Academic journal article Liminalities

From "Vaginal Wagner" to "Verdi Does Vegas": Close Reading the Concept Production

Academic journal article Liminalities

From "Vaginal Wagner" to "Verdi Does Vegas": Close Reading the Concept Production

Article excerpt

I love opera. I grew up in an opera-loving family. For years, my brother would test me with "Name that Tenor." As a teenager living in Westchester County, New York, I would frequently buy standing room tickets for a buck or two to see a Saturday matinee at the Met. Standing room was home to a lot of colorful characters back in the late sixties and early seventies. You never knew when some irate denizen might deal a stealthy blow to some unsuspecting miscreant! Once the victim was an elderly nail filer.

My experience of opera has changed dramatically over the years. Before the days of "supertitles," which, at the Met, appear on small screens embedded in the seatbacks rather than somewhere up around the proscenium, I used to study a new opera before seeing it for the first time. I would check the record set (it was invariably a set) out of the library and study the libretto at least twice, going back and forth between the text of the original language (mostly Italian) and the English translation, while listening to the music. After that, I would let the music play while I went about my daily routines, so the opera would be familiar and welcoming when I heard it live. With the advent of supertitles, I got lazy. Also, "records" had gone out of style.

When I finally got around to seeing the Met in HD some six or seven years ago, I got even lazier, foregoing the live experience almost entirely. In recent years, the preponderance of "concept" productions has prompted me to reflect upon the nature of opera as a signifying system-or a constellation of signifying systems (an observation not unique to me, I have learned)-and how one might "read" one of those new productions, many of which strain credulity in an art form known for straining credulity! By concept productions I mean those that, far from merely changing the setting or time period of an opera, make an interpretive leap that departs in some significant way from a more literal (or traditional) staging, often though the use of abstraction, radical "contemporariness," or shock. Such productions are often referred to, disparagingly, as "Eurotrash," and, indeed, Europe has led the way in operatic risk-taking, particularly in the case of Wagner (Levin 5). Not all of such productions, however, originate in Europe; neither, I would add, are they all trashy.

Not being a scholar of opera, I fall back on my training as a "close reader" and my intuitive and emotional sense of the art form-after some 50 or so years of listening and viewing-in order to explore, in a theoretically informed manner, the ways in which one production might legitimate a director's concept while another might devolve into incoherence. I base my analysis upon three recent HD productions, whose relative popularity is by no means to be taken as a measure of their success or failure in aesthetic terms. Each represents an "updating" of one kind or another. The stripped down La Traviata directed by Willie Decker was spare and considered ugly and off-putting by many. To me it was spot on as an abstract distillation of the narrative. I have based my discussion of Traviata on a DVD recorded live at the Salzburger Festspiele 2005, for which this production was created. It was presented at the Met during the 2012-2013 season. Parsifal, enigmatic under the best of circumstances, was reimagined in 2013 by François Girard as a post-apocalyptic fable about sin and redemption whose staging was deeply invested in the iconography of misogyny. It was powerful. In 2013, Tony Award winner Michael Mayer created a production of Rigoletto that is set in 1950s Las Vegas. Many people seemed to enjoy it. I thought it was a travesty, not so much a conceptual misfire as a gimmick. It is my deep sense that in late modernity, and by that I mean, roughly, the post- 1950s, opera has come to embody a certain "otherness" that must be respected rather than purged or attenuated (as, for example, when it is dragged, unproblematically, into contemporaneity) if the art form is to remain true to its emotional core. …

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