Dear Dr. Repertoire:
If I see another opera set in Nazi Germany or in Little Italy in the 1950s or in a diner, I swear I'll scream. Why can't stage directors just follow the staging in the original score?

Guido Feroce

Dear Guido: You might scream even louder if you saw a really "authentic" production. Following are someinstructions approved by Verdi, as published in the stage manager's guide hired out by Ricordi to theaters producing Aida:

[In the final moments of the "Temple of Vulcan" scene,] Ramfis and Radames...turn to the audience and take four steps forward as they cry, "Immenso Ftha!" At that precise moment all the prists...turn to face the audience and raising their arms above their heads reply, "Immenso Ftha!" At the same time the ballerinas raise their [feather] fans so as to form a single huge fan.

Julian Budden comments, "A curtain eminently worthy of the Folies Bergere."

Stage directions in opera fall into two categories. There are those which are absolutely essential to the stage action, such as when Amonastro threatens Amneris with his dagger or when Susanna hands the note to the Count. Other stage directions are there to create mood or to suggest character: for example, when Rodolfo pulls Mimi's bonnet from his coat. We learn nothing factual from that piece of business, but it does create a mood of nostalgia and loss. Or there is the bit in Tosca when Scarpia tickles the heroine's arm with with his quill pen, suggesting the sexual menace and gratuitous cruelty of the police chief.

The first type of directions really cannot be changed without bewildering the audience: they are as concrete as the text. The second (mood/character) type are, I think, more subject to interpretation and alteration. Rodolfo might, for example, start to sing of Mimi and then pour himself a stiff drink, suggesting that his unresolved feelings for her have led him to the brink of alcoholism (I used this idea once). Or Scarpia might begin matter-of-factly begin unbuttoning his vest and touching his body lewdly during the lines about "E qual via scegliete." (Mine as well.) This is certainly not a piece of business that one could have put on stage in 1900, but it is within the vocabulary of a public that knows sexually frank film and theater. The producer's job is to translate and adapt the ideas of the librettist and composer into action that a modern audience finds meaningful, while (one hopes) remaining within the bounds of good taste and style. Inevitably, you can't please everybody.

Dear Dr. Repertoire:
Either Tennessee Williams and Colin Graham are politically incorrect, or else I don't think I like A Streetcar Named Desire. I have always thought the scene where Stanley rapes Blanche represents the final stage in his plan to humiliate her, but in the San Francisco Opera production, it looked rather like Blanche was "asking for it." That was certainly not the feeling I got from the movie with Brando. What's your feeling about this scene?

Confused in the Crescent City

I have not seen the opera, so I cannot comment on the implications of this scene in that medium. But I do know the play; in fact I directed it back in 1983 and I have to say that, at least in my opinion, the dynamic between Stanley and Blanche is not nearly so simple as all that.

Let us for a moment try to picture Stanley as something besides a brutish villain. He is a good husband and provider; he and Stella are very deeply in love. He does not lack a sense of humor. He has a strong dislike for affectation and pretense: he is hard-headed and sensible.

And then Blanche drops in and stays -- for six months! -- in their tiny one-bedroom flat, never lifting a finger to help the pregnant Stella, expecting instead for Stella to wait on her. She insists on flirting with Stanley, even contriving to appear partly-clothed when she knows he can see her. She tells blatant lies about virtually every detail of her life, revealing that somehow all the enormous duBois family estate has evaporated. He learns that she has a reputation for promiscuity (in contrast to her prim behavior). And, incessantly, she sneers at his speech, his appearance, his behavior and his friends.

Finally, the night Stella has her baby, he is overjoyed and rather drunk. Blanche is once again lying through her teeth, and so Stanley decides to call her bluff once and for all. Yes, he takes revenge. But his motivation is not cold-blooded cruelty; it's frustration and anger at this bizarre woman who seems intent on wrecking his life.

Now, that's a pretty extreme view. But I don't think it's any more extreme than the popular misconception that Blanche is some delicate hothouse flower, too wispy to live in the real world, like Melisande or something. She is far more complicated than that, just as Stanley is more than just a brute. (That "kindness of strangers" business can mean all sorts of things. I had Blanche whisper it seductively as she took the doctor's arm; as they left, she rested her head on his shoulder and snuggled. Her story is not over; that's her tragedy).

A lot of the misunderstanding of the play can be blamed on Elia Kazan and Vivien Leigh's misunderstanding -- or, shall we say, misinterpretation -- of the character of Blanche. Kazan's "brute" take on Stanley was somewhat mollifed by Marlon Brando's enormous sex appeal and charm: he is intensely attractive (and therefore sympathetic) despite his director. Unfortunately, it appears Miss Leigh felt sorry for Blanche and (IMO) played her altogether too pathetically, robbing her of strength, intelligence and, especially, humor. In Miss Leigh's interpretation, Blanche is a victim, nothing more, doomed by fate.

