A Director's Guide for Ruining an Opera
By FRANK BEHRENS
You are the Director who has been hired to stage an opera and you have a reputation either to make or to maintain. Therefore, the direction you take in your—er—direction must be something that the public will talk about. Whether what they talk about is complimentary or not matters not a whit. The point is that they MUST talk about your production.
So you need a set of rules and have come to this essay to consider such a set. I have prepared them based on watching dozens of opera productions on videos, mostly from Europe, and coming up with the following mandates for utterly ruining an opera.
ONE. Assume that the librettist and composer had no idea of what he/she/they were doing. If the story was intended to be a comedy, you try to “bring out its dark side.” Use as your model a production of “Die Fledermaus,” one of the happiest plots set to the happiest music, and show the characters to be drug addicts, the party at Prince Orlafsky to be several degrees below what happens at brothels. Be sure your singers act as nasty as possible towards one another, and submerge the sets into a Cimmerian gloom so that the audience will have to strain their eyes just to see (should they wish to see) what is going on.
If the story is a tragedy, costume the cast in some outré manner so that no one can believe in them as human beings and therefore not give a hoot about how they might be suffering. Very important: if you are doing “Don Giovanni,” make the title character as charmless as possible—mainly because all the other directors in the past ten years have done so—despite the utterly charming music Mozart, who obviously had no idea of what he was doing, composed for him.
TWO. Always look for “relevance to today” in the story. So if the action takes place in the Middle Ages, you dress the cast in 1940s style to show how “Rigoletto,” for example, really explains how the Fascists came to power in Italy. Or do “Nabucco” as a protest against the holocaust. Here the assumption you must make is that audiences are too stupid to make these connections themselves.
THREE. Even when you have no “relevance” to underline, costume the cast in modern dress anyway. As in a recent Monteverdi “The Return of Ulysses to the Homeland,” dress Neptune and Jove in crumbled business suits. This makes no sense at all other than that you have saved some expensive costumes and people will indeed talk about how boring they look. On the other hand, bring out Humanity in the same opera stark naked to show his vulnerability. Of course, a simple loincloth would have conveyed the same idea; but having his genitals swaying with the music will surely get you what you want: comment.
FOUR. Hire the most unattractive singers you can find. After all, people go to the opera to hear voices, not to look at the cast. So if you have a “Tosca,” as did the Metropolitan Opera many years ago, in which the soprano and tenor could not begin to get their arms around each other, people are bound to joke about it afterwards. And if your overweight Tosca refuses to jump off the parapet as the libretto says she must, then simply allow her to walk off the stage. Nobody believes in the plot anyway, so why try to be realistic?
FIVE. Very important: Be sure to have the soprano roll around on the floor whenever possible. This seems to be normal behavior among operatic sopranos and shows the lack of better ideas from directors.
SIX. Rather than update the scenery, do away with it altogether. After all, if the singing is all-important, why distract the viewers with such things as walls and windows and furniture for indoor scenes, or bushes and trees for woodland scenes? Just suggest a few vague shapes against a plain cyclorama and be done with it. You can call it “minimalism” and everyone will say as you walk your minimal way, “How clever.”
SEVEN. Now this is the most important point of all and will justify everything else you have done. Come up with some cockamamie CONCEPT. A few years ago there was a “Turandot” in which the populace of Peking were all parts of a large Metropolis-like machine. In one fell swoop you can disregard the mood of the work, the time and place in which it is supposed to take place, any characterization whatsoever in an opera in which the chorus is so important, the looks of the singers (the one in this production was so fat that the director had to provide a table and chairs in the middle of the Peking street because the singer could not stand for very long), or anything else that makes seeing an opera a worthwhile experience.
EIGHT. If the production is to be filmed or taped, be sure there is one spot on the stage that is acoustically dead and block lots of major action in that spot.
CONCLUSION. Remember this. Directing an opera well takes hard work and skill. Since you are not willing to endure the first and do not possess the second, follow these rules and no doubt you will win several plaudits for your imaginative staging. However, the basic assumption behind all this is that YOU MUST HATE OPERA. Given that as true, the world is yours!