Artwatch UK

Opera, Authenticity and Madness

The director of the Royal Opera House, Kasper Holten, has written to ticket holders for the forthcoming Lucia di Lammermoor to say that because of “sexual acts portrayed on stage, and other scenes that… feature violence”, the House will “discuss suitable arrangements” for anyone likely to be upset. On the evidence of the House’s website, many are more than upset.

Above, top, a Royal Opera House email photograph promoting “Lucia di Lammermoor 7 April-19 May”

Above, Joan Sutherland as Lucia in the Covent Garden Opera Company production of Lucia di Lammermoor © Royal Opera House, 1959. (For observations on Sutherland’s artistry and standing vis a vis today’s performers, see Jacques Franck’s comments below at CODA. For Sutherland performing Lucia’s “Mad scene”, see this video. )

On March 14th we received an email from Kasper Holten, the The Royal Opera House’s director of opera. At first glance it looked like a customary ROH sexed-up advertising puff for an under-selling opera. In fact, the glam blonde-in-a-tub (see above) came in advance warning that the opera house would allow ticket holders to pull out:

“I am writing to you as our records show you have booked tickets for The Royal Opera’s new production of Lucia di Lammermoor, staged by one of the UK’s most acclaimed directors, Katie Mitchell.
Katie and her team have set the production around the time of the opera’s creation in the 19th century, and they use this as a platform to explore deeply all the aspects of human relationships in the story – sexual, emotional, physical and psychological. As Katie observes of the famous ending, ‘after all if on your wedding night you took a sharp implement and tried to kill a very strong man, and it went horribly wrong… We’re going to see all of that’.
The rehearsals have had a terrific start with a strong sense of excitement coming from the rehearsal room. But as they have progressed it has also become clear to us that the team’s approach will lead to scenes that feature sexual acts portrayed on stage, and other scenes that – as you might expect from the story of Lucia – feature violence. As a result, we have recently updated our website with a message about this. As you have already booked, we wanted to draw your attention to it. If there are any members of your party who you feel may be upset by such scenes then please email us at onlinebooking@roh.org.uk and we will, of course, discuss suitable arrangements.”

The Daily Telegraph revealed (17 March – “Royal Opera House customers demand money back over new risqué production”) that the ROH reported forty cancellations by March 15th and now advises that children should not be brought to the performance. On 15 March the Times predicted “Another fright night at the opera” and the next day carried a letter from ArtWatch UK calling for more respectful treatments of great dramatic and musical art (see below). The Evening Standard (“Outraged opera fans cancel bookings after sex and violence warning”, 18 March) reported our protest over an attempt to rewrite history and turn historical works into crusading politically progressive instruments, and noted that 100 responses had been made to the ROH’s unprecedented emailed warning. The warning provided links to a ROH interview with the director of Lucia di Lammermoor, Katie Mitchell and to a YouTube discussion in which she takes part. NB – Both of these items carry viewers’ comments. The banner heading to the video reads:

“Watch: Katie Mitchell on Lucia di Lammermoor ‘My focus is 100% on the female characters’
The director on her feminist take on Donizetti, and an innovative split-stage design.”

It is never good for artistic productions to be given over to politicised axe-grinders or sensation-seekers. Here, the express purpose of the split-staging is political and didactic – an indulged subterfuge under which alien additions enjoy a deforming and subverting parity with the opera’s authentic material. When Mitchell was asked in Warwick Thomson’s ROH magazine interview if this is “going to be ‘a feminist Lucia’?” her answer had two parts, one being the assertion of a political credo, the other a programme for its theatrical implementation: “If feminism is a political movement about equality then, yes, you could say that this interpretation will favour a feminist viewpoint”, and, “I want to find ideas that support the movement of the drama, but fill in the gaps in the female narrative in a dynamic way.” What gaps?

On Mitchell’s account, such alleged gaps are not confined to this opera but are present also throughout 19th century operas where the number of women who die is seen as being unacceptably high and “a cultural problem that we’ve inherited”. The director displays a sense of aggrievement that is personal as much as professional: “if it were matched by the equivalent number of dead and mentally disturbed men, I’d be happy as Larry. But it isn’t. So we have to be a bit more rigorous now about how we think about it and how we represent those 19th-century heroines. We can’t just glamourize them, or leave them unexamined. Just because there are beautiful sounds, they can’t be immune to scrutiny.”

