By, BLO Artistic Advisor John Conklin
This is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Opera America Magazine. I am very interested in the "problem" of how an audience member might approach an opera performance--whether for the first time or the 50th--whether a standard repertory piece or a new or unfamiliar work. Do you need to "prepare"? .... and if so how? I'd love to have your feedback on these questions or others raised in the article. Let's get a discussion going here. Next week, another excerpt.
With the coming of projected supertitles, the somewhat ridiculous notion of having to do “homework” before attending a foreign language opera performance should have receded. In those far-off days before titles, what was one actually supposed to do? Study a detailed but inevitably too generalized synopsis of the action (insufficient) or memorize the libretto’s text by heart (impossible)? The theatrical experience is a moment-to-moment accumulation of words, visual images, sounds, music, narrative action and psychological development given from the stage and received by any given audience member in a detailed and complicated exchange.
But with the growth of opera company education departments (ostensibly a positive development) this notion of homework has, if anything, become more pervasive. I myself have put together a number of programs designed to somehow prepare people for a production. Is this a good thing?
Personal anecdotal case study number one: I attended a performance at English National Opera of Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Xerxes. I was familiar with Handel’s stage works in general but I didn’t know at that point any of the specifics of this one. I had read no reviews, I deliberately avoided looking at any of the publicity pictures, I didn’t read the synopsis in the program or even look at the cast of characters. I was thrown into the midst of a complicated plot whose character relationships I had to work out as they came up. Plot twists, betrayals, misunderstandings were surprising, unexpected, sometimes shocking. The opera was sung in English and, this being the era before titles, you were compelled to really listen to what they were saying ... at the moment. The design and the staging were complicated, witty and allusive—unexpectedly combining Baroque elements with Assyrian motifs. In other words, there was a lot going on, but the result, rather than one of overwhelming confusion was one of the most compelling (and totally entertaining) evenings of opera I have ever experienced. Much of that engrossing delight and interest was, I think, generated by the unfolding of a surface narrative—a good story that I was receiving and understanding for the first time as it unfolded.
In the American opera world generally, a dearth in the repertory of new operas and the seemingly obsessive dependence on the “standard” repertory has led to loss of the sense of surprise, of a journey into unknown territory, of the excitement of discovery based on unexpected revelations of plot or character or idea. We have so often lost one of the basic attractions and pulls of theater—an attraction and pull that seems to live on the surface but which can draw one in deeper and deeper and lead one beneath that surface into whatever depths are appropriate and available. And this pull is the simple storytelling question—“what’s going to happen next?”
I understand how sharing a bit of the plot line might be useful in selling the opera in a brochure or advertisement, but I believe suspense, curiosity and good old-fashioned dramatic storytelling are time-honored ways of drawing an audience member in. You notice I say “audience member.” I am opposed to thinking of “the audience” as an abstract entity to be educated or performed AT. Each person is different, with a totally different and unique set of emotions, experiences that interact with the stimulus emitted by the stage and the pit to produce a totally unique event.