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Canadian Director Threatens To Crush Metropolitan Opera Stage

Is ‘Wagner’s Ring’—including Robert Lepage’s new Met version—worth the expense?


 

I was wondering how Robert Lepage’s production of Wagner’s Ring — the big test of Peter Gelb’s Metropolitan Opera leadership and one of the Canadian director’s biggest projects to date — was going. According to the New York Times, the Met has had to spend over $1 million hundreds of thousands of dollars to re-enforce the stage, because it was determined that Lepage’s set would be so heavy it might literally cause the stage to collapse. The article includes a picture of the sloping, shifting constantly-moving set that Lepage has built in his studio in Quebec. Since he was allowed to do the work at his own studio, and then have it transferred to New York, that explains why the set didn’t take the theatre’s capabilities into account. Anyway, the idea of it sounds pretty interesting; the Ring demands all kinds of complicated effects, and Lepage’s approach, including the moving set and computer-projected images, might be the one to create those effects without clumsy 19th century theatre trickery (on the one hand) and fake-hip modern multimedia ideas (on the other).

I have to admit that while I understand why the Ring is the ultimate goal of any opera house that wants to be considered major-league, I’ve never been quite convinced that it’s worth all the expense. Certainly the influence of the cycle is enormous: it was, as many people have pointed out, the first and perhaps greatest multi-media blockbuster, where Wagner tried to organize all the arts — music, theatre, poetry, political polemics, special effects — into the ultimate commentary on life itself. And someone argued to me that Wagner’s famous leitmotif method, which was so revolutionary and avant-garde in its time, is now something that makes the Ring more accessible than the average opera: instead of listening for the shape of a number or scene and how it relates to the drama, one can just listen for the themes and relate them to whatever the characters are singing about.

Still, the Ring is also the work where Wagner put into practice a theory of musical theatre that has never convinced me, never will convince me, and that even Wagner himself didn’t follow outside of these four operas. Wagner’s theory was described by Tchaikovsky, a notable Wagner-skeptic, in an article after he saw the Ring in 1876:

Since opera, in his view, is nothing other than drama accompanied by music, and since the characters in a drama are supposed to speak rather than sing, Wagner irrevocably banishes from opera all rounded and self-contained musical forms, i.e. he does away with arias, ensembles, and even choruses, which he uses episodically and very moderately only in the last part of his tetralogy. That is, he banishes that conventional element of opera which to us had not seemed offensive or false merely because routine had made us quite insensitive to it.

Since in the moments of passionate intensity to which people living in a social community are subject nobody would think of striking up a song, arias are to be rejected; and since as a rule two people do not speak to one another at the same time, but rather one will let the other speak out first, there can be no duets either. Similarly, since people in a crowd do not generally all utter the same words together at the same time, a chorus must also be out of the question, and so on and so forth.

Wagner, by apparently forgetting in this context that the truth of life and the truth of art are two quite different truths, is in effect striving after rationality. In order to reconcile these demands of truth with the requirements of music, Wagner exclusively recognizes the form of the recitative. All his music—and it is a music which is profoundly conceived, always interesting, often splendid and exciting, though at times also a bit dryish and unintelligible, a music which is astonishingly rich from the technical point of view and equipped with an instrumentation of unprecedented beauty—all his music, I emphasize, is entrusted exclusively to the orchestra. The characters sing mainly just completely colourless successions of tones which are tailored to the symphony being performed by the invisible orchestra.

Wagner actually couldn’t stick to this theory for very long; he couldn’t even stick to it for all of the Ring. He broke off composition of the cycle after the second act of Siegfried, and when he returned to it, he started throwing in more scenes that had the shape of conventional operatic numbers (not a lot, but a few). Still, some of the basic ideas have been part of operatic writing ever since, and they don’t strike me as very good ones a lot of the time — in particular, the tendency to have the melody in the orchestra and the singers sort of noodling away on top of it. (Oddly enough, this type of writing usually makes more demands on the singers, not less; they have to scream their lungs out even though the music is basically heightened recitative.) That’s a very reductive description of Wagner’s music, and I don’t think it applies to all of his work — but for me, it does apply to a lot of the Ring. It feels like 18 hours of music where the most important instrument, the voice, doesn’t have a lot of interesting music to play.


