Who Should Direct an Opera Production?

Thursday, May 17, 2012 - 03:00 PM

At a press conference announcing New York City Opera's next season on April 18, I asked George Steel, its general manager and artistic director, what criteria he uses to match a particular stage director with a new opera production. He asked me to be more specific, so I rephrased my question: “Do you think it is necessary for a stage director of an opera to be able to speak the language of the libretto and do you think the director must be able to read music?”

Steel paused for a moment and then replied that he thinks such criteria are “ridiculous.” He spoke of wanting fresh theatrical values, something many heads of opera companies cite. In my experience, such “fresh values” only work if the director is incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about opera.

City Opera recently presented Così fan tutte, one of the most difficult of all operas to direct because of the quicksilver mood changes found in the music and words and because of the complex emotions that lie just beneath the surface of what seems like a sex farce. The performance was fresh, original, somewhat disturbing (as it should be) and thought-provoking because Christopher Alden, its director, has been steeped in the art form for decades. He knows Mozart and da Ponte. I don’t know if he reads music or speaks Italian, but this opera seems to reside so deep within him that there is none of the superficiality that many newly-minted opera producers with their “fresh values” seem to find acceptable.

For purposes of clarity, let us get our terms straight: In opera the person who directs the show and gathers a design team is known as the producer. This is a stage director who has an idea, a vision, a concept of how the opera should be staged and then finds the right people to create scenery, lighting and costumes and, when required, to do choreography. When a production is revived in later seasons, sometimes the original producer is brought back to stage it again. More often, an assistant to the producer or a stage director on staff of an opera company will follow the original production book (the notes on how the blocking—the movement—was done).

The head of an opera company selects a producer he or she thinks will come up with an interesting or provocative production. "Interesting" and “provocative” are not words I use euphemistically. Opera must be interesting and provocative but, I contend, also faithful to the ideas and spirit of the work as created by its composer and librettist. Achieving all of this, and also having the highest musical standards in place, is no simple task. As far back as the 1980s I heard general managers privately say that they wanted productions that are “singer-proof” so, if the cast is not top-shelf, at least the show would be something to look at. This led to the aesthetic, popularized by Franco Zeffirelli (right: his staging of La Traviata), in which visual splendor and busy processionals were often more memorable than individual performances. 

The "fresh values" productions are meant to be an antidote to the heft of the recent past but are often meager replacements. The absence of much to look at requires incisive stage direction informed by a deep feeling for the details of the story as told by the music (first!) and the words. And most contemporary productions fall far short in that regard, so opera has come to seem less interesting and provocative than it can be.

Homework Must Be Done

The emotional message, and much of the drama, of an opera is found in the music rather than the words. It is not sufficient for an opera producer to read a libretto to know how to direct a scene. A libretto in translation is practically useless if that is all you rely on to direct and opera. A producer must have a strong understanding and feeling for the music, because that is where the story really is being told. If you read the librettos of Rigoletto and La Traviata, they are engaging but have little of the visceral drama that Verdi so brilliantly added with his music. In the case of Verdi, and all the best composers, he wrote music that conveyed both the meaning and the sound of the words. Notice how the music fits the meaning and sounds in Bella figlia dell’amore, even if you do not speak Italian.

Where did the idea of “fresh values” begin? Many of the unusual productions of 50 or 60 years ago came in Germany as directors sought to erase, or at least countervail, the horrors of the recent Nazi past. Wagner productions went from specificity to abstraction. Many of the best ones were done by his grandson Wieland (1917-1966), who had the music and words in his bones but found new ways to express the essential core values, and universality, of these operas. This is quite different from the notorious Konzept, or concept, productions in which the story is twisted and warped so that it can be shoehorned into a quirky framework. A famous example was film director Doris Dorrie’s placement of Rigoletto on what seemed like The Planet of the Apes in a Munich production a few years ago (below right).