To my mind, the theme of the play can be found in the line "Poker should not be played in a house with women." immediately following the screaming (and physically violent) conflict between Stanley and Stella. It's not a value judgement about either women or poker; it just means that some things never will be able to mix. Stanley and Blanche are natural enemies because each represents everything the other detests -- and secretly fears. Of course they clash, but I really think Williams intended their conflict to be evenly- balanced in terms of the audience's sympathy. His works in general are much concerned with ambiguity and the impossiblity of finding a clear divide between good and evil. To see Streetcar as a melodrama about a faded Southern belle who gets assaulted by a caveman is far too simple and (dare I say it?) cheap way to approach the work.

Dear Dr. Repertoire:
Fool that I am, I tried reading some of the prose theory works of Wagner, and now I'm more confused than ever. He keeps talking about a "total art work," and I haven't a clue what he's saying. (The word in German is "Gesamtkunstwerk.")


The theory of the "Gesamtkunstwerk" may seem a little hard to understand because it is so familiar: in fact, Wagner's theatrical and musical ideas have all become so ingrained in modern Western thought that it is difficult to imagine a time when people expected something else besides a "unified art work." We have come to expect that all the separate elements of an opera (singing, acting, orchestral playing, conducting, stage movement, ballet, decor, costume, lighting, special effects) should all work together toward expressing the same theme or inducing in the audience the same emotional emotional state.

For example, when we witness the beginning of the third act of Die Walkure, it is Wagner's intention that we become emotionally excited, even nervous. Each element of the opera is focused upon that purpose: the orchestral writing is jagged and full of startling chromaticisms and sudden fortissimo outbursts. The vocal parts are full of wild leaps and swoops, suggesting the screams of insane women. And the text (what scattered words we can strain to hear) speaks of the wild glee these Valkyries take in watching men slaughtered in bloody combat. The set, lighting, and other stage effects depict the tension of a gathering storm; the costumes and movements of the singers playing the Valkyries are those of wild, barbaric, not-quite-human creatures. Thus, every effect, from orchestration to acting, exists not as an end in itself, but rather as a means to creating a single emotional state of heart-pounding nervous anticipation.

Why? Because the first important dramatic action of the act is Brunnhilde's entrance: she is blind with stark terror of the wrath of Wotan. Wagner, though the unified effort of the many various effects of the theater, does not simply depict the emotion of Brunnhilde: he makes us feel it.

Now, that's just one example, and, frankly, it doesn't sound like such an avant-garde concept, does it? That's how mainstreamed Wagner's operatic thought has become: we take it for granted. And, by the way, it's not originally Wagner's idea; he didn't even try to take credit for it. Wagner presented the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk as an adaptation of some of the theories expounded in Aristotle's Poetics, the foundation of all Western dramatic criticism. Wagner believed (more or less wrongly) that the ancient Greek tragedy was such a Gesamtkunstwerk, and that this lofty artistic tradition had fallen into decadence over the centuries. Not surprisingly, Wagner saw himself as just the guy to revive this noble tradition and, hey, maybe even improve upon it: the Greeks had not such great tools of theatrical art as verse drama (as developed by Shakespeare) and symphonic orchestral music (as perfected by Beethoven.)

Now, unifying an art work does not mean that it has to be noble and profound and heavy. On the contrary, a light comedy must be "unified" as well: in general, that means light colors and crisp textures both in what we see and what we hear.

One of the best examples I can give of a "Gesamtkunstwerk" is, of all unlikely things, the Franco Zeffirelli production of La boheme at the Met in 1982. The Zef's concept was a look in on the lives of tiny, almost insignificant people lost in a huge city. Mimi and Rodolfo are just two people out of millions, no one special or important. It just happens that theirs is the story we get to see. Every visual element reinforced this theme of the "insignificance" of the characters: the huge sets, the masses of supers, even (I guess) the casting of light-voiced and physically diminuitive singers such as Stratas, Carreras, Scotto and Stillwell. The production might have been even more "gesamt" had James Levine tried a more "chamber-music" approach instead of his familiar bombastic style, but, hey, you can't have everything.

"Unified" is ideal. That does not mean, of course, that anything less than a Gesamtkunstwerk is a failure or that it cannot give much pleasure. Just as the Roman "mens sano in corpore sano" represented an ideal for human existence, so the Gesamtskunstwerk is a goal to which opera should aspire.

Dr. Repertoire