Monday, February 3, 2014

800 Words: The ABC's of The Marriage of Figaro - Back in the Theater


I’m not comfortable in the theater. I’m a shy, bookish man who loves music and eating well above company, and whose entire social life revolves around a continual performance art. I’m only comfortable if I’m the biggest ham in the room, and I don’t share stages particularly well. I have always preferred the company of instrumentalists - they’re generally like me, ugly and negligible, the last person in a room to be noticed unless we draw attention to ourselves, spectacular failures in love and avoiding of hard work in everything except the things we love too much to work hard at other things. There are few rewards for most instrumentalists except for the art which comes in being one. Unlike actors, singers, dancers, our art is not our persons, and our persons generally appear less well-kept than theirs, but rather in how we can apply our persons to appendages which are not born as part of us.

I remember when I was the conductor for Voices of Washington. During the drives to rehearsal, I used to have to coach myself into leadership and out of a panic attack, spending hours in advance working up the nerve to impose some semblance of my will on singers, who are the last kinds of people who want to be told what to do. I spent a year of my life in a state of terror (hardly the first), trying as best I could to convince myself that I was fighting a battle that could ever be won. I was dissatisfied, utterly dissatisfied, with the state of the music I love, and I remain so. I wanted to start an artistic organization built on lines completely different than any organization of which I knew anything about, built on lines that would no longer keep a person like me - learning disabled and uncredentialed - out of its ranks so successfully. Given the scope of my ambition, the task was so inhumanly difficult that to have succeeded at it in my mind meant that I would have automatically become the one thing I ever desired to be in my life - a great artist. And I was prepared to sacrifice anything to make it happen - my money, my physical and mental health, my friendships, my integrity. I learned all sorts of terrible things in that year, about other people and about myself.

But who was I to change the way things are done in music? A nothing, a graduate of a third-rate music school, whom everybody seemed to agree had long since flushed his first-rate talent down the toilet. A singer, like an actor or a dancer, is a talent vulnerable as an egg. There are so many ways to crack the shell before its time, so many ways to screw it up once you start cooking, so many ways to serve it that make the diner sick. But how could I protect all of those eggs when I was clearly no less vulnerable than any of them? In truth, the project was over from the fevered moment of its conception during a period around which I usually had less than a hundred dollars to my name. I hated nearly every minute of the experience that followed, I hated the terror I felt that another singer would melt down, or drop out, and I especially the insincerity of harassing singers into joining, knowing that my clear desperation for more members would probably annoy them and ruin any good will that might eventually lead them to join during a period when I was less desperate. For a long time afterward, the experience killed my ambition. And I was all too content to be the idiot son, (barely) working in a family business for which I have no interest. In its wake, this blog was born.

The organization shut down over three years ago, such a joke that nobody even heard from it. It was supposed to be a worldwide phenomenon and it’s ‘greatest’ triumph got about 6,000 youtube views. Much has happened since then. By all appearances, I’ve become more successful, and if such a thing matters, I’m certainly much closer to happiness. But now comes the acid test.

There’s no ignoring it. I’m back in the arena. I’m playing regularly in two bands, I’ve been conducting a chorus for nearly five years which I’ve become ambitious to make into a celebrated institution, at some point, I’m about to start seriously composing again, and most intimidatingly, I’m directing my first opera, and it’s the greatest of them all.

I know that I’m a different person now, because I have no idea what the singers really think of me, and truth be told, I don’t really care. Don't get me wrong, I hope they respect me, and I certainly would like to be hired again. Even if I never direct for the stage again, I’ll have directed the one stage play I’ve always wanted to stage above all others. However small the audience, some people will finally see a few of the thoughts on the one subject which has most obsessed me since I was a kid - how should the great works be interpreted?


There is no recreative work of art, not by Beethoven, not by The Beatles, not by Stephen Sondheim, not by Chekhov, not by Shakespeare himself, which it should be a greater pleasure to interpret than this one. It took Shakespeare his entire career to arrive at the Mozartian transcendence - the forgiveness which you find in The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, and yet by the time Shakespeare arrived at it, his greatest gifts were depleted. Few people would argue that Leontes or Prospero are as interesting as Hamlet or Lear. Shakespeare’s greatest gifts were for the portrayal of the dissolution - to the Bard, most friendship is fleeting, most love mere folly. Shakespeare is at his most powerful when he argues that there is no true hope for love, for friendship, for family, for ambition. To Shakespeare, all hopes seem to arrive at nothing. One could argue that his entire career was a process of disillusionment, first he lost his ability to care about pressing political concerns, then he lost his belief that comedy could distract us from suffering, then he lost his belief that human motivations could be explained. Finally, he arrived at one final belief on which he ended his career as the Playwright of the Ages, and that belief was the transcendent Forgiveness which says that no matter what our sins, we might, with a surfeit of seemingly superhuman effort of understanding, arrive at an understanding which gives a charitable meaning to our lives, even if it’s too late to improve them. Mozart started his career as Opera Composer of the Ages with exactly that belief, manifest in seven transcendent works, and did not live long enough to lose this belief. All of the great characters in Mozart’s gallery, as plentiful as any sampling from Shakespeare's greatest plays, show that Mozart could arrive at the divine transcendence of Shakespeare’s final conclusions, and do so without stinting on character development in a manner Shakespeare relinquished so that he could arrive there. Mozart was able to do so because he believed in all those things Shakespeare clearly did not - institutions, marriage, family, friendship, ambition. Was he right to believe so? Who knows, but it spurred him to be the only artist of the theater whose achievement and depth perhaps surpasses the Bard himself. And as a result, Mozart's greatest works are all simultaneously as political, comic, and psychologically insightful as Shakespeare's were in periods when he preferred one quality to the others.

