Cher Public

Public enemy

La Cieca (not pictured) cannot say she entirely agrees with the statement (after the jump) made by Mary Zimmerman in an interview today with the New York Times, but she (La Cieca, that is) is most interested in hearing your reaction to said statement about (more or less) “what’s wrong with opera audiences?” 

The main difference between directing theater and directing opera is the opera audience and its knowledge of the text. That knowledge goes back to childhood, and it’s an oral knowledge, often from recordings, accompanied by an imagined virtual perfection, or that virtual perfection is a production they saw as children. And that’s wed to the music in the heart and mind. There’s a longing for how we first experienced it or how we experienced it virtually by listening to it — disembodied and therefore divine — and any materialization of it is, by definition, incorrect, at first.

Photo: Ken Howard

  • fletcher

    “If you don’t like my work it’s because you listened to that Chalabala record too many times when you were in high school.”


    If that’s a picture from the Met production it looks like one of the Sid & Marty Kroft shows I spent my Saturday mornings watching as a child. To which I say,’ugh’.

  • aulus agerius

    Certainly doesn’t hold for me. For one thing, I heard/saw no opera as a child. I saw my first opera (which I don’t even remember) at about 25. However I do go pretty much entirely for the singers -- what they can do for me with the music as written by these masters.

  • PCally

    I think Zimmerman is a shit opera director and that the comment is pretty disingenuous but part of me sees where she’s coming from. How many times do people say/write things like “so and so would be spinning in their grave” only to prove, when responding to pushback, that such statements are based almost purely on what their own subjective ideas on a how a staging should look as opposed to any genuine knowledge of what the composer intended? Happens on pattern all the time.

  • swordsnsolvers

    My biggest complaint about opera audiences is their inability to silence their phones and themselves. Seriously people, they’re called cough drops. I wasn’t aware until Lyric Opera’s recent performance of Lucia that Donizetti had actually intended the mad scene as a showpiece duet for soprano + wheezing senior citizen.

    • berkeleygirl

      From my perch in the top balcony, cell phones are driving me nuts. Everyone uses them to check the time. Does no one understand that the light is a distracting beacon? The worst was when a young woman in front of me pulled out her phone, in the middle of Act I of Don Giovanni, to check her text messages. I would gladly support a rule that, unless one has proof of being a medical professional, all phones are confiscated by the ushers.

    • Henry Myers

      Observed in Turin during Intermission: Free cough lozenges from Ricola

      • mb

        Carnegie Hall does the same thing.

        • La Monnaie too.

          • Rosina Leckermaul

            So does the Atlanta Symphony — and Geffen Hall.

  • Porgy Amor

    PCally said more or less what I was thinking. It is not true of everyone, but it is true for many very vocal people, and we do not need to go far to see where she is getting the idea. Wotan is not “supposed to be” wearing a an overcoat and a fedora; Aïda “should” look as it looked in a production from 50 years ago, with ancient Egypt evoked in all the obvious ways, no expense spared; and (for the opera at issue here) Rusalka “needs” a Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen storybook visual style because it is a fairy tale.

    She has seemed at pains in two straight HDs (a live interview during the Nabucco intermission and then a taped one in the pre-show run-up to Roméo) to emphasize the conservatism of her approach to Rusalka. I feel as though she is trying this time for a popular hit, having been booed for Sonnambula and Armida.

  • Porgy Amor

    Is anyone presently able to open and read any article besides this one? All the other ones are giving me the “white-out” effect. The site had been wholly inaccessible for several hours before this, and now it seems, you know, “back up but not quite.”

    • La Cieca

      I can access but I have admin privileges so maybe that changes things.

