Fat Ladies and Falsettos

BY HOLLY BRUBACH

IN THE SECOND act of Don Carlo, the princess Eboli offers to entertain the ladies of the court with a song. She takes up the mandolin, and as she begins strumming, the entire orchestra, brass and woodwinds included, strikes up the opening bars of the “Song of the Veil,” fortissimo. This is a lot of sound for Eboli to be getting out of one small mandolin.

People who love opera talk about the necessity of accepting its “conventions,” its white lies. Trouser roles, in which women play men, are the most drastic example. But operas are full of smaller discrepancies between what we’re seeing on stage and what we’re asked to believe. The 200-pound soprano dying of consumption, the romantic lead too stiff to get down on one knee, the heroine about to hurl herself from a parapet for love who peers over the edge before she jumps—no wonder getting all caught up in an opera strains our imagination. Why are movies like E.T. and Tootsie, which are farther-fetched, easier to believe?

For one thing, a movie can show us the world, where opera can only represent it, and usually not very convincingly. Compared with a movie, which looks “natural,” as if it’s really happening, an opera looks artificial and staged. For some years now, the issue in opera has been how to bridge the gap between the version of reality audiences are used to seeing in the movies, on TV, and even in plays and the more abstracted version they get on the opera-house stage.

Movies (and, later, television) ushered in a new naturalism in acting, and stage acting—in the spoken theater—changed accordingly, becoming subtler and more everyday-lifelike. Opera singers, however, continued to rely on stock gestures; Rapture—hands to the heart. Passion— arms outstretched. Anguish—one hand to the forehead. Wrath—one arm raised. A naturalistic style of acting might do for spoken theater, but not for opera, it was argued: opera characters are meant to be interpreted not as real people but as archetypes, larger than life; opera houses are larger than most theaters, and a singer’s gestures and facial expressions must be legible from the last row of the balcony; singers have to produce beautiful sound and so don’t have the freedom of movement that actors have. Besides, why try to make opera look natural when the premise of it—that the characters sing their lines—is so hopelessly artificial?

In theory, opera is the consummate form of theater, incorporating art, literature, drama, music, and dance. There is no other form in which three (or two or four) characters can come together and express their conflicting emotions about a situation all at the same time. People live at cross-purposes, and opera can delineate them.

Music propels opera into another dimension, beyond spoken theater. Through the music, we learn more about the characters than their speeches can tell us. In fact, the music can over-rule their words. In Don Carlo, in the Grand Inquisitor’s conversation with the King, his music modulates higher and higher, climbing relentlessly: he talks of justice and peace, but we don’t believe him, because his music is ruthless, without mercy.

You would think that with all this going for it, opera would rank at the top of the list of unforgettable experiences in the theater for most people. And for opera devotees it does. It does for me, but not without the willful suspension of disbelief. When what’s going on onstage seems preposterous, I concentrate on the music.

FOR CENTURIES, THE definition of opera was dramma per musica—drama for the sake of the music. The drama is in the music. It’s almost invariably easier to believe the plot of an opera on a recording than in the theater. The characters, the action, the dialogue, all reside in the music.

Then why stage an opera? Last season, I heard concert performances of Richard Strauss’s Guntram (by the Opera Orchestra of New York) and Rossini’s Semiramide (one of a series of Rossini operas at Carnegie Hall). Both operas were plausible enough to listen to but hard to picture on the stage. Guntram sings long-winded arias, visions of love and nature that only he can see; these are better left to the imagination. The extended coloratura passages in Semiramide can be delivered in concert as frank displays of virtuoso singing; there is no danger of their grinding the plot to a halt, no need to justify them dramatically. What a concert version has going for it that a staged production doesn’t is understatement, which is appealing even in a form as grandiloquent as opera.

Most operas, however, insist on being staged. A concert performance of Tosca or Verdi’s Otello could only be a compromise. If the staged versions we get aren’t the overpowering dramas they ought to be, they’re better than nothing. There are always circumstances to be blamed—singers who have no notion of acting, insufficient rehearsal time, casting that must be decided two years in advance, disputes between the producer and the conductor—and it doesn’t seem as if opera, under the current system, is ever going to get much better. So audiences have learned to content themselves with performances that, however poorly acted or directed, in some way flesh out the score with gestures, embraces, a little swordplay.

