Live! Nude! Opera!

Disclaimer – this essay doesn’t have a lot to do with nudity or sex. The title and photo are there to draw your attention to a topic that you may otherwise find fairly dry and uninteresting, even though I happen to care about it a lot. Specifically this is an essay about how opera survives drastic restagings and reinterpretations, and the dichotomy of form and content. While sex and nudity are discussed, this is still a bait and switch technique, and as much as I resent such marketing tricks and believe they cheapen the content they try to promote, those sensationalistic tricks really do work.  At least in the short term. (Just ask Calixto Bieito.  Or the folks who market his productions. More on him in a bit.)

Craig Mod recently wrote an essay describing the difference between Formless Content and Definite Content.  To summarize, Formless Content maintains its essential character regardless of how it’s presented, e.g. most novels or essays are largely untransformed if you change the font or page layout, read them on a web page, or even listen to them in an audio book.  At the other end is Definite Content, in which the content is closely tied to the layout on the page, such as poems, graphs, charts. You can’t change the presentation without changing the meaning.

This has shades of non-invisibility.  Formless Content exists separately from the page, it’s divorced from its delivery mechanism, the fact that they are words on a piece of paper is transparent, invisible.  Definite content is aware of the page and plays with it.  In extreme cases (such as one of my favorite books, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves) the content is completely bound up in the drastically different (and sometimes convoluted) layouts from page to page, the nested footnotes that extend across many pages, the color of certain words. This is non-invisible content, a book that acknowledges and depends upon its own book-ness.

Tenor Andrew Richards in his blog Opera Rocks asks the question, “Is Opera Definite or Formless“, a particularly relevant question for him right now, since he’s in the midst of a  radical apocalyptic restaging of Parsifal by the controversial director Calixto Bieito. (See.  I told you I’d get back to him.)  Whatever the answer, Bieito will certainly treat the original material as Formless, or perhaps just irrelevant.  He creates stagings that bear only a passing resemblance (if that) to what the story calls for, sometimes adding scenes and stage actions that are completely at odds with the original narrative (often including nudity and graphic violence for good measure.)  I don’t believe that Bieito sees these as tricks or gimmicks.  I think the notoriety and controversy that arises are natural byproducts of his vision. Perhaps a bit of a happy accident from a marketer’s perspective. And since I’ve never actually seen a Bieito production in its entirety, I can’t speak directly to the effectiveness of his ideas.

However, I suspect that Richard’s question regarding the Formlessness of opera may be ill posed.  Opera (and any live performance) requires an intermediate realization process that doesn’t happen for printed works like novels or essays.  A script (or score) is a set of instructions by an author.  Any production or performance is a transformation of those instructions, a collaboration and mediation between the author and the director and performers.  Since there is already such a large transformation from the canonical ideal and the finished product, I’m not sure what Formless or Definite Content means for performed works.

Richard’s question seems to ask whether or not an opera’s essence can survive any and all such collaborations, and I would say the answer is clearly no.  It is not hard to imagine productions that utterly obscure the original intention of the author/composer.  But that’s not always a bad thing, sometimes that original intention is replaced by something greater.

Last year the Wooster Group produced Cavalli’s obscure baroque opera La Didone.  While half the cast performed the opera, the other half was reenacting a 1965 schlock sci fi film about space vampires.  All the while the original film was being projected on stage.  What could have been an unintelligible mess was a postmodern delight.  The shimmering voices of the ancient greeks would leak over into the space planet world, fulfilling the role of the vampire ghosts.  Actors would simultaneously be in multiple scenes at the same time, crossing between two worlds on the same stage from line to line.  Two middling works were combined into something far greater than the sum of the parts.

But the Wooster Group’s piece was not part of a subscription series in an opera hall.  It was clear that this was not so much a restaging of an opera, but the creation of a new theatrical piece entirely using older pieces as the building blocks.  More often radical restagings of opera are attempts to make the piece more relevant to the audience.  Set it in modern times, add guns instead of swords, dress them in modern clothes.  I’m certainly not a purist, but  as a composer, I get annoyed at these attempts to re-envision a 19th century opera that works perfectly well on its own terms.  If you want a piece that speaks to today’s audiences in new and exciting ways, why don’t you compose a new one or collaborate with someone who can?

I feel like I may have gotten a bit off topic here (especially if you still think the topic is sex and nudity).  I’m still wrestling with what Definite and Formless Content means in a performance context.  I’m not sure there is an analogue. The Definite novel acknowledges its bookness.  What does the Definite opera acknowledge?  Its theatreness?  Its musicness?  Break the fourth wall?  Be non-invisible?  Non-natural? (Isn’t sung dialogue inherently non-natural). There are too many dimensions, too many layers for a simple answer.  Theater is an infinitely more complicated medium than the printed page.  The analogy breaks down. I don’t think there is an answer, and I’m not sure there was ever really a question.