We Want Magic

What makes opera magical in the age of movies?

Illustration by Polly Becker

OPERA today is on a roll. While symphonies around the country stumble, opera companies are flourishing, and even commissioning new works. Yet the hope that new operas will revitalize the form is, on recent evidence, misplaced. The Seattle Opera's Tristan und Isolde, which last summer brought together a dream-team cast and a state-of-the-art postmodern production, was an electrifyingly vital, if at times puzzling, rethinking of a 134-year-old war-horse. But the highly publicized new opera by André Previn and Philip Littell, which had its first performance, in San Francisco, a month after the Tristan, and has since appeared on PBS and on a DGG recording, was DOA.

Faceless in style, shapeless in its musical design, Previn's opera was such a pallid affair that it would be foolish to use it as the basis of an obituary for the entire art form, even though the gala premiere felt like a high-class funeral. On television and CDs, Streetcar was a less exquisite corpse than it had seemed on the stage. Desperate for something to praise, critics singled out the buff physique of Rodney Gilfry, who sang the role of Stanley Kowalski and took off his shirt as often as possible; this is what often passes for acting (and directing) in opera today. Any better-than-average opera composer should have been able to write music that stripped off Stanley's shirt, and his pants as well.

Previn's opera develops Blanche's character in a series of increasingly saccharine arias but never gives Stanley a chance to bare his soul rather than his torso. This asymmetry endorses Blanche's view of herself, equating magic with fading gentility, purple poetry, Chinese lampshades, and cheap perfume. We all know the lines from the Tennessee Williams play: "Maybe we are a long way from being made in God's image, but Stella -- my sister -- there has been some progress since then! Such things as art -- as poetry and music -- such kinds of new light have come into the world since then!" The libretto drops these lines to achieve one of the few effective moments in the opera, as Stella taunts Blanche with a song-without-words of sexual fulfillment. But elsewhere in the opera -- most self-indulgently in Blanche's pseudo-Straussian farewell aria -- the music seemed to speak these lines to its audience, congratulating us for sharing Blanche's sensitivity and refinement.

Of course, Blanche as spokeswoman for Western civilization is absurd and pathological -- witness her visits to the Flamingo Hotel and the easy, experienced way she comes on to the paper boy. Seemingly unable to recognize Williams's irony, Previn and Littell present Blanche as a diva, somewhere between Tosca and the Marschallin. This is a parody of a parody -- a sanitized appropriation of the homosexual opera fan's diva-goddess described by Wayne Koestenbaum in his revelatory The Queen's Throat.

Previn and Littell have it backwards. Colored lanterns and forgettable music are what make the movies magical. Operatic magic is not about illusion, let alone self-delusion. Opera lives not on dreams but on blood and guts, well-trained muscles, and heroic strength. It's much more like Stanley than like Blanche. Even before the opera's premiere, London released a recital album by Renée Fleming that featured Blanche's big aria, "I Want Magic!" This is an old and honorable promotional device, especially since more operas than you might think remain in the repertory because of a single soprano showstopper. As it happens, "I Want Magic!" is as limp as the rest of Streetcar, but its title might make a nice slogan for opera-lovers to wear on a button. We all want magic; the question is what, if anything, makes opera magical today, when our concept of dramatic enchantment is defined by the movies.

ACCORDING to some historians and most operagoers, opera died in 1924, along with Puccini, who died just one big duet short of completing Turandot, the last opera to win the unconflicted support of singers and audiences (not counting Porgy and Bess, an exception to many rules). Since then opera has been a museum art, with a repertory and a performance style frozen nearly solid in time. The nails on the operatic coffin may have been hammered in just a few years after Puccini died, with the release of The Jazz Singer: the talkies took over the glamour, star power, and technical wizardry that had given opera its aura and popular appeal.

The glittering opening-night audience arrived at Streetcar with the movie version of the play indelibly etched in their minds. It was cruel and unusual punishment to force a great singer like Renée Fleming to compete with Vivien Leigh's Blanche DuBois, or to make any male singer walk in Marlon Brando's shadow. Fleming, with her solid farm-girl body, had none of Leigh's fluttering fragility, yet as a dramatic presence she seemed insubstantial compared with her celluloid predecessor. The camera captured Leigh's minute and momentary inflections of Blanche's character -- the volatile mixture of self-knowledge and self-deception, idealism and lust, snobbery and vulgarity, that keeps her from being just a floozy. By comparison even those opera roles considered psychologically complex, such as Mélisande and the Marschallin, seem like stick figures.