It’s only lately that audiences have begun to think they’re entitled to some credibility on stage. Young singers complain that (in America, especially) they not only have to be able to sing a part, they now have to look it, too. This trend was too inevitable to be any one person’s doing, but the one person who seems to deserve a lot of the credit for it is Maria Callas. Teresa Stratas told me in an interview that Callas had ushered in a whole new era in opera: “She taught us why that word was on that note,” Stratas said. This approach, by which Callas sometimes sacrificed purity of tone to expression, is only one side of an ongoing debate; the opposition is at the moment led by Joan Sutherland, who relaxes her diction in the name of beautiful sound. It can’t be coincidence that Sutherland’s acting is so inept, or that Stratas and Placido Domingo, who use words to bring the vocal line into sharp focus, are two of the best actors in all opera. They sing as if they were talking. The music is their characters’ native language, the form their thoughts take. This is opera at its most naturalistic, when the singing is second nature. It seems perfectly reasonable that most characters in opera, who are depicted at some fever pitch of emotion, struggling with duty, love, war, death, or eternal damnation, would resort to song for getting across what’s on their minds and in their hearts. This is not so out of the ordinary. We sing when we’re in love; we sing at funerals, as a way of venting our grief.

But, appropriate as singing is to the plot of most operas—more appropriate than speech—it inevitably makes the task of staging the drama more complicated. Singers acting their roles are up against a lot of problems that actors in the spoken theater don’t face. How can the drama be sustained over the course of a long aria that repeats itself (like Donna Elvira’s “Mi tradì,” in Don Giovanni)? Singers who try to animate these free-ranging vocal displays with stage business usually end up looking nervous, like adolescents who don’t know what to do with their hands (If only this costume had pockets . . .). Watching Franco Zeffirelli’s movie version of La Traviata, you can’t help but marvel at how film can open up an aria. While the singer delivers his music, the director can cut to some visual material that illustrates the words, as Zeffirelli does.

Coloratura presents a similar dilemma, since its intended purpose is to demonstrate a singer’s agility. Few singers know how to engage in such shameless pyrotechnics in character, though in some cases there is dramatic justification for them. In The Tales of Hoffmann, for example, Olympia warbles and trills, gets stuck on a high note, winds down, and gets cranked back up again—because she’s a doll; these tricks are mechanical. In other instances, the coloratura seems purely ornamental, and then the singer must try and make something more of it. In Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Maria Ewing makes delightful sense of her skittering vocal line by portraying Rosina as a boy-crazy teenager who can’t stop giggling; the vocal embellishments fit right in, as sung laughter and tremors of passion.

The trouble with too many singers as actors is that they lose their concentration when they’re not singing, as if by closing their mouths they could become invisible on stage and take a rest. They are more or less in character for their arias, because the character is part of their coaching in how to sing the role. But when they have to stand, or sit, much less move around, and be silent, they forget who they’re supposed to be. And so do we.

Listening to other characters sing is an opportunity for acting that most singers pass up. Rudolf Bing, in his autobiography, recalls seeing Callas with Jussi Björling in Il Trovatore, in 1955. Her eloquent attention to his aria, “Ah sì, ben mio,” brought home its meaning, though his delivery was fairly impassive. By Bing’s account, “He didn’t know what he was singing, but she knew.”

In silence, a singer’s only expression is physical, and often awkward. Too many singers seem to think of themselves as disembodied voices, under no obligation to learn how to move (no actor could afford this attitude). There are a few exceptions, singers who can hold the stage with a dancer’s iron-fisted command.

One is Samuel Ramey, in the title role of Boito’s Mefistofele, at the New York City Opera. Having sung his last note, he has the seemingly thankless task of finishing out the opera while the orchestra goes on for another fifteen pages in the score. Faust, with Ramey hanging onto his leg, groveling after him, walks to the footlights. His soul ascends into heaven. The devil has lost this round. To rolling thunder from the orchestra, Ramey somersaults all over the stage, tossed by the music, trying to stand and tumbling again. This is the justice we have waited for all evening long: Mefistofele has lost his dignity. Ramey lands back at the feet of Faust, whose body is still standing where his soul left it, and collapses. Then, in a scene straight out of Milton, the devil is sent catapulting into the darkness. Ramey rolls, like a log given a good push, upstage into the blackout. At the performance I saw last season, the audience rose in unison and cheered—partly for Ramey’s singing, which had been strong and assured, but more because he had given us a physical equivalent for the opera’s musical and dramatic climax.

Unfortunately, even today, we rarely get more than one good actor in any opera, so that a Stratas or a Domingo may be asked to carry the weight of an entire production. We need to be persuaded that what we’re seeing is really happening, and if one singer up there is completely absorbed in the world on stage, we can find our way into the opera through his or her single-minded conviction. It’s a narrow passage, but it’ll do. We speak of Callas’s Tosca, Nilsson’s Elektra, Vickers’s Otello, Domingo’s Hoffmann, Stratas’s Lulu.

FROM NOW ON, we will also speak of Peter Brook’s Carmen, which opened in Paris two years ago and finally arrived in New York, at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, on October 24. La Tragé-die de Carmen, as Brook has titled his version, is shocking, because it proves that everything that opera is in theory it actually can be in performance.

