with radio or television advertising. I’m sure we have all to some extent created our own private mental imagery around certain affecting music. It may not even be private. I have been told about but never sampled the David Hockney Wagner Ride: with this, he has calculated a particular car-drive outside Los Angeles where the changing vistas at a particular time of day form an exact personal realisation of the excerpts from the Ring cycle that he plays on his car hi-fi throughout the journey: doesn’t that sound great?! But the clearest description of what this is, and all the other instances of ‘prima la musica, dopo il dramma’, is surely the re-dramatisation of music: it may be trivialising, as in the case of Dvorak’s New World symphony and the famous bread commercials of years ago, it may be humorous or dangerously manipulative or indeed have any number of effects. But the point is, it is not the truth of the original: it is a re-use, a reworking, or, as I said before, a re-dramatisation. This is an issue we shall come back to when we look at the question of stage interpretation.
Or take the case of Rossini: dare I suggest that he is fundamentally rather a disappointing composer of operas? (Yes, I do.) In at least the earlier Rossini operas, the conflicts and resolutions of the drama are basically taken from stock – the sad lonely girl, the disguise, the shock of discovery, the following turmoil and confusion – these elements of type rarely seem to engage him, and whatever music he writes, the action seems to be locked in cliché: Rossini’s driving interest is the voice, for him the maxim is ‘prima la voce, dopo la musica.’ How could he possibly have written the Barber of Seville in four weeks if the music were not basically already there? And it only proves my point when you recall that he habitually lifted arias, ensembles, even whole overtures from his other works and blithely reused them again or elsewhere. No wonder that for the director of Rossini there is this nagging suspicion of the priority of the music.
So this is my model for the creation of an opera: in the beginning is the drama; the composer’s imagination is fired by this drama; and the music flows. This sketch says nothing of the various social and cultural conventions that have coloured the process of opera creation through the ages, and given to operas their particular qualities and identities. You will note that I do not even presuppose the existence of singing: this is because my argument at its most radical regards singing as just one out of that repertoire of conventions which, in the art-form’s history, have given operas their individuating qualities. Logically, you might say, singing is not an inherent part of opera; historically, of course, opera is unimaginable without it. This distinction between the logic and the actual history of opera is important: it is, I think, the failure to appreciate the distinction that muddies so much discussion about opera, and leads to such polarised views.
The use of the voice historically falls into three separate categories: there is the choric or ensemble device, the solo device or aria, and the reciting or recitative device, which from its very name we may take to mean something other than song. Correspondences can be found between these categories and the elements of classical tragedy (where opera undoubtedly has some of its roots), but what interests me is how these categories function in the drama. The recitative, for example, concentrates upon the movement of the story, the aria conveys the effect of the story’s development upon the individual. This is a distinction that exists through the ages, and is explored in many different ways: it carries over into the 20th century musical in the distinction between dialogue and ‘numbers’. Now tastes have differed about how best to move the story along: in France and Germany, for example, in the popular theatre of the last two centuries and more, spoken dialogue was preferred to sung recitative – I suspect it is why Mozart’s Magic Flute, Beethoven’s Fidelio and Bizet’s Carmen, to name but a few examples, are viewed askance by the hardcore opera lobby; and even in the Italian and court tradition of sung recitative rather than spoken dialogue, the vocal style is something closer to natural speech than to full-blown singing. Even in the later 19th century and beyond, when the vogue was to blur the traditional division between recit. and number, there is still a tendency to distinguish between what you might call ‘chat’, and the musical set-pieces. What this suggests is that there are intrinsic reasons for this demarcation of the drama, and not that it happens out of the slavish adherence to a centuries-old tradition or convention: the distinction exists because it answers to a perceived effectiveness in the telling of the story. At the very least, this demonstrates that the spoken word may legitimately have a place on the operatic stage and that singing does not have a monopoly there. In some operas, there are speaking-only parts – the Pasha Selim in Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail is an obvious example. Singing techniques vary widely in the canon of operatic writing, and this is a further indication that the place of song in opera is not set in stone, but remains fluid and open to all manner of development. The technique of course follows the musical imagination of the composer: Monteverdi, for example, makes very different technical demands of a singer’s voice from those that Wagner makes, writing some 250 years later.
