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