Thursday, March 6, 2014

800 Words: Figaro Debrief


(Figaro starter kit. The most cosmically great cast, a great orchestra, very good conducting. An unforgettable performance whose excellence is just a little too generic.)

I read and re-read a dozen-and-a-half books pertaining to Figaro, Mozart, history, theater history, and directing - Alfred Einstein, Donnington, Stanley Sadie, Robbie Landon, David Cairns, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Hobsbawm, Barzun, Michael Chekhov, Alan Ayckbourn, etc. I watched just as many performances of Figaro on youtube, and can tell you the particular differences between the stagings of Johannes Schaff, David McVicar, Jonathan Miller, Claus Guth, Peter Sellars, and a number of others in great detail. I also listened to as many recordings, and can tell you the differences in how Renato Capecchi and Giuseppe Taddei and Ferruccio Furlanetto and Bryn Terfel deliver a particular line as Figaro, or how Anna Moffo and Cecilia Bartoli and Allison Hagley interpret a particular line of Susanna’s. I can tell you exactly where Ferenc Fricsay and Rene Jacobs and Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Clemens Krauss and Bruno Walter change tempi in manners unwritten in the score, and I can tell you precisely where James Levine and Riccardo Muti and Erich Kleiber observe Mozart’s phrase and dynamic markings which no other conductor does. This is what a director, a serious director at least, should be able to do. And unfortunately, this is also the work a serious singer should do in addition to knowing their part faultlessly. A singer’s work is never done, and I don’t know how they find the strength to keep going, because it is one of the hardest jobs in the world.

(Ferenc Fricsay. For me, still the unsurpassed Mozart conductor - with Nikolaus Harnoncourt getting an honorable mention.)

Opera is a tough, tough business, but if everyone is warm of heart, sincere in their intentions, and doing what they can to be helpful to one another, then they together can arrive at a conclusion which hopefully satisfies everyone - because they know that they came to their conclusions by probing as deeply as they can.

Where there is collaboration, there is compromise. Ultimately, nobody gets everything of what they want out of any production, such a reality only exists in the Platonic skies. But everybody gets the satisfaction of knowing that they contributed meaningfully. Nobody gets their ideal staging, but everybody gets to see some of their ideals realized on the stage in a way they never were before.

(Johannes Schaff’s 1987 Royal Opera production. Stints on the darkness, but nevertheless, it is now the most detailed, nuanced production I’ve yet seen. Not as well sung or acted as Jonathan Miller’s 1994 MET production, but the nuance in this is truly unbelievable)

In a quick-and-dirty production, deep consideration isn’t always possible to discuss in the rehearsal room, and even in a more time-luxuriant production, allowances always have to be made for the necessities of human considerations - one actress breaks her arm and a scene has to be restaged to accommodate it, another actress isn’t comfortable with the ribaldry of a particular blocking, so a less ribald blocking is improvised by the actors on the spot.

(Harnoncourt and Guth - certainly the most provocative Figaro I’ve ever seen. There are worse things than that…)

I love opera, but I am not by nature an opera person - the stress and strain of asking ‘will this work,’ and often seeing that it doesn’t, the constant assuaging of insecurities and doubts by singers (not to mention your own...) who are selflessly putting themselves in a vulnerable position simply so the director can have the pleasure of realizing something which resembles his vision, the sheer unpredictability and human frailty of any given situation - all this is as far from my own second nature as a person can get. I am not a particularly secure person within myself, so how can I possibly remain secure for other people?

Next to film, I doubt there is a single artform in which people work harder merely to get a competent result, and the rewards of film far exceed the rewards of opera in both remuneration and affection. I was in absolute awe of how hard these opera singers worked to get this production off the ground. There were, of course, elements of some attitudes towards this work which I was not satisfied by, just as there pellucidly were elements in which they clearly were not satisfied with me - and, as such things do, it led to some unfortunate and genuinely unpleasant friction. But nevertheless, I could not believe how organized these singers were - formidably so on a level I could never be myself, and when it came to the practicalities of this production, I continually stood in stupefied admiration of their work ethic. Color coding their parts, translating every word in their scores, labeling every exact prop which fits into every different container coordinated for every act. If this is the organization it takes to ‘make it’ in the classical music world, then no wonder I could never do it…

The end result is, it can’t be denied, a genuine success. A success earned by an enormous amount of hard work by a large group of people. We brought this off together, and even if I’m never asked to work with this company again (and I doubt I will…) I’m incredibly proud to have worked with them on bringing it off.


The Marriage of Figaro is, more than most operas, subject to a ‘cookie-cutter’ traditional view. Not just in its setting, but also in its spirit. In most eyes, it is simply a Rossini comedy with just enough undertone of sadness to assure its listeners that it has some philosophical depth to it which The Barber of Seville does not.

But The Marriage of Figaro is so unbelievably much more than that. It is, I genuinely believe, the greatest opera ever written - as important to opera as Hamlet is to theater, and far more formally perfect. If opera has an equivalent to Hamlet, Macb*th and King Lear, then it is The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan Tutte. And just as Shakespeare has the flawed perfection of Othello together with the other three at the center of theatrical canon, Mozart has the flawed perfection of The Magic Flute.