 

Canadian Director Threatens To Crush Metropolitan Opera Stage

  1. I agree with the Tchaikovsky comments 100%. I was super excited that the Ring was/is being performed this year in Los Angeles. I bought my Rheingold and Walkuere tickets and after Rheingold I discovered that I didn't like the Ring as much as I wanted to (in spite of being very into my classical music.) I guess I knew that going in, but had hoped that the spectacle of the Ring would overcome the fact that really, the voices aren't particularly lyrical or engaging. It's one thing to listen to the Ring on a CD in the background, but otherwise, not so much.

    I guess the Ring is sort of more of a theoretical achievement than anything else.

  2. It's ironic for me that you write about The Met needing to spend $1 million to reinforce the stage floor as I had just read an article in The Times from last year talking about how both The Net and especially the New York City Opera were facing tough times due to the then financial crisis.

    For City Opera it meant that it had to compete with The Met for a shrinking pool of (less) wealthy patrons and potential donors. For the The Met, its endowment had shrunk considerably due to the fall in the stock market.

  3. From Daniel J Wakin's New York Times piece: "Mr. Gelb declined to discuss the cost of the reinforcement, saying only that it was in the six figures."

    "Six figures" is not US$1 million.

    • Sorry, I thought I had read the $1 million figure elsewhere but can't find it now. Fixed, and thanks for pointing that out.

  4. "That's a very reductive description of Wagner's music, and I don't think it applies to all of his work — but for me, it does apply to a lot of the Ring. It feels like 18 hours of music where the most important instrument, the voice, doesn't have a lot of interesting music to play."
    ——————————————————————

    What an extraordinary (and, pardon me, ignorant) statement! In NO Wagner music-drama (as opposed to his operas) is the singer-actor's voice "the most important instrument." In Wagner's music-dramas, the orchestra, NOT the singer-actor's voice, is the most important instrument (or "voice"), always, and is that in which the core of the drama resides, the singing and miming of the libretto by the singer-actors providing the armature about which the drama is constructed. That, in fact, is the very definition of Wagnerian music-drama, and what distinguishes it from conventional opera.


    ACD
    http://www.soundsandfury.com/

    • I think you misinterpreted the quote you are objecting to. The quote actually says what you go on to say.

      Up until Wagner, the most important instrument has been the human voice. But in Wagnerian opera, this "most important instrument" is given little to say, and the orchestra takes over its role.

      • Which quote? The Tchaikovsky's quote? I wasn't remarking on the Tchaikovsky quote which quote I skipped reading (Tchaikovsky's feelings about Wagner's art are well known to me). Clearly, I was remarking on what Mr. Weinman had to say.


        ACD
        http://www.soundsandfury.com/

    • I agree that that's Wagner's theory of musical drama. To my mind it doesn't work out in practice. The demands made on the individual singers are greater than the demands made on the orchestral players (great as those demands are). The characters in the drama are being played by the actors on a stage, and Wagner didn't even want us to see the orchestra. The idea that the drama is carried by the invisible people playing variations on themes, rather than the person on stage dealing with the near-athletic demands of vocal music, does not convince me. It's like trying to create a film where the actors' performance is secondary to the score. This can work to a certain extent, with the music saying things the character can't. But the orchestral music remains an accompaniment to what we can see.

      Again, I don't think Wagner completely bought into this in practice as opposed to theory; the impact of his best work came through in early recordings where the orchestra is barely audible, and the rise and fall in the popularity of his operas (despite what he called them, the term "music-drama" applies equally to any work of, well, musical drama) has been driven by the availability of singers capable of doing justice to the music — and the best Wagnerian singers have been those like Melchior and Schorr who basically approached Wagnerian singing with the same rules that apply to bel canto, treating the vocal lines like song.

      But in any case, I understand that a listener might agree with Wagner that the drama is in the orchestra. But I think that the voice is the most important instrument in practice, no matter what Wagner thought he was doing.

