Dishing with Dennis & Cat, Concluded: Weird Stagings and Troubling Trends in Opera and Theater

C-Continuing on the subject of what stuff in book is true …. In an apprentice program I was in, there was a soprano who always cracked on the high notes. It was in the “Czardas” in Die Fledermaus. Every time she would get to the high D, it would crack. The part requires a heavy womanʼs voice; Itʼs like La Traviata in that way–demands a lot of different chops. Most of the aria she sang beautifully, but she did not have that one note. However, she was determined to keep trying.

D- She just couldnʼt do it?

C- She just couldnʼt do it. Most singers just pop it out. But she was determined to hold it. So every night she would come out for the party scene. Those of us in the chorus would sit there watching and smiling, and she is singing the Czardas, which is her big number, and here comes the note…

D- Here comes the note…

C- And… (Cat makes a squeaky sound). The note was all over the place. And those of us on stage are trying not to grimace. She did it three performances in a row. Each time she cracked the note, she would schlomp off the stage, without even trying to hide the fact that she had blown it. Her whole body said, “Damn it, I missed it again!”

(They laugh.)

D- So she just couldnʼt accept the fact she would never hit the note?

C- Yes. And she didnʼt even pretend that it had sounded okay. Most performers would smile broadly as if they’d aced it, and a majority of the audience wouldn’t know the difference.

D- Yeah, a lot of times you can just “sell it” and the audience gives you the benefit of the doubt.

C- I know. But this performer was just humiliated. So finally she brought the note down. I bet she was asked to do that.

D- Someone had a talk with her?

C- I think the conductor told her, “Listen, you canʼt keep doing this. You canʼt do that note. Take it down an octave.”

D- It sounds like there was an ego there.

C- Oh, yeah! Let me tell ya!

(They laugh. Cat reveals in private the name of the singer who is now quite famous)

C- Yeah … so that was before she became famous. Later on I heard her sing high Ds, so she must have worked out the technique required. That experience showed me that you really can screw up in a company like that. I modeled the company in my book after that company. I was doing an apprentice program there that summer. It was a summer festival and those festivals are sometimes able to get big names if the singers are not booked doing other stuff.

D- Or get them way ahead of time and lock them in.

C- Almost anything in the book, as absurd as it sounds, could have happened.

D- So the production of Tales of Hoffmann set in modern day in the book …where did you get that idea? (They laugh) Because I Loooooved that. I loved that because I see that so much in theater.

C- I know. I just hate the “updated” stuff.

D- I know, but if it works, it works. I have seen it work, but not very often.

C- No, not very often.

D- No. Usually it is some director who is bored and is just going to take something and change it to be edgy.

C- They have just done too many productions of that particular show …

D- …And they donʼt wanna do it again. So they do it differently to entertain themselves. What I see most often is they update a classic, and two things in the production work, but the other 27 donʼt at all.

C- Yes. They are trying to impose something that just doesnʼt fit. I saw a Hamlet set in the space age.

D- I have done a Romeo and Juliet done in the space age.

C- That Hamlet was at a pretty well known Seattle theater. The Ophelia did her mad scene in the nude. And she was anorexic.

D- Ahhhhhhhhhh!

C- And no one really wanted to see that woman nude.

D- No. No.

C- Oh, it was a long time ago, but I remember Hamlet in his space outfit. He was pretty skinny, too. Looked like Riff Raff in his space suit in the movie of Rocky Horror Picture Show.

(They laugh)

D- So do you know of a Tales of Hoffmann set in modern day?

C- I’m sure they’re are plenty, but I haven’t seen them. I totally made that up.

D- Well, I donʼt know the opera world like I know the theater world, but I could see some wacko director trying that.

C- So could I.

D- I could also see a director reading your book and stealing that idea and mounting a modern Hoffmann. I mean, honestly.

C- Letʼs hope they donʼt! For the sake of the show. Of course I, personally, would love it. I promise not to sue.

D- I would kind of like to have a couple of cocktails and SEE that production. (They laugh) When I was pulling pictures for the video trailer of Diva for YouTube, the director in the book imagines the role of Antonia being Kate Beckinsale in the movie Underworld. I pulled a picture of Kate Beckinsale from the movie holding a gun. You thought I had gone too far and told me to change it. I thought to myself, “Well, I donʼt know. I have seen some directors who would try that!”

(They laugh)

C- Well, that is true.

D- If a director is going to go for it, then they are just going to go for it. So this concept of Tales of Hoffmann is fictional?

C- Yes. I am trying to remember how I even came up with that idea. I was trying to make the craziest production I could imagine.

D- Well, you did.

C- Yeah. I just thought it would be interesting to think that a director would just put performers in these costumes they will HATE, which happens all the time.

D- Yes, I know.

C- …And you never hear the end of it. About how they hate the costume. How it makes them look fat.