I find that Verdi operas fare worst of all when staged by people who do not speak Italian, read music, or know anything about Italian history, culture and values. They ridicule inconsistencies in the plot of Simon Boccanegra but fail to mine the rich emotional vein in this work. They seem embarrassed by deep feeling and avoid trying to bring it forth. So many Verdian productions are either “stand and sing” in front of scenery or intended to shock, such as the Rigoletto cited above or an Aïda set in Nazi Germany. 

Bellini and Donizetti, whose emotional content is even more anchored in the music than Verdi’s, don’t fare much better. They may not be given odd settings but the sentiments are not taken seriously because they are seen as too big and therefore irrelevant. We are all the poorer, in life and in opera, if we don’t acknowledge our big deep feelings. Some younger people like to think of this detachment as irony, but it is not. It is an embarrassment about being fully emotional.

Humor, especially in Rossini, is similarly hard to achieve onstage unless its context and rhythm are understood. What is funny in Rossini comes in the wordplay and in the way it is carried by the music. While I think Bartlett Sher is a marvelous director of plays in English and his recent production of South Pacific was well-nigh perfect, he completely misses the boat on Rossini. He seems to think that chaotic, frenetic movement of singers and scenery during a crescendo comes off as humorous. There is a flat superficiality in his approach to Rossini, which he seems to direct from a script with little real connection to the music.

An Intelligent Tenor

Jonas Kaufmann, the tenor of the moment who also happens to be a thoughtful artist, was profiled in The New York Times on April 20 (two days after George Steel's aforementioned comments about opera producers). Kaufmann, who has had to endure some dreadful productions as the framework of his excellent singing, said, "I am too much of a diplomat...but I will generalize this much. Too many directors arrive at the opera house these days knowing little or nothing about music. Most come from the spoken theater, focus only on the text and don't understand how to give the music its space. It may seem obvious to you and me, but a brilliant theater director does not automatically translate into a brilliant opera director. If I am a crack racecar driver, that doesn’t qualify me to be an ace pilot as well.

“I sometimes feel that directors devise all these elaborate concepts because they don’t trust the power of the music and are terrified of boring the audience. Opera is a truly magical art, but the magic originates primarily in the music that we singers work so hard to communicate.”

Readers: What do you think the criteria should be, if any, in selecting a producer for a new staging of an opera?


Photos:  1) Doris Dorrie's production of 'Rigoletto' at Bavarian State Opera 2) La Traviata (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)  2) Jonas Kaufman in recital (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) 


More in:

Comments [12]

JSC from France

"Those who can, do; those who can't, teach; those who can't teach, train teachers."

Those who can, do; those who can't produce operas become opera critics?

There are indeed occasions where a "singer-proof production" would have been welcome, but through no fault of the producer. The number of artistes who don't even know 'how' to cross a stage, make entrances and exits, let alone actually act is very great.

On the other hand, there have been wonderful theatre experiences with foreign artists who pronounce French very approximately which have become stellar through the production and vocal quality.

Opera is an all-round and very complete art-form. To limit it to one or two of its aspects seems rather simplistic.

May. 31 2015 05:20 AM
Peter Feldman from New York City

Opera is not theatre, the difference is that the action is limited by the music. Obviously the stage director must know the language and score of the music to adapt the stage movements to the constraints of the music. All attempts to translate the words to a different language have failed because the music was composed following the original language. The music describes the actions and feelings of the characters, that is why the score is fundamentally important. The staging of an opera must enhance the beauty of the music. An interesting and provocative staging will fail if it is not linked to the music.

Feb. 16 2013 09:35 PM
Ned from Tennessee

I would ask that you consider that there is a distinction between reading a score and following a score. As a non-musically trained stage director, I have always directed from a piano vocal score, always with the translation penciled in above the original language (for the pieces where I was not fluent.) I can't hum it for you, but I know where we are, and I know every note of the piece--not from looking, but from listening. For my first Cosi, I listened to the full score once a day for 3 months. At the first sing-through, the tenor teased me for moving my lips as I silently sang along.

