Beware the tyranny of the bored in classical music and opera

Extreme Regietheater: A scene from Johann Kresnik’s 2008 Berlin production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, set in the ruins of the World Trade Center. Despite critical outrage, the production sold out.

Here’s a story of a baby and her bathwater, and my worry that we forget which is which.

So far this week, two insiders have laid out their disappointment with classical music and opera, blowing fresh oxygen on the glowing embers of debate over the state of the artforms.

Should concerts encourage the boisterousness of an arena rock concert? Should directors make free with opera plots? Should concert presenters work harder at multimedia and multi-disciplinary presentations? Should we lock up traditional halls and theatres?

In these debates, which put format ahead of the work being interpreted, is the baby the opera or the bathwater in which the director’s imagination soaks and from which it draws inspiration? Is the the baby a Schubert string quartet or the leafy bower near an airport serving as today’s accessible venue?

Or is the baby something else entirely?

Yesterday, Brooklyn Philharmonic CEO Richard Dare voiced his disgust with concert etiquette in the Huffington Post.

In an article the editors entitled “The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained,” Dare wrote that, “The most common practices in classical musical venues today represent a contrite response to a totalitarian belief system no one in America buys into anymore. To participate obediently is to act as a slave. It is counter to our culture. And it is not, I am certain, what composers would have wanted: A musical North Korea. Who but a bondservant would desire such a ghastly fate? Quickly now: Rise to your feet and applaud. The Dear Leader is coming on stage to conduct. He will guide us, ever so worshipfully through the necrocracy of composers we are obliged to forever adore.”

In the June issue of Australia’s Limelight Magazine, Erin Helyard, co-artistic director of Pinchgut Opera, comes out swinging against critics and audience members who like their opera productions traditional.

She admits that some Regitheater, where the director’s vision takes precedence over all, is disgusting, but, “Personally, I’ll take the worst Regietheater over a bland production or a recording any day. Like it or not, Regietheater mirrors our own culture, warts and all. The best theatre attempts to find contemporary meaning in works of the past; of necessity it mediates and negotiates different historical realities.”

This month, Torontonians have had a chance to discern what’s important from what’s not in two opera productions: Handel’s Semele at the Four Seasons Centre and Britten’s Turn of the Screw at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

In Semele, the Canadian Opera Company gave us grand opera, lavishly staged in a traditional, formal venue, where the audience was free to applaud (or boo) after every aria. Huan Zhang’s directorial choices loomed even larger than the timeworn timbers of his Ming Dynasty temple. The musical forces were beyond reproach. Patrons either loved the production or hated it, there was no middle ground.

Those who walked away smiling, from what I’ve been able to parse, loved the cultural intermingling as well as the sheer chutzpah of Zhang’s staging.

In Turn of the Screw, Against the Grain Theatre gave us chamber opera, staged as minimally as one could imagine, in an unconventionally configured venue where the audience virtually became part of the drama. Joel Ivany and his creative partners intervened in the setting, but left the opera itself alone. The musical forces were beyond reproach. Patrons were so transfixed, they couldn’t even think of responding until the house lights came back up.

Ivany & co. would have been able to sell out 20 performances, had they been able to extend the run beyond four nights.

The two productions, their musical forces and their settings were so different as to be incomparable. Yet audiences knew what they liked and what they didn’t.

Toronto’s classical music concerts reveal a similar breadth of experience — of venues small and large, formality and informality, white ties and t-shirts, indoors and out.  This summer, we’ll listen to music on barges, in churches, in gardens, in barns and on the street. Some concerts will be adored, some hated. Others will leave their listeners indifferent.

The beauty of this rainbow is in its breadth and diversity — of performers willing to try, and audiences willing to come.

Some people would stop going to classical concerts if they lost their structure, focus and acoustics. Others will never embrace the codes of the concert hall. Traditionalists will always prefer opera done the old way — but, as our Semele experience shows, will venture into the opera house to experience their favourite artform, even if they don’t like the results.

If we begin to insist that adventure and informality rule, does this not become a sort of tyranny of its own?

The baby here is our choice of form and setting. The bathwater is everything that is transitory: the interpretation, director’s vision, format and venue.

Let’s embrace choice in all its manifestations. Isn’t this the real lesson of the history and evolution of the performing arts?

John Terauds


2 thoughts on “Beware the tyranny of the bored in classical music and opera

  1. The AtG’s Turn of the Screw was simply the most compelling opera I experienced anywhere this season (including a side trip to the Met!). The production itself was utterly compelling, using as mentioned here, the most minimal of means. But how those means were used! And the singing…again, of the highest standard and in a couple of cases, well beyond that. Miriam Khalil was utterly incredible – such presence, such technique…she needs to be heard more widely in Toronto.

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