BRINGING OPERA TO LIFE

Boris Goldovsky, Bringing Opera to Life: Operatic Acting and Stage Direction, Appleton Century-Crofts, 1968

The author staged operas and taught opera staging for many years, and he developed his own insightful methods. In his introduction, he described how opera production had been strangled by the dead weight of what was called "tradition." He realized that this was nothing more than inappropriate staging and acting, dictated by the inflated egos of star singers. His book is like a breath of fresh air. Ignoring "tradition," he was guided by his analysis of the work itself, and such straight thinking wrought a revolution.

Goldovsky's precepts are simple enough, and that is their strength. They can be summarized as follows:
     Opera will come to life only if the performers effect the required synthesis between theater and music. As he phrased it: the audience must see what it hears, and hear what it sees.
     The singers must of course sing well and enunciate the text clearly, but that is not enough. They must also think and act in character.
     Everything that happens on the stage must be motivated by the text and performed in conformity with the music.
     The best source of stage directions is the orchestral score.

These principles are discussed at length in the book. In addition, there are many detailed examples, complete with illustrations in music notation, alternative translations, diagrams of movements on the stage, and mnemonic devices for the singers. The examples are no less penetrating than the theoretical expositions. I quote here two of them, to show Goldovsky's unique combination of a profound understanding of opera, expert stagecraft, and plain common sense.

An example of a "stage direction" given by the orchestra occurs in Zerlina's aria Vedrai, carino [You will see, my darling] in Act 2 of Don Giovanni:

          If Da Ponte, the librettist of Don Giovanni, had wanted to show Zerlina how to console her 
          bridegroom Masetto as he lies on the ground moaning and complaining of having been 
          beaten up by Leporello, he would have had to write a stage direction something like: 
          "Zerlina caresses Masetto twice in quick succession. Her behavior is flirtatious without 
          being too provocatively sensuous. Her first caress begins about two-thirds of a second 
          after the last note of her first phrase. Each caress lasts about four-thirds seconds, and the 
          interval between the two is two-thirds of a second." But there is no need for such clumsy 
          and verbose instructions -- Mozart's music conveys all this and much more in a "stage 
          direction" which is concise, elegant, and completely lucid. (pages 67-68)

This is followed by measures 17-18 in music notation. showing the two flippant little phrases played by the violins.

An example of Goldovsky's manner of achieving coordination between singers and orchestra occurs just before the chorus that concludes Le Nozze di Figaro. There is a rather long silence, as the Count realizes that he has made a fool of himself. Then he turns to his wife and apologizes with the words: Contessa, perdona. [Countess, I beg your pardon.].

          The problem is that the violins have to sing this phrase with the baritone, and while the 
          tempo here is easy enough to remember, the moment of the attack has to be timed very 
          precisely. From the dramatic point of view, it is absolutely essential that the Count's eyes 
          be glued to his wife, so that his apologies are addressed to her and not to anyone else, 
          especially not the conductor. The solution to this problem is so simple that it almost 
          seems a shame to give it away. What happens is this. After the silence has lasted long 
          enough, the Count starts walking towards his wife and, by agreement with the conductor, 
          starts singing at the exact moment he takes his third step. With his first step, the 
          conductor is alerted; with his second step, he gives the upbeat to the violins; and on the 
          third step there is a beautifully synchronized attack, which leaves all the other conductors 
          in the audience trying to figure out just how this miracle was accomplished. (page 265)

T
his book is described in several reviews as "rather dated." That is true, in the sense that the problem is no longer the petrified tradition that Goldovsky tried to remedy. It has been replaced by something worse. As I write this (in 2013), the inflated egos that defile opera are no longer those of the star singers, but those of the star directors. Nowadays opera directors are allowed -- even encouraged -- to employ what has been called "originality" and "creativity" since that evil day in 1919 when Marcel Duchamp defaced Da Vinci's Mona Lisa with a moustache. They operate without the slightest consideration for the meaning of the work, or its unities. Here follow some examples of such atrocities.

The criminals change the setting of the drama.
     Mascagni, Cavalleria Rusticana. The setting should be a nineteenth-century Sicilian village. Instead, it is Little Italy in New York, with "the el" overhead, and trains going by (mercifully, they do so silently).
     Wagner, Siegfried, Act 1: The setting should be Alberich's cave in the forest. Instead, it is a dirty messy room with broken-down furniture, occupied by what looks like two homeless squatters.
     Dvorak, Rusalka, Act 1: The setting should be a meadow by the shore of a lake. Instead, it is a city street with a diner, a sex shop, and the entrance to a subway station.
     Verdi, Falstaff, Act 1 Scene 2: The setting should be Ford's garden. Instead, it is a drive-in movie theater, with the characters seated in several cardboard automobiles while a movie is projected on a huge screen (mercifully, without its sound track).

The criminals dress the singers in inappropriate clothing.
          Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado: In the opening scene, the Japanese nobles should be wearing kimonos. Instead, they wear striped pants with spats, tailcoats, and high hats, some with Grenadier Guards mustaches or sideburns, some with monocles. With absurd incongruity,.they sing "If you want to know who we are, / We are gentlemen of Japan."
     Wagner, Die Walkuere, Act 3: The valkyries should be wearing armor and helmets. Instead, they wear ordinary flowered dresses, like housewives. With absurd incongruity,.they whoop "Hojotoho! Hojotoho! Heiaha! Heiha!."
     Verdi, Otello: The sixteenth-century Venetian soldiers, including Othello himself, wear SS uniforms.

The criminals confuse the issue with unnecessary and pointless activity.
     Mozart. Die Zauberfloete: The audience should simply listen while the orchestra plays the overture. Instead, during the overture there is a pantomime showing a father preparing to tell his children a bedtime story. This seems to indicate that the whole opera will be merely that bedtime story -- which is superfluous, irrelevant. and nothing like Mozart's intention.
     Bizet, Carmen: The audience should simply listen while the orchestra plays the overture. Instead, during the overture the the chorus and the soldiers mill about, as if in the city square. But when the scene itself begins, they stand motionless, the soldiers in a row downstage, facing the audience with their backs to the chorus. With absurd incongruity,.the soldiers sing "Pour tuer le temps / On fume, on jase, l'on regarde / Passer le passants." [To kill time / One smokes, one chats, and one observes / The passers-by.]
     Mozart, Don Giovanni, finale of Act 2: Don Giovanni dines, Leporello serves him and comments with comic asides, Don Giovanni catches Leporello with his mouth full -- and all this is sung to tidbits from popular operas played by an orchestra on stage. As if this were not enough, there is additional gratuitous irrelevant action. Don Giovanni is kissing and fondling three pretty girls (not characters in the drama, just anonymous extras). This clutters the stage. distracts the audience, and diverts attention from Mozart's sophisticated humor.

The latest fad is opera performed on a dark empty stage with a black cloth backdrop. Only the singers are illuminated, so that they seem to be lost in space. I suppose the absence of scenery and props, and also dressing the singers in nondescript modern clothing, saves a great deal of money. (When the plot calls for a knocking at the door, it is problematic, since there is no door.) Television shows me that this staging is now applied to any and every opera,.regardless of content or style. Since all these outrages are committed in the name of "originality," why are they all the same? At any rate, many composers are turning in their graves -- and Goldovsky as well.