Commentary Magazine


Words, Music, Opera

Opera buffs have conducted a spirited debate over the merits of the Metropolitan Opera’s new “Met Titles” system, introduced in October, in which line-by-line English translations of libretti are flashed on computer-controlled screens mounted on the backs of seats. But the debate, while interesting, is also meaningless. All of the arguments for titles are cogent; all of the arguments against them are cogent; and all are irrelevant.

In America as elsewhere, opera is a cruelly expensive business; in this country in particular, it is undertaken with the most modest of subsidies, meaning in effect that it must pay its way. In the entire modern history of opera, titles have done more than anything else to increase the size of the audience. Hence, their survival is assured. Like them or not—and most operagoers appear to like them very much—titles are here to stay.

This is certainly the case at the Met, the most recent major opera house in America to take the plunge. James Levine, the company’s artistic director, once said that the Met would introduce titles “over my dead body,” a remark so widely quoted that it even appears in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. The speed with which Levine was forced to eat his words is illustrative of the speed with which titles themselves, first used in 1983 by the Canadian Opera Company, have become a fixture on the musical scene. It is hard to name another artistic innovation—not to mention such a radical one—that has won general acceptance so quickly.

That titles are an innovation, and not merely a convenience, is demonstrable—though one would not know this from having listened to Levine or to the Met’s general manager, Joseph Volpe, when they formally announced Met Titles at a press conference last spring. For the Met, it seems, titles are merely a nonartistic device to make opera more “user-friendly,” the computer-age equivalent of cushioned seats.

In an ad for a captioned PBS telecast of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra last April, the Met proclaimed:

If anything can untangle Boccanegra, English subtitles can. . . . With eight TV cameras focused on the action, and a running translation in subtitles, you’ll have an intimate view of all the twists and turns of plot in one of Verdi’s most intriguing operas.

This is the utilitarian case for titles, made with more elegance in 1986 by Isaiah Berlin:

[O]peragoers—and above all those who may either underrate the beauty and depth of operas because they cannot follow the words, or perhaps be deterred from going to see opera altogether—can be converted and illuminated and made enthusiastic by becoming able to understand the meaning, musically and emotionally, of what is going on, instead of being made to listen to mumbo-jumbo.

All this is true as far as it goes—but it does not go nearly far enough. For Met Titles will not only change the way Met audiences respond to opera; they will almost certainly have a significant impact on the company’s production style. And given the fact that the Met is the biggest and most influential opera company in America, the effect on American opera as a whole is likely to be profound.

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In Europe, opera was sung in the vernacular at most major houses (and all provincial ones) throughout much of the 20th century, and the vernacular tradition remains strong to this day. This has not, however, been the case in America, where—strangely enough—the obstacles facing any company wishing to perform in English have been prohibitive. As the opera director Colin Graham explains:

Sadly, it is . . . inconvenient to sing operas in the language of the audience, or to write good translations, or to get singers to learn them; it is particularly inconvenient for singers to learn intelligible diction in any language, including their own.

As a result, performances in major opera houses in America are usually sung in the original language—whether well or badly is a different matter.

Yet every opera, be it Bizet’s tuneful Carmen or Alban Berg’s atonal Wozzeck, offers one kind of experience when its words are understood line by line, and a completely different one when they are not. Even the most dramatically straightforward operas presuppose a moment-to-moment grasp of the plot (though it is certainly less useful in some scenes than others), and the more complex the libretto, the more important it is that the viewer, in order to enter fully into the unfolding action, be able intelligently to relate words to music. Verdi’s Falstaff, for instance, is full of subtle musical touches that go unnoticed by those who cannot understand the text. (When Ford sings of the cuckold’s horns placed on his head by Falstaff, the French horns in the orchestra comment sardonically on his plight.)

The point is that operas, like art-songs, are not abstract musical structures; they are dramas, in which words and music interact to create a total theatrical effect. Without reasonably full comprehension of the words on the part of an audience, opera inevitably becomes pantomime accompanied by music, not integrated musical drama.

This does much to explain the willingness of American audiences to accept “postmodern” productions: that is, ones in which the libretto is treated not as a text but as a set of options which can be discarded or altered at the director’s discretion, often in the interests of promoting a particular political line. (Peter Sellars’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, for instance, was set in New York’s Trump Tower.) Because most American operagoers do not know, except in the most general way, what is happening on stage, they cannot grasp the extent to which such productions may distort the composer’s intent.

But postmodernism is not the only problem. The opposite tendency, that of “naturalism,” has its own limitations. Opera is not a realistic medium. Like verse-drama and ballet, it is a species of lyric theater, one rendered “unrealistic” by virtue of its defining convention: the fact that its characters sing (and are accompanied by an orchestra) rather than speak. In a sense, all operas are fantasies. That is why naturalistic stage design and acting, which may or may not be theatrically effective in a given production, are never necessary; if the opera is good, it is the music that carries the words, not vice versa. The best opera directors accept this primacy of music in creating theatrical illusion; the worst ones swamp it with overblown stage effects which make the music, as it were supererogatory.

