1. DON’T STAGE THE OVERTURE. Surprise: Verdi and Rossini and Wagner Mozart actually worked in the theater most of their lives, so give them credit for knowing that the overture is there to get the audience in the mood, to ease their transition from “outside” to “inside.”
Resist the temptation to interpolate a mimed prologue. During the Siciliana to Cavalleria rusticana, we do not need to see Lola and Turridu making out in their underwear. Corollary#1A: this holds true for interludes as well — no dream ballet during Siegfried’s Funeral March.)
2. SPARE US THE OLD RAZZLE-DAZZLE. Some operas are a little weak musically or dramatically, and it’s reasonable enough to want to jazz them up a bit with clever staging. But if you feel you have to overhaul the opera completely, better let it alone. No acrobats doing backflips during Handel arias; no bands of Merry Commedia dell’Arte Players mooching for applause during Rossini. And the Tenor-with-the-Hanky gag deserved to die about 20 years ago. Think of yourself as a chef: choose the freshest, best-quality ingredients, prepare them with care, and lay off the sauces.
3. IF YOU WANT TO SEND A MESSAGE, USE E-MAIL. It’s Act 4 in some German Bohème production. Mimì is expiring downstage, while upstage (in an apartment across the street from the bohemians), a well-to-do family welcomes a well-to-do doctor who makes their little well-to-do daughter all better — just as poor indigent Mimì barfs her lungs out. Those darn inequities in the health care system! Yes, I know art is about serious issues, but when an audience realizes you’re preaching at them, they either lose interest or get angry at the director. But if you can make your points subtly and entertainingly, the public can have their entertainment and then go home and think about the issues you raised.
4. IT’S THE CHARACTERS, STUPID! Human behavior is like an analog recording: there’s an infinite amount of data there waiting to be accessed. Lighting effects, moving platforms, smoke machines and giant puppets with Ara Berberian‘s voice basically are interesting only the first time, and even then not so interesting as living, breathing humans acting human. Personenregie, please. It’s not so hard as it looks, because most opera singers are pretty decent actors, if you take the time to learn what they can and cannot do. Even so notoriously inert a stage figure as Pavarotti could come to life in Bohème, delivering one of the most moving dramatic performances I have ever seen. Sure, playing with lasers is fun — but is the stage of an opera house really the proper place for boys and their toys?
5. YOU CAN’T DO MOZART WITHOUT BENCHES. A properly designed set will encourage interesting and characterful movement from the performers; a lousy set will leave them just standing there (in the dark, probably). In an opera with long reflective ensembles, it’s good to offer the performers the option of sitting now and then, if only to add a little variety to the stage picture. And doesn’t it irk you when Donna Anna or the Countess have to sit on the floor? Yes, I know those benches are “traditional”, and that’s a dirty word these days. But has it occurred to you that traditions become traditional because they WORK. Corollary #5A: You can’t do TRAVIATA without a chaise longue.
6. ONE SIZE DOESN’T FIT ALL. “That dress looked great on Scotto, but somehow it made Caballe look sort of, you know, fat…” No, costumes designed for one artist’s figure don’t always flatter another’s: and the same is true of stage movement and business. For almost 40 years, every Nedda who sings at the Met has to attempt the hyperactive staging Franco Zeffirelli devised for Teresa Stratas: you know, that aerobics routine she does during the Ballatella. But you know, that skipping and stuff looked fabulous when La Stratas did it — in fact, she needs a lot of physical activity on stage or she’ll tense up and the high A-sharp will go to hell. But other performers obviously have different needs.
7. SAD IS BAD. Of course some operas are sad. But it’s the audience who’s supposed to cry, not the performers. Sorrow is not an energizing emotion — in fact, it tends to suck the force out of anyone’s performance. Mimì when she is saying “Addio” should be brave, or bitter, or hopeful — something that will give her character some dignity and backbone. If Mimì is just feeling sorry for Mimì, then the audience needn’t bother.
8. UPDATED IS OUTDATED. Exactly what is gained by resetting, say, The Rake’s Progress in the 1920s? Are today’s audiences really all that better acquainted with the habits and that mores of that period than the 18th century? Very often, it seems like a director changes the period of a piece simply because he can’t think of anything else to do that looks “different.” (See Rule #2.) Besides, updating risks distortion of the social background of the piece. What employer in 1985 New York would dare hassle such hard-working, smart, and (let’s face it) white servants as Figaro and Susanna? The best bet is to stick to the original period (without turning the opera into a historical costume parade) or else to use simple, non-specific garb suggesting no period in particular: what Dr. Repertoire likes to call Star Trek Clothes.
9. LET THE GAMES NOT BEGIN. Creation in the theater is a collaborative process, with no room for dictators. Keep in mind that when a singer questions one of your ideas, he may not really intend a power struggle: in fact, he may just think it’s a lousy idea. Bend. Compromise. Discuss. And for God’s sake, stop sniping at that poor girl who’s singing Zerlina. She’s doing the best she can. If you’re directing because you’re into the whole power trip, do us all a favor and go to an S&M club instead.
10. SAFETY LAST. (And first and always.) No effect, no matter how spectacular, is worth injuring an artist — not even a chorister. It’s your job to make the production as safe as humanly possible. Be there when the blank pistol is loaded. Walk the set and make sure it’s solid. Do a fall on the rake and see if you end up in the orchestra pit. And take a nice big lungful of that Roscofog and then try to sing Wotan’s Farewell. If you survive, then you can give the cast a try. And if ever they refuse to do anything on grounds of danger, it’s not fair to whine, to bully, or, worst of all, to threaten, “If you don’t do it, we’ll find another singer who will.” Better they should find another director — one with some regard for human life.
[Originally published in parterre box #21.]