D- Yes, they always hate the costume.

C- You also mention opera director Peter Sellars. Years ago, when I did my wig apprenticeship at Los Angeles Opera in 1995, he was directing a production of Pelleas et Melisande set in modern day California. It was not long after the OJ Simpson murder case and he spun the production tie into the case, casting singers who looked like the real life people.

C- I thought of him a lot when I was writing this book.

D- I remember wondering if the audience would be outraged because it was so soon after the murders and it was in Los Angeles. I watched some of the dress rehearsal from the audience, and I know I was just mortified. But in another way, I also congratulate him for taking a risk. There is a balance between risk and being foolish.

C- Yes. And Peter Sellars always skirts it.

D- That particular production may or may not have been successful, but at least he tried something. I have done so many play that are classics and crazy directors mess with them and it becomes confusing.

C- Like Seattle Operaʼs Ring Cycle many years ago. My father just hated than one.

D- That was the Robert Israel one. He designed it.

C- Yeah. Yeah.

D- They did it modern-ish.

C- And it was ugly.

D- And later they went back to a traditional Ring Cycle.

C- I love the traditional ones. The traditional one was so beautiful with the authentic-looking forest.

D- Seattle Opera did an Aida that was nontraditional, didnʼt they?

C- Oh, man, that Aida was terrible. All the soldiers were statues. So, have you ever seen any classics set in modern times that worked?

D- I saw a Shakespeareʼs Pericles that was pretty good. It was multi-period so it wasnʼt locked into any one convention. It had a tone to it that wasnʼt too specific and it wasnʼt too implausible.

(Dennis goes on a diatribe about a 1960s Kennedy era Loveʼs Labourʼs Lost he worked on that was a mess.)

C- That is interesting. As bizarre as I made the Tales of Hoffmann in Diva, it may very well work because he is retelling stories of his life. In the actual opera, he is young. It may work if you show the character as being old in the beginning.

D- It is a fine line. Sometimes I see directors get this great idea, and they run with it, but they go too far.

C- Yes, exactly. The Hoffmann would work to a degree, but I think Tales of Hoffmann will always work best in its own period, which is true of so many operas. Part of what you are showing is the sensibility of the period the piece was written in. Like in the conceptual opera in Diva, they are dealing with AIDS, but the disease in the original opera was a blood ailment that was not contagious.

D- yeah.

C- The disease is a weakness of the heart and it is an inherited thing. So you canʼt make the disease AIDS in the opera. It doesnʼt work.

D- No.

C- You are really imposing something weird. So the bottom line is some things can work and some things do not. The problem I always saw was that directors felt the rules werenʼt for them, so they donʼt try and make it logical.

D- Yes. It becomes illogical. And it is hard to know when to reel it back. I think if a director can do it, sell it, it work and be plausible, then that is great. But most of the time you cannot put a square script in a round production.

C- A lot of time Opera is about the corporation. A lot of “fans” of opera are in it for the snob thing.

D- They are in it for the status, rather than the art.

C- Itʼs like, (in a stuffy voice) “I give money to the arts, because I am important, sophisticated and I have taste!” But they secretly hate it. Many fans of opera are in it because it looks good, but they wouldnʼt know a good performance if it hits them in the head.

D- I find that to be true of theater as well. Especially the bigger theaters. Often the patrons donʼt have an artistic bone in their body. It is like they decide they love a show before they even watch it because they feel important to be an art supporter. They arenʼt sophisticated enough to know good from bad. I have seen and worked on shows that were HORRIBLE. Shows with no redeeming quality that I could see. Rampant mistakes and misfires and the audience gives it a standing ovation. You can tell by the audienceʼs body language and how they are dressed that they donʼt have any idea what they just saw or what the show was about. They want the experience of GOING to the theater and being a supporter, rather than the experience of the actual play. They want to tell their friends and coworkers at the water cooler the next day that they WENT to the opera or a play. They donʼt care about quality as much as they care about their status.

C- I used to go to the Met all the time when I was in New York and I saw some amazing performances and I also saw some real shit. For the most part, the voices were always there. A lot of the time, they didnʼt look the part at all and they couldnʼt act their way out of a paper bag. It was all about the voice, which I get at the Met because it is a HUGE theater. I think a lot of people hate opera because they saw one performance with terrible production values, bad acting …

D- and that ruins them…

C- I used to perform opera in a restaurant. We were always very theatrical. People would come up to me afterwards and say, “I didnʼt even know I liked opera!” I believe that is true of Shakespeare, too. If you see Shakespeare done by people who know how to make it accessible, then you will LOVE Shakespeare. The same is true of opera. Opera done well by someone who really knows what they are doing can be really interesting.