Brook’s Carmen is theater, action presented in completely naturalistic terms, the way You Can’t Take It With You is theater. Dramma per musica has become musica per dramma. This production, if it’s as powerful as it was two years ago in Paris (where the tiny, rundown operetta house in which it was set seemed very much a part of the proceedings), should put the Metropolitan Opera to shame in its own back yard. The Met, celebrating its one hundredth anniversary this year, is so busy upholding the notion of opera as great singing that it has lost sight of opera as drama. But when the price of a decent seat is more than the price of the recording, an audience wants something more from an evening than what it can get on tape. After seeing Carmen, one is tempted to hand over the Met’s repertory to Brook, sit back, and wait for him to bring those operas we’d given up for dead back to life.

With his musical director, Marius Constant, Brook has abridged Bizet’s score, cutting a two-and-a-half-hour opera to eighty minutes without intermission, eliminating the big choruses (this Carmen has only six characters—no smugglers, no cigarette girls). He has repositioned the overture so that it serves a clear dramatic purpose, coming just before the bullfight. He has moved the orchestra, hiding it in the wings, where it can’t come between the audience and the action. And yet, in spite of all this, Brook seems to have done Bizet a service. In La Tragédie de Carmen, we hear the “Habañera,” the “Seguedilla,”the “Toreador Song”—all tuckered-out set pieces—in a new context, the context of a deeply moving human drama, and the music has meaning. There is something prophetic in this Carmen’s almost biblical simplicity, its economy of means (burlap sacks, a handful of props, Goodwillstyle costumes), its uncompromising search for the truth that lies in the music. But it seems doubtful that the Met, or other major opera houses, will change their ways because of it.

For one thing, taking scissors to the score goes against current policy; most productions today are governed by such reverence for the composer that they reinstate even those parts that he cut himself. For another, few conductors, who are highly visible participants in an opera performance, would willingly pick up and move behind the scenes. And no opera-house schedule could accommodate the months Brook spent experimenting in rehearsal before getting Carmen onto the stage. The more you think about it, the more you realize that bringing this kind of realism to the stage of a major opera house is practically-impossible under existing conditions.

I have spent the year and a half since I saw Carmen and talked with Brook about it seeing other operas and reconsidering his ideas (sometimes while seeing other operas). Those ideas still seem to me brilliant and provocative, but they constitute an approach, not a formula. There is no method to this production of Carmen that could be pried away from the opera itself, its cast, and its circumstances, and applied to Tannhäuser or La Fanciulla del West.

What other directors and singers do stand to learn from Brook’s example is a more disciplined way of thinking about and staging opera. If the audience is to believe what they’re seeing on stage, then the illusion cannot be broken until the opera has ended. During last season’s performances of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met, Sutherland came out and took a bow (according to custom) after the first scene of Act III, in which she had gone mad and died; we saw Lucia resurrected before the last scene could even get under way. The self-consciousness that underlies opera protocol, and our low-grade awareness that this is a performance we’re seeing, get in the way of the drama. Most singers, however naturalistic their gestures, play out of the corner of their eye to the audience. But La Tragédie de Carmen is self-contained; we simply witness the events, which would go on even if there were no audience. The characters go about their lives and allow us to look on, as in a film. And when they perform, it’s for one another.

Carmen cracks a plate in half, and, clacking the pieces like castanets, accompanies herself in the “Gypsy Song,” improvising a dance—for Zuñiga’s benefit. He starts taking off his clothes. Her aria builds to a reckless accelerando, which most singers toss off as a neat vocal trick. But this Carmen takes dramatic advantage of the music, driving Zuñiga into a frenzy with her song. He undresses faster and faster to keep pace. Lilias Pastia, the obsequious keeper of the tavern in which this scene takes place, brings a hanger for Zuñiga’s jacket, helps him off with his boots. Finally, all steamed up, Zuñiga yanks down his suspenders and makes off with Carmen into the back room just at the aria’s finish.

Without a chorus in this production to join in the “Toreador Song” and sing his praises, Escamillo has no choice but to sing them himself. And he does, crowing like a rooster, holding Carmen in thrall with accounts of the matador’s life and his conquests. As he sings, he pares an orange, then, on a high note, stabs it in a demonstration of his prowess. This song, which ordinarily serves as straightforward exposition, is in this version loaded with arrogance and innuendo.

