Operavores today probably think of themselves as radically apart from what is happening on stage. After all, the colossal fury, anguish, and depravity of such characters as Orpheus, Don Giovanni, Azucena, and Salome are best contemplated at a safe remove. To put the matter in Nietzschean terms, only Apollonian order and distance make bearable and graspable the “great dark driving forces” of Dionysian “savagery.” (The quotes are from Peter Sloterdijk’s Thinker on Stage, a reading of The Birth of Tragedy full of compelling ideas for opera lovers.)
But it was not always so. Before Wagner devised Bayreuth’s darkened theatre and “mystic gulf” to separate the audience from the onstage action, people went to the opera to see and be seen. Nowhere was this more true than in the central, elaborately decorated royal boxes from which 18th-century autocrats took in opere serie and tragédies lyriques wrought to showcase the wisdom and rectitude of, yes, illustrious fellow autocrats from bygone days.
A few contemporary artists are shattering, even dissolving, the “fourth wall” that in modern theater has tended to divide spectators from the performance-world. Several months ago, the Park Avenue Armory presented Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Oktophonie in an environment designed by Rirkrit Tiravanija. Audience members were invited to wear white or slip into white ponchos in order to amplify the work’s ritualistic aspects.
Lera Auerbach, the Russian-born American composer, pianist, writer, and visual artist, will further blur the line separating public from performers when her a cappella opera The Blind, based on an 1890 play by Maurice Maeterlinck, receives its world premiere at the Lincoln Center Festival in a co-production with American Opera Projects. In John La Bouchardière’s production, audience members wear blindfolds and experience the opera in a similar state to its characters, 12 people who are visually impaired and stranded on an island, having been separated from the elderly priest who has cared for them.
Auerbach answered a few questions for Operavore during rehearsals for The Blind.
You have described The Blind as an “anti-opera.” What do you mean by this?
I simply mean that it deliberately avoids the typical conventions of opera. My other opera, Gogol, uses every resource of an opera theater. It is scored for 16 characters, a large choir, and full orchestra. Its first production employed pyrotechnics, dancers, acrobats and a stage that moved from vertical to horizontal. Gogol is an opposite of The Blind, where 12 voices alone sing in the dark.
Please tell us about “Dialogue in the Dark,” an exhibition and workshop that you attended in Davos that apparently shaped your thinking about how The Blind could be presented.
Some years ago I attended a beautifully designed experiment where groups of top-level global leaders sat around a table in complete darkness with the task of assembling a simple unknown object.
You have also stated that blindfolding the audience somehow increases their vulnerability. Just to play the devil’s advocate: Some critics argue that the thrills of music and other kinds of sound are intrinsically sinister because they “penetrate” our bodies, making us vulnerable whether or not we can see their sources. Why the need for the blindfolds?
It could easily be argued that sight is the sense that we, as humans, most rely upon. The Blind (in an earlier version) received stagings in Berlin’s Konzerthaus and Moscow’s Stanislavsky Theatre, “normal” productions. This new staging by John La Bouchardière brings the audience into an environment where all other senses are engaged and sight is removed.
Some people who are differently abled have objected to the themes of Maeterlinck’s play, arguing that it equates blindness with “powerlessness, spiritual failure, immobility” or even to some extent “death.” What is your response to their criticisms?
In Maeterlinck’s play, the idea of twelve plus one (the priest) has religious connotations. Metaphors are at the root of storytelling, sacred or secular, and will remain so. Physical disability as a metaphor is a subject of discussion in our politically correct times, but book burning may also be frowned upon by those who care about an open society.
If we were to rewrite literary masterpieces with the eraser of a politically correct censor, we would end up in a castrated and culturally sightless world. Maeterlinck’s play is open to many interpretations, and I believe that the sung text adds a very poignant dimension.
Lera Auerbach’s The Blind plays July 9–14 at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse in Lincoln Center’s Rose Building. Tickets and further information: 212.721.6500 or lincolncenterfestival.org.