D- It can win people and change people. I always feel like the young artist programs and student performances of both opera and theater are so crucial but also so dangerous. If you are doing a great show, then you are inspiring people to support it or make a career of it. But if you are giving them shit, then you are turning them away and they are never going to come back.

C- It is absolutely like that.

D- When I was a student, I didnʼt have access to much of the arts. We didnʼt have opera or plays in my small town. So as an professional in the field as an adult, I try to be mindful of the students who crave the arts. I want to give the younger audience members a good show so they will support the arts. But if I am doing a bad play, I find myself angry that students and young people are going to see the show and come to the conclusion that all performing arts suck and not support us. I know that no one sets out to do a bad play or opera and student groups are invited months in advance before you know how good a show is going to be.

C- But people do shows for all sorts of reasons. Itʼs a business.

D- Yes, it is a business.

C- In some cases you owe people. In some cases you agree to cast someone because that person did a really good job with something else. However, this production demands skills or talents they don’t possess. Then you find yourself stuck.

D- Kids donʼt know the history of theater and Opera. They are a blank slate. You have got to win them over on the first show they see. Theater and Opera are dying arts. The craft is going to get smaller and smaller and smaller.

C- It is going to become a modern day baroque. It is like early music. A very small but dedicated group of fans.

D- I donʼt know the opera world like I do theater. But I know in theater there is a lot of pressure to do plays like a music video for people with very short attention spans.

C- Oh, yeah. That pressure is there in opera, too.

D- Yes. Lots of tech. Lots of recognizable images. A story that moves quickly. All the new plays written now seem like movie scripts that you are trying to do onstage.

(Cat and Dennis ponder what newly written operas are like. They discuss modern opera. Cat talks about operas Lulu and Wozzeck, which are rarely done but marvelously theatrical and thrilling to watch, despite their difficult musical scores.)

D- Opera marketing …that has got to be hard. As times become harder, people are being choosier with their entertainment dollar. I notice that opera companies are choosing safer seasons that they can sell. It seems like all the opera companies are doing the same 12 operas. If you have a choice between Magic Flute and Nixon in China, it is probably safer to go with Magic Flute.

C- Yeah. You basically have to think like that.

D- Yes, and your crazy directors are probably stifled because a company doesnʼt want to let them go crazy and risk turning away audiences and revenue.

(Dennis goes off on how he wants to see Nixon in China and his personal taste in opera and ballet and Cat talks about how much supertitles have helped bring in new fans.)

C- Most people have about a 7th grade mentality about opera. Unless there is a big star in an opera or play, they arenʼt as likely to buy a ticket. Take for example, Keith Miller, who was a football star who turned into a successful opera singer. “Hey everyone, come see this football opera star!” But opera doesnʼt have that many superstars. There has been some crossover from one performing art to another, but I donʼt know how much cross over there is now. People like Andrea Bocelli: real superstars. But most real opera fans donʼt like stars like him because they are not really opera singers.

D- No.

C- They’re pop singers. And they are good at pop, but they are not that good at real opera. Their voices aren’t big enough, to begin with. People will cast them in real opera productions, but they have to be mic’d. For most real singers, that’s cheating.

D- Well, opera is a very specific art. You have to have the chops and you have to have the training in order to do it and do it well. You canʼt just throw Justin Timberlake into an opera. However, Opera Memphis has been campaigning for him.

C- oh, no.

D- Yes. I heard about this. Opera Memphis had gone public wanting Justin Timberlake to do their Die Fledermaus. There is a Facebook page, just like the Facebook campaign for Betty White to host Saturday Night Live.

C- Oh, that is frightening.

D- I remember reading about this and thinking, “What is going on????” That is the controversy. It would probably sell out like crazy, but would it be any good or be done correctly? The money from a Justin Timberlake Die Fledermaus would give the company the revenue to do its Norma or La Boheme or Lucia.

C- I know. Exactly. But a production like that is hard on the other singers. Because everyone starts to think that your Justin Timberlake is just as good as everyone else.

D- I feel it is deceptive. The Tony Awards were a few weekends ago. I remember watching them and I was just furious. Broadway has become all about Hollywood actors who are famous and recognizable. Send them to New York between movies for a few weeks to do a play in a cast with a bunch of trained stage actors. Microphone them to death because they are not trained to do stage work. They do the show for a few weeks and they get the Tony Award and go back to Hollywood.

C- That pisses me off, too. A huge part of your art is projecting your voice.

D- Film actors donʼt have to do that. Not to say that film actors donʼt have a craft of their own; that they are not skilled and they are not trained. They have to learn to bring down the acting because they have a camera in their face. There is a skill to being understated that they have that a stage actor might not have. Itʼs not saying that one is better than they other, but the crossover is very sketchy and risky.

D- So which is better? Doing the show correctly, as it was written and honor the art; or adjust things to sell ticket, which in turn feeds and funds the longevity of the arts?

C- That is the age old question.

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