The institution of opera has changed a lot since my youth. It isn’t necessary to cast ones eyes back to former eras to understand this difference because opera the way it used to be is still seen on the stage of the Metropolitan. Opera as it used to be consisted of heavy voices in works by Verdi, Wagner and Puccini in traditional productions.
Non-traditional productions have been around for quite a while—since the post WWII Bayreuth productions of the Ring, to be precise.
My favorite will always be the production of Figaro that was done in Ulm when I was there. The performance began 45 minutes before the start of the overture, and audience members had to be told to arrive early. I went out to watch in my street clothes as the lorry arrived with its six pine caskets. The caskets were carefully unloaded by the stage crew and stood on end around the lobby. When all were in place, the tops were removed and six costumed ghosts were revealed. The rest of the 45 minutes were taken up with the ghosts proceeding slowly into the auditorium to the accompaniment of a mass by Orlando di Lasso and the audience filing in slowly behind them. Once they had all reached the stage, the overture began.
Their costumes were more Louis XIV than the living cast members and in a deteriorated condition. It seemed in retrospect a kind of Figaro plus Ghosts of Versailles production. I still write about it because it was spectacularly memorable. “Porgi amor” sung from an antique bathtub in the same production was also particularly memorable. The arias were sung in Italian, the only foreign language sung in the house that season. I haven’t been able to decide what this told me about Figaro.
The food fight in Pamela Rosenberg’s Hansel and Gretel is also a favorite. Every year people ask me what I want for my birthday, and I always say a food fight. I still haven’t gotten it.
It would have taken precise timing to see Munich’s Planet of the Apes production of Rigoletto because they pulled it after only two performances. The performers complained that they couldn’t hear the orchestra, always the hardest part of performing opera on stage. It isn’t really necessary to see the conductor as long as you are able to feel the beat, but if you can’t hear, all could be lost.
Stark stage settings are now common all over Europe, often leaving you with nothing to look at. If this stark set is filled with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon, it feels full to overflowing. If it is filled with Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner, as in the Met’s Tristan, ones mind is likely to wander.
I have been promoting the idea that opera is:
In that order. This hierarchy is constant even though tastes change. Perhaps before Gluck and Mozart singing was on top.
For John Adams it is:
Nixon was in the traditional theater-singing-music hierarchy, and remains his most popular opera.
Dead Man Walking is:
This still works.
I lived through an era of intense interest in bel canto (Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini), a genre with no current proponents. I experience this as a terrible loss which Handel cannot fill. The contemporary opera scene emphasizes Handel to a surprising degree. The tessitura of a Handel opera is significantly lower in the top voices than that of the bel canto repertoire, opening the door for a much wider range of voices. These operas are simply easier to cast. The castrato roles in Handel operas offer opportunities for mezzo-sopranos and countertenors often lacking in heavier repertoire.
The taste for Handel also arises from popular feeling. People’s ears are no longer tuned to the heavy technique of Verdi and Wagner as they were in the 1930’s and 40’s. It might be interesting to hear lighter Verdi, that is, Verdi sung with a somewhat lighter technique. Perhaps Anna Netrebko has provided this. Her voice is dark without being heavy and may portend the future of opera. She solves the problem of high tessitura by leaving out the high notes.
Most of my contemporaries wring their hands in despair over these trends and long for the good old days. I have been looking for the beauty in the opera of today.