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Believing in Opera

Believing in Opera

Tom Sutcliffe
Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 480
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  • Book Info
    Believing in Opera
    Book Description:

    The staging of opera has become immensely controversial over the last twenty years. Tom Sutcliffe here offers an engaging and far-reaching book about opera performance and interpretation. This work is a unique tribute to the most distinctive and adventurous achievements in the theatrical interpretation of opera as it has developed in recent decades. Readers will find descriptions of the most original and successful avant-garde opera productions in Britain, Europe, and America. Sutcliffe beautifully illustrates how updating, transposition, or relocation, and a variety of unexpected imagery in opera, have qualified and adjusted our perception of the content and intention of established masterpieces.

    Believing in Operadescribes in detail the seminal opera productions of the last fifty years, starting with Peter Brook in London after the war, and continuing with the work of such directors and producers as Patrice Chéreau in Bayreuth, Peter Sellars and David Alden in America, Ruth Berghaus in Frankfurt, and such British directors as Richard Jones, Graham Vick, Peter Hall, and David Pountney. Through his descriptions of these works, Sutcliffe states that theatrical opera has been enormously influenced by the editing style, imagery, and metaphor commonplace in the cinema and pop videos. The evolution of the performing arts depends upon revitalization and defamiliarization, he asserts. The issue is no longer naturalism, but the liberation of the audience's imagination powered by the music.

    Sutcliffe, an opera critic for many years, argues that opera is theater plus music of the highest expressive quality, and as a result he has often sided with unconventional and novel theatrical interpretations. He believes that there is more to opera than meets the ear, and his aim is to further the process of understanding and interpretation of these important opera productions. No other book has attempted this kind of monumental survey.

    Originally published in 1997.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6450-8
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    Matthew A. Epstein

    In this book Tom Sutcliffe focuses attention on a subject that is long overdue for treatment in such a concentrated and specific fashion: opera asnot onlymusical and vocal performance,but alsopoetry, theatre, acting, movement, dance, design and lighting – that is, opera as an all-encompassing art-form, opera in its home the theatre, which is what in fact opera-houses all are. Often, indeed usually, the primary critical response to operatic performance is devoted to musical qualities. This book therefore rights a wrong that has long required remedy.

    As a youngster, I arrived in London in 1964 to see...

  5. 1 Believing in opera
    (pp. 1-16)

    In theatre and in opera we can and should apply moral standards, but there is no rulebook defining the right approach to performance and interpretation. Opera is not a sport. The purpose of performing opera is to bring the work to life, to make its meaning tell, to help the audience believe in the truth and vitality of its message. Every serious attempt to perform an opera adds to the richness and depth of that process.

    Aficionados of the interpretative and performing arts know that what happens in front of their eyes and before their ears matters profoundly – because...

  6. 2 Peter Brook and theatrical opera
    (pp. 17-36)

    The pre-history of modern operatic production in Britain is, notoriously, what happened to Peter Brook in the late 1940s at Covent Garden. Almost at the same time in the aftermath of the Second World War, Walter Felsenstein from 1947 and Berthold Brecht from 1949 were transforming the scene in East Berlin. Brook’s contemporary Giorgio Strehler was launching (in 1947 too) his interpretative career in Milan. In Britain the period also saw the beginning both of the experiment with subsidized arts (including opera) and of the English operatic revival – thanks to the new and extraordinarily accomplished operas of Benjamin Britten....

  7. 3 Theory of interpretation
    (pp. 37-52)

    What I am saying about interpretation in the theatre, about how operas are being staged now, involves the recognition that both opera and classical music have become – in a sense – museum arts. At the dawn of the 21st century there is no point in pretending that contemporary attempts to create new operas are anything more than an annexe to what has become a permanent classic repertoire, a pantheon of presumed ‘masterpieces’. The 20th century, the age of anxiety as Auden and Bernstein have justifiably dubbed it, is obsessed with the past, and has lost the certainty of a...