In the slightly colder medium of the theater, Shakespeare needed a surfeit of drama and tragedy to truly overwhelm his audiences, and his greatest plays are tragedies in which the comedy often threatens to overwhelm the tragedy. But in the red-hot medium of opera, where tragedy can spill over into melodrama so easily, Mozart writes understated plays of musical wit in which the darkness and tragedy continually threaten to overwhelm the comedy.

It would seem that in his own time, the darkness of Mozart was so clear that he was constantly threatened with censorship. But by today’s standards, the darkness of Mozart seems so tame that in the hands of unperceptive theater people, he can seem purely like a more generic, less fun version of the Bel Canto Italian operas which were clearly influenced by him.

Mozart needs to breathe fire again. In The Marriage of Figaro, there are intimations of class warfare, slavery, domestic violence, rape, even pedophilia, that exist at the height of a gossamer strand beneath the surface. It needs to be brought out again, especially in today’s day and age when Mozart is used as generic muzak which is claimed to make children smarter with so little empirical proof.

I was very gladdened by yesterday’s reception from the audience and the singers’ performances, and I was quite gladdened to see how much of my original staging ideas were retained. But I wish, oh how I wish, the silence of the ‘O-PER-A’ audience was not always so respectful. I’d rather be vociferously booed for my bad taste than for all those sight-gags we inserted to be met with such a pall. I know the language barrier is immense, but why shouldn’t these people roll in the aisles when something is clearly funny (and it was…)? Why weren’t they gasping when they saw something onstage that was disturbing (there was much that was…)

(THIS is what theater should ALWAYS be! Everything else is just a museum.)

Given the staging I pined for, I knew going in that I was probably in for some battles. In the original staging I planned, I wanted the Countess to simulate oral sex on the Count, I wanted Cherubino to seem buck naked behind a scrim and accidentally french kiss the Count, I wanted the night action so darkly lit that you could barely see the singers, I wanted Figaro to seem as though he came within an inch of simply beheading the Count in Act I. I wanted a hothouse ready to explode in the revolution which this opera so clearly announces is imminent.  

The narration I originally wrote was much longer than what the audience heard. I included a lot of educational material which would bring the audience up to speed and help them better understand the culture which birthed this miracle, but more important than the educational element was the fact that I inserted many jokes that were deliberately in bad taste, meant to offend, and knowing that some people would find them highly objectionable. I knew they were the worst possible taste, I wanted them to be in bad taste, and I was disappointed at myself for not having the courage to put in things that were in still much worse taste. I absolutely wanted the audience to be offended because it would have loosened them up, it would have allowed them to viscerally react to a fraction of the extent that they do when they’re at a sporting event - because sports is much better theater than nearly any live theater we have today. Would the reactions really have been that visceral as I dreamed? I doubt it, but it probably would have made a minute amount of difference.

The real revelations of theater can only happen when the excitement is so feverish that the body can’t withstand it and has to react. The body opens up because the mind has reached its capacity, a point at which it’s taken in as much of the universe as it can, and realizes that literally anything is possible. Once such thrills kick in, then does the critical distance, and they decide whether something which provokes such a strong reaction inspires love or hate. But either way, a reaction of extreme hatred is leagues better than the type of respectful indifference which makes for an enjoyable experience that passes the time and is forgotten in a few days.

(The Red Wedding. Now THAT was theater!)

When an experience is truly unforgettable, it demands discussion, and has to be described to other people who weren’t there to see it themselves. The people describing the experience to others become playwrights in themselves by describing it, and the listeners become visual artists in themselves by imagining it. Such experience inspires people to live more intensely, more meaningfully, more beautifully. The anticipation builds for another experience like it. It’s good for business, it’s good for art, and it's good for people.


Classical music wasn’t always like this. That much is clear from all the tails of women rushing the stage at Liszt concerts to touch him and fights which broke out between Verdi and Wagner partisans. The veneer of good taste has, in so many ways, ruined this music. A culture cannot grow after it’s frozen over, and it needs an outlet where it can be battered and bruised and rebel, or else it is sterile, and develops no antibodies against the viruses and bacteria which can kill it off.

I compare all those years of sub-par experiences in classical music to the ones I have with my regular band, Orchester Prazevica, and immediately see what I’ve missed for all these years. We are hardly the most intense band in Baltimore, but we certainly get people up and dancing, and they’re enthusiastic enough that when there’s an better-than-ordinary solo turn the audiences almost always hear it  and they show their appreciation with whoops and hollers mid-dance in a way you still never hear in an American opera house. There are few ‘upper-class’ lives in the world more frustrating than that of the classical musician, because they are utterly short-changed. As hard as any great jazz, rock, hip-hop, R&B musician might work, it really is true they don’t have to work one-tenth as hard on their technique as any great classical musician does, and yet the other musicians get ten times the adulation. It’s not fair, but it’s absolutely true. And to add still more to that unfairness, I’m not at all certain anymore that the classical musicians are putting all that work into music which is any greater than the best of their more ‘popular’ colleagues. The greatest music, far more than any time in recorded history, is a joy to assemble, not an agony.

Anyone who thinks that Elliott Carter or Milton Babbitt or Steve Reich or Phillip Glass make genuinely better music than Otis Redding or Randy Newman or Bruce Springsteen or John Coltrane or Bill Monroe or Chuck Berry is listening with dogma, not ears. This is not to say that there is no value in the work of composers today (particularly not Steve Reich), but few contemporary composers create music for the most inspiring purpose, which is to give the listener the strength to live better. Great art is religion, without the murder.

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