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Throughout most of the Metropolitan Opera’s century-long history, production standards were so low that issues like these were beside the point. Despite the intermittent presence of many distinguished conductors and a few talented directors, the Met was a “singers’ house,” not a setting for the unified dramatic presentations that, since Wagner’s time, have been the goal of composers and the ideal of critics. The attraction was virtuoso vocalism. The sets were primitive, the rehearsals minimal, and movement on stage (as the critic Virgil Thomson once wrote acerbically) was “left to the improvisation of the singers.”

Not until Rudolf Bing became general manager in 1950 did the Met attempt in any sustained way to raise the theatrical standards of its productions. Bing’s innovations were made necessary in part by the long postwar decline in singing, which forced opera houses to seek alternatives to great voices in order to attract audiences. (By 1950, new works had long since ceased to be a drawing card.) Ironically, though, Bing’s only lasting contribution to the Met was the building of a new house which in certain ways made dramatically convincing presentations of opera more difficult to achieve than ever before.

The present-day Metropolitan Opera House, which opened in 1966 as part of Lincoln Center, has 3,788 seats and a 54-foot-square stage opening. Because of the size of the stage and the depth of the hall, every one of the Met’s productions is by definition “spectacular”; the only variable is the style.

During the 70′s and 80′s, the company’s productions, particularly those staged by Franco Zeffirelli, tended toward the grandiose. Since then, two newer approaches have evolved. The first, an excrescence of the naturalistic style, is exemplified by last season’s new production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly; directed by Giancarlo del Monaco and designed by Michael Scott, it featured ultrarealistic sets and a tendency to illustrate every detail of the libretto as literally as possible by corresponding stage action. The Met’s new productions of its core Italian and German repertory are increasingly staged in this mode.

The second approach is the postmodernist one, and it has been applied to standard works (like Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor) and nonstandard ones alike. Last season’s premiere of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District at the Met, for example, directed by Graham Vick and designed by Paul Brown, updated the action of the opera by several decades and featured such stage decorations as a compact car, a forklift, a cement mixer, and a giant Roy Lichtenstein-type fist on which the word ZAP! was painted in Cyrillic; it also included a fairly explicit scene, an innovation of the director, of simulated sexual intercourse.

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Of the two approaches, it is obvious that postmodernism, for all its excesses and perversities, is infinitely more vital than hypernaturalism, which is an artistic dead end. But both of the Met’s current production styles have in common the use of exaggeration to whip up theatrical excitement. And this is hardly surprising. When opera is pantomime instead of drama, exaggeration in whatever form inevitably becomes the sine qua non of memorable productions. The novelist Flannery O’Connor once put this point strikingly with regard to fiction:

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

The same logic applies to the dilemma of large-house opera in an unfamiliar language. To seize and hold the audience’s attention, you have to shout. But the good news is that the reverse is equally true: when operatic action is immediately intelligible to audiences, exaggeration becomes superfluous. And that brings us back to Met Titles. Viewers who no longer need to have the plot acted out in broad pantomime are likely to find many details of hypernaturalistic productions unsubtle to the point of crudity; and as for postmodern productions, many viewers will come to realize for the first time that what is happening on the stage frequently contradicts the words and music, and makes literal nonsense of the drama.

Met Titles are bound to have other positive consequences as well (in addition to making it impossible for a fifty-year-old, 275-pound Butterfly to tell Pinkerton she is fifteen years old without causing giggles in the audience). While the problem of creating a feeling of intimacy in such a large hall will not be solved, it will be mitigated to a considerable degree; “connoisseur” operas like Falstaff, Mozart’s Cost fan tutte, and Richard Strauss’s Capriccio, in which a premium is placed on the comprehensibility of dialogue, may thus become theatrically viable at the Met for the first time.

Moreover, the Met’s chronic conservatism in repertory—enforced by the need to sell as many tickets as possible—may be eased when the viewer of an unfamiliar opera can understand the plot at first glance, without having previously read the libretto. A chance to test this hypothesis will come as early as January, with the Met premiere of Leos Janácek’s The Makropulos Case, a distinguished but “talky” opera by a 20th-century composer whose music is still comparatively unfamiliar outside his native Czechoslovakia.

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But the biggest effect of Met Titles may well be to create a demand for a commodity the Met has never been able consistently to produce at any time in its history: opera as drama.

The most memorable production in the Met’s current repertory is that of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des carmélites, staged by the late John Dexter during his seven-year tenure (1974-81) as the Met’s first and so far only director of productions, and revived with exceptional artistic success two seasons ago. Many of Dexter’s productions, especially of standard repertory, were problematic in the extreme. But his eloquent staging of Dialogues—which is, significantly, one of the few foreign-language works the Met performs in English—remains one of the company’s glories, not least because of its total avoidance of the twin extremes of hypernaturalism and postmodern distortion.

Titles, because they divert attention from the stage, are a less than ideal conduit toward the experience of opera as drama. But for the operagoer they are far better than incomprehension. If they succeed in making the Metropolitan Opera House a place where audiences can expect, and demand, more productions like Dialogues, then the face of American opera will be permanently changed.

About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.




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