The Marriage of Figaro is pure happiness - a happy work not because it’s uniformly happy, but because the happiness is earned by so much suffering. In the newer sense, it has comedy in spades, but in the older sense of comedy, in the sense of a fraught journey that ends happily, there is no purer one than this.

But there is no such thing as a happy ending. Happiness is real, but endings are not. If we can conceive of the infinite, then infinity exists. And the infinity of Figaro lies in that the happiness of its ending can become sadness or horror just a few minutes after the Count’s apology.

Save The Cunning Little Vixen, no work of opera in my experience has this infinite amplitude - so much joy, so much suffering, so much fun, so much horror, so much depth swimming beneath such a seemingly superficial surface that still, 225 years later, people dismiss Figaro as the lightweight comedy it’s clearly not.

(The Cunning Little Vixen - Figaro’s one rival? Its one superior?)


(What my cast might think of me…)

This has become a completely different Figaro from the one I hoped I’d create when I began. It’s darker, raunchier, comedically broader, but also more nuanced and personal. An extreme confluence of coincidences have led me to a production of my favorite work of art on which I impose myself on this work I love more than all others in a manner I never meant to. My interpretive hands will be all over this production - there will be narrations written by me over music I selected, line after line interpreted in manners that would shock anyone who knew the work well. Long before I was involved in this production, the producer clearly wanted a ‘hands-on’ director. For financial reasons, more than an hour of music’s been cut, and what’s left is being played in the pit by a piano with a string quartet. It’s replaced with narrations to fill the gaps which the director has to write. I argued, at length, to leave every note in which we possible could, including the ones which are normally unplayed and unsung. I was overruled, and the result is that I’m waiting for the day that I’ll be accused by somebody, whether a singer or a critic or a family member, of obscuring Mozart for my own ego.

But now that the dimensions of the production have changed so completely from the ‘traditional’ ones I love so much, I’ve become something of a detective, obsessed by the thought that every line, every potential implication, the entire universe of Figaro, needs to be teased out of the text and music as best I ever can, because if it isn’t, I may never again get the chance to get it in. I worry, and yet I’m also excited, by how much this is turning into ‘my’ Figaro.

I’ve become a theatrical ‘regie’ against my own instincts. I usually hate theatrical interventions on opera - not usually because I disagree, but because I find them distractions. Opera has, for the most part, always existed in a theater of the mind - occupied by thoughts conscious and unconscious. All the potential meanings which make opera an absorbing experience always existed within the mind of the listener, but today’s director’s job is to bring out what was already there.

The music of opera means less to today’s audiences than it once did, and the end result is that opera simply isn’t as good as it once was. It has become the dual property of a dessicated intellectual set which insists that music purely of the head can capture the heart, and a particularly affluent conservative set which wants to see opera mean precisely what it did a hundred years ago. Both of them have corrupted the artform, and the result is that there is no living opera composer of note short of John Adams and Philip Glass who can consistently capture even a portion of note from the opera-going public (and their portion is still quite small). Opera as it once existed in another era has long since been replaced by the cinema, whose stars are as important to our day’s public imagination as opera stars and theater actors used to be, and whose greatest directors are worshipped as the world once worshipped composers. It used to be that the Broadway Musical offered a connection to the precious communicable past, but even Broadway is a hollow shell of its former self - lumbering through megaproductions and adaptations of movies while original work by true artists lies unproduced and unencouraged. Even the truly artistic side of Broadway cannot be what it was, how can it be when the larger public insists on a purely commercial product?

But even Broadway has a health which the opera world couldn’t achieve with a year’s worth of wheezing. Forget the young up-and-comers who are still learning, however wonderful and promising they are - even the greatest singers of today cannot express nearly as much to as many people as they once did. All the revelatory immediacy of truly new music, with all its brutally violent emotions, used to exist within the opera listeners unconscious and grip them just as much, if not even moreso, than the most popular music of today. But today’s classical music only captures a pathetically miniscule portion of the world’s audience, and therefore far littler of it can express with the same universality, because its creators do not have a large audience on which to practice. The world of ‘opera’ no longer exists - even if this music never was the world’s lingua franca, it was once far closer. And was, necessarily therefore, better music-making.

So in order to sell these operas to new audiences, these conscious and unconscious meanings have to be explained. Against every nostalgic fibre of my being, I have to concede that the world has moved on from opera as I understand it. Even a work as great and universal as The Marriage of Figaro, as great a work of art as the world has yet produced, cannot speak for itself any longer. In a world that no longer immediately hears Mozart’s beauty and greatness, the greatness has to be brought out for the whole world to see, or else no one will have any reason to listen anymore.

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