All of this vocal variation in opera suggests to me that song is secondary to the musical vision of the composer. Singing for the sake of singing is the exception and not the rule. This means that we can restate the model I spoke of earlier as follows: the logical priority is with the drama; the function of the composer is to serve the drama; and singing has a place in the process, as the mechanism best suited to represent speech in a musical context.
‘Oh God, what are we going to do with all this terrible music?!’ as Gielgud once said, confronting the problems of staging the Finale of the first act of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It is interesting that it is an actor who so succinctly states the dramatic problem of the music; interesting also, perhaps, that so few directors of opera do. For most of the public, the number one criticism of opera is that it is full of such terrible acting. Is this how it needs to be? Are singing and acting wholly incompatible? What are we, indeed, to do with all that music?
The first thing to say is that I do not think that opera’s woes would disappear if all its performers trained as actors. Opera functions as drama much more like a film than a play. When Hitchcock decried Hollywood movies as ‘pictures of people talking’ and actors as cattle he showed that the drama in a film lies in its montage, in how the shots are put together, and not in a record of acting performances. Which is why you don’t need trained actors to make a film. I don’t deny that there are many outstanding stage performers in the world of opera – many is the time that my work has been rescued by them; what I wish to say is that in opera the theatre actor’s ways and means are either inadequate or inapposite, or both. Remember the Gielgud story, always supposing it’s true: as an actor, he could sense the failure of his stagecraft to meet the dramatic demands of the music in the given situation. Actually Gielgud directing opera is just one of many examples of that long-standing tradition of handing the problem of staging an opera over to the experts: in this case, the directors (or actors) from the straight theatre. I am not sure, however, that the intended benefits to the drama are achieved. Take an aria such as Figaro’s ‘Non più andrai’ from the end of Act 1 of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Ostensibly Figaro, the servant and confidant to the Count, is mocking the teenage boy Cherubino for his spoilt aristocratic lifestyle, and warning him that now that the Count has just commissioned him into the army, his way of life will be cruelly different. If I read you the text of this aria it would take me less than thirty seconds, but, sung, it lasts at least four minutes, including repeated sections and a military march for a play-out at the end. You might think it hard to get a singer to act ‘mocking’ through all of that (and to justify the repetitions and the play-out). But now add to this the fact that all of this is happening in front of the Count: given the poor relations between Figaro and his master, the mockery of Cherubino is revealed to be a pretence. So, what will you say to your singer? ‘Now, Bryn, can you please do me four minutes of pretended mockery?’ Gielgud was so right (except the music isn’t terrible). Of the armoury of devices available to the director of plays the two most powerful are the inflection of the words, and the manipulation of time, and neither is available to the director of an opera: both are the instruments of the conductor because, obviously, both have been commandeered by the composer. Very well, then, what of gesture, manner, or facial expression? I am reminded of the time when the theatre director Di Trevis took me aside during a rehearsal of Birtwistle’s then new opera Gawain, and asked why the soprano was making such odd faces; she was shocked to learn that it was ‘because she was singing’. Considering the scale of most opera of the last 150 years the hope of subtly nuanced acting evaporates altogether: the furrowed brow, the sneer, the smirk, none of it stands a chance. So, how you act in a play is different from how you act in an opera: it is not that the range of expression is smaller, just that the means of that expression need to be different. For the public at large, the way to describe their discomfort at the acting in opera is not to say that it is bad, rather that it is inappropriate: the audience wishes to engage with the stage, but what shatters the illusion of reality there, breaks their willing suspension of disbelief, is the incongruity between what they see onstage and their sense of the development of the drama. The classic instance of this is the dreaded ‘stand ‘n’ sing’ moment: the director excuses himself, apologises for the librettist, curses the long-windedness of the composer and exhorts his cast, ‘for the repeat, just stand and sing…’ Suddenly the drama stops, the mask slips, and we may as well be in a concert hall. Now I recognise that the invention of the composer will almost certainly extend beyond the strict need of the story, but does he really want the drama just to stop? It’s as if an invitation is made to the audience to be involved in some way in the story, to be then suddenly withdrawn, then issued again, and withdrawn again and so on, until the possibility of any continued engagement on the dramatic level is irrevocably denied. This example illustrates a major problem with so-called naturalism in opera: the music continues through frequent repetition of the text, but the associated action is by now complete. So what is the performer to do next? There seems to be a hole in the sequence of events. But that is not the only problem: we start to give a false significance to the doing of things. ‘What is the performer to do next?’ Actually singers need to be ‘doing’ stuff onstage no more than actors do. Acting is not about ‘doing’, it’s not about schtick: it’s about ‘being’. In this case are the performers being their characters, or are they being singers..?
