Opera Design As Mothballed Artifact

The current production of Tosca at the San Francisco Opera is wonderful to hear. The orchestra plays lavishly and the excellent double cast (which featured Patricia Racette in the title role, Brian Jagde as Cavaradossi and Mark Delavan as Scarpia the night I saw the show) perform with utter conviction.

If only this Tosca could be as easy on the eyes as it is on the ears. I don’t think I’ve ever been forced to stare at a set as ugly as this in a long time.

It’s no surprise to discover that the design, by Thierry Bosquet — a study in kitschy gilt and teetering colonnades —  is based on that of the company’s original 1932 production.

But what on earth’s the point of taking this approach, especially when the company clearly knows good design when it sees it, as recent productions of Bellini’s The Capulets and the Montagues featuring Vincent Lemaire’s dazzlingly simple yet visually captivating designs and Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, which brilliantly merged 2D with 3D effects, clearly demonstrate?

Perhaps back in the 1930s, the sets had to be this opulent to give people something to look at. The singers in that era generally stood stiller than they do today.

But the “park and bark” stye of opera performance went out of style long ago. Performers move around the stage and actually engage in quite a bit of acting as well as singing these days.

But their efforts, no matter how vivid, end up being wasted in the case of this production, as the set is so busy and gaudy that any attempt at blocking is severely upstaged by the surroundings.

Opera is already considered to be a moribund art form by most people. Turning it into a museum piece, at least visually speaking, can’t possibly help matters.

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  1. MWnyc says

    Chloe, did you ever see the old Zeffirelli production of Tosca at the Met? You think this one was overly grand and busy …

  2. says

    Opera is one of the best examples of our culture of detritus – a world of dead art forms. We have no culture of our own, no narrative to identify ourselves, so we stick to traditional productions. We are frozen. It’s the stasis of silence that brings death when stories stop.

    Opera houses thus defiantly embrace their spectacular decay. Is this stasis a result of weakness, complicity, and cowardice on the part of artists themselves? Are genteel artists like Jake Haggier our salvation? Will opera rise from the grave because singers now hop around on stage or have smaller waist-lines? Or are these superficial innovations just one more way of comforting ourselves with the idea that we aren’t dead? To paraphrase Theresa Duncan, the art world is now like a “petting zoo for ideas. Everything’s been defanged in advance.” A culture of detritus is always related to a sense of undisturbed comfort. Go gently into the good night.

    Can we expect anything else? Think of the insularity of the arts world, how they lock themselves up in their houses and their own little impenetrable social circles, a blinkered, internal, small-minded isolation. They work in exclusive cultural country clubs where Zefferelli, Tiffany, blue-haired ladies, and 1932 productions of Puccini reign supreme. Indeed, the world dies with a whimper. Opera at least puts the pitiful delusions of the living dead in front of a lavish set.

    And of course, cynicism is one more manifestation of a dead culture…

    Thank you for the interesting thoughts.

    • Neil McGowan says

      Maybe *your* opera houses.

      Here in Europe, opera houses are at the cutting edge of musical innovation.

      I pity you.

      • says

        I’ve lived in Europe for the last 32 years, so you can spare me your pity. As I explain in another post below, most European houses have smaller alternative venues for more innovative work. Unfortunately, that alone does not solve the problems. The budgets for the small theaters are often very limited because the houses take little interest in them and devote almost all of their resources to standard repertoire productions in their big hall. In my view, the Regie Theater in these bigger halls does not solve the problems I describe. And the efforts in the small halls often suffer from the problems that affect new music in general. But at least the Europeans are trying. If you feel you are well informed, perhaps you could list some of the smaller venues that are the most successful, along with *specific productions* to serve as examples. When it gets to the level, I find the results are not all that convincing.

  3. Carlo says

    These opera productions are museum pieces. But our culture values museums to remind us of the past. We don’t burn or hide the great art works of the past.

    For the new, we have museums of modern art. When these become too conventional, newer museums are created. (See the New Museum in New York City.)

    So in opera maybe what is needed are new opera companies focused on modern operas and modern productions of the classics. Then the museum pieces can be left for the people who want to see them.

    • says

      It’s true, Carlo. Opera is one of the greatest achievements of the human mind and it would be tragic if it were lost. In my view, opera captures our human essence more than any other Western art form.

      Most of Germany’s 83 year-round opera houses have small alternative theaters for new kinds of music-theater explorations – as do most European houses. Almost all of them are black box venues. America only has about 6 dedicated opera houses for four times the population, and our longest season is only seven months (the Met.) I’m not sure, but I don’t think any of them have smaller venues. And if they do, I doubt they are very active. Without the resources to sustain themselves, cultures die. So why aren’t American opera houses making this problem known?

  4. Neil McGowan says

    Keeping it dull, static, dusty and stagnant helps people tune out from it, and pass the evening with their corporate clients in happy anaesthesia.

    These people should go to the operetta – it’s more on their intellectual level.