When the Fourth Wall Comes Tumbling Down

Wednesday, January 04, 2012 - 12:39 PM

Perhaps as a late Christmas gift to the audience, or possibly in an added bit of baffling nonsensicality, bass René Pape marked his last appearance in the Met’s limpid new production of Faust with a moment of devilish spontaneity.

After the opera’s iconic “Jewel Song,” and as Méphistophélès reenters with Faust noting how Marguerite has taken to her new baubles, bangles and beads, Pape parted with the French language for a beat to add the line “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” (In fact, it’s the same line uttered by a lion puppet after the same aria in Joan Sutherland’s Who’s Afraid of Opera TV show take on Faust.)

The momentary break in character, not out of place for a devilish character, was preserved on broadcast and posted almost immediately to Parterre.com (you can listen here) where it was met with a range of reactions from the popular gossip Web site's readers. “The ad lib is cringe-inducing," wrote one fan. "Real amateur hour stuff. And I like Pape quite a bit; I’m not just being petty.” Another said: “It may be a wretched production, and he may sing like a God. But he behaved like a pig.”

Others found the incident to be less reproachful, calling it “a bit of a ‘last day’ joke from somebody who did a great job. [It] sounds like an OK thing to do – especially in the production like this which deconstructed the original story this much first of all.” And one conspiracy theorist even posited that Pape was asked to ad lib the line “by various powers that be.”

At least it came in a lighter moment, at a point where the audience was already laughing; it could have been much worse if, during the first act, Pape had told Faust “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.” Heck, Faust could have said “Here’s looking at you, kid” instead of “À toi, fantôme adorable et charmant” as he drinks to his youth and Marguerite. Siebel could have told Valentin “May the Force be with you” before the soldiers depart for war and all three male principals could have sneered “Go ahead, make my day” before the fatal duel.

It’s a slippery slope, but as Zachary Woolfe pointed out in the New York Observer earlier this fall, following a sly smile from Anna Netrebko during the Met’s opening night of Anna Bolena, breaking character is no new phenomenon on the opera stage, such as Jon Vickers’s famous rail against a vaguely tubercular audience member. In a production of La bohème, Enrico Caruso was paired with the severe Nellie Melba, who considered her costar to be an animal. He lived up to her expectations during “Che gelida manina” in which he pressed a hot sausage into her palm as he sang of her tiny frozen hand. One night during Tosca, Maria Jeritza stabbed her Scarpia with a ripe banana. Kathleen Battle sang Susanna’s final aria of Le Nozze di Figaro in the dark one night after continually berating the Met’s wardrobe mistress (who was married to the master electrician). 

Performing a Rescue

Nowadays, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (pictured) are known to prank each other onstage with well-hidden fake tattoos and eyeliner tricks. But there are also the moments of rescuing an awkward situation: During a Met performance of Lohengrin, tenor Leo Slezak was left stranded onstage when his swan-pulled boat sailed offstage too early. Turning to the audience, Slezak saved the moment by asking “Tell me, please, what time is the next swan?"

In a production of Carmen at New York City Opera, mezzo Gloria Lane unexpectedly had to finish the opera herself, singing both title role and Don José and stabbing herself with an imaginary knife after tenor David Poleri stormed offstage. Galiano Masini reportedly shouted “Up yours!” to an unkind audience during a production of Tosca and was also rumored to break a performance in order to ascribe a botched high note to the local “damned laxative mineral water.”   

Operettas like The Merry Widow (a recent DVD of a Zürich performance includes a nod to the local beer) and Die Fledermaus are wide open to fourth-wall breaking. While many fans were shocked to hear a pop culture reference pop up in Gounod, it may have been less surprising to hear the same reference thrown into Lehár or Strauss. “Unlike operas, operettas aren’t sacred,” wrote David Mermelstein for the Los Angeles Daily News in 2005. “They don't deal in great truths or noble themes.”

