The Beczala contradiction

So, Piotr Beczala (left) has gone and blabbed to Luister, which is some sort of Dutch glossy classical music magazine, that he’s not going to work with “stupid, idiotic and  far-fetched” directors like “Calixto BieitoHans Neuenfels and Martin Kusej,” no, don’t ask him, he just won’t do it.  

Well, La Cieca is all for free choice, even when the choice seems to be based on stupidity, and so she’s not going to insist that Beczala do anything he doesn’t want to do. What she will do, however, is question the “takeaway” from this statement, i.e., “because Beczala says these directors are bad, that’s proof that they are charlatans, because who would be in a better position to know these things than a singer?”

The problem is, it’s hard to define what “liking” a production means to the singers in it, and further I would suggest that the elements that make a production attractive to a singer are not necessarily those that appeal to an audience.

A singer’s experience of a production is not the same as the audience’s. The singer is required to be actively engaged in rehearsals, a process that is essentially invisible to the paying public. Even in performance, the experience of being onstage singing is vastly different from that of being out in the auditorium listening.

Singers are artists, and artists are at their happiest when they are in a state of flow, i.e., the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. This “flow” state requires a clear and worthwhile goal and a sense that one’s abilities can, with hard work, accomplish the defined task.

This “flow” state is the ideal condition of the rehearsal: the director has a particular effect in mind and the process consists of first communicating that vision and then the performers finding physical ways to express that vision visually. But for there to be the maximum of the ecstatic “flow” state, that process must be quite challenging. In other words, the participants in the rehearsal must exert all their energies in order to achieve that goal of “communicating the vision.”

If the task is too easy, the participants become bored; it the task is impossible, the participants become frustrated.

The performance process ideally follows a similar pattern: there is a goal to be reached in the performance, a combination of excellent musicality, vocal beauty and dramatic intensity. Because these elements are in some ways inimical to each other (how angry can I get before I start screaming?) the performance experience is a sort of balancing act: the difficult task is keeping all the plates in the air at the same time.

Now, note that both these processes, as described, are very much about “how” and not at all about “what” — that is, the performer’s experience in rehearsal and performance doesn’t have to vary much between a “traditional” production and an “Regie” staging, so long as the two tasks are roughly equal in the level of challenge they provide the participant.

Of course, this is assuming that the singers involved approach the acting aspect of an operatic performance as an artistic challenge and not as a necessary evil (“I’ve got to get dressed up in this silly wig and uncomfortable bodice and traipse around all night just so I get the change to sing ‘Dove sono’.”) In the case of that sort of singer, the one who regards opera as primarily a change to show off the voice, the intensive rehearsals and physical challenges in performance of the typical Regie production will seem a massive waste of time.

They don’t perceive the goal of creating gripping theater as a worthy one, and so the challenge of achieving that goal is meaningless. Of course, they’re going to be just as bored working in, say, a Giorgio Strehler revival in which every tiny gesture is minutely choreographed: the whole dramatic process means nothing to them, and the only real advantage of a “traditional” production is that it generally requires of them a lot less rehearsal time.

This is the singers’ experience of direction, the process. What the audience experiences is something quite different, the product of that process. It can happen that singers have a miserable time in rehearsal and performance and yet the audience loves the show; it can also happen that the rehearsal process is a time for jolly camaraderie the building of lifelong friendships, and the resulting production looks sloppy and meaningless.

So what I’m saying is, how singers experience a production is in most ways unrelated to how the audience experiences it. So in that sense, a singer’s opinion of a director is for the most part meaningless.

The exception here, an important one, is that there is a quality that immediately leaps across the footlights and automatically engages the audience. That quality can be called “passion” or “commitment” or even “joy,” the sense that what the artist is doing on the stage is the most important thing in the world he could be doing at that moment, the feeling that “this is what I was born for, to given this performance for you tonight.”

The fostering of this “passionate” emotional quality I think is very much related to the artist’s experience of rehearsal and performance..Or, to put it another way, if the rehearsals and, eventually, the performance, are flow- producing experiences, the artist’s flow-induced rapture communicates to the audience. And that “rapture” is independent of content: it could be a hoop- skirted Donna Anna quietly crossing the stage to address her Don Ottavio, or it could be a Klingsor in tattered underwear threatening Kundry with a flamethrower.

What I find silliest about Beczala’s statement (assuming it’s accurate) is that his experience with the directors he mentions is extremely limited. He really doesn’t know what working with Bieito or Neuenfels might feel like, and if he didn’t hit it off with Kusej in that one production of Don Giovanni seven years ago (one assumes, the tenor doesn’t go into any detail) is that still a fair basis for calling a whole group of artists such unpleasant names? One would think that, of all people, a tenor would be understanding how damaging unthinking stereotyping can be.