By “scrutiny” Mitchell means artistic reformulation. The sheer ambition of pending licensed revisionism is breath-taking: a century’s worth of fabulous cultural achievements are deemed in need of ideological purification. We should be clear, this is not re-interpretation of Donizetti’s great work, but reconstruction on a nakedly and narrowly specialised political agenda. It might fairly be protested that if Mitchell wishes women to be cast in different, non-19th century lights she should consider writing her own operas or directing those written today by other women. There is certainly no shortage of role models in our culture that might find operatic realisation. The portrayal of women in the highly acclaimed television series “Happy Valley” is a currently prominent case in point. (Moreover, it happens to be one that helpfully includes a highly climactic operatic moment in which the forty-something police officer heroine tasers an aggressing male criminal in his genital area.)

Mitchell’s interview was published on 7 October 2015, long before rehearsals began. In a more culturally confident and artistically respectful milieu, she might have been gently advised that there are no artistic gaps in Donizetti’s opera; that, dramatically, Lucia needs to remain who she gloriously is and who Donizetti created. Instead, Mitchell has been allowed to proceed presumptuously through the opera righting shortcomings of her own reckoning, such as:

“The male characters in Lucia di Lammermoor are on stage a lot, their psychologies are well drawn, they’re complex and thrilling and interesting. My beef with the piece is that there just isn’t that same degree of attention and thoughtfulness in the drawing of the female characters. There are scenes that seem to be missing. So my production will try to fill in some of the gaps in the central character’s story. It will balance things out.”

To make physical space for her bolted-on countervailing constructions of meaning, Mitchell plans “to create a split-stage, in which there will be lots of different simultaneous environments. In the first scene, the main action, the sung action, will show Normanno [the captain of the castle guard] describing the search for the lovers – but we will also see Lucia and her maid sneaking into her brother’s bedroom to try on men’s clothes in order to disguise herself. She’s in a threatening situation, and she mustn’t be recognized going to meet her beloved Edgardo, whom her brother hates; she doesn’t just waft down in her normal clothing. I want to show scenes like that, which raise the IQ and agency of Lucia. Those are the sort of gaps I mean.”

The interviewer, instead of asking what might be meant by raising IQ and agency, supplies more rope, asking if there are other gaps. He discovers there are perceived gaps-that-constitute-missing-scenes everywhere, including at the opera’s heart and ending:

“We need to understand why Lucia goes mad. There’s a missing scene, rather like in Hamlet, where we don’t see how Ophelia goes mad. It’s the same with Lucia: we see her sane, then insane. We’ll fill that gap here as well. After all, if on your wedding night you took a sharp implement and tried to kill a very strong man, and it went horribly wrong – not like in the movies, where a knife just pops in and out, but it’s a complete bloody mess – it’s enough to unsettle anyone. We’re going to see all of that.”

It would seem that in this feminist’s politicised artistic universe, nothing can be taken as read or implicit. Even at the risk of being thought risible, everything must be acted out and underscored in full-frontal fashion: the lovers must be shown in sexual congress; the groom must not simply be taken to be dead, he must be shown to a die a horrible slow death in which he is first smothered and then, on staging a Lazarus-like recovery [- message to Arturo from the Amphitheatre: “Lie down you silly bugger, you’re supposed to be dead!”], is variously knifed and battered. Battered with a fossil. Why a fossil? Because by recasting the heroine from an emotionally fragile teenage innocent caught between a rock and a hard place, to a feisty forty-something woman in the mid 19th- rather than the 17th-century, the director can portray her as of a breed of unmarried women who “often found other ways to channel their energies. It was a period of brilliant female artists – just think of the Brontës or George Eliot. Or of other women who were fossil-hunters, or scientists.” It is sometimes difficult to decide whether perversity has trumped obtuseness or vice versa.

Mitchell’s claim that her changes and additions are intended to assist Donizetti is self-disabling: “All the choices we’re making will support the story and hopefully nudge it into more of a thriller genre”. How does pushing a work of 19th century high operatic tragedy – and that was set by its author in 17th century Scotland – towards a 20th-century literary genre assist? And what assistance is rendered by dressing the mixed choir in men’s clothing to illustrate “male domination” in support of the director’s own avowed beef about the dominance of the opera’s men, and her counter-determination to focus “100% on the female characters”? The ROH management must be hoping that few in the audience will recall Alfred Hitchcock’s description of the slow and difficult demise of one of his characters who was murdered by having his head placed into a gas oven, and then, on regaining consciousness and sitting up, by being beaten about the head by a couple of hapless would-be murderers with a succession of increasingly heavy kitchen implements.

