When Worlds Collide: Traditional vs. Modern Operatic Staging

EDITOR’s NOTE: BAMmirror contributor Tony Villecco has a new piece in the October issue of CLASSICAL SINGER Magazine: “When Worlds Collide: Traditional vs Modern Operatic Staging” (reprinted below). He interviewed three principal singers — tenor Michael Fabiano and sopranos Aprile Mille and Lucine Amara, all Metropolitan Opera regulars — as well as stage director Chuck Hudson (who staged the 2012 Tri-Cities Opera production of The Magic Flute). The article ask the questions “What is better; what do you prefer to sing in, direct, and what does the audience prefer?”

By Tony Villecco

We live in a time where new and, in some cases, veteran operatic stage directors are pushing the boundaries in how opera is presented to today’s audiences. For some, it has become the new normal, while others still find it deplorable — and for those new to opera, it may be their only experience with it. The Metropolitan Opera’s 2013 production of Rigoletto directed by Michael Mayer, takes place in a Las Vegas casino. Director Claus Guth’s La Bohème at Opéra National de Paris in 2017 takes place in outer space. Is this the new trend, and does it serve to enhance the appeal of operas greatest asset: the human voice?

I asked three major opera stars — soprano Aprile Millo, soprano Lucine Amara and tenor Michael Fabiano — for their observations. For fairness and transparency, I also approached three distinguished operatic stage directors. Only one, Chuck Hudson, responded with eagerness to contribute. I am grateful for their participation.

Fabiano’s career has skyrocketed to where he has become an international sensation. For Fabiano, change is necessary, and he explains his reasoning for the need to adapt to today’s changing ideals. “We are in a fast-moving world. One can binge watch Netflix episodes of Orange Is the New Black in one day and pass out after the final episode. While on the opera stage, we get one shot to give the public their ‘binge’ in three hours.

“Entertainment has changed,” he continues, “and we are required to change with it. Do we sacrifice the value of great singing? No! Never. Do we adapt to evolving cultural norms, challenge the prior conceived notions of the past? Yes!

For Hudson, he points to Germany’s Regietheater movement, which started post-World War II during the 70s and 80s, as giving the director control to change the composer’s original setting and location. A radical move, it took root in Europe and eventually made its way to America in the 1980s and 90s. Hudson, originally an actor then a theater director, eventually came to opera directing and has a long list of production credits and awards as well. His works have been showcased as far away as Cape Town, South Africa, and Australia, and at major houses in the States including San Francisco, Hawaii, and Atlanta.

“The 1980s in Germany is when the directors’ wacky and personally innovative vision became popular in a way of presenting theater and opera,” Hudson states. “It never really took hold in the United States because it’s hard enough to get anyone to go see the opera in general. In Europe, there is a culture of people of all shapes and sizes, races and colors, and social levels who go to the theater and opera all the time. Especially in Germany, where there are amazing opera houses in every one of their cities.”

Amara needs little introduction. She opened Rudolf Bing’s first season at the Metropolitan Opera on November 6, 1950, and went on to sing 750 more performances in leading roles through January 1991. For her, however, opera’s changing landscape is not a welcome evolution.

“These updated productions are not my favorite!” Amara insists. She points, for example, to productions where Tosca stabs Scarpia multiple times. “She wouldn’t do that! She’s terrified, so she wouldn’t get close enough to him for any reason. The second stab should always be him walking into the knife and her horror of it. Otherwise, Tosca is just a b*tch and who cares if she takes a header off the parapet.”

For Hudson, he admits he walks a fine line between a “traditional” versus an updated or “modern” version of an opera’s place and time. “As far as a traditional production,” Hudson says, “from the audience point of view, I always like to ask them: What do you mean by ‘traditional’? Does that mean the time that the action takes place in the show or the time the show was composed or written? For example,” he adds, “doing a play version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. When they say ‘traditional,’ do they want to see togas in ancient Rome, which is the time of the action, or do they want to see Elizabethan costumes because that’s the period the show was written?”

Still, acclaimed Verdian soprano and Metropolitan Opera favorite Millo contemplates both sides with an emotional fervor. Millo, whose performances with Pavarotti have become legendary as well as her cult-like following with Eve Queler’s Opera Orchestra of New York, leans more toward a “less is more” trajectory.