The quick-fix solution to this problem is what you find around you: directors putting their energy into what I call an alternative rhetoric. The singers can’t act, the music is unstageable, so the production rushes for cover in the scenery and costumes and of course the ideas, or concept (to use the German term.) The alternative rhetoric only gains, by the way, from the presentation of operas in a language foreign to the audience: strangeness is all. I was shocked a while back by a colleague of mine’s defence of surtitles: ‘At last the audience knows what is being sung; the singers don’t need to go on doing what they are singing about any more.’ It sounded like a clarion call to a new subtler, more psychological style of production, but I suspect it was an excuse for ‘anything goes’. What shocked me though was that anyone ever thought that production consisted in doing what you were singing about anyway. Note how in addition to the dreaded ‘doing’ view of acting, my colleague’s opinion implies that acting is ‘giving information’. Acting is not about using the time onstage to give the audience information, to make a kind of sign-language simultaneous translation of the words being sung. Acting in opera should be, by whatever appropriate rhetorical means, as consistent and credible as acting you find in the spoken theatre, or for that matter in film. Inevitably this will mean the director actively engaging with the dramatic potential of the music. Whether such an engagement with the music is wished for by other participants in the process is moot. I spoke earlier of ‘special pleading’ and vested interests, and often the practical demands facing singers and conductors are allowed to get in the way of the pursuit of dramatic integrity. Not to mention – how could I forget? – vanity. Oh dear! Of the vanity of performers, and the times and ways in which it has eclipsed the drama, there are just too many examples.
There are constraints to acting in opera, but this need not be a diminishment of the dramatic force of a performance: the force is achieved by supplementary and / or complementary means. The music and singing are obvious examples of such. But in casting around for the means to achieve the fullest dramatic force of an opera we are, in a sense, brought back to the question I first raised tonight: what is it and what should it be to direct an opera?
In considering what the opera director does I have for some years taken encouragement from the writings of the playwright and film-maker David Mamet: in his thoughts on acting and film-making he evinces, alongside a lot of insight and honesty, a ‘robust sense of reality’ – and Heaven knows the world of opera could do with a dose of that. If you wish to understand more about my line of argument then Mamet is who you should read. It is striking how much of Mamet’s argument about good and bad filmmaking can be applied to directing opera.
So it is, with perhaps surprising confidence that I say that the most powerful weapon in the armoury of the director is the plot. I am sure that will either baffle or disappoint you: apart from the terrible acting, the one other really terrible thing about operas is their stories. Nobody understands them; they are never about things that happen in the real world, and in any case everybody who goes to the opera knows the plot in advance. You may ask how such flimsy material could ever furnish a director with the means to make real theatre.
So, I admit it, opera plots are a problem. Even when the plot comes from a play, a good, a successful even a Shakespearean play, the problem of plot does not recede: the logic is there, of course, but the altered emphasis that the composer gives it through the so-to-speak filter of his music seems to dissipate the effect. Plots derive their energy from some constraint or other – having to get there before he dies, or before she marries, or having to pay back the money, for example – and there is always a difficulty in keeping that tension device in play while arias are sung or choruses are wheeled around the stage. We are back at the basic conflict in opera: the music against the story. The music distorts the events, and the events are no longer our concern. This is fatal for an audience: the plot and the devices of tension within a plot only function if the events matter and it is this mattering that is so important for an audience. If an audience doesn’t care what happens, is prevented from caring about what happens, then anything can happen; anything might as well happen. In Don Carlos, Verdi gives the portrait of an idealistic and selfless courtier in the character of Rodrigo; his libertarian politics are a threat to the Spanish throne, so he is imprisoned then shot. He sings his dying words to his close companion Don Carlos, and expires. This is meticulously crafted drama, but in the ‘anything goes’ world of opera, it is not unknown for the singer of the rôle of Rodrigo to die… and then get up and take a bow. A famous tenor I once worked with was singing the role of the playboy king Gustave III of Sweden in Verdi’s opera A Masked Ball. I couldn’t not be touched by the ritual honour he bestowed on my craft when, seconds before curtain-up on the final scene he whispered to me, ‘Okay, I’m sitting at the desk: do you want me to be writing or thinking?’ My answer was grimly unartistic, my mind on the horrors, I suppose, of quills and inkbottles, paper and blotters: ‘Thinking,’ I replied, mustering what authority I could through my despair. Thinking or writing: what could it matter?! He had already spent half of the first act slumped onstage on a musician’s swivel stool pretending to be hiding, and in the second act he had walked offstage for a drink of water during the love duet with the soprano. So, yes, anything can happen.
