The average opera has several principal singers, a few comprimario singers (opera speak for bit players), a chorus and sometimes dancers. Some supernumeraries might also be hired to carry big stuff, sit or walk around and look like they are part of the scenery, which they are.
Someone has to tell everyone where to go, so the company hires a stage director.
Back in the Golden Age, when singers ruled and all was right with the Universe, the main jobs of the stage director were to make nice stage pictures, make sure people didn’t bump into each other and keep the singers happy so they would just sing already and stop complaining so much. If a singer didn’t want to do something, he didn’t have to do it. This is as it should be
By now, 2014, the crown has been passed from singers to conductors to stage directors. Singers who want to work have no choice but to follow directions and shut up, even when the director is being stupid. The problem is that most directors form their concepts without considering who is going to be onstage and what kind of shape the person is in. No matter how hard they try, singers can only do so much when it comes to fitting themselves into someone else’s fantasy, especially if the singer’s physical type isn’t something the director wants to look at. Despite popular thought among musicians, singers have brains* and they can think, which means they form their own concepts. The chances of a singer’s secret concept gelling with that being imposed by a stage director are about 1 in a zillion. As I said before, though, singers go along because they have to if they would rather spend their lives onstage rather than waiting tables.
There are singers who go along with a director during rehearsals, then do what they want in the performance. They are known as The Future Unemployed.
In other words, singers and stage directors are natural enemies. I’m a singer and I’m telling this, so I get to tell it my way. If you disagree with me, write your own damned book.
Like singers and conductors, stage directors come in different types. Most stage directors are men, although women are taking up this job in increasingly larger numbers. You don’t have to stand with your rear end facing the audience to direct an opera. You do have to enjoy telling people what to do. Motherhood is a good training ground for this, although it is optional.
The different types of stage director are:
1. The Traffic Cop. This kind of director revels in moving large bunches of people around on a stage and creating epic spectacles. If he can toss in a horse or two just to show off, he will. Elephants are even better. As long as he gets the right people in the right spots at the right times, he doesn’t care about such things as characterization or realistic acting. He leaves that up to the singers and doesn’t even notice if their acting is good or bad as long as they end up in the right places onstage. His direction is often described as “park and bark.”
2. The Choreographer Unlike The Traffic Cop, the Choreographer is so concerned with detail that he plans out every tiniest movement and gesture that a singer makes, even to the point of what beat or chord on which the singer should move or gesture. The Choreographer will waste hours of rehearsal time driving everyone to insanity trying to get Uncoordinated Soprano to drop her fan on that one F-Major chord, after stepping precisely to the beat for one measure. If patiently going over and over that same action doesn’t work, The Choreographer resorts to yelling and name-calling, reducing Uncoordinated Soprano to tears and making sure that she is terrified into paralysis whenever she sees him.
Which brings us to …
3. The Bully This guy thinks that the best way to get people to do things the right way is to yell at them. Of course, it takes a lot of energy to holler at everybody, so some Bullies will choose one or two members of the cast to pick on, usually the one(s) who look like they can’t fight back. The Bully will never pick on the soprano whose wealthy CEO uncle is bankrolling the production or the baritone who is the General Director’s love interest of the month.
4. The Method Guy This one will inspire the cast with all kinds of insights into the characters they are playing and create all kinds of backstories and motivations. He’ll forget, though, to stage the performance so that the audience understands everything. The cast will have a great time, but the audience will leave the theater wondering what the hell they just saw, and why.
Speaking of what and why:
5. The Avant-Garde Enthusiast This guy never heard the expression, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” Any opera is fair game, no matter how classic and revered. This is the guy who will set Verdi’s Aïda on a spaceship instead of in ancient Egypt, where it belongs. He won’t pay any attention to the libretto (i.e. the words) of the opera, which he probably doesn’t understand, anyway. Unfortunately, these guys are working all over the place, because everyone who has power in the opera world thinks this is the wave of the future. Except in very rare cases, it’s a wave of stupidity.
Last but not least:
6. Every Singer’s Ideal This person is to be treasured as a precious pearl. He knows how to set up a good stage picture, and he does so. He also respects the singers, listens to them and, if they have any good ideas, lets them at least try them out in rehearsal to see if they work or not. He never yells at anyone. Even if his staging has a touch of the avant-garde, it makes sense, because he has thoroughly studied the libretto. He is as rare as a Buddha statue in a Catholic church.
I hope that you have all enjoyed this little series about opera, and have gotten some good laughs out of it, as well as (maybe) learned a little. If it tweaks your curiosity enough to make you want to check out your local opera company, or just makes you stop and watch a little when they show an opera on PBS, my work has not been in vain.
If not, I hope you just got some laughs.
*Our brains are abnormal, but functional. We just have to give them rest so they won’t overheat.