Mermelstein’s comments about the operetta came at the beginning of his review for the Los Angeles Opera’s production of The Grand Duchess, the company’s take on Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein. Helmed by sitcom man Gary Marshall and warped out of proportion into a work with so many extraneous cultural references (from The Sopranos to “Hush, hush sweet Charlotte”), Marshall’s Duchess was a shtick too far, making Family Guy seem tame by comparison. There, the fun was forced and there was no Verdian level of tension to cut. In Marshall's hands, the spontaneity of the ad-libs was pre-planned and scripted. It does tells us something: With such an extreme example, there is obviously a discernible line to be crossed. But the question remains: does the same line extend to six little words uttered by René Pape?

Was Pape out of order by adlibbing in Faust? Have you seen any moments of the fourth wall breaking down in an opera house? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.


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Comments [20]

The Marschallin from New York, NY

Is my comment too late?
Who said Opera is sacred? It has never been, as all the exemples of "breaking" listed here demonstrate abundantly...What was good enough for Caruso is good enough for us...They say that Opera is a little like the Circus, we love to be scared that the high wire artist may fall, it is part of the enjoyment: the unexpected, the surprise! Are we going to kill all potential for it? Let us cool it! And relax, not take ourselves so seriously!

Feb. 13 2012 06:09 PM

His ejaculation on stage,whether a deliberate yet awkward release of termination anxiety or following the advice "to leave them laughing when you go," simply is CAMP.That's all! I have no plans of amending the
libre4to. Ad-libs graffiti and out-takes all have their proper place. Of course to prevent this gaff from NEVER occurring in the future ask the prop. mistress to fill the Coffer with emeralds and rubies.
Feeling the loss of a beloved company like LA GRAN SCENA OPERA reminds us of how many of us ran eagerly to the box office to get a ticket before they SOLD OUT. They were in the business of satire and worked tirelessly on sharpening their wit for our entertainment and benefit (and YES she works hard for the money). So, when the unexpected comes at us take joy in the aplomb of humor and refrain from finding malice where none exists. The derisive scatological reactions simply derive from the universal presence of aggression concealed in humor. To not become victim to humor (and those nasty places it absolutely leads to) remain humorless and sad.

Jan. 20 2012 02:12 AM

Unbelievable this is even an issue. Do any of the complainers go to the theater, where this is an unremarkable occurrence?

Jan. 12 2012 12:35 PM

Come ON!!
Lighten up you anal retentive people!
Don't we all still laugh and quote Slezak's "What time is the next swan?" and Farrar's ad lib about Caruso, "He's had a cocktail"?
And many others.
It brings the stodgy quality down to earth and it isn't like it is done constantly or at an inapproriate time.

Jan. 09 2012 09:01 AM
Ian Ambrose Morgan from Brooklyn, NY

Seriously? you are so upset by an entertainer being "entertaining" that you feel booing is appropriate? Even the Opera with all it's tradition and stuffiness can benefit from having a sense of humor and joie de vie! Nes pas?

Jan. 08 2012 12:55 PM
Marie from Wanamassa, NJ

Mr. Gross, I know booing is accepted, even done proudly, in Italy. However, we are not in Italy. Didn’t your mother ever say “Jeffrey, if everyone was jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it too?” ;)

I still think it is in appallingly bad taste to boo. Silence is a far more elegant and powerful statement.

This was the subject of a lively discussion here almost exactly one year ago, http://www.wqxr.org/#/articles/wqxr-features/2011/jan/05/poll-when-it-appropriate-boo/.

Jan. 07 2012 10:36 PM
Erica Miner from CA

What about 'Das hat Rienzi getan'? Those of you familiar with the story will know from whence I speak...

Jan. 07 2012 08:14 PM
Jeffrey Gross from Brooklyn

This is not a big deal, though a bit tacky. However, it's hardly going to get people to opera "in droves." But I strongly disagree that booing is necessarily bad - at least booing a bad performance. For example, there's a long tradition of doing so in Italy. That's b/c they're a people who truly care about the form. Italians boo, you could say, b/c they love.

