This week I met the Lord of the Underworld.
Turns out that said lord is a rather portly German with a greying moustache, piercing deepset eyes and a nice line in blue boiler suits. He welcomed me to his domain with evident relish, exclaiming, aha at last we meet formally, Frau Marriott!! (In this theatre everyone says hello to everyone else, even if they don't know them from Adam. (Which I bet freaks out a lot of visitors from less friendly parts of Germany and even the world.) Ergo we'd said hello a few times, but somehow I'd never been to the world underneath the stage. In fact it took a few panicked moments once the call came to start the rehearsal on the... rats I don't even know what it is in English!! Unterbühne in German - under-stage... before I remembered a narrow door by the side of the stage manager's desk into which one occasionally sees conductors disappearing. I tentatively opened it, trod carefully down a dark staircase and entered a new world.
My new friend was so proud of his domain. He explained about there being four separate podia (do I mean podia? Each is a podium. Pretty certain I do. Greek comes to mind.), which can be operated separately or together. They sink to a depth of two metres and rise even further than that. He said a lot more technical stuff which I either didn't understand (things to do with cool machines, I think) or which passed me by completely because I was so enthralled with the feeling of being in a different world. The light was not the same as above, there are gates and rules and occasionally shuddering movement...
And these things are available in theatres such as this, and are not used as much as (in my opinion) they should be.
I have been having an ongoing discussion with a friend of mine about production values,
stage interpretations which differ from those specified by the composer, the loss of grandeur on the stage etc etc. It's a good discussion. There are lots of common points. We both regret the lack of beauty on today's opera stage.
And while she openly laments the rich costumes and lush staging of years gone by, for me it's something of a guilty pleasure. I can, as a performer, see why it might have become too much, in the years of, say, Visconti productions. Whatever you were trying to express would have been so easily overcome by your beautiful and overwhelming dress and surroundings. Most of me, artistically speaking, would rather communicate frankly and directly with the audience. However a little bit of me also yearns to wear a pretty dress. In this day and age, that's pretty much inadmissible. Shame!
Because yes, moving away from the sequins and glitter and surface was a good thing; however we have in most cases thrown the baby out with the bathwater. If the public has NOTHING to focus on but a poor bloody performer in a modern cheap-looking nightie for twenty minutes of Mad Scene, with a background of nothing but scaffolding, have the directors no idea of just how much stress that particular performer is now under? Alone, they have to provide the interest of the background, the costumes, any other players in the scene. Been there, done that, had my batteries totally drained.
Some of the most powerful productions I have ever seen have been modern interpretations. However many have denied the necessity of beauty. And that, for me, negates their worth as art. Beauty is powerful in a way we seldom allow nowadays. A direct line to the soul. Perhaps the most beautiful production I ever saw was Strauss's Die Frau ohen Schatten, with stage sets by David Hockney. Immaterial, non-referential, and totally relevant.
Were there a movement to bring the beauty back into opera in our time, I would gladly join it. (It's not likely to happen. We're really a community of cats who walk alone. Not terribly compatible with political movements.) Meanwhile. I shall do what I can to push for the shock of beauty in our modern world. Supporting, of course, this particular production. Which starts in the dark nothingness of my proudly-introduced underworld as a nostalgic song, rising literally to the present as the older generation (myself included) joins in the song...
Whatever I meant to say about the magic of theatre, I shall elaborate upon later. QUITE enough meandering words to be going along with!