“I’m afraid in one or two sentences I’ll be labeled as somebody as an ‘old-fashioned whatever,’” Millo says. “I’m not. I’m open to anything that exemplifies what the composer chose to showcase, and that was the human voice! If you went [to the opera] 70 years ago when Licia [Albanese] was singing on a ratty little stage, she and [Ferruccio] Tagliavini used to make absolute magic! They didn’t need sets. All they needed was to sing.

“Opera thinking has died,” Millo continues. “These maniacs think, ‘Why don’t we try something different?’ You hear people speaking about booing the directors off the stage, and that’s supposed to be a triumph because it won publicity in the papers that no longer carry information about the opera. They’re not even allowed to review the opera [except] on very rare occasions.

“The problem is we don’t feel a lot of these productions,” she says, “we only get a very sensationalized aspect. What gets people in the theater, to my mind, is a great voice. I don’t think Ms. [Anna] Netrebko has a problem selling tickets. I don’t think Mr. [Jonas] Kaufmann, when he does come, has problems selling tickets.”

“I moved into doing opera in the late 1990s,” says Hudson. “I was told that a good production was an audience applauding the set designer and the conductor and they boo the costume designer and director because we were coming out of the whole Regietheater thing that was ‘cool.’ I said, ‘That’s very interesting but that’s not my vision of a success. I want to go out there and have the audience embrace the entire show.’ If I want to go out there and be booed because I’m ‘cool’ and interesting, quite frankly, that’s . . . me self-glorifying rather than communicating anything to the audience.”

For Fabiano, whether an opera’s setting is of the old school tradition or an updated retelling of the story, makes no difference. “I prefer to do works that make sense,” he says. “If it’s ‘traditional’ is irrelevant to me. Some traditional interpretations are magnificent; some are downright boring and blasé. I’d take an unconventional smart production over a boring ‘stand and sing’ with no pulse traditional production any day.”

Fabiano points to one of his favorite productions of Carmen in 2017, directed by Russian-born Dmitri Tcherniakov in Aix-en-Provence, France. Tcherniakov, who rewrote some of the opera’s original dialogue, opens the production in a hotel lobby and, at one point, guns even shoot out smiley-face flags.

“One of the most inspiring directors and human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with,” states Fabiano. “He brought out the best in me and challenged me to be better—and, while he was kind, he was tough and unrelenting. I, ultimately, was more committed to his ideas, [and] I then deeply believed in it. I can’t wait to work with him again. The arc of the story was fully intact through a lens that many people can relate . . . psychological duress and trauma.

“Catch an audience on an issue they can relate to and transport them in a relevant subject with great music as a catalyst and they’ll never forget it,” he continues. “In fact, they’ll want to hear the music even more to have the sensory reaction be the transport they experienced in one performance. I will re-create this production at least once in the future in a major theater.”

Millo doesn’t reject all modernized productions, suggesting a symposium where alternate weekends could possibly show both a new and a traditional setting. She is concerned, however, with some of the oversexualized and often violent content some productions represent. “Some of the ‘Motel 6’ productions are all highly physicalized,” says Millo. “We want flashing lights and very sexualized content.”

She points to Swiss director Luc Bondy and, specifically, his 2009 Tosca at the Met. “When you have someone humping that statue of the Blessed Mother, they take it a step too far. Is it sensational? Yes. But you have a tradeoff. Do we get great singing as a result of it, or are we just transfixed with the provocateur position that the director takes? And that makes the director the center of the attention instead of the singer.”

Interestingly, this production had replaced the long-running Franco Zeffirelli setting. In a New York Times interview, Zeffirelli called Bondy’s approach to the Puccini score “idiotic” and called him a “third-rate” director. Another example of Bondy’s nonconventional take was to have a courtesan giving oral sex to Scarpia in Act 2.

“A composer like Puccini and Verdi appreciated a theatrical piece,” adds Millo, “but they wanted the words to be the derogative nature and the voice to be the production. And a lot of these things take away from the elements which I think are very important in opera. When you realize that in the days of Tosca, a man touching a woman much less without her permission, a man forcing her to be seated, or pushing her to the ground was considered unbelievable. Today that’s nothing. They [the directors] have to up the ante.”

