By, BLO Artistic Advisor John Conklin
In the end, is what the artist meant important? The production result (not the process or even the intent) is what matters. Good artists work on many levels within themselves and often (thank God) produce work that they may not completely understand. Accepted ambiguity can provide meaning, stimulation, involvement. (It can also, of course, in less skilled hands produce uninteresting muddle.) A group of artists producing an opera on the stage creates a stimulus—the stage production. They need to commit themselves totally to the evolution of that stimulus through discussion, conceptual thinking, research, but they must, in the end, give it over to the recipients, the members of the audience. The artists in a sense lose control, but that is the glory and often the misery of being an artist. You don’t own the piece any more—your audience member now does. Is it possible for an artist to be misunderstood or misinterpreted? This is a question that goes to the heart of the artistic exchange.
Personal anecdotal case study number two: After a performance of Don Giovanni, which I designed, I was accosted by a audience member—red in the face, veins throbbing. I thought, “Oh, great, now I’m going to cause the death of an irate operagoer.” He sputtered, “I didn’t understand ANYTHING that you did in that production. Was Giovanni in a wheelchair because he had syphilis?” He went on and on. After a bit I gently stopped him gently, “Sir, you said you didn’t understand anything, and here you have just give a quite thorough and detailed explanations of what it meant—to you.” “But is that what you meant?” “That makes no difference.” (Actually his explanation of Giovanni’s wheelchair was a completely new thought for me, and in some ways a more interesting interpretation than what the director and I had discussed.) Pause. The furious red drained away. As he walked slowly away, he said, “Maybe I should go back and see this again.”
I had somehow given him permission to have his own thoughts, interpretation, to OWN the production for himself, which was his right... and responsibility. The power to take over and experience a piece in your mind is a joy and a rush. We live in culture which tells us all the time what to think and what things mean—critical reviews, experts’ comments, labels on pictures in museum which explain what to think. Fear of being wrong, fear of appearing stupid, colors people’s reactions and make them passive receptors. We as producers need to make each audience member unafraid, to give the control back to them.