  • Leontiny

    The Svoboda production of Queen of Spades in Ottawa with its river of cards swallowing Liza as she leapt into the canal sent me to Covent Garden for his 70’s Ring, and then later to Prague for Rusalka and a production where the Prince first sees her as a reflection in the water. Magical stagecraft so respectful of the music, and an audience entranced. I was not a child, and I cherish that production. Years later I returned for another more abstract production again by Svoboda, and was again entranced. I saw that dress and those masks last week during Romeo and had a bad feeling about this production. How can she move with all that weight dragging behind her?

  • DonCarloFanatic

    I get it. For my first Ring Cycle I expected to see horned helmets, armored statuesque women, etc. Instead, I got that robey-ringy thing (1975, I think). I was disappointed. Maybe a fair number of people come to opera for a first time have similar expectations. I’m trying to imagine an Aida that isn’t over the top, but the music calls for excess.

    • La Cieca

      So let me see if I understand this. Any production for an opera that you didn’t happen to see before should be specifically designed and directed to cater to your personal expectations. You meanwhile have no obligation to bring any sense of curiosity to the opera.

      Is that more or less correct?

      • PCally

        Exactly what i think ms. zimmerman.

        • Satisfied

          Zimmerman brings no curiosity to the opera.

      • Magpie

        What Don Carlo may have tried to say is that he didn’t get what he expected, but that new production had nothing new for him to take.. The first opera I saw was Aida. with the Elephants, the pyramids, elephants, etc. That is what I WANTED to see thereafter. When i went to see it a second time in the late 80’s (at a university), the new production had nothing other than 2 large pyramids onto which imagery of Israel and Palestine were constantly swirling- how very cliche- Yet, that production had me thinking and I was very much drawn into the message. The amateur singers did well, and Verdi did the rest. I guess that in opera it is the director’s job to make us grow up, to break our patterns and expectations. Zimmerman is just taking the easy way out.

        • Pirelli

          There were a few years when I was in high school where the Hartford-based Connecticut Opera staged a few operas in the Civic Center (more often used for sporting events) as opposed to the Bushnell Auditorium. The first such production was Aida. The poster design gave the elephants and the number of other “Triumphal Scene” attractions the top billing.

          • DonCarloFanatic

            Saw that, and the one after. You’re right. They were pure spectacle. Maybe there was some Verdi.

      • DonCarloFanatic

        Nope. It was my sense of curiosity that took me to my first Ring Cycle, and to the first seventy or so operas I ever saw. I doubt I had heard any Wagner previously except snatches of the Ride of the Valkyries; Wagner was not played in our house when I was growing up. I picked out other operas to see based on their names and the offered dates alone, again having zero clue about what I’d be seeing. I watched all the “Live from…” no matter what the opera was. I was surprised many times.

        Even so, total neophytes do come to operas with some expectations--perhaps from Looney Tunes. At one HD of the LePage Ring, some young people arrived wearing horned helmets and blond braided wigs. They might have been expecting to see horned helmets, just I was years before. Were they disappointed? Maybe they saw past the sets and the costumes.

        • La Cieca

          You do know that Wotan and Valkyries do not traditionally wear horned helmets? They wear helmets adorned with wings to signify their mastery of their flying steeds.

          • DonCarloFanatic

            I bow to your vastly superior knowledge…but Elmer Fudd wears a horned helmet.

            • La Cieca

              I bow to your infinite solipsism.

    • “I’m trying to imagine an Aida that isn’t over the top, but the music calls for excess.”

      I don’t think that’s true. But it’s been paired with unnecessary excess often enough for excess to have become, for many, an expectation.

      • Porgy Amor

        I agree. Just as much of the music, perhaps more, is intimate and private as is big and grand.

        Now, I have seen some bad “stripped-down” Aïdas (Stein’s at La Scala was nothing special, but half of the premiere cast was poor, which did not help). But I am not convinced the approach itself is bad. Certainly, Bondy was influential in proving that Don Carlos could work with simpler means, and it’s possible someone could do the same with its sister work, or already has.

        • Wilson’s was pretty stripped-down, as you might imagine.

