There was a time in the history of opera when singers ruled. If you had a great voice, it wouldn’t matter if you looked like a gorilla. You were in. Stage directors would never dare to ask you to do something you didn’t want to do, and if you were famous enough you could even skip rehearsals without being canned. Your conception of the role you were playing (if you actually had a conception) overruled everyone else’s. The great tenor Lauritz Melchior, who probably sang more performances of the roles of Tristan and Siegfried than all of his stage directors put together had years in their lives, once remarked that if he thought anyone had anything to teach him they could make an appointment and meet him in his apartment.
This was known as The Golden Age.
In the meantime, stage directors were hiding in the wings, in the curtain, in the orchestra pit behind the brass section and in the men’s room, just waiting for their opportunity to stage a coup. And they did. Big time. And once they came into power, it went right to their heads. BIG time.
Would you like to know what kind of mind-erasing craziness operatic stage directors have been foisting on the world? I’ll tell you, anyway.
Let’s say The City Island Opera Company is doing a production of Verdi’s Aïda and the Board of Directors is trying to decide who to hire as stage director. They narrow it down to Director A and Director B.
Director A is very traditional. He puts the story where Verdi put it, in ancient Egypt. It’s a tragic love triangle between Aïda, a sweet, loving Ethiopian slave; Radames, a hot, macho Egyptian general; and Amneris, the bitchy, spoiled daughter of the current Pharaoh.
Aïda is secretly the daughter of the Ethiopian king, which causes all kinds of complications and gets Radames in a mess of trouble, because Egypt is at war with Ethiopia at the time and it is considered bad form for a general to consort with the enemy. Radames is buried alive in some ancient Egyptian tomb, and Aïda sneaks herself in and dies with him, which is all very romantic. The scenery is filled with ancient temples and palm trees along the Nile and everyone is dressed like a painting on Can old scrap of papyrus.
Director B doesn’t want to hear about tradition. Tradition gives him the hives. He places the opera on a huge spaceship loaded with bananas, headed for a planet that the people on board plan to conquer and colonize after turning the inhabitants into banana plants. Aïda is one of those inhabitants. How she got on board the spaceship is never explained. Radames is the captain of the spaceship. Amneris is the daughter of a Chief Accountant.
In the end, it is Amneris who dies with Radames, while Aïda’s voice is heard as a disembodied spirit. Amneris and Radames are not buried alive; they are jettisoned out into space, along with a bag full of shredded paper. All the men in the cast wear plain, red uniforms and all the women wear silver lamé bikinis.
All references to Egypt, Ethiopia, ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses and the Nile River are left in. Those things are irrelevant to the director. The only thing that matters to him is the point he is trying to make about human alienation. Nobody would ever figure out the connection between a spaceship loaded with bananas and human alienation, so he has published a long explanation, full of academic language and big words, in the program notes.
The company hires Director B because his concept is innovative and it will make all of them look very intellectual to the snobs among the wealthy donors.
At the Metropolitan Opera, Verdi’s Rigoletto no longer takes place in Renaissance Italy. It has been moved to 1970s Las Vegas. The “translations” in the titles that appear on the backs of all the seats read like the script of a bad gangster movie. It’s kind of fun, really. In the middle of a tragic opera, they give the audience some good laughs.
Let us now have a moment of silence to mourn the passing of intelligence and good sense.