The argument in favour of plot may run as follows: in opera both the good stories and the bad stories need to be projected through any possible diversions in the music, and to be sustained in the mind of the audience: this is the only way that the characters (and I mean the dramatis personae, not the singers) can retain our attention, and the only way we can be made to care about what happens to them. This may mean changing the emphasis in certain libretti, stretching the possible sense of the text, ditching the stage directions: all this seems to me to be legitimate, and desirable even, in order to patch up the problems inherent in a plot, or in a plot’s relationship to the music. But the real work starts when we flesh out those characters: this is where we need to be our most imaginative, because it is here that the composer has devoted the least attention. However, because the audience, if it is at all engaged in the story, will be giving the characters all their attention, we must, if we are to keep them engaged, respect the logic of our characters’ actions and objectives.
‘Fleshing out the character’ of the dramatis personae may sound like a creative exercise, like an invitation to dream up some eye-catching quirks or typical mannerisms, to let our fancies roam and come up with something perhaps startling and novel in the portrayal of the persons in the story. This is exactly not what I mean: this apparently imaginative approach actually obscures the characterisation of the protagonists. On the large scale, this is the approach that leads to the re-dramatisation process that I mentioned earlier. It poses as interpretation, of course, and then re-interpretation, before becoming a poor and lazy re-write. So the duke of Milan from Verdi’s Rigoletto is imagined as a sort of 50s New York gangster, and suddenly the original opera has become modern and relevant and exciting. We may baulk at the unsentimental no-nonsense ending of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, where the sadder and wiser young women have to get on with a dull life beside the guys they now no longer want to marry, we may dislike a perceived sexism in this; but it is not a re-interpretation of the opera that the two women go off to make a lesbian life together: it is just a different story. This then is not the imaginative process that I mean. What we should be asking is not what the protagonist is like; we should be asking, ‘what does he want?’ Characters in a play, a film, or an opera, are motivated by their wants – by their objective – and what they do in the drama comes out of the pursuit of their objective. And it is this objective, whatever it may be, that is the decisive determinant of character. The point I wish to stress here is that it is a different thing to imagine what our characters are or might be like, from asking ourselves what it is that they want. The former imaginative process is basically one of invention; the latter is, by contrast, one of discovery.
Composers devote the least attention to the fleshing out of character, as I have said: this does not mean that music cannot or does not tell us anything about our protagonists. But what it tells us is ‘what they are like’; it does not tell us what our protagonists want. This is the preserve of the drama, the librettist, the plot. When a director engages imaginatively with the characters, his principal activity is to discern their wants. If, as may happen, those wants are irremediably opaque, then it is up to the director to decide, but this deciding is a great responsibility and should be entertained only when all other imaginative enquiry has failed.
