Cher Public

(Mighty real)

A problem with scheduling an opera-intensive trip is that you don’t always hear and see the shows in optimum order. Ideally, a binge of opera should be programmed as carefully as a concert: something light to start, alternating demanding and less-demanding works, a big whopper of a show next to close, and then, you know, something encore-y to wind up.

Well, it doesn’t always work that way: for example, back in 2010 the “Regietournee” kicked off with, of all things, Calixto Bieito‘s Entfuhrung, more or less right off the plane, and then, nine days and seven operas later, the predictably dense production by Stefan Herheim of Lulu. Both of these I wish I could see again under less brain-fried conditions. But you see what you can see, and the order is determined by what’s on at what opera house in what city reachable by which train, and mostly you’re just happy if everything you want to see isn’t playing the same Tuesday night.

I am a little sorry, though, about how how the order worked out the last two nights. Ideally, I think, I should have seen Herheim’s Xerxes before Bieto’s Platée, instead of (as I did) trying to follow the revelatory with the merely excellent.

The difference between the two I am certain has little to do with levels of talent (how does one quantify genius?) or differential of quality of the works themselves. Rather it’s matter of aesthetic ambition, in combination perhaps with how well the pieces “speak” to the respective directors.

So let’s go chronological. Tuesday night in Stuttgart I saw at Platée what I think was the youngest mean-age audience I can recall, if you discount stuff like Hansel and Gretel, which all thinking people agree you probably should. I’m not talking, as you’d see in New York, people born since the Korean War when I say “young,” but rather mid 20s and even some later teens. (The show was recommended for 14 and up.) The reason they were there, I am confident, is that this production is entertaining and challenging, plus subversive in just the way people who haven’t quite settled their thinking yet prefer to see.

Platée is usually played strictly as campy comedy, which is presumably what Rameau and d’Orville had in mind. A major source of the humor is based on crossdressing; that is, the title character is a female nymph so unattractively unfeminine that she can only be portrayed by a man. In Bieito’s production, though, Platée is not a woman played by a man, but rather a man playing a woman; that is, a drag queen.

And she’s a mess, this one: hairy, thick-waisted, with muscular legs. In the role, tenor Thomas Walker makes a perfectly acceptable looking man, but he’s really not RuPaul material, not at all. The problem is, Platée doesn’t grasp her utter unfishiness: she thinks she’s just plain gorgeous. What’s worse, she’s crabby, entitled, whiny, jealous, backbiting, humorless… that sort of parody of the misogynist’s concept of woman the very worst drag queens tend to fall into unintentionally. (Understand, there are thousand and thousands of perfectly lovely and adorable and talented drag queens out there: it’s just that Platée isn’t one of them.)

She is such a mess, in fact, that she can’t get into the vaguely 1970s club Bieito sets the action in. As we arrive in the theater, there’s this tacky piece of polyester soft furniture (we used to call this sort of thing a “flip n’ fuck”) off in a stage right corner, with two men passed out on it. One of them, who we later will find out is Thespis, has fallen asleep with his pants down around his ankles; the other, marginally less rumpled, will come to as the music starts and scamped down into the pit: it’s conductor Hans Christoph Bünger.

So the regulars at this club, which is mostly empty black space punctuated by a giant mirror upstage reflecting the audience, get (or remain) high, sing about drinking, and welcome Bacchus, played by an obese woman naked but for a brief skirt of grape leaves. This is not the jolly Bacchus of myth but rather a Bacchus somewhat the worse for drink and fatigue: about all the energy she can summon goes into absent-mindedly swatting away the groping hands of her fellow partiers. (The chorus are dressed very like the sort of mixed crowd you see in photos of Studio 54, everything from business suits to fetish wear.) Eventually Thespis (Cyril Auvity) and the Satyre (André Morsch) set the plan in motion to prank Junon.