      • What I outlined is NOT Wagner's theory of musical drama. It's how his music-dramas actually work in performance (and conventional opera does NOT), and that which is responsible for their enormous affective dramatic power. Any operagoer who hears the orchestra in a Wagner music-drama as mere "accompaniment … playing variations on themes" is an operagoer who hasn't yet learned how to listen, and who's missing just about everything the work has to offer. The very worst recordings of Wagner's mature works (i.e., the music-dramas) are those "where the orchestra is barely audible", and one can hear only the singers as if what they were singing were merely songs from some conventional French or Italian soap opera.

        (continued next comment)

      • As to Wagnerian singers "treating [Wagner's] vocal lines like song," that's precisely what Wagner wanted and expected his singers to do. He in fact insisted on it. But Wagner's "songs" are NOT like the closed-form songs of all conventional opera where the orchestra really IS mere accompaniment. They're "songs" that are but a single organic strand in the total musico-dramatic web the core of which resides in the orchestra. That's the way Wagner's music-dramas actually work in performance, NOT merely in theory. Any operagoer who truly can't hear that is, as I've above noted, an operagoer who hasn't yet learned how to listen, and what's impeding his learning is almost certainly that he hasn't yet managed to jettison his habit-ingrained ideas of what genuine dramma per musica should sound like, and expects that it should sound like conventional opera most of which is risible as genuine dramma per musica the apotheosis of which genuine dramma per musica is Wagner's music-dramas.


        ACD
        http://www.soundsandfury.com/

        • What you're saying is that, in practice, Wagner's orchestra does not accompany the singers but has a larger dramatic burden than the orchestra in conventional opera. This is undeniable. What is arguable is whether, in practice, this enhances the drama. My experience is that sometimes it does, and sometimes it renders the characters less immediate and interesting than the aria form, which is not simply an excuse for vocal display but a way of taking a character through the process of thought in musical form, of argument, development, counter-argument. Wagner gives much of that process to the orchestra. If one thinks closed forms are incapable of dramatic expression, this might be considered an improvement, but I don't see how it's always an advance to have the orchestra, rather than the characters, take over the expressive process.

          • No, I'm saying a great deal more than that. It's not simply that in Wagner's music-dramas the orchestra "has a larger dramatic burden than the orchestra in conventional opera." It manifestly does, of course, but, more — much more — the function of the orchestra in a Wagner music-drama is absolutely central to the drama. It's in fact quite literally the drama's sine qua non, not something that merely "enhances the drama." That latter is the sum total of the dramatic burden of the accompanying orchestra in conventional opera.

            (continued next comment because this idiot comment software apparently rejects user comments over 150 words or so — at least from me)

          • As to the dramatic function of arias and other closed song forms in conventional opera, it's not that in themselves they're "incapable of dramatic expression." Clearly, they're not. It's rather that they're invariably interruptions of the ongoing drama, such as it is. Their closed form guarantees it. It's recitative, NOT arias and other closed song forms, that carries the drama forward in conventional opera. Recitative in conventional opera is literally where the action is, and so the drama.


            ACD
            http://www.soundsandfury.com/

          • It's recitative, NOT arias and other closed song forms, that carries the drama forward in conventional opera. Recitative in conventional opera is literally where the action is, and so the drama.

            This is only true if you consider drama interchangeable with plot, as opposed to characterization, the growth and development of a character and their relationships with other characters, and so on. If a song deepens our understanding of the character, his/her motivations and role in the drama, then that is dramatic. It's like the act 1 aria from Traviata: the exposition takes place in the recitatives (if they can be called that) but the revelation of character, our understanding of who she is and her conflicting impulses, comes in the aria sections. And if it tells us who she is and why she does what she does (and provides the foundation for understanding her dismissive attitude to her own happiness, which in turn is the key to the plot), it can hardly be called an interruption.

          • All drama depends upon and revolves around conflict of one sort or another, and conflict is expressed in action and response, not characterization. Characterization is, of course, essential to the drama, but is not what defines it. It's what people DO that creates the drama, not what they feel, and what they do defines their character.


            ACD
            http://www.soundsandfury.com/

          • All drama depends upon and revolves around conflict of one sort or another, and conflict is expressed in action and response, not characterization. Characterization is, of course, essential to the drama, but is not what defines it. It's what people DO that creates the drama, not what they feel, and what they do defines their character.

            But many people can do the same things. What defines the drama is not what they do — since that would just make it a bunch of interchangeable murders, sacrificial suicides, and thefts — but why they do it. The recitative is the "what," but the aria is the "why."