Even small decisions can have considerable consequences: I remember a production of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly in the scene in which the heroine describes her son to the American Consul; proving the paternity of the boy she speaks of his curly blond hair. In this particular production the boy had the short straight black hair of an obviously Japanese child. So the mother was saying one thing about the child, and we were all seeing quite the other: what did this mean? Was it a mistake? Is Butterfly blind? Or is it that her misplaced love for the man who deserted her is blind? Is she losing her grip on reality? Now, it’s fine if that’s what you want to show, but what are the consequences? ‘Oh well, she’s just a nutter,’ some may have thought, and so been robbed of any sympathy for the heroine. Some may even have thought, ‘Oh well, she’s just a liar, and her husband Pinkerton is not the father,’ which, again, doesn’t help the audience’s view of Butterfly, but, worse, deals a death blow to act three where Pinkerton comes to take his son away. This is a nice illustration of the director diverting the audience from the actual story, and from the pathos intended in its telling by the composer. His small decision also neatly illustrates the imaginative process that I have just described as ‘invention’, as opposed to the process of ‘discovery’. Now I made a different small decision when I was directing the opera, and it too had its consequences. I ignored or rather ‘rewrote’ the stage direction which tells of Butterfly rushing to look through her telescope at the ship of her returning husband arriving in the harbour: a moment that she has been waiting for, for three years. Up until this moment everyone has derided her expectation that her husband would come back – it is the substance of the second act – but she has remained unwavering in her conviction throughout: she knows, she says, what true love is. At the moment when she appears to be vindicated she is supposed to start footling around with a stage prop in her face, telling us what the ship looks like and such. This is the climax of the act, when what we really want to see is our protagonist finally, ecstatically, attaining her objective, as she thinks. In deciding that Butterfly shouldn’t look at the arriving ship I was not inventing something about her psychological state. What I was doing was allowing myself and the audience to discover something about her nature; in keeping her objective clear we learned who she is. Butterfly doesn’t look at the ship because she knows it is her husband’s, and she knows he is on board. She knows because she loves him, and that love conquers all, including the doubters and the sceptics. Her love for Pinkerton is so great that it dragged him and his ship half way round the world to her. I took the affirmative view of Butterfly’s feelings, where in the previous example she was reduced to the status of an obsessive neurotic. What Puccini seemed to me to be striving for was not the portrait of a traumatised one-time under-age geisha girl, but of a child heroine on a tragic scale. Whether my ‘decision’ was right or wrong, what I want to demonstrate here is the difference between the imaginative process that invents, and the imaginative process that discovers.
From what I have said, you will understand that I take the dramatis personae in an opera seriously: I expect to care about what happens to them, and when it does, to believe it. I expect their story to matter: it is what I am interested in; it is why I came to the theatre. There is no excuse (no ‘special pleading’) for performers to do anything other than enact the story; all else is counter-intuitive to our understanding of drama, be it slipping out of character to stand and sing, or take a bow, or turn into other characters with other stories. Thus, the obligation placed upon a performer: what the director must do is enable the performer to achieve that, and this is done through the discernment and enactment of the character’s objectives. The more the characters lack in objective, the worse the plot is, and decisions may have to be made to fill the gaps. As for the problem of too much music, which was what Gielgud worried over, and which has troubled opera directors from time immemorial, actually it simply doesn’t exist: the problem, if there is one, is the failure of the director’s or performer’s imagination. As long as our minds are on the protagonist and his objectives, then there can never be too much music.
Opera is full of distractions: top notes, repetitions, choruses, the corps de ballet: the list is endless. A director’s job is to present the piece in such a way that the audience is not distracted but rather engaged in the performance. His best way of achieving this is to convey the story: the story was the inspiration for the music, it will therefore be the most authentic stage event alongside the music; and it is the greatest help to the director’s imagination. Plot is the interconnection of the characters’ differing and sometimes conflicting objectives: discerning the objectives is the first step to understanding the plot. I have already said that the music cannot show us what the characters want; no more can an actor or singer act an objective. The hero wants to marry the girl. Try acting that: ‘Look at me, look at me: this is me wanting to marry the girl.’ No, I don’t think so. Yes, of course, the hero will say and do things, and these things show that he wants to marry the girl, but he cannot act just ‘wanting to marry the girl’. What follows from what I have said is that the most important ingredient to an opera, the plot - the objectives of the characters - is absent from both the music and the performer. Where, we may ask, are these all-important objectives? The answer is simple: they are in the mind of the audience.
I warned you that my argument has a bearing on the spectators and their involvement in an opera: their rôle in a performance is to be the guardians of the plot. If the performance is to be the fullest realisation of the dramatic vision of the composer and his librettist, if the opera is to ‘work’, then it will depend as much upon the audience as on the performers. I can illustrate this with the example of film. A film is a collection of images of essentially people and actions. The sense of what is happening is discerned by the audience through the ordering of the images, or shots. The individual shots on their own have no particular meaning or rhetoric, but they matter as part of the whole collection. Here, for example is a picture of a face with the eyes open. What does that mean? Of itself, nothing. But in a certain context of images it may tell us that the person is alive, actually; it may tell us that the person is dead. Now there is no rhetoric, no acting in the image of the open eyes; but, as I have just shown, the image is a matter of life and death. That is the drama; that is the rhetoric. You could of course have a voice just telling the audience, ‘The hero is dead,’ but that is poor filmmaking. Poor filmmaking is not a problem, except that the audience is not being given its job to do: if it is not doing its job, then it will not engage with what it sees on the screen. The ideal, and achievable, situation is where the audience understands, not because it has been told by someone, but because, in watching the sequence of images, it has become the custodian of the story.
