Even in opera, sometimes less is more

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Washington National Opera's most compelling, dramatic offering of last year was presented with no sets, no costumes and very little fanfare. Even within the company, the two concert performances of "Götterdämmerung" in November were viewed in advance as something of an embarrassment, a sad reminder of the complete "Ring" cycle that should have been, but was postponed indefinitely because of financial constraints imposed by the recession -- or simply by a long period of the company's living slightly beyond its means.

The ultimate success of the performances didn't assuage everyone. One audience member, piqued, opined that the company's technical staff should have looked through the warehouse and come up with some sort of costume or prop. Never mind how excellent the performance may have been: Any vestige of a production would be better than nothing at all.

The idea that more is better certainly holds true for many opera audiences. The curtain rises on a stage full of cherry blossoms, or Chinese splendor, or ball gowns, and everyone breaks into applause. While society in general has reached new heights of visual sophistication -- from art galleries to graphic design to screens streaming information at us from every quarter -- opera has lagged behind the curve.

Certainly there are exceptions, like Patrice Chereau's Aix-en-Provence production of Janacek's "From the House of the Dead" (recently seen at the Metropolitan Opera), which was a visually as well as musically effective piece of theater. But opera audiences are far more likely to erupt with excitement at conventions they would find unremarkable or cliched in other mediums, such as a live horse crossing the stage.

WNO's "Götterdämmerung" demonstrated that the current financial climate could, ideally, provide a wake-up call for opera. It might serve as a reminder that the point of stage direction is to create not a spectacle but an artistic experience worth remembering. After all, it isn't sets and costumes, or horses, that make compelling theater. Compelling theater is born of things like acting, singing, dramatic awareness and insight. Unfortunately, the general understanding of opera has departed so far from the concept of good theater that both traditional productions and so-called modern ones often equally fail to convey the drama.

The Metropolitan Opera has embarked on a series of big-budget, high-profile productions by directors from outside the world of opera (Bartlett Sher, Adrian Noble, Mary Zimmerman). Sher's recent production of "The Tales of Hoffmann" was a perfect display of empty opulence. It gave lip service to the modern but had few moments that were truly theatrical, and lots of conventional operatic excess: bodies and colors surging across the stage to little purpose.

Today, there is not a lot of extra money around for this kind of mega-production. Opera companies all over the country are cutting back on the number of productions they offer; WNO, which in recent times put on seven productions a year, will this week announce the details of a 2010-11 season that will include only five. As "Götterdämmerung" showed, though, limitations don't have to injure the art form; they can actually foster great art.

Indeed, many of the greatest moments in stage directing for opera have involved bare-bones approaches that got out of the way and allowed the music and its drama to take center stage. Consider Wieland Wagner's famed Bayreuth productions of his grandfather's operas, where the stages were largely empty disks, the costumes were minimal, and the force of the music and the characters, underlined by lighting, dominated the proceedings (much as they did in WNO's equally spare "Götterdämmerung"). Those productions were an artistic response to a postwar economy in which there was very little money, but the limitations gave birth to an aesthetic that had a disproportionate effect on Wagner stagings for decades to come.

Another example of financial privation yielding something of artistic value is John Dexter's tenure at the Metropolitan Opera during a period in the 1970s when the house was newly concerned with unfamiliar things like cost-cutting and populism (it was then that the august institution started referring to itself as "The Met"). Not all of Dexter's productions were successful, but in general his work was stronger than is sometimes remembered: his stripped-down, spare aesthetic dominated the Met's Verdi offerings for a while (his "Vespri Siciliani" came back as recently as 2004), and flowered in pieces like "Dialogues of the Carmelites," which one hopes the house will never, ever replace.

Spareness isn't always cheap. Luc Bondy's season-opening "Tosca" at the Met drew great umbrage from the conservative crowd for replacing Franco Zeffirelli's faithful reproduction of period Rome with ugly brick walls, but the sets are evidently massive enough to take up a good deal of backstage space, meaning that handling and storing them was no more cost-efficient than the ones they had replaced. Costs can't always be measured by what you see onstage: The number of stagehands required to move things around is another factor. "Sometimes things look very simple and it can cost a fortune to build them," Christina Scheppelmann, the Washington National Opera's director of artistic operations, said in a phone conversation last week.

WNO, like most companies these days, is doing its best to cope with financial hardship. Its "Falstaff," this fall, was an example of making a virtue of necessity. The sets of the 30-year-old co-production arrived in poor condition; not everything was usable. The director, Christian Räth, opted to create a production that deconstructed the opera, a play-within-a-play scenario that showed the singers costuming themselves while the stagehands moved the set pieces into place. It didn't always work, but it was often fresh and fun -- certainly no worse than many productions where money was not an issue.

Opera is a tremendously expensive art form; tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars go to creating the average new production. Creativity too often is equated with the bizarre: the kinds of weird excesses that have led Americans to brand much operatic direction on the Continent as "Eurotrash." Yet it doesn't have to be either bizarre or elaborate. True theater requires no more than an actor, and a voice, and an intention. "Sometimes you have to trust the music," Scheppelmann said.

The prevailing climate, alas, tends toward safety, and more conventional productions of overly familiar operas. If the recession could instead serve as a spark to more opera companies to discover their inner resources in the service of actual innovation, it would be a silver lining indeed.

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