        • Rosina Leckermaul

          The old John Dexter Met production was certainly stripped down--including a wrestling match between two stripped down men as the triumphal ballet.

          • Porgy Amor

            When I eventually saw the ’85 broadcast of that (Lee’s last stand), I remember I took a shot of the screen on that gladiatorial scuffle and sent it to La Cieca with the comment that it may be the single gayest scene I’ve ever seen in an opera…inclusive of operas like Brokeback Mountain that have gay characters in them. (Of course, I missed ‘Cesca’s Iphigénie en Tauride.)

            Hardly anyone says anything good about that Dexter production today, and Italian warhorses were not the kind of opera he did best, but I thought it was better than its rep. At least he had some ideas for it — he was trying to get at something about rituals of religion and militarism robbing people of humanity, and he did this with intelligence and consistency (the first image we see is a man who at first appears to be a bird of prey). What I saw was a revival after Dexter had gone, so I never got the version with the fussy arm choreography the singers struggled to remember, but I thought it was a little ahead of its time, and better than what replaced it.

            This is a minority view. The current “Zeffirelli on a budget” production by Sonja Frisell, sets by Gianni Quaranta, will be the longest-lasting Aïda in Met history if it is replaced at the 31-year mark, the reported plan. The previous record holder was a 1923 production with sets by Angelo Parravicini (“magnificent…impressively massive,” said Musical America of the first performance, starring Rethberg and Martinelli). That one endured until the Bing era.

            Then, for four consecutive decades there was a new production of this opera. The Webster/Gérard served from 1951-63, the Merrill/O’Hearn from 1963-76, and the Dexter/Reppa from 1976-88.

            • Rosina Leckermaul

              I saw it in 1976 with Rita Hunter, Elena Obrasztova and Bergonzi. With that cast, it was pretty much park and bark. The wrestling match “ballet” was an attempt to present the racial element of the Egypt/Ethiopia conflict as a racial one, but the very white Egyptian wrestler certainly didn’t look Egyptian. Pretty heavy handed, but certainly beefcake. I minded the production less than some of the Met’s fussy spectaculars.

  • berkeleygirl

    Somebody alert Cenerentola that Rusalka stole her mice!

  • StageLefty

    I agree with the gist of her statement regarding the imagined visuals we, as audience members, attach to a piece we’ve only heard. But I don’t think that accounts for the difference one might take in directing opera vs a play or musical.
    I think the major difference in directing opera is that the artist’s vocal choices are limited by the score. Actors have a tremendous array of options of expression, vocally, in terms of diction, dialect, tempo, pitch, dynamics, while singers are fixed in almost all of that, as if a full set of line readings have been given them. (Actors HATE that… and even in musical theatre, within a song, there is a lot more leeway in how a performer interprets the music.) An opera director then works with those given line readings to deliver the story. If no director ever looked beyond the literal reading of the score, then every Traviata or Carmen (or Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda) would be the same. So love or hate MZ, it’s harder to direct opera in a way that says something new without creating some sort of cognitive dissonance for at least part of the audience. (And if you were, say, Benedict Cumberbatch performing Hamlet, and you KNEW that a large portion of your audience had just been listening to a podcast/watching a DVD of Derek Jacoby’s performance of it from thirty years ago and would be making all kinds of comparisons, would it be easier or harder to go out on stage?)

    • Portia Minty

      I agree with Mr. Lefty that opera directors have somewhat less room for interpretation than theater directors have; not only do all the characters have “line readings,” but the orchestra is there filling in all the atmosphere, setting up anticipation and dread, etc., and a production that fights this will undermine the whole shebang. In addition there is also the problem that many opera plots are full of antique contrivances that tempt post-modernist directors to critiques that may start out intriguingly but stumble somewhere along the way, as the critique parts company with the story being told. Zimmerman’s Sonnambula was an example of this, because as the story developed, the “rehearsal” overlay became less congruent with the dilemmas and realizations of the characters in the remote Swiss village.