I firmly believe that, in principle, such an aesthetic is available to opera production: in fact necessary, not just available. The audience is shown people and actions; if this is done in the right order, in the right way, then it will engage with what is happening onstage. The audience must be allowed to do its job, which is to appropriate the drama to itself, and look after it: this is what I mean by the audience being the guardian of the plot. To trust the audience to do this could significantly affect the way operas are produced: the first very obvious change would be a move towards economy, and away from excess. I am not talking about money here: what I mean is economy of expression and clarity of thought, as opposed to repetitious and overblown rhetoric. Actions, moves and gestures, instead of, as traditionally, being exaggerated to catch the attention or hammer home the point, could be pared down to the absolute minimum. Say the thing that needs to be said to get us to the next scene or moment in the drama: nothing more, nothing less You can see that this might lead to a very stylised sort of production indeed. And where is the harm in that? If the audience is given the information in the right way, your performers might be ‘doing’ nothing at all. I experienced something like this in my production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, for the Royal Opera House some years ago. In the second act finale, a certain point was reached when the four singers onstage were just standing and singing. My assistant grew increasingly alarmed by this during the final rehearsals, and kept suggesting business to add. I, on the other hand, was delighted: to someone who walked into the auditorium moments before, the scene was just four people singing; to someone who had engaged with the drama from the beginning, the scene was a dramatic high point. I was delighted because I had discovered how important the audience was to the performance. Do you remember the example I gave of the film-shot of the open eyes? This was a similar case: the image of the four singers on the stage would be the same, but the meaning totally different.
Another point about the audience’s rôle. The underlying significance of the audience being the guardian of the plot is that what is presented to the audience is, logically, the original piece. Engaged in the full realisation of the drama, the audience can only be faced with the actual piece, as written by the librettist, and as set to music by the composer. This experience of the original is what should be properly understood by the word ‘authentic’. You do not authenticate an opera by singing the words in the original language, or by playing the music on period instruments, nor even by presenting it in the costumes or scenery of the original production. These are all components of the original realisation; not even if you were to recreate all such components of the original, however, could you expect your performance to be authentic. What is authentic involves, in the end, the spirit of the original creative act. The opera world concentrates its energy on the letter and not the spirit of the original. This is one of the reasons for the view of opera as a museum culture where the preservation of a tradition and a mystique takes precedence over the life that went into the opera’s creation. And this is why Peter Brook, all those years ago, described Grand Opera as ‘the Deadly Theatre carried to absurdity’; and lamented ‘Everything in opera must change, but in opera change is blocked’.
What then of interpretation? One opera journalist has recently claimed ‘To write for performance is to require interpretation’. But all that I have said seems to deny that. The same writer has also said, ‘Those who, like me, would allow a wide discretion to present-day performers, point out that performance is impermanent, that it leaves unsullied the notes of music or text encoding the creator’s concept.’ ‘Wide discretion’ sets off the alarm bells. How wide does your discretion go? If, as long as the notes and words are preserved, we have fulfilled our obligation to the composer, then I take it that the discretion is very wide indeed. Practically indiscreet. We could, I suppose, do something completely scandalous onstage: we could do… a concert version. We could even do, say, a Wagner opera with all those horny helmets and pigtails that we know from the photos of ‘old-fashioned’ productions. Now that requires seriously wide discretion. The point is, of course, that the idea of the authentic reading of a piece is logically incompatible with the idea of the interpretation of it. What I am arguing is that the authentic reading is a valid ambition. Interpretation seems to me to be ambition, but without the validity. Did the librettist have in mind a stage full of multi-schizophrenic characters with infinitely possible objectives? Did the composer write his music in a thousand-fold response to the dramatic vision? I don’t think so: they did the one thing that they did, and that is the piece in front of you. The piece does not seem to me to come to us with a cheerful invitation to be performed as something else. Re-dramatising a play or an opera is not a requirement of the play or opera itself.
