Vaidas JAUNIŠKIS | How to Blow Up Opera

It’s not all that infrequently we have discussions on some occasion or another about what opera should or could be. I can’t remember any such discussions about the theatre, unless of a very specific kind, as a crisis at a certain period in time, about today’s heroes or subjects of interest. Nor are there any about today’s circus, but perhaps the opposite is true – there are discussions about the methods where it could still be applied. Opera, however, is examined from all sides as a genre: the question being ‘What should we do with it?’ It’s clear that the ‘admonition’ most often levelled at it, as a specific type of art, is regarding its relationship with the present day and the level of its conventionality – ballet perhaps being the only thing that is more conventional.

To tell the truth, every time I go to an opera performance I experience a crisis of conventions: for how much longer can the unnatural be shown? There is no media that helps me stop from yawning when in the Robert Lepage production of Siegfried at the Metropolitan the lovers swear their love to one another for 45 minutes in the same three or four phrases over and over again. Use all the digitization you want, the screens, the singing birds and fairy tale dragons programmed according to the latest flight of fancy in engineering – at some point, after I’ve stopped being surprised by the ‘dynamics’ of this activity and emotions, I begin dying from existential boredom. Even if I try to justify the heroes and their naivety, logorrhoea, stuttering, fits of joy, the happiness suddenly engulfed by doubt and whatever else you can think of.

No, opera is absolutely not about empathy or identifying oneself with the heroes or their situation: in the attempt to remember the highs of one’s own love life and the wish to repeat the same phrase or name, you realize nonetheless that media, like the psyche, has its limits. Besides, one needs a break to relax, to have a smoke, a drink, and then come back to the joy. But not with Wagner. The Nibelung requires iron endurance. Opera critics have to be a certain type of person with a certain talent, one who can draw the longest line straighter than anyone else – not because of the precision required but the patience. They could work as psychotherapists – because of their aptitude for hearing people out.

It may seem really strange but the genre of opera in its essence is closest to today’s circus: what is on show in the latter is the body with its singular physical capabilities, while in the former the extremes of the voice and singing, as well as the atmosphere, the spectacle and the story being told. And the lack of desire to identify oneself with any of the characters/performers. And here already we have one step of its genesis back to the past – to the gladiator games: after all, the same ‘boo’, corresponding to the thumbs down of spectators, has survived to this day amongst opera fans. Perhaps for this reason opera houses in the main have not experienced a crisis of the fall in the number of their visitors because the whole genre, from the moment of entering the building, has been constructed for well-off plebs, no matter how much they may try at playing the elite or music connoisseurs. You could be wearing your laurels in Laurų (Laurel) street[1] or living in the 6th arrondissement in Paris, but your understanding of the world hasn’t moved on since you were trading postage stamps in the toilets at school. Opera remains more of a social phenomenon, marking a compulsory expression of socializing rather than anything to do with music.

Because, different to the world of the theatre, opera in its conservative nature can be compared to church canons: no one is more radical in not shortening the plot lines, in not modifying the pitiful dramaturgy, in not leaving out some of the music. But what do you think the public used to do during those excruciatingly long duets of Siegfried and Brunhilde? If we remember the history of the theatre, the ritual remained the same but in earlier days more open: everyone went to those opulent buildings to show themselves off and look at others – the opera performance did not get in the way. Nor could it, since that would have contradicted the very essence of theatre! The lights were not turned down in the hall, the inhabitants of one box flirted with those of the one next to it, matters of state were being discussed in the third box, in the fourth there was Casanova being Casanova, the stalls were looking up at the boxes, while the kings and princes present were haughtily showing themselves off. Opera was even the cause of the Belgian revolution of 1830 – would any of that be possible today? In opera, the safest of all the arts? Where you have to sit in the dark and try not to speak to your neighbour? What then is the audience supposed to do?

That’s a question to bring every opera theatre director despair – how to make being in an opera house attractive since the ‘elite’ also needs diversions, worth more than the length of the score? This is roughly how I imagine things: at the end of the season the directors of the opera houses count up what’s left over from the large boring productions and say – that’s enough of all the artificiality, the traditions, perhaps we should invite a ‘normal’ local director, and then we’ll see more happening on the stage than chess pieces being pushed around. And then, as is usually the case, they invite theatre directors. The latter – and this is the best-case scenario – react like the Latvian Alvis Hermanis, who perceives opera as the whole of a variety of its components: ‘Great music, unconvincing dramatic material, amateur actors, able to produce sounds that remind one of magic. And a director who has to somehow put all of that together. Good luck!’

So, a theatre director reads a libretto and understands that nothing good will come of it since a five-act opera because of its subject matter would best be suited to a two or three season TV serial. And then he decides to take on that drama, which in Greek simply means an act. And since the director remembered from his early teenage years that there’s a lot of boring stasis in opera (and for that reason he’d slept through the greater part of the one and only performance of an opera he’d ever seen), he now decides to ‘enact’ the opera. The set decorations keep changing, the floor rises and falls, wheels turn, wood groans, and it is pure luck that one of the workers behind the scenes isn’t heard swearing during a pause in the music. Or, if the budget is meagre, everything can be done with smoke and video images. The performers run from one end of the stage to the other, the number of gestures used is tripled, but since they remain with the same phase of amateurism, the level of amateurism is automatically tripled. The designers and costume designers come up with a last-ditch effort and the opera is transported to the present! Bravo – shout those drunk on innovations, boo – scream the Italian loggionisti, everyone gets up, bows and leaves so that both sides can forget as quickly as possible the experimental nightmare (and as regards opera, anything that departs from the canon is already an experiment). It’s good if there’s a reception – then one can drink it all up, swallow it and push it all deep down but you still have to contend with the director prancing around in his red shoes and yellow trousers, the living personification of the revolutionary creator as described by Hermanis: ‘the old and still well-paid revolutionary looks like a pervert, like an old woman dressed as a teenager.’