IN THEATER CIRCLES, Peter Brook is a guru, regarded with an awe that borders on the religious. He takes the path no one else knew was there. In his staging, A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Marat/Sade or Carmen is the prototype, the thing itself; he realizes what other people have only been approximating. In January of 1982, I went straight from Paris and La Tragédie de Carmen to London and John Schlesinger’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann, with Domingo in the title role. After Carmen, it looked like a very expensive vehicle that the star had to get out and push. But I knew even then that if I’d seen that performance of Hoffmann first, before Carmen, I probably would have liked it just fine. And I began to wonder whether Brook, by achieving the impossible, had ruined the merely possible for me. With no hope of bringing about an opera like Brook’s Carmen within the opera-house system, is there no hope for the system at all?

The so-called innovative directors who work within the system have taken to flattering their audiences by transposing operas from their original settings to modern times and local places. That way, even if the acting isn’t naturalistic, at least the costumes and sets are. So Rigoletto has been relocated to New York’s Little Italy of the 1950s and the Duke recast as a Godfather-like gangster; Parsifal has been projected into a post-nuclear-holocaust future; and Don Giovanni has been given a bisexual S&M slant, with the Don, dressed in black leather pants and aviator shades, out cruising with Leporello, his boyfriend. With so few new operas being taken into the repertory, directors who want to make their mark have no choice but to slipcover the classics.

Though naturalism does seem to be the only mode audiences these days can take at face value, I think there is an alternative to it, a stylized way of staging opera that has less to do with theater and film and more to do with dance. Most singers, I think, have no better than a vague understanding of the principle dancers live by—that when movement occurs on the music, it is bigger, more emphatic. Music can exaggerate even the simplest gesture. Singers are routinely warned against stepping right on the beat or calling unnecessary attention to their walk when all they wanted was to get from here to there. But rather than spend all their time on stage skirting the music as if it were a minefield, intelligent singers (and directors) could harness the music and use it as dancers (and choreographers) do, to make effects.

It seems to me that some of the fullest moments in any opera are those in which something—a nod, a look, an exit—occurs at a dramatic point in the music. In the second act of Don Carlo, Elisabeth slowly crosses the back of the stage on King Philip’s arm as Carlo watches from a distance. “Io l’ho perduta!” (“I’ve lost her!”) he sings over and over, as if he can’t believe it. The music swells—the world has suddenly gotten louder. Carlo’s festering passion drives the scene to its climax. In the first of three performances I saw at the Met last season, Mirella Freni paused just before she reached the door, and then on Carlo’s high note, a strangled cry, she walked out. Brilliant blocking. But in the subsequent performances I saw (one of which was videotaped to be telecast February 1, as part of WNET’s Live From the Met series), she didn’t repeat it. Was it an accident? Even if it was, why wouldn’t she have tried to duplicate it? Or was that exit on the music the stage direction she’d been given and she forgot it the second and third times around?

In Zeffirelli’s film of La Traviata, Stratas’s movement is consistently expressive and well timed. In the last act, Violetta sings “Addio del passato,” realizing how near death she is. At the end of the aria, she resigns her hopes: “Tutto finì.” On the last syllable, an octave jump, Stratas slowly sinks to the floor as her voice wafts toward heaven.

This is simple but uncontestable choreography, and it makes you wonder whether choreographers might not make better opera directors than a lot of the ones we’ve got. Maybe opera-house administrators are afraid that other choreographers will do to opera what George Balanchine did to Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at the Met, in 1936. He relegated the singers to the orchestra pit, where they couldn’t be seen, and assigned the action to dancers. The production was retired after two performances. You can’t blame Balanchine for trying. You can’t even argue with his point of view: ballet may be no more naturalistic than opera, but it is often—amazingly—more convincing.

The Metropolitan Opera centennial this season (with a televised doubleheader gala on October 22), the stir that Carmen is bound to create, the rise of small companies devoted to producing chamber operas and operas in concert, the Boston Lyric Opera’s heroic Ring cycle on a shoestring, the Pierpont Morgan Library’s exhibition (through November 6) of opera manuscripts spanning 400 years—the interest broad enough to sustain all of this activity is already being read as an opera boom, the wave of the eighties that will replace the dance boom of the seventies. But anyone who loves opera can’t help but be disturbed by the present state of affairs, however much ticket sales may be rising. A contemporary production of an old classic, like Brook’s production of Carmen, can persuade us that opera is worth keeping, that it can be as pertinent to us as it was to Bizet’s audience. But if opera is to have any future, it will need new works, not just new productions, and very few new works make their way onto the stage. Production costs leave no margin for risk-taking. Our leading playwrights have no practice in writing librettos. The plots and characters that interest audiences today are too mundane, too much a reflection of ourselves, to find a place in the pressure-cooker that is opera. If singers are having a harder time than ever reconciling the people they play on stage with the people who are their audience, it’s because the differences go deeper than the fashion in acting. The impulse to dramatize events with music will not be outmoded. But until some Contemporary composer can find a way to make what goes on in opera seem completely natural even by our literalminded standards, we will live on reinterpretations and hope. □