They first transform themselves into King Cithéron and the god Mercure by slapping on a little makeup (singing trills as they draw on beauty spots) and a couple of ratty white wigs. These two obviously have a history, and it’s delightful one: basically they are gay bros, and their relationship is clumsily and adorably sexual, escalating in seconds from slaps to tongues-out kisses. It’s a testament to Bieito’s celebrated boundary-challenging for his performers that these two singers are so incredibly physically comfortable with each other, and, beyond that, so ready to improvise broadly within boundaries established in rehearsals. They don’t act, they play, and it’s a constant delight just watching them having so much fun.

Not that this physical freedom comes at the cost of musical inaccuracy: the score is so inside these performers’ bodies (not just Morsch and Auvity, everyone) that it loses any sense of formality: this is just how these people talk.

So in comes Platée, and the shock is that when “she” arrives, it’s Walker in no makeup, a wig cap on his head, wearing a waist cincher and a panty girdle with lumpy hip pads. Snarking about the “agréable séjour,” he tucks (no, really, visibly, facing front, center stage), then pulls on a pair of panties with a landing-strip merkin and bra with wobbly falsies attached. A burnt-looking french twist wig, glittery heels and a Diane von Furstenberg knockoff wrap dress in cheap polyester knit (don’t bother to ask: it’s teal) complete the look, such as it is.

Now the dancing starts, and the fun part is that there is no formal ballet; rather, the chorus kick up their heels in a series of line dances. Mercure appears inside a gift-wrapped package, emerging apparently naked but for his Louis wig. (Eventually Cithéron strips down to teeny underpants as well and hops into the box with him where a game of patty-cake very quickly leads to more sloppy kissing.) The first half ends with another suite of chorus dances, this time with transparent plastic umbrellas, and again just a few simple steps, clomped like real people, but with enormous zest.

Jupiter arrives at the beginning of the second half, and if anything he’s less appetizing than Platée, the sort of slimy mincing queen who can clear out a back room in minutes. Descending from the heavens on a crystal chandelier, he’s all in Travolta white, with high Cuban heels and pasty makeup. Mercure and Cithéron stage-manage his transformations with a few beaten-up costume pieces including (as the donkey) a fur belt with a long, flaccid black dildo attached.

La Folie arrives to entertain at the wedding, a burnt-out rocker chick in ratted hair and a short tutu; throughout her aria Platée flirts with the audience, up to and including flashing her merkin. Junon beats Mercure to a pulp, then faints from sheer rage when Platée returns in a 1950s wedding dress that looks like a Goodwill special. Hundreds of single light bulbs descend from above, reflected in the upstage mirror and the shiny stage floor so it seems we are in the middle of an infinite galaxy of tiny lights. The wedding guests, tripping, play with the bulbs like children. La Folie uses her guitar like a machine gun and mows down all the guests, and then, just at the moment the vows are about to be exchanged, Mercure and Cithéron violently strip off Platée’s dress and wig. All scream with laughter, and she, again he, half-naked and drenched in sweat, tumbles to the ground screaming in protest.

The payoff here is immense: everyone in the story is horrible, with Platée only marginally worse than everyone else, so the final humiliation is funny and enraging at the same time. It’s a critique of comedy in general insofar as it is based on cruelty, but the twist is that it is a hilarious funny critique: we laugh but we are uncomfortable with laughing at the same time.

And I can’t emphasize enough that a lot more than yelling is going on here: the singing and the music-making in general is on a world-class plane. Messrs. Morsch and Auvity are simply perfect, singing with such vast rhythmic freedom they might be making up the piece as they go, yet never violating the gallant, playful style of the music. If haute-contre music lies a trifle high for Walker’s light tenor, any strain read as Platée’s desperation. Shigeo Ishino (Momus) and Thomas Wolf (Jupiter) had such tangy and distinctive low voices that you wished they had more to sing. The only weak link, in fact, was Lenneke Ruiten‘s La Folie, pallid of tone and too careful in coloratura that really needs arena-quality shredding. Maestro Bünger was one of the company, and not just because of his cameo acting bit at the beginning of the evening: everybody played together, and everyone played together.

When we say the cast of an opera is “having fun,” we usually mean they are goofing around, making mistakes and breaking up and such. But Bieito’s direction is all about freeing performers, challenging them to take emotional and physical risks, to dare to make fools of themselves. Paradoxically, exercising this freedom to be a fool gives the performers enormous strength and confidence. Even though this comedy is raunchy and brutal, it’s got a kind of primal joy.