Jan. 07 2012 04:39 PM
Michael from New York

Come on, some of these critics need to remember the charm of the opera. You want something memorable; something like what Pape did is something I'd be remembering with quite a fondness.

Jan. 07 2012 01:00 PM
Emilio from Buenos Aires,Argentina

I believe that an opera singer the caliber of Rene Pape is aloud to give a touch of frivolity to his character.I do not think that monsieur Gounod being alive would have been "horrified".

Jan. 06 2012 06:00 PM
David from Flushing

I suppose that we should be thankful that after missing the last swan, Slezak did not break into a rendition of Al Jolson's "Swanee - how I love ya, how I love ya, My dear old swanee."

Jan. 06 2012 09:08 AM
Yen Shu Liao from Moves Around

Arts is based on creativity, so I don't think some experimenting here and there is bad... . Even if the result was "Ouch! That sure didn't work!", that's soil from which grows the new and improved 2.0, which might just be "Whoa! That's the future!" We're artists, not scientists, or soldiers in the military. I mean, even scientists deviate sometimes to invent stuff, right?

Jan. 05 2012 08:44 PM
Marie from Wanamassa, NJ

Oh honestly. People need to pull themselves together. While I can certainly see having high expectations about the quality of a musical performance one pays to hear, let us not forget that opera is entertainment, not sacred. It is neither holy nor sacramental, even if it is revered by fans. Singers behaving badly, such as Poleri or Masini, should not be tolerated (although they do provide their own form of entertainment). But good for performers who have a sense of humor and do not take themselves too seriously.

Mr. Clark’s comment below references booing by some members of the audience at a performance he attended. Now that is inexcusable behavior.

Jan. 05 2012 07:37 PM
Janet Pascal

To put it in context, this particular ad lib occurred immediately after Faust and Mephiso have exchanged very knowing, even lascivious "um-hm"s. Pape's quip seems to fit the mood perfectly. I thought it was lovely.

Jan. 05 2012 04:35 PM
Richard from Englewood, NJ

For anyone upset at Pape's brief lapse from character, be happy you didn't see a Don Giovanni at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin 2 years ago that I suffered through. Not only did characters in this modern (what else?) setting shoot one another with guns before the ending ensemble, but there were frequent speeches in German, one of which was a recital of one of Mozart's letters! Remarkably, there were changes in the orchestration as well.

The devil has a special place down under for directors who abuse the music of the divine Wolfgang. What Rene Pape did is obviously quite forgiveable.

Jan. 05 2012 04:04 PM
Loretto from NYC

Delightful - why not play the devil devilishly. Opera may be serious stuff; it's not and never should be solemn. And if we're to have an atom bomb hanging about, all the more reason to be a devil. Aside from that, with Kaufman and Pape singing as almost one voice in two ranges - what more could one ask for . . . .:

Jan. 05 2012 02:46 PM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

People need to lighten up a bit. I do not care much for Faust but his remark is funny and funny is good. I loved the NYC Opera production of Barber of Seville when Don Basilio remarked after being threatened by Almaviva "He made me an offer I could not refuse."
Just because we love classical music does not mean that we cannot occasionally laugh at all the murder, mischief and mayhem that goes on in opera. My cousin was visiting NY during the holidays and his son seemed to be interested in opera. I gave him a list of operas he might enjoy and wrote on the list which operas were full of sex and violence. Got him interested.

Jan. 05 2012 01:56 PM
John Clark from New York, NY

Why all the hatred for this production? I thought it was fresh and excellent, and made the opera thoroughly entertaining for me! I think some purists should get off their high horse. When I went to see it, some buffoons from the balcony even boo-ed the cast at the end. Really?

Jan. 05 2012 10:22 AM
arden broecking from Connecticut

Anything on the part of the singers, who had to put up with it, that relieved that ghastly, grim, inappropriate production of "Faust" was fine with me. I agree with the critic to said "Close your eyes and listen."

Jan. 04 2012 04:47 PM
David Simmons from Portland, OR

God forbid opera should be fun; people will start going in _droves_.

Jan. 04 2012 04:08 PM

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