  8. 4 A repertoire of classics
    (pp. 53-78)

    The focus of this book is firmly on what have seemed to me the most interesting, engaging and often innovative interpretations of fully staged opera during the period from the mid-1970s to the present day. Because I do not mention conductors and singers much, it does not mean I regard the musical and vocal aspects of performance as a side show. Beyond argument the quality of music in an opera is what governs whether it has gained or can acquire classic status, whether it possesses a spirit to challenge interpreters. The greatest operas have music that is as sublime in...

  9. 5 The design matrix
    (pp. 79-98)

    In the days when the content of the acting and how the actors behaved on stage were settled through conventions understood by both performers and audience, the musical director or conductor often took charge of the staging. In Baroque opera, for example, gestures of a singer’s hand towards the eye or the heart were at once recognized by audiences as indicative of the falsehood of a statement being uttered, or of the romantic devotion felt by the singer to the person about whom he or she was singing (something like the mimed language of classical ballet or Japanese Kabuki or...

  10. 6 Patrice Chéreau: revolutionary classicism
    (pp. 99-124)

    If Wagner had died at the same age as Mozart, he might have been a victim of the 1848 counter-revolutions from which he was forced to flee, and his oeuvre would not even have reachedLohengrin. If he had lived as long as Edward Gordon Craig, he would have experienced the beginnings of the Modernist aesthetic revolution which his musical innovations helped precipitate. He might also have encountered the growing distaste for the kind of gothic revival illusionistic theatre that his operas’ complicated stage directions suggested. Wagner was a great theoretician of the theatre, whose circumstances did not provide quite...

  11. 7 Ruth Berghaus: Marx, feminism and the absurd
    (pp. 125-164)

    The most important interpretative artist engaged by the conductor Michael Gielen during his era as music director at Frankfurt – the decade from 1977 – was beyond question Ruth Berghaus, who died in January 1996. Berghaus in 1964 had choreographed the battles inCoriolanusfor the Berliner Ensemble having ten years earlier married Paul Dessau – the composer who was most closely and productively associated with Brecht as librettist and playwright, after Kurt Weill and apart from Hanns Eisler. Berghaus’s operatic initiation was as producer of Dessau’s operas. Eventually it was Berghaus and the designer of her FrankfurtParsifal, Axel...

  12. 8 David Alden: expressionist shock
    (pp. 165-194)

    Only a few opera producers from the United States have real individual signatures. American companies mostly do not offer artistic autonomy to the more innovative and adventurous directorial talents, and those newcomers who want to work rather than dream can easily perceive the terms of their trade. Pleasing patrons is the name of the game, which makes for caution all round. Perhaps not too many American artists are drawn to a performing art where their taste is likely to be fettered and where there is little chance of serious profit. In France and Germany film directors try their hands at...

  13. 9 Peter Sellars: Americanizing everything
    (pp. 195-226)

    Peter Sellars (born 1957) has used quite different means from David Alden to achieve the dislocation or defamiliarization that will draw an audience’s response. He has also managed to find support in the United States for the greater part of the work that has built his reputation. He leads the opera bratpack in the USA, such as it is, and has stolen the headlines ever since he first emerged. Alden rarely engages in debate: he prefers his work to speak for itself. Audiences at Sellars’s productions tend to be greeted with a cyclo-styled preface or hand-out to explain the theory...

  14. 10 Richard Jones: burlesque profundities
    (pp. 227-260)

    Comic genius and a manic intensity are unusual qualities for an opera producer. Even a normal sense of humour is not the predominant characteristic expected from the breed. In operatic comedy it is the acting of the star performers that generally matters, not the concept of the production. And most operas that producers want to tackle to establish reputations are romantic tragedies. For all sorts of reasons opera – even comic opera – is usually no laughing matter: the length, the cost, the complexity of the arrangements on stage. The excesses of opera have often been pilloried as comic by...