“Formons un spectacle nouveau,” sings the chorus at the end of the prologue: Let’s make a new kind of theater. That’s just what Calixto Bieito is doing, using opera (and the minds and bodies of opera singers) as his raw material. And when the performers are willing to given themselves over entirely (as did most of this cast, including the Stuttgart opera chorus) the resulting spectacle will pound the audience to a pulp.

Including, I might add, those highly-coveted young audiences into whom the patrons of tomorrow will (hopefully) develop. They’re always seeking the Dionysian, and Bieito is one of the few directors today who puts pure uncut Dionysus on the stage of an opera house.

On to Xerxes, and the delectable Valer Sabadus, tomorrow.

Platée. Oper Stuttgart, May 5, 2015. Musikalische Leitung: Hans Christoph Bünger, Regie: Calixto Bieito, Choreografie: Lydia Steier, Bühne: Susanne Gschwender, Kostüme: Anna Eiermann, Licht: Reinhard Traub, Chor: Johannes Knecht, Dramaturgie: Patrick Hahn

Un Satyre / Cithéron: André Morsch, Thespis / Mercure: Cyril Auvity, Momus: Shigeo Ishino, Thalie: Mirella Bunoaica, Amour / La Folie: Lenneke Ruiten, Platée: Thomas Walker, Clarine: Lauryna Bendziunaite, Jupiter: Andreas Wolf, Junon: Maria Theresa Ullrich, Mit: Staatsopernchor Stuttgart, Staatsorchester Stuttgart.

Photos: A. T. Schaefer

  • Fluffy-net

    Super! Thank you. I admire La cieca. I would be so busy having fun that when it was all over I would be hard put to remember the details!

    And yes, opera is alive, creative, and developing as an art. My own experience tells me that when the production is entertaining, provocative, and thought-provoking the young show up in droves and applaud enthusiastically.

    I look forward to the Berlin reports.

  • Milady DeWinter

    Sounds like seeing a classic episode of Ab Fab with Edina in drag mode as a comically clueless Platée -- what fun!

  • mercadante

    Would love to know why the younger audience was there, not just an assumption. Is it for the production, Baroque opera, a mixture of the two, because ticket prices were good? It would be great to know what drew rhem, and if they were satisfied, hooked, ready to come for more.

    • GaGa

      I am curious, too.

      I was under the impression that young people don’t care for classical music. Are they more interested in the theatrical aspect of opera than the musical?

      • RobNYNY

        Judging by the review, there wasn’t much music worth mentioning. Someone trilled.

        • Fine. You’re on moderation for a month.

      • opera_newbie

        So, maybe my perspective as a “younger audience member” in the States might be interesting? Obviously I can only speak for myself, but for me the theatrical aspect was what got me hooked at first. I think there’s a relatively high barrier to entry on the music side, especially for someone like me who didn’t grow up around classical music or opera. There are definitely those show-stopping arias that produce a visceral reaction even for people who would say they don’t like opera, but they’re not most of the action, and appreciating the rest can be an acquired taste. One way of thinking about it might be that for me, the theatrical aspect of opera functioned like the caffeine in coffee — a reason to consume that over time allowed me to develop that taste. And theater’s still important to me after developing an appreciation for the music — after all, it’s not like I drink decaf — but now I can enjoy good singing in a stultifying production, which would have been a stretch a couple of years ago.

        This isn’t to say that the theatrical aspect necessarily has to be regie or even particularly fresh. The first opera I remember seeing was Turandot in the Zefferelli production. This would have been in 2007 I think, at which point I’m sure the production was showing its age, but the effect it produced on me at the time was pretty overwhelming. I had just never seen something like it before, and it turned me from someone who never went to the opera from someone who went a couple of times a year.