For instance, a recent prime example is the Barrie Kosky production of Carmen, which premiered at London’s Royal Opera House last February. The commentary on Facebook as well as the website of the Royal Opera showcased a variety of opinions of people who either loved the production or who ended up walking out. One of the more controversial moments is when Carmen starts to sing the Habanera descending a flight of stairs dressed as a gorilla.

To show the variance of opinion, it’s worth repeating two very different ones. “The worst production ever. What disrespect to Bizet. I took my son to his first opera and can you imagine what a scar he got this evening?” While another audience member was enraptured: “I swore I would never go again to Carmen as I can’t stand it, but this show has bowled me over—wonderful production, set, lighting, singing, conducting, and orchestra. Don’t believe what the critics have said who have tried to put it down—don’t miss it!”

Still, Hudson realizes his audience and his singers are critical to his success. “I want the show and the singers to have a positive experience that is shared with the audience,” he says. “For me, when I look at when or how I want to set the show, I have to look for textual evidence, dramatic evidence, and musical evidence to support that choice. And if my vision can’t be fulfilled all the way through the show, then I don’t think it’s the correct choice for the show. For me, the justification of it has to be dramatic and truthful.”

And for Fabiano, he tends to concur with Hudson’s point of view. “Modernity in opera is totally acceptable so long as logic is standard,” Fabiano says. “If a concept can be justified and the arc of the story remains intact, then an opera production can be in any era. The moment that it is no longer smart or logical, then it shouldn’t be allowed. I have been a part of updated productions that are extremely logical and told as well or better than doing them in the epoch of the story.”

Fabiano points to [Willy] Decker’s La traviata at the Met in 2017. “Simple. Clean. No nonsense,” he says. “A story was told very clearly by three key personalities without the trappings of heavy linens and drapes in windows. Those things don’t define love, jealousy, and death . . . deep personal interaction does. A brilliant production with which I hope I can do again.”

And another production Fabiano particularly enjoyed was the 2009 Jonathan Miller Rigoletto at the English National Opera. “Lower East Side 1950s, so awesome,” he says, “so obvious who the characters were. A great-looking show that, again, allowed the arc of Rigoletto to remain fully intact and clear.”

But can an opera production go too far, and is this helping or hurting the audience base who attend them? Millo points to ENO’s 2015 production of La Bohème where Benedict Andrews presents Mimì as a heroin addict.

“To put Mimì as a heroin addict is to defeat the whole process,” says Millo. “She’s not dying of something so illicit or horrible that became an addiction. She’s dying from tuberculosis which in those days was epidemic. She was a little tiny person who sold flowers on embroidery on top of a building that was too cold to eat. She would stare at the sun when it rose, and there are moments of warmth and life and poetry. This is just so beautiful if they play it right.”

La Bohème can’t be modernized,” states Amara. “The boys clearly say the king’s name on the coins, so unless you want to change the translation, they should try using their imaginations and delve more deeply into the personal relationships of and between the characters. These are things every person in the audience has experienced at some point in their lives.”

So, has opera come to an impasse? Are new productions something to be feared or embraced? Do they excite an audience or, in some cases, push them over the edge? “It’s not over the edge for other people,” says Hudson. “It’s not over the edge for a German public in 1986, for example, where beauty in arts was something to be avoided. There needs to be a variety of things out there for the audience to choose from.”

For Fabiano, he acknowledges directors sometimes use unconventional methods. “They are artists as much as we singers are artists,” he says. “We know, as artists, when it works and when it doesn’t, and the trap for singers is delivering to the highest value possible in a production when it doesn’t work. When it works and the singer engages, the final product can be incredible.”

EDITOR’s NOTE: Villecco said recently, “Growing up in the opera locally, I was used to elaborate productions, mostly at the Masonic Temple, where Carlton Snyder did wonders with sets on the small and intimate stage. There were beautiful period costumes also. If you went to see Verdi’s Rigoletto, you saw the place and time the composer set the opera in, not like the Met’s production set in a Las Vegas casino. Or you saw Puccini’s La Bohème set in Paris during the 1800s. Now there exists a production of Bohème that takes place in outer space!

“I am not saying what’s right or wrong but it begs the question: “Is this the new normal and is it helping or hurting the opera scene?”  Both Tony and BAMirror would like your comments.