It is not about reading music. It is about hearing and responding to music in an honest, open way, then creating a dramatic truth onstage that is the perfect and inevitable expression of that music mixed with those words.

I have met many singers, directors and conductors with an excellent knowledge of the technical aspects of what they sang or worked on, but without a gut involvement with the music.

Directing theatre and opera are quite different, yes. A theatre director is not automatically a great opera director, and vice versa. But with humilty and effort, it is possible to transition from one to the other, or even enjoy a career working in both media. Yes, there are extremes taken by directors without musical knowledge, as there were often extremes taken by singers or conductors who care only about the technical qualities of the sound.

Remember, too, that doing opera well is extraordinarily hard. I describe it as spacing twenty people around the edge of a football field, and telling them to each shoot an arrow into the air on the count fo three. The goal is for all 20 arrows to meet in mid-air. Yes, it is really that hard. Luckily, just 4 or 6 of them hitting is thrilling. Seeing all 20 hit is the sort of experience you might have once or twice in your life, but it feels SO GOOD. It is those productions that keep us coming back, pulling on the artistic equivalent of a slot machine, hoping to recapture that exquisite jackpot of musical, dramatic and emotional truth.

Just my .02.

Jul. 02 2012 01:07 PM
Thomas from Knoxville, TN

I am a young just graduated wannabe opera director, but it seems to me there are two things going on here. I just received my B.M. degree. I originally came to opera as a performer, but observing the creative process ignited a fire in me. I wanted to create the world that these operas live in. So, I knew I needed to get some technical stage craft training, except most schools of music do not offer such training. There are a total of 3 graduate programs in opera directing on the east coast. 3! People with a musical background are not being trained to go in to directing. The only way to gain that experience is through a traditional theater program. Acquiring the necessary knowledge to become an opera director is impossible to find in one location. If we are not training students in both music and theater then how can we expect to raise up a generation of competent opera directors? I recently worked with some theater students on a concept project for a hypothetical production of the Offenbach's "Tales.." They kept talking to me about getting ideas from the "script" I kept telling them they weren't listening enough.

Secondly, I am not even sure that opera is ready for what modern directors have to offer the repertory. Reinterpretation is a vital part of theater, but it feels like most opera goers want to see opera in a museum or vacuum. I was taught to always tell the same story that the composer was telling, or else come up with a new opera. Yet, even when I see productions that are born of the spirit of the composer's music, I still hear people complaining. Oh god there wasn't a crucifix in the new Tosca! etc...It is as if those people want opera to be exactly how they are used to it, or die. I can't think of another art form that is subject to as much cronyism as opera. Fans should feel entitled to the absolute highest quality when they pay to see a production. Yet, quality productions are generally defined by whether or not the show met a person's bland expectations of the same old Traviata, or Boheme. Those works are immortal, but that does not mean that they are fragile. Put them to the test. Mine them for truth. But, we also need to be making stories of our own, and supporting them.

This is a two fold problem of education and career opportunities, and then of an audience that is unwilling to embrace the unknown.

May. 22 2012 01:08 PM
Cori Ellison from New York, NY

Bravo, Fred, for telling it like it is!

May. 19 2012 11:23 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

THE QUESTION IS HOW CAN THE DIRECTOR STAGE THE OPERA TO BRING FORTH DEEPER COMPREHENSION OF THE INGREDIENTS OF THE MUSICAL SCORE. IMHO, the director must not only speak the language and know all the subtext and background to the story line and the composers own views of HIS materials that generated the story and the music. Benedetto Croce once wrote that to be a Shakespeare one must have, beyond the vocabulary and technical prowess in writing, that universality of scope, that interest in delving beyond the obvious and not go overboard with simplistic generalities. Obviously, large vocabulary in words and the writing techniques that encompass the architecture of structured prose or poetry is imperative !!! I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, opera composer: "Shakespeare" & "The Political Shakespeare" & the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where professional actors are trained for the Shakespeare roles and big-voiced singers are coached in the Wagner roles and voice production and dramaturgy techniques. My next concert in New York will be on Saturday, June 9th at the YOGA EXPO at the New Yorker Hotel. The title of the concert is BRING HIM HOME, with that song from the musical LES MISERABLES, encouraging the return of our armed forces and inspiring hope and love of country with This Land is Your Land, The House I Live In, You'll Never Walk Alone, Climb Ev'ry Mountain, Billy Bigelow's Soliloquy from Carousel, Granada, The House I Live In, Wien, Wien, nur du Allein, The Impossible Dream [The Quest], Earth Anthem and nine other selections.