      It may be that Rusalka’s dark fairy tale is more suited to Ms. Zimmerman’s talents and insight. I, for one, am looking forward to it, and hoping.

      • La Cieca

        I would suggest, though, that a certain advantage opera directors have is that they are (generally) working with “classic” works, i.e., pieces that the audience has some history with. And so, if (for example) a production of Tristan ends without an obvious death for Isolde, the audience can be counted upon to know that the death is “supposed” be there, and to take that lack of depiction as a statement to to parsed.

        That’s not true so much in straight theater outside of, say, a celebrity revival of a Shakespeare or a Tennessee Williams.

        • Portia Minty

          Ah, yes, that is an advantage! Is that the reason for the currently popular trope of starting the opera with the ending, and then playing out the story as someone’s flashback or dream? Because we all know what happens in the end to La Traviata, or Elizabeth I, or Riccardo in Ballo (at Bayerische Staatsoper last year), there’s no surprise to be lost in beginning with their deaths, then exploring how they got there. But what does that do to newcomers to the story? I worry a lot about the future of the art with younger generations, and I wonder if that makes the art form a bit more of a closed circle for newcomers, who have to parse not only the production they’re seeing, but also its relationship to its traditions for the whole thing to make sense.

          • La Cieca

            So I would guess that as epic poetry goes, the Odyssey is not to your taste, and you don’t care for Wuthering Heights or La Dame aux camelias as novels, and you don’t have much use for Citizen Kane or The Godfather Part II as movies.

            I am just wondering how dumb we are supposed to expect your “newcomers” to be. I mean, isn’t it a bit of a spoiler to begin Gone With the Wind with a title card that indicates that the South lost the war?

            • Armerjacquino

              Also: this whole ‘what about people seeing it for the first time?’ thing is getting old. The people who pull it out seem to think it’s a clincher, but it’s disingenuous, it’s patronising, and it shows little understanding of how theatre is made. The job of a director is to find a way of storytelling which is compelling to everyone in every seat, not to preside over a Cliff’s Notes production aimed solely at putative newcomers with no imagination.

            • Portia Minty

              You made me laugh, La Cieca, but no, obviously not all effective drama depends on our not knowing the outcome! My comment wasn’t meant to object to that particular trope as a reason for alienating an audience; it’s really rather benign. Probably everyone who’s ever entered an opera hall knows how Traviata’s going to end and though I enjoy productions that
              start with bubbly gaiety (as conveyed by the bubbly music in Act I), because then there’s quite a ways to go, emotionally, from there to the end, I also like the current Traviata, and find its use of the framing devices and the party guests as a threatening lascivious male mob quite effective – though I know lots of viewers don’t. For me, those devices seem well-thought-out and shed a valid new light on the work. My concern arises when the devices so alienate the viewer from the content that it becomes hard to make out what the show’s supposed to be about – e.g., that Glyndebourne production of Hippolyte et Aricie set in a refrigerator, with singing celery? It was quite original, but I was so distracted by trying to make out what the various fruits and vegetables were up to that the music’s impact was muted.

              I am not arguing for ossification! There is no one statement to be made on any work, any more than there is only one voice to sing it. But I am always interested in whether or not that voice or the statement seems effective in bringing out the content of the work as a whole.

            • La Cieca

              FWIW, I don’t care for the flashback technique in Traviata because I don’t think the music of the Prelude supports it.

              I recall a wonderful story told by our beloved Jason McVicker/Enzo Bordello about a Traviata in Chicago with the “flashback” device. June Anderson, as was generally the case, was ill that night, and so an announcement was made before the curtain to that effect. And then the curtain went up on a tableau of La Anderson collapsed across a chaise longue, with Doctor Grenvil taking her pulse and shaking his head.

              And from the gallery came the cry, “It’s worse than we thought!”

            • Portia Minty

              Hahahaha!! Wonderful story.