So what is that path, what can we offer the viewing public, what will refresh them, shock, shake them up? After all, says the person in charge, we’ve tried everything already, we made this contemporary and traditional, we brought animals onto the stage and softporn, we rolled out the red carpet and put rusty pipes in the foyer, we invited stars and had them stand on rugs made out of dollars, we raised the prices of the tickets sky-high, but the public remained sour-faced, smiling only out of politeness, critics are of no account here because they’re all bought and paid for – whether they’re mine or a competitor’s. In short, the intended effect never happened. What was it that once again didn’t work?

It didn’t work because… Because there were too few revolutions, they were too weak, they didn’t become part of the demonstrations for independence. Not for the one which is taking place outside theatre walls, but for the one which is right here, on the stage and in the hall, in other words, a good bit deeper. In Bayreuth itself Frank Castorf created obvious trash out of Wagner the god, with gas pumps and shiny costumes so that people would be forced to think at the very least about why there is such a lack of taste openly displayed on the stage – and perhaps the well-established spectator will notice that this lack of taste is in keeping with the costume he wears as much as the papers he buried in Panama – with Rheingold. Robert Wilson compels one’s glance through the slow-downed movement of the choir, the comics-like lit faces, and with the unusual, even more slow-downed time, with the rays of lights captures one’s thoughts from wandering off to the side. Anthony Minghella emphasizes the conventionality of the stage with mirrors and bunraku puppets. While Graham Vick’s Idomeneo[2] highlights what opera and its stratagems are about: the sun will be depicted in a childlike way, the hero will in all seriousness fall against a paper ‘wall’ and tear it, the stage workers will douse Idomeneo with buckets of water signifying the storms of the soul and the sea. The stratagem is an obvious one, the audience is always being reminded that they are at an opera, and it is this ‘filter’ that allows one to get to the subject matter and at the same time hear the music and its performance, and not to deceive oneself and believe that now the protagonists by waving their arms about are longing for their partner and, love sick, begin to sing. The members of the audience are returned to the times of Shakespeare when they could see behind the scenes and could shout at an actor who’d gone off script: the final applause at the end of the action in Idomeneo is the same as the actor addressing the audience at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘So, good night unto you all, Give me your hands.’

Why doesn’t this happen more frequently, more intensively, more audaciously? Why should we have to wait for some grandee to turn up to tame the beast which is the mechanism that drives opera? Because what prevents opera from being born is opera. Opera like a symbol which puts you under an obligation. It is clearly the most important relic of the culture of the court and the manors, even when we didn’t have kings or great land owners. The symbol of power to have the plebs looking at the emperor, even if the lights in the hall have long been turned off. The opera theatre remains the most important building in the state’s culture park and the grants given to subsidize it are considerable. Even though its importance is determined solely by tradition, and artistically most often these theatres are incomparably weaker – let us take as an example this year’s New Opera Action[3], where at least two premieres from the point of view of artistic merit were a mite more interesting and more meaningful than the entire season of the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre. But the importance of that building and the inertia overpowers an inexperienced artist with all the weight of tradition, together with several rows of balcony and box seats, the size and width of the stage and, undoubtedly, with the money he or she gets for their work. Let’s not hide the fact: the fees paid to those who put on operas are several times larger than the fees paid to those working on other stages. And then the wish arises in those chosen to express themselves in opera to justify that money and bend to tradition, not to betray the faithful claquers of this building, to please the critics by taking certain decisions and, besides all that, also to cater to the whims of divas. It would be a good thing not to lose one’s face but that can be put aside, the fee is to make up for the shame.

But let’s cast our glance back to the modern classics: what obligation, I wonder, did the Metropolitan building itself impose on Robert Wilson and Philip Glass for Einstein on the Beach to be put on there in particular, causing the inner revolution of the whole genre? Without a doubt, it did impose an obligation – but as a risk even to the point of bankruptcy, and also as a chance to pull down the whole structure of opera as a bastion of the tastes and customs of the haute bourgeoisie up to that point. Both goals were achieved. Today looking at another, already the third, revival of this opera, the thought persists that everything was motivated by a creative passion and a healthy rage to take opera as a ritual, as a mechanism apart – to overhaul the marketing methods, the seating arrangements, and do away with intermissions. It was led by the wish to knock opera off its perch, to rescue it from the autocracy of its pathetic plot, to make its conventionality public, to change its scheme not only to a key as to how to view it, but also make it the driving force of how to think about it. To experience creativity not only as a challenge but also as an adventure, which will kill off Opera Theatre, reviving in it music, history, communality, and not synchronic yawning. All of that, of course, we can sum up as theory, which it is possible to set out only post factum and futurum, after having experienced the energy of talented people. However, if there is a lack of young and promising talent, as is usually the case, why not begin from theory? And organize a discussion with the title ‘How to blow up opera’. So that this art form can feel like a ‘human’ amongst other genres.

Translated from the Lithuanian by Romas Kinka

[1] A street in Vilnius on the edge of the city with embassies and the houses of the capital’s wealthiest people.
[2] We have in mind here productions put on in Vilnius: Robert Wilson’s Saint John Passion (2007, coproduction with the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris), Anthony Minghella’s Madam Butterfly (2006, coproduction of the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, the English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera) and Graham Vick’s Idomeneo (2018, coproduction with the Göteborg Opera).
[3] New Opera Action is a festival of alternative opera and multidisciplinary art in Vilnius, exploring the boundaries of the genre since 2008.