Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Shabby Little Shocker

I was going to lead with this story in tomorrow's news roundup, but decided that I could do a whole post on it. The opera world caught fire this past week when the New York Metropolitan Opera opened with Giacomo Puccini's Tosca and the director and designers were booed to scorn by the audience at the curtain call. Just the production team were booed, which is good because this would be a whole different kind of tirade if I ever caught people disrespecting conductor James Levine. By all accounts, the musicians and singers were fantastic.

Tosca is one of the more heavily rotated operas in the canon. Briefly, it's about a singer named Tosca, her lover, and a cop who tries to threaten Tosca with her lover's execution to get her to sleep with him. It's Puccini, so by the time the curtain falls all three of the leads are dead. Tosca kills the police officer; the painter lover is executed; and Tosca kills herself by throwing herself off of the ramparts of the castle where the execution took place. It's one of the greatest operas in the history of the form; and you probably know some of it whether you realize it or not. The boos came because of some of the forehead-slappingly poor directorial choices by Luc Bondy. Previously the Met had a production by Franco Zeffirelli (who non-opera folk may remember as the director of the 1968 Romeo and Juliet film, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Mel Gibson Hamlet.) They might do well to go back to that production so that future audiences can hear the music over the sound of Rudolf Bing spinning in his grave.

Bondy's production takes liberties with the story. He tried to cut out as many religious trappings as he could. Tosca is a religious woman, but not in this production. Instead of Tosca attacking Scarpia with a knife, she lays on the couch with a knife hidden and he kind of... lays on it. In the text, the highly religious Tosca places candles around Scarpia's body and a crucifix on his chest, and then flees the scene horrified by what she's done. In Bondy's production, she looks out the window and then goes and sits on another sofa, hanging out with the corpse as the scene ends (and the first round of boos started). Apparently Tosca's suicide was very awkwardly staged as well. I guess there was hesitation in Tosca's suicide as well. It seems to me you don't improve Italian opera by making the dramatic tension weaker.
NY Met director Peter Gelb said of the booers that they are "perhaps too rooted in the past."

Peter Gelb is not one of my favorite people. He famously watered down Sony's classical label when he was in charge, seeking a more mainstream audience. When he became director of the Met he said, “I think what I’m doing is exactly what the Met engaged me to do, which is build bridges to a broader public. This is not about dumbing down the Met, it’s just making it accessible." Translation: It's about dumbing down the Met.

This kind of thinking about serious music leads to things like this, which embarrass both the classical and the mainstream music world (I love Pavarotti; and I love Barry White; and I love My First, My Last, My Everything. This was a train wreck.) Frankly, I think I can speak for all people passionately devoted to classical music when I say we are so sick of this crap.
Gelb also said "But after 25 years of the old Tosca, in order for this theater to continue to stay vital, we must move forward by offering new productions that will stimulate our imagination and that will demonstrate that our art form is not locked in the past.” Locked in the past?!!? We're talking about opera here! You can't get much more archaic in your art forms! We like it that way.

Look, I'm all for fresh takes on classics if done properly. A slick, modern, Matrix style Hamlet (which I spent about 2 years as an Assistant Director, and then light operator, on) or a minimalist The Tempest, or even a gender reversed Waiting for Godot can all be fine ideas if they are done well. It adds to the timelessness of the piece and our connection to it while allowing for personal artistic style. But never at Shakespeare Orange County did we change the plot; and always we sought excellence in stage direction. At no point did we try to shake things up by saying "maybe we could downplay Falstaff's drinking" or "let's make Shylock a Frenchman in this version." This production of Tosca seems to have been by all accounts a double whammy of tampering with a classic poorly and inept stage direction.

I am a poor man and my wife has only recently come to love opera through DVDs from our library. Suppose we won a trip to New York and, as would likely be the case, one of the most exciting prospects for us would be to see an opera at the Met. We would scrimp and save for tickets; and suppose we pinched enough to afford to see Tosca. Then suppose what we ended seeing was not Tosca per se, but some pompous director's reinterpretation. Imagine the conversations that would follow of, "No, I'm telling you that scene is usually one of the more moving scenes in opera." Someone should tell Bondy (and Gelb) that "innovative" is not a synonym for "poorly executed."

Bondy is peddling elitist crap (I know! "Elitism at the opera? Now I've heard everything!") with the goal of rattling the season ticket holders, with no regard for the art, the piece, and the people who earnestly desire to experience Tosca for perhaps the first time. And he won, as the NY Times (and my blog) are talking a blue streak about it and the run has already sold out. Gelb's rhetoric leads one to expect Bizet's Carmen with Taylor Swift in the title role (complete with "Carmen, I'ma let you finish, but Aida had the greatest aria of all time!")

Although in fact next up is Mozart's Die Zauberflote staged by the awesome Julie Taymor, which if I were offered tickets in return for a finger I would seriously think "well, I don't use my pinkies that often..."

Just because we can do something does not mean that we should. If you're looking to do edgy, let's see the Met do the new Doctor Atomic opera or Howard Shore's opera based on Cronenberg's The Fly. I can't speak to the quality of either as I've never seen or heard either, but quality seems to have fled the day anyway. I don't see the Met doing Anthony Davis' Malcolm X opera. That one would raise some eyebrows. What I'm driving at is when they say they are looking to be innovative and to breathe life into the opera, they are bald-faced lying! If you want to do new, you can do new. There are starving composers walking the Earth as we speak. It's laziness.

But, in conclusion, this is a disappointing beginning for the NY Met season and a sad commentary on the state of the arts in America. Appreciate the classics and seek to find (or, better yet, create) the contemporary works that will be future classics. Cheap tricks don't fool anyone.


  1. Sounds like the Met managed to churn out a bad high school play? OUCH.