        What turned me from someone who went a couple of times a year to someone who subscribes, though, was affordable tickets. I bought my first subscription because there was a really cheap package available for people under 40 — it was something like $20 per show, for seats in the orchestra. At that price, I kind of figured what the hell, and then it turned into me buying higher-priced subscriptions in my current city and occasionally donating to my hometown house.

        • antikitschychick

          lovely anecdote opera_newbie and loved the coffee analogy as well. Totally agree that the theatrical aspect can be a great means of enticement for younger ppl, especially those who aren’t well-versed in the musical conventions of opera and who’ve never watched a show in a foreign language before. That can serve as a major barrier as well I’ve learned. Think it’s great that the Met is commissioning and putting on new and more contemporary works in English for this very reason.

          Any who, do keep sharing your thoughts with us :-).

      • Chanterelle

        With so little music education in the schools it makes sense that the theatrical aspect would be the hook for newbies. You need only show up and open your eyes. It helps if the story is made comprehensible and the visuals are attractive, but we are all accustomed to watching action unfold before our eyes, whether on big or little screen or in life. If theatrical values are good, the viewer is rewarded.

        Teasing out the meaning of a musical score calls for some degree of understanding--though musical training is not necessary for enjoyment of music. It helps, but I’d say many if not most opera goers are not musically sophisticated--they just like the package. This was even more true 100+ years ago.

        (I hope GCR isn’t reading this!)

    • Bill

      Mercandante -- I think in general one finds younger
      audiences in Germany and for that matter in
      Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, for all
      performances of all operas than one normally would find
      at the Met. Of course if the opera is Zauberfloete
      or Entfuehrung or Hary Janos or such things, there is
      even a younger audience than for more difficult fare.
      In Vienna many of the 550 standees are young (though
      some are really quite old particularly in the Galerie. Packs of young people in Budapest even for operas which might normally not appeal to novices. Many of the opera houses in Central
      Europe have student tickets or Restkarten at very
      attractive prices -- plus probably younger students
      in these Central European countries are more exposed
      to classical music at a young age than now in the USA -- there is a lot of choral singing, learning of musical instruments. And I have found in general
      the youngsters at performances in Central Europe are
      quite attentive when the curtain is up. Culture for young Americans in the USA seems to be distanced away from opera and classical music at a faster pace than for young people in Europe. Maybe it is the ticket prices in the USA as well -- standing room at the Met is priced outrageously high (and often quite empty).

      • aulus agerius

        Yes, recently the met SR was $28 for orchestra and $20 for family circle [+$2.50 facility fee!!]. And they were virtually empty. They won’t even sell the fc ones unless fc is sold out.

      • phoenix

        What kept us going back again & again to standing room in the old days were the changing casts -- often you would get, for example, 3 different alternating Marschallins in a Rosenkavalier production during one season.

      • turings

        I came across a couple of articles recently on how gaming soundtracks are a lot of people’s first introduction to classical music these days – and like movie soundtracks, there’s new interest in hearing the scores live in concert halls. One from Parterre’s favorite British newspaper here:

        And here’s a nice thread on reddit where a guy is looking for recommendations on what opera to listen to, based on liking the soundtrack to Payday 2:

        So there’s hope yet :)

    • vilbastarda

      As a younger person that grew up in Central Europe, and lives in US now, I can tell you my story, and the story of my peers, and my opinion on current state of classical music and opera in US. I came to appreciate vocal music through radio first. Every day, when I would come home from school (alone, both coming home, and being home), I would turn on the radio first. At that hour there was always the classical music hour on the radio, and many days they were playing vocal music (lieder mostly). At first it didn’t amuse me, or at best would leave me indifferent. But after a while, it started to appeal to me, probably when they would play a more interesting/catchy/better recording. I was already studying piano, but operatic singing was many times derided in my family.

      Then in high school, also while being home alone, I stumbled on TV on a showing of the famous Tosca with Domingo and Kabaivanska, the one filmed in Rome. Just because there was nothing else interesting to watch, I started watching that, and by the end I was hooked. This is how my love for opera started.