May. 19 2012 02:29 PM
w.Pagenkopf from Flushing, NY

Broadway directors and designers have no real knowledge of opera. Mr.Gelg going for short term profits has ruined things for people that can truly support opera,
He has brought in cutomers, thats what I call them, that applaud anything, know nothing of the period that composers were thinking and working in for idiotic updating.
Tanks, cell phones, flapper dresses, etc.
Also by cutting some intermissions the people that are the real supporters often leave and cannot come back in for physical reasons disturbing people and eventually stopping their subscriptions. Hitchcock said a movie should be no longer than a persons bladder capacity. When novelty wears thin he will lose out on his inovations..........

May. 19 2012 12:39 AM

It is far more important to be fully cognisant of the work rather than the language or be able to read music. I have seen "modernized" operas that were excellent . Two examples are the NYCO "Tosca" and a recent production of "la Traviata" at Opera Company of Philadelphia. Both were extremely faithful to the works while setting them in more modern times. However, if the stage director/producer substitutes a personal agenda for the work, as was done in OCP's 2002 production of "Carmen," the result is utter dreck which can have long lasting effects on the company.

May. 18 2012 06:17 PM
Cynthia Clayton from Houston, TX

I agree utterly with Kaufmann. Just as with a singer who may not be fluent in the language of the libretto, if the stage director is sufficiently immersed in the layers of meaning of the text, this "deficit" is surmountable. There is no substitute, however, for understanding the musical impulses underneath and between the words. The greatest composers of opera designed their music to express deeper levels of meaning than the words could ever conjure alone. A stage director must be able to understand the musical impulses in the score to adequately express the opera.

May. 18 2012 03:26 PM
monica from ny

RIGHT on the money.. both you Fred and Jonas Kaufmann... by trying to "modernize" operas... they are pushing operalovers away with their STUPID productions... Traviata in little red dress, having the artists running up and down the stairs (thus having to worry about not being out of breath) in Manon for ex... is abosulutely CRAZY and shows that the stage director and producer BOTH don't know ANYTHING about the opera they are modernizing... as he saying goes.. if it ain't broke don't fix it... but more importantly... get people who are INTERESTED in opera( music and singing) and not just the theatrical part of it...

May. 18 2012 10:22 AM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

I agree with you, Fred, that when we attend a performance of Verdi's Rigoletto, we should not be hearing or seeing Bella figlia delle scimmie. William Kentridge's production of Shostakovich's The Nose was brilliant, as was his production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. I am uncertain whether Kentridge can read a score, but, it certainly is not "ridiculous" to expect anybody who would presume to direct opera to know, or to be willing to learn, score reading. Is it ridiculous for somebody to direct an opera without knowing the opera's languages? (That of the libretto and that of the music?) Would we think it ridiculous if somebody presumed to direct a movie with a script in a language they didn't know? Frankly, I don't see how one could direct an opera without doing some serious study (i.e. thinking about) of the opera -- and what is one going to think about if not the score? To me it seems ridiculous to believe that an opera could be inspiringly directed by somebody unfamiliar with the opera's languages.

May. 18 2012 09:35 AM
William V. Madison from New York City

I confess, my heart sank when I read your opening paragraphs. Fortunately, your sensible analysis restored my good humor.

May. 18 2012 08:10 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About Operavore


Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

Follow Operavore