Opera combines storytelling and spectacle in ways that rarely achieve the state of fusion we take for granted at the movies. Only die-hard film fans go to a bad movie to catch a great cameo performance, but opera-lovers do the equivalent all the time, knowing that a few moments of vocal bliss are more important than an evening of credible acting or striking "production values." What fewer opera-lovers understand is the way in which musical form makes these peak moments possible. The composer must provide the platform from which the singers soar. Without a sense of form, opera music turns into movie music. Previn, who has composed for film, does not seem to understand the difference. His decision to accept a libretto that closely followed the play, instead of creating a series of arias, duets, and ensembles (apparently, the Williams estate insisted that the libretto stay close to the play), would probably have relegated the music to the background even if it had achieved a more distinctive style.

Both opera and film composers join music to words and images, but in opera the composer must win, whereas in film the composer must be a gracious loser. Despite the self-congratulation that film composers indulge in around Oscar time, their contribution to a film is equivalent to the lighting director's contribution to an opera. Film music is formless: it responds to the images and dialogue on screen, appearing and disappearing to serve the cinematic drama.

Previn seems to have assumed that an opera could be written like film music. Most of the libretto is dialogue, fast interchanges of information and emotion between characters. For example:

MITCH: I am ashamed of the way I perspire. My shirt is sticking to me.

BLANCHE: Perspiration is healthy. If people didn't perspire they would die in five minutes. [She takes his coat from him.] This is a nice coat. What kind of material is it?

MITCH: They call that stuff alpaca.

BLANCHE: Oh. Alpaca.

MITCH: It's very light weight alpaca.

Onscreen Vivien Leigh and Karl Malden make this exchange a funny-painful game of cat and mouse. Give the same words to singers, as Previn and Littell have, and they make the audience squirm, unless the music has a strong character and continuity of its own. Put a tango rhythm under this dialogue, as Kurt Weill might have done, and it can begin to have a musical life that transforms the drama without betraying it. Intensify that tango with a sinuous melody, harmonic twists, and nervous flashes of orchestral color, and the emotions of the scene are ready to take off. Previn, however, uses a technique that in film is called Mickey Mousing, responding to each line with a different rhythm or gesture that mimics the small impulses of the dialogue. This misplaced fidelity to the words renders the music powerless. The audience squirms because there is no reason for the characters to be singing -- and the music prevents them from acting.

I can imagine a Broadway-musical version of Streetcar that would not completely violate its spirit. Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen would have been the perfect words-and-music team; the tricky part would be the book. Blanche would sing like Garland, Stanley like Sinatra. But as soon as you make the characters sing operatically, the punchy, funny, scary parts of the play turn to mush -- or at least they did in San Francisco.

Paradoxically, operatic singing, a deeply conservative form, keeps opera alive while cutting it off from other forms of contemporary theater and music -- but not completely. That's where postmodern directors like Robert Wilson, Peter Sellars, and Francesca Zambello step in. They have made opera feel contemporary again by making it as unlike the movies as possible.

POSTMODERN opera production separates what you hear from what you see. You hear music from the past -- say, The Marriage of Figaro -- but you see images from the present: a Trump Tower laundry room in Peter Sellars's famous version. No attempt is made to modernize the music or even to change the words, but the setting, stage directions, and "concept" are up for grabs. Sometimes updating makes the original text clearer for modern audiences, as when Sellars presented Cherubino as a gawky, crotch-rubbing American teenager in a high school sweatshirt. At other times the director deliberately undermines the text, usually with ironic or demythologizing devices. The landmark "deconstructive" production was Patrice Chereau's 1976 production of the Ring cycle, which threw out all the mythic paraphernalia and set the action when Wagner wrote it -- in the mid nineteenth century. The opening of Das Rheingold took place not in the depths of the river but in a Balzac-esque bordello, with the Rhine maidens as prostitutes. Although this struck some as sacrilegious, Chereau was actually presenting a Marxist reading of the Ring that goes back at least as far as George Bernard Shaw; instead of staging Wagner's drama, Chereau gave physical form to a critical interpretation -- a kind of annotated edition with the footnotes printed larger than the text.

Chereau's intellectual clarification smashed Wagner's illusionistic aesthetic, in which the music and the stage were a single, continuous form of storytelling. It is really a small step from Wagner's "total art work" to the films of Griffith and Eisenstein. When Wagner designed the Bayreuth opera house for the Ring, he was in effect creating a model movie theater. Unlike older opera houses, which were built for social display, Bayreuth was planned to draw the audience into the stage action. The house was darkened, there was no central aisle, and the orchestra was placed beneath the stage, heard but not seen. This kind of theater allowed the music to intoxicate (or indoctrinate) the audience with the effect that Nietzsche termed "Dionysian."

Live theater has pursued disillusion instead of illusion at least since Bertolt Brecht, creating barriers of irony between the audience and the stage. Chereau, Sellars, and Zambello are Brecht's operatic grandchildren, bringing opera closer to contemporary dance and performance art. They stress the energy and instability of live performance over the tightly controlled illusions of realistic theater or the movies. In a sense they have rediscovered what opera-lovers have known all along -- opera is not an imitation of an action but action itself, more like a hybrid sports event and magic act than like the movies.