          • As I've already noted, the actions and responses of the characters — what they do — defines the drama. As I've also noted, characterization is essential to the drama, but doesn't define it. What characterization does is enriches the drama so that its not just "a bunch of interchangeable murders, sacrificial suicides, and thefts," to use your words. The problem with opera that utilizes closed forms (i.e., conventional opera) is that the "what" and the "why", also as you put it, are compelled to be presented serially rather than continuously and organically as in genuine dramma per musica (i.e., music-drama) invariably interrupting the progress of the dramatic action as it can't help but do.


            ACD
            http://www.soundsandfury.com/

          • Valid points. But a lot of the Ring is less performed drama than narrated epic, which, to my limited knowledge of traditional drama, is as unique to it as the music-dramatic reforms subsuming aria into the recitative. For long stretches there is nothing going on except one character telling a story to the accompaniment [sorry…] of highly dramatic music. As a result they become narrative-poet geniuses in their own right. None of which adds to the drama unfolding. Or, adds only by way of informing us of what we, mostly, already know. This too is, of course, a result of the new absolute hegemony of the orchestra speaking in leitmotifs. So while much is made of the recitative-style of dramatization, the old hiatus between aria and recitative–the interruption of the event-character of the recitative by the reflective moment of aria– still holds.

            Even the dying Siegfried launches into a narrative, a highly dramatic one masterfully integrated into his act of dying and interrupted by the on-stage audience of huntsmen, but still a reflective accounting of previous events.

            The result is an necessary down-grading of action as actually occurring event to make room for the weight of the past, which is made present through dramatic music and narrative. This was unavoidable given Wagner’s music aims AND the nature of opera per se. The alternative would be to make music the accompaniment to events unfolding before our eyes. But Wagner’s music encompasses all dimensions of time in a way dramatic action cannot–collapsing past and future into an eternal present that lives [forms itself] in and through recollection and anticipation. His music is the inexhaustible “primary process” and primordial chaos out of which his figures weave their narratives.

            It would be interesting to know how Wagner accounted for/justified the narrative function within his music dramas. Probably with reference to the Greeks.

  5. It seems to me that the Met has always gone overboard in its sets. (Nothing succeeds like excess). I think it was Zefferelli who said that if the set was lavish enough, even if the singing is awful, the audience will leave thinking that they has a good experience.

    Many opera companies think that it is necessary to stage a complete RING to obtain credibility. Then they think that they must put an original twist to it. Of the productions I have seen, my favourites are the Kupfer I from Bayreuth which is very simple in concept and staging, and the Copenhagen RING which has a conceptual twist and has not gone overboard with the set.

    From my point of view, i think that there is great drama and passion in the work. But it depends on the direction and the quality of the acting (as distinct from the singing). This possibly will be lost in the spectacle of the Lepage set.

    Lepage and the Met seem to want a Cirque de Soleil experience. It will be very expensive. But will doubtless be a great crowd pleaser for many years to come. I fear that the music might get lost — but if it does get people in to see Wagner and possibly turn them on, it is not necessarily a bad thing. I look forward to seeing it on HD for the spectacle and hope that the technicians will manage it better than they did for Lepage's Berlioz. Then I will go back to my favourites on DVD.

    Archie

  6. Whatever preconceived or re-conceived notions Wagner articulated regarding music drama, his theories did not limit what he actually did as a dramatist and composer. Even within the Ring Cycle, as has been pointed out.

    On the subject of people interrupting one another in real life–I would say, pace Tchaikovsky, that it’s the norm rather than the exception. The dramatic exploitation of talking out of turn in Don Giovanni produces some of its most thrilling and memorable moments. Wagner himself had a go at it in Die Meistersinger, to great comical effect.

  7. I consider myself a Wagner lover but cannot imagine sitting through four hours of opera, let alone the entire Ring cycle. I prefer just to listen and find a lot of the staging kind of silly. No performed action or gestures fully realizes the drama of the music.

    Wagner himself, frustrated by the rehearsals for his first Ring production at Bayreuth, quipped that after having created the invisible orchestra it might have been best had he created the invisible stage. No stage can compete with the imagination. And none is more adequate to the uncanny power of his music.

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