Two very erudite, sophisticated South American opera lover friends of mine have recently defended to me the work of Calixto Bieito, a Spanish director who not only brings opera into the present but frequently uses graphic images of sex and violence. The immediate subject was a Boris Godunov, described to me, in which allegedly Boris could have been Joseph Stalin at his cruelest. This despite the fact that Mussorgsky’s music and the text describe a Czar of almost infinite kindness, consumed by guilt for his means of coming to the throne. The description I read of this Boris, which I have not seen, reminded me of a Rusalka I attended in which the Waterman raped Rusalka’s sisters, tried to rape her, and in which the guests at the second-act party tore carcasses apart with their teeth, soaking their clothes in blood. A few years ago at the Komische Oper’sAbduction from the Seraglio, the same Bieito, not content with making Selim Pasha’s harem awash in prostitutes, has Constanze shoot herself at the comedy’s ending. It’s easy to say that this is just regietheatre direction, a kind of radical European approach to opera production by stage directors that is centered in Germany. But it can be found in more and more countries and is even suggested in some productions in what is thought of internationally as the ultra conservative United States.
TheBoris I read about could be justified, I suppose, because it carried out in modern terms how the director views the plot and the characters. If nothing specifically contradicts the words that are being sung, and the opera’s narrative is respected, shouldn’t directors follow their own vision? And if it might make the opera appeal more to the generation raised on violent films, television and video games, isn’t this enough reason? What is left out of this equation is the music the characters are singing. Does the music describe this violence? And what if the violence becomes an end in itself, more memorable than anything else in the production?
We want the young generation in the opera houses of the world. But are we looking for Violetta and Mimi to cough up blood and die gasping for breath (in the former case after the high B flat) as tubercular victims would have died in their time, or have Carmen bleed out her arterial blood when Jose stabs her?
Opera should never be a cool, emotionless art form that appeals only to the intellect. Its appeal has always been emotional and those who don’t like it often dislike it because it blatantly wears its heart on its sleeve. As a person who has been going to opera for seventy years and been involved professionally in the art form for almost a half century, I don’t think we create a new, young, involved audience by extreme or random violence. Opera is a musical art form, performed by artists who have extraordinarily well trained and very elegant instruments. If a composer composes an opera in 2014 that deals with violent sex, degradation, and all the base elements that one can imagine, as is the case with Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, for instance, and the music carries out the words, the stage should portray this. But in my opinion the score governs what is put onstage.
In many theaters today directors are more powerful than any singer or conductor. Whatever directors want, they get, and if they decide to turn any opera character into what they see this character might be in 2014, they do. I think the music and what the artists sing often fight against this. The Waterman in other words never sings a single word that suggests that he wants to have sex with Rusalka, much less rape her. Nor, as in one production I attended recently, should the “giocoso” (translated as comic) disappear from Don Giovanni, leaving the central character a totally evil, unattractive villain with none of the comic moments in both music and libretto realized.
The music and the words that inspired the opera’s music have to be heeded; rape, pulsing arteries, and graphic deaths might pull in some people for the scandal, but opera lives because the music details the emotions of the characters in addition to being memorable in itself. And opera thrives on great artists living these emotions in their singing. Is the drama important? Yes, but it should carry out the spirit of the music and the words.