  • Satisfied

    What really annoys me about this article is Zimmerman’s impression that she is somehow ahead of the curb: her own self-praise aside, there is absolutely nothing (in her words) “radical” about her work in opera.

    In her view, her productions are simply too smart for the audience on first impression. She completely failed to recognize that the reason Sonnambula was successful in its second iteration was because of the incredible pairing of Javier and Dianna. The production was otherwise just as dreadful the second goaround.

    This reminds me of a conversation Michael Maher had at the Guggenheim before the Rigoletto opening. In his view, he was not going to bow to “your grandpa’s Rigoletto” but was instead creating something new and fresh. In reality, he (whether knowingly or not) imitated a previous production of Rigoletto to less successful effect.

    To me, it seems that both of these directors lack a fundamental understanding of how opera is produced outside of the US. It’s almost as if Zimmerman consciously avoided recent milestone productions of Rusulka or simply didn’t understand their remarkability and thus, dismissed them out of hand.

    People complain (even here!) about the hubris of regie Directors, but I look at these two (and could add Shear and Eyre) and have equal complaint for those directors who confuse obviousness for revelatory or, worse still, “radical.”

  • Porgy Amor

    Well. (tm evenhanded)

    If Ms. Zimmerman is entitled to one thing, it is that her work should be evaluated when the production opens. Not from still photographs, not from interview comments. If we are going to complain about the AMOPpers putting up photos of Bieito and Konwitschny productions, or pulling some detail out of context (“Toilets!” “Nipples!”) as if that proves the production was The Worst Thing Ever, we should not be part of the problem when it comes to a Rusalka that is fairy-tale literal. This is one way to do it, and it can be done well or poorly.

    I do think the photo with this entry is…unpromising, but any production lives or dies by the way it moves rather than the way it can be frozen in a moment, and I really do want Ms. Zimmerman and everyone else involved to have a success. I love the opera, and that Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen was overdue for the broom.

    • Satisfied

      The comments on this post are all about Zimmerman’s statements in the New York Times article. I don’t think anyone is yet judging the production.

      I actually really hope the production is good and, you’re right, the previous production was well in need of retirement. I really adore this opera and am hoping Thursday evening is a great success.

      • Porgy Amor

        All of that is fair; I’m just hoping people go into it open-minded. Obviously, unless someone is completely new to us (a singer, conductor, director), we go into anything with knowledge of a track record that cannot be completely suppressed. But one thing I try to do — especially when I write about something for parterre, but just in general — is give everyone a clean slate at curtain time. Sometimes that allows me to be surprised.

  • Baritenor

    There’s a fairly extensive look at the set and costume design on the Met’s website, for those who want a more indepth look. Personally I think it looks pretty cool.

  • Rosina Leckermaul

    The picture looks like it could be Act I of Tristan at Bayreuth.

  • Donna Annina

    Just got an email from the Met PR department re Rusalka and Opolais is still on the bill.

  • Concerning the “flashback” technique of staging the end of the opera
    during the prelude and whether it destroys the impact of the opera’s finale, here’s the beginning of a play by a fairly well-regarded author who obviously wasn’t worried about such a thing:

    Two households, both alike in dignity,
    In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
    From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
    Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
    From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
    A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
    Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
    Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
    The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
    And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
    Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
    Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage.

    I always think it’s silly when someone who’s going to see a play, movie or opera for the first time says, “Don’t tell me the ending and spoil it for me,” as if everything is a “who done it” and nothing else is worth experiencing: the beauty of the script/opera score, the art of the designers, the art of the performers, etc.

  • Nicola Gandolfi

    Of course I have an ideal image in my mind, dear, I was at La scala when I was 7 yo, long time ago. Opera audience is depicting how bad are our times, and directors and singers as well. Not to mention poets, writers and composers and theatre managers. I know, this works as well for visual arts and literature and so on. Actually, I can’t pick up wath the hell this lady is telling to us and why she is asked for interviews.