  15. 11 Graham Vick: neo-realism and emotion
    (pp. 261-290)

    When Graham Vick directedLady Macbeth of Mtsenskin 1995 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, it was said that he transformed morale backstage. ‘He made the chorus act, which is unheard of at the Met,’ said Patrick Smith editor ofOpera News. ‘Maybe there was 40 per cent more happening on stage than ideal. But it was just the best, most theatrically serious production we have ever had.’ Success like this did not take Vick away from the small-scale where he discovered his preferred style, simple, colourful, buoyant, humorous, the emphasis on acting and truthful emotions. He remained...

  16. 12 Albery, Pimlott, Cairns: British expressionism
    (pp. 291-316)

    The relationship between producer and designer, who takes the initiative or provides the leadership, is central to operatic interpretation and a highly personal issue. In opera, set and costume designs must usually be settled long before rehearsals start, so design decisions are the matrix or crucible for the process of staging to a greater extent than the power of the visual in theatre would anyway dictate. Tim Albery (born 1952) has explored this relationship more extensively than any other producer in this book because his early successes – in opera certainly – were achieved in collaboration with not just one...

  17. 13 A line of renewal: from Hall to Pountney
    (pp. 317-354)

    The formidable Lilian Baylis, who founded both the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells companies, was inspired by Victorian ideals of social improvement. She aimed to bring opera and theatre to the ordinary people of the grimy near-in London suburbs at Waterloo and Islington. Laying on culture would be as civilizing as modern plumbing and hygienic drains. Ticket prices had to be cheap and the language of opera performances the vernacular. The movement to mitigate the hitherto normal philistinism and commercialism of British cultural life pre-dated state subsidy or patronage of the theatre in Britain. But the real beneficiaries were not...

  18. 14 Brian McMaster’s eclectic imports
    (pp. 355-376)

    When Brian McMaster became general administrator of WNO in 1976 he decided that, as soon as practical and if it could be afforded, foreign producers should get serious, considered and important opportunities to do new productions with the company. Lord Harewood at ENO in the 1970s had made a point of opening up to foreign talent. McMaster had been his director of planning, having already acquired a taste for and knowledge of adventurous European opera stagings during a recording industry apprenticeship in A & R (artists and repertoire). In 1974 at ENO the composer Hans Werner Henze was producer of the...

  19. 15 Frankfurt and after: from Neuenfels to Decker
    (pp. 377-412)

    Museums are by no means a 20th-century invention, but even suchbona fidecontemporary arts as film, architecture, modern painting and pop music – to judge from the recycling that is characteristic of all of them – are now really museum arts. Opera certainly has become a museum art in the course of the century. The Western world is into ancestor worship. Modernism is art for the few, arcane, recherche. Post-modernism is a nostalgic rearrangement of history, using more accessible and popular objects, methods and details from the past, but certainly betraying the artist’s responsibility to make the world new....

  20. 16 21st-century opera: going for a song
    (pp. 413-426)

    The 20th century has been good for opera in many ways. Opera has become a familiar household product on television and on compact disc. It is used and appreciated by – or, rather, its best, most memorable musical moments are familiar to – a wider public around the world than ever before. It has been well funded – both by generous rich patrons and out of state subsidy. It may be an exclusive, demanding and elitist art-form – as its enemies frequently say – but it continues to mobilize a public that has grown more passionate about its virtues and...

  21. Appendix: Bühnenreform (Theatre Reform)
    (pp. 427-432)
    Alfred Roller
  22. Postscript
    (pp. 433-436)

    My first opera wasCarmen. I don’t remember much about it. I was 4. We lived in Southsea, near the King’s Theatre. It was 1947. I was taken by my father’s mother (I think). We sat in the gallery, and left before the end ‘to avoid the rush’. It must have been the Carl Rosa tour. I was a keen balletomane already.

    My nextCarmenwas 22 years later, in 1969, in Cluj, Romania, done in Romanian with a substitute Don José singing in Bielorussian. I was not an opera fan. My music had followed a different course after I...

  23. Index
    (pp. 437-464)