      Then in college, it was extremely easy to go to concerts, and operas, and I would binge on both, even if most performances I would end up going to were mediocre at best. But tickets were super cheap for students (think like 2 subway rides worth), or many times free (you needed a conservatory ID for this, but we had friends). So for me and my peers, the past time was to more or less accidentally end up at various performances. And not only that we got to love and appreciate the art form(s), but we also built our knowledge base.

      Now, living in US, I got to appreciate many aspects of US culture, and mentality. The most shocking still to me is the great divide between the haves and have nots. And I am not talking wealth here, I am talking knowledge/erudition, and even curiosity. It is almost like there is no middle group here, of people that have the curiosity, but not necessarily the full understanding of the art. Without this group of people, we see the current trend in declining audience, and wilting of the art form. Yes, I think music education, and availability of classical music has to start early (elementary, middle school), but I also believe that the curiosity aspect peaks in college, and if arts organizations would focus on college students, by advertising intensively on campuses, and offering big discounts, and free tickets, the audience could be rebuilt, and it could happen fast -- college students become young professionals with financial means quickly. Just my opinion.

      • manou

        No -- si vil non siete…

        Very interesting post!

        • vilbastarda

          Grazie, Manou :)

      • vilbastarda

        Just to add that for me music, and singing came first, and continues to be the most important aspect, and theatrical part is just a nice addition, which I can enjoy greatly, or can ignore without feeling like I’m missing much. Just on a couple of occasions I found theatrical interpretation of some opera productions so distracting that it ruined the experience. But the productions that I enjoy a lot theatrically are most of the time the so called “regie” ones, and “traditional” ones can leave me indifferent (on average).

        And quickly, before Manou catches me: that is pastime, not past time -- sorry!

  • EA3

    I very much hope that someone responsible for programming at BAM has this production on his or her radar.

  • mercadante

    I saw Rigoletto in Atlanta recently and the audience was skewed very young, a lot of millenials, or very old, late 60-70’s. Very few in their 404 s or 50s. However the amount of millenials was very surprising. And dressed up too.

  • phoenix

    interesting, deatailed (how do you find time to write these things?) -- but I miss the stream of rosenkavalerian subconsciousness

  • aulus agerius

    I have been thinking about going to see Written on Skin at the Koch in August, mainly because I have read such positive response from Paris and London. What does anyone else think? I have watched most of the YT vid of the Paris production and was pretty much turned off. The musical style doesn’t appeal much -- however there were some interesting sonorities between the counter and the soprano early on. Plus the subject matter is strange to say the least and the final scenes grotesquely repulsive. What is the appeal? What am I missing?

    • I saw a concert performance of Written on Skin in Toronto recently and was utterly taken with it, both the music and libretto. It’s a very distinctive piece. I think hearing it live might leave a different impression than YT. I say give it a go.

      • redbear

        The Aix performance is also on YT. That I prefer. I was simply bowled over by the opera and the production in Aix. It is clearly one of the great contemporary operas of my time and critics everwhere agreed. It is extraordinary that no American company has picked it up.

    • Chanterelle

      You should go if only for the mesmerizing Barbara Hannigan.

  • Chanterelle

    Great description, La Cieca — you do give us the details! I wondered whether the theme was more transgender than cross dressing, but this is out of my realm. I suppose transgendered folk generally are more self-aware than the clueless Platée.

    On April 19th the house was about 2/3 full, mostly older people (who were enjoying themselves mightily). Perhaps midweek more young people were around to take advantage of the house’s last minute student discounts. Based on a half-dozen shows I’ve seen in Stuttgart, there’s usually a wider age range.

    @EA3: Though more heteronormative and less ebullient, the SEMELE seen recently at BAM was in a similar vein, including outsize donkey dongs.

  • Thank you for another wonderful account. I do love La Cieca’s European reports (including the last trip involving Bieito’s Parsifal).

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Y’gotta hand it to that Bieito guy -- he’s such a sick puppy. Perfect for opera.

  • Tory Adore

    “Bieito is one of the few directors today who puts pure uncut Dionysus on the stage of an opera house.” Love it.
    Sounds like a fun time!

    • DharmaBray

      Uncut Dionysus and the delectable Valer Sabadus within a few words of each other… *sigh*