Since Chereau's Ring most opera audiences have come to expect a certain degree of nonrealistic visual weirdness onstage. In the 1980s the Seattle Opera presented a Ring directed by François Rochaix, with sets and costumes by Robert Israel, which downplayed the politics but dressed Wotan like Wagner, flew the Valkyries above the stage on wooden horses, and, to the audible delight of the audience, turned the dragon, Fafner, into a flame-throwing steam engine. In choosing Francesca Zambello to direct Tristan und Isolde, Seattle was taking a calculated risk; her deromanticized Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera provoked catcalls and boos from the audience, pans from the critics. Zambello views herself not as the composer's faithful servant but as a critical interpreter. In Seattle you heard Wagner but you saw Zambello's critique of Wagner.

Zambello undermined the opera's philosophical pretenses with a series of jarring visual anachronisms. Act One took place not on some Arthurian trireme but on a modern ship like one of Seattle's ferries, or, naughtier, the Titanic. Whenever the chorus sang, a horizontal panel opened up to reveal sweaty, tattooed oarsmen lit in lurid engine-room red. The visual details were often ambiguous and contradictory -- oarsmen in an engine room? -- and at times the production felt like a rebus you needed to translate to get the references. In Act Two, which began with a poetic, inexplicably snow-filled pantomime, the lovers' hideaway was a cube-shaped gazebo that looked like Philip Johnson's Glass House. Tristan's wounding was signaled by a banner with an emblem that resembled the Nike swoosh scrawled in blood. Melot, Tristan's betrayer, showed his satisfaction at exposing the lovers with the close-fisted sitcom gesture for "Yes!" With all these iconic references popping up, it was hard to know what to make of the gleaming golden arch that framed the lovers during their great love duet. Was it beautiful, trite (though not as trite as the cheap Valentine image I've seen at the Met), or McDonald's?

Zambello's shock tactics were not as smart-alecky as they might sound. The pop-icon flashes emphasized the isolation of the lovers' passion from their surroundings. Reminding us of running shoes and french fries when we were engaged in matters of love and death, Zambello found a visual equivalent for that banality of the everyday world which the lovers reject as they sing their obscure, Schopenhauer-based rantings about night and day. The glass house was a potent symbol for the lovers' physical vulnerability and the fact that the emotional force that drew them together was transparent to all around them. Whatever the meaning of the golden arch, Zambello chose not to bring it back for the "Liebestod." Many productions make a visual equation between the love duet and Isolde's final monologue, because the music is virtually the same. In doing so, the director signs on to the idea of romantic union in death. Here, however, the close belonged to Isolde alone, and the "Liebestod" became her meditation on the affair rather than its ghostly consummation. She was alive, apparently, and ready to move on.

I may be accused of reading too much into Zambello's direction. Most of the critics had little to say about her work, focusing instead on the glorious musical performances and the massive bodies of the two leads, Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner (heavy people should file a class-action suit against music journalists). For me the production offered two pleasures: the satisfaction of great music being performed as well as possible, and the risky intellectual adventure of an unconventional staging.

Contrasting San Francisco's dreary Streetcar, a poor substitute for a movie, and Seattle's dazzling Tristan, a highly sophisticated form of poetic theater, may not answer the question of whether opera is alive or dead. Any production of Tristan is operatic caviar, this one particularly so, and what opera needs to survive is bread-and-butter repertory. Streetcar attracted so much interest not just because of aggressive marketing but because opera audiences, for all their conservatism, really would like to see the rhythms and conflicts of contemporary life presented on the stage with the emotional force found in earlier operas or in the movies today -- as long as the notes are sung with the same technique used for Puccini.

This desire is attainable, as a Seattle Opera revival of a neglected thirty-year-old opera showed last spring. Ever since its Metropolitan Opera premiere, in 1958, Vanessa, with music by Samuel Barber and libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti, has been reviled as reactionary camp, and so its musical charm and theatrical savvy took me by surprise. The music imbued old operatic forms with fresh feeling, and the Albee-esque twists and conundrums of the plot -- a story of thwarted love, mistaken and exchanged identities, and sexual amorality, set in Scandinavia in 1905 -- held my attention as Streetcar never did. Vanessa isn't profound or philosophical, but it is a work of serious frivolity, both silly and wise, that leaves you with a few tunes you can hum. Maybe that's all the magic we need.

David Schiff is a composer and a professor of music at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon.

Illustration by Polly Becker.

The Atlantic Monthly; September 1999; We Want Magic - 99.09; Volume 284, No. 3; page 92-96.