The requirement, so-called, of interpretation is invalid for three reasons: first of all, the original work, let us call it an opera, is already an interpretation. It is Wagner’s interpretation of the Norse sagas that you find in his Ring cycle, Mozart’s and da Ponte’s interpretation of the Beaumarchais play in The Marriage of Figaro, Monteverdi’s interpretation of the ancient Greek myth that you find in Orfeo. In other words, the process of interpretation has already happened when the opera is written. Secondly, the abandonment of a theatrical authenticity in opera makes us all victim to the arbitrariness of taste: the interpretations I suggested of the concert version or the old-fashioned Wagner production demonstrate that anything can happen. And the dull thing about this is that the audience is caught in the spirit of its own age, is trapped into seeing everything through the lens of its own values and expectations. Lastly, I hear a lot about the individuality or idiosyncracy of people’s response to opera. Most argument about good and bad opera production is about taste, and on that question I am with Cicero – ‘de gustibus non disputandum’. The terminus for the taste argument, however, is subjectivism. Here we are up the proverbial creek without a paddle, where we have no yardsticks of attainment in opera production, no obligations fulfilled or otherwise; and all is a kind of extreme relativism where ‘if it works for you, it’s fine’. Now, it is not an etymological coincidence that, when I talk of the wants of the protagonists in a drama, I describe these wants as their objectives. For it is precisely when production devotes itself to the objectives of the characters that it offers to the audience the possibility of a non-subjective or an objective experience of the piece.
I am not offering here a new theory of the theatre. Most of my arguments about stagecraft are accepted as the norm in the sister disciplines of film and the spoken theatre. I see no reason that they should not be valid for opera. The practical difficulty, as illustrated by those despairing remarks of Peter Brook, is that the current workings of the opera business prohibit the development of opera as a true theatrical medium.
That then has been the purpose of my talk tonight: to reaffirm the validity of opera as ‘real theatre’. In order to do so, it has seemed necessary to me to question a number of trends that jeopardise such a project: one is the insistence on the use of the original language, as both more authentic and artistically superior, neither of which is true; another is the insistence on the primacy of music, and more particularly of song, which is demonstrably false, given that the temporal and logical priority of any opera (and certainly of any opera of merit) is with the originating story or drama. Then there is the attempt to legitimise opera theatrically by importing from the straight theatre its standards and methods of acting: this fails because these standards do not apply. And there is another trend that is now practically, it seems, a requirement: the expectation that all new productions of existing operas function as interpretations of the original material, or as re-dramatisations, by another name. I have been at pains to recognise and highlight these trends for a reason: all of them, in one way or other, undermine the essence of theatre. And it is a corollary of this that these trends are the very means whereby opera finds itself becoming a piece of museum culture.
So what I have tried to find is a working method that allows opera to function as valid theatre, and sidesteps these trends. I am increasingly confident that the process of imaginative plot discernment is the key that unlocks the mystery of the composer’s original dramatic vision, and that the understanding and enactment of character objectives is the route to a full realisation of the dramatic potential of an opera’s musical score. It is also the sure way to engage an audience; and what is more, to engage them in a shared, objective experience.
What I am proposing for the world of opera is a quiet revolution. Integrity needs to return to the stage, the drama needs to be restored to its rightful place at the heart of the performance, and the audience needs to be encouraged to claim back its all-important rôle in the proceedings. The only way to arrest the decline of the art form, if it is not already too late, is to endorse the pursuit of the most authentic possible realisation of a piece: it is this that, perhaps ironically, will prevent the art-form from atrophying as a museum artefact. One justification that I have often heard for the interpretative school of opera production is that too many of the people that go to the opera nowadays already know the literal story of the piece they are seeing. The implication is that there is no longer sufficient interest in the original plot. I hold a somewhat different view. I believe it probable that where an opera has difficulty in communicating to a particular age or culture then the desperate attempt to spice it up, or make it relevant to that culture is the surest sign that this is not its time. The operas we know and love belong by and large to a bygone age. There is every chance that they have some important things to say to us, but we must come to terms with the fact that if they can speak to us, it will be on their terms, and not on ours. Yes, we may begin finally to tire of their stories, but this is a better outcome than the pretence that these tales from the past can always be revived for the present day through arbitrary re-writing. If there is to be hope for opera, it will be found in the composers of today, not those of the past; with the dramatic vision of today’s music, and not the weary upholding of conventions from yesteryear. But most of all, it will be, once again, a medium that recognises the absolute primacy of the drama upon which it is built.