Much as the ROH management’s indulgence of Mitchell’s programme in the production of a work that has not been seen at Covent Garden for a decade might be regretted, it not a purely local culpability. Women are having their way with dead male composers throughout the world – and in the unlikeliest places. In her production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at last year’s Bayreuth Festival, Katharina Wagner reworked her great grandfather’s sublime work in such fashion that Isolde’s (unacceptably) transcendent “Liebestod” was followed not by her suicide but by her being dragged off by an out-of-role vengeful and impatient King Marke.

There are frequent laments over the ‘greying’ of classical music audiences. This can seem hypocritical. It is not helpful to attempts to introduce other generations if producers are allowed to turn the grandest, most beautiful operas into sensationally, provocatively schlocky x-rated ersatz horror movies. To give a personal example: a friend who had bought three tickets for himself, his wife and their twelve-years old daughter has cancelled what would have been the daughter’s first visit to the opera. I started taking my elder daughter to the ROH when she was about that age and had become captivated by opera after viewing a televised performance of Monteverdi’s ‘The Return of Ulysses’. The present policy of encouraging ever-more disturbingly naturalistic sexual and violent enactments is as institutionally short-sighted as it tasteless and offensive. There are more youngsters who might be brought into opera-going than people craving voyeuristic sensationalism. Most crave movingly performed, beautifully sung stories, not debasing simulations of “dogging” and violence.
On what counts as beautiful singing, and perceived shortcomings in performances today, see CODA below.

Michael Daley, 18 March 2016

CODA

Our colleague, the painter and Leonardo scholar, Jacques Franck responds from Paris:

“I knew Sutherland indirectly through two friends in London in the early sixties: Alan Freeman, an Australian BBC producer, and Cornell Senekal, a South African top male model who knew Richard Bonynge very well. At the time Joan was already complaining about many singers lacking the proper technique … What would she say if she were alive today? That ROH stage director is confusing Bel canto romantic operas of the early 19th century and expressionist operas 80 years later, like Berg’s Lulu or even later like Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mzentsk. The musical aesthetic she’s trying to introduce into Lucia di Lammermoor is entirely anachronistic and has never existed in Donizetti’s mind and music – how can the ROH accept that??

“It’s a devilish situation. I’m regularly fighting with a politically correct musical critic from Le Figaro who hates singers of extremely skilled vocal technique like Sutherland because, he says, it hinders their dramatic expression. I always retort that opera singing is based on vocal qualities first and that no proper dramatic interpretation can exist unless you have a well educated voice and a lot of musical feeling. I also add that all these awful women he favours so much with horrible worn wobbly voices producing false notes and who can’t vocalize easily if at all (notably in Mozart and all the Bel canto repertoire) yet are, on his judgment, genius actresses, should stop singing and devote themselves to acting. That would spare the public’s ears and leave room to those who have real talent… Diana Damrau is to me the absolute anti-Sutherland: the voice is colourless and, in my opinion, she shows – or is allowed to show – no musical intelligence or feeling. I just don’t understand her success. I know all the coloratura soprano parts in her repertoire, like the Queen of night (Mozart, Zaüberflöte), Violetta (a real horror – compare her with any average good soprano like Ghiorghiu), Rigoletto’s Gilda (her best, but still with a jerky singing line), Constanza (Mozart, Seraglio) with inappropriate vocalizing in both of Constanza’s major arias (notably the very tricky “Martern aller Arten”, one of the most difficult in Western operatic music). Try and find it sung by Teresa Stitch-Randall in the sixties: you’ll see the extent to which vocal art has decayed since then. Please feel free to use my comments about the Glorious Joan in your post, one of the few leading dramatic coloraturas of the 20th C, just next to Callas. They were sisters in art, ‘la Divina’ and ‘la Stupenda’. Sutherland was a marvelous Alcina, have you heard her in that opera?

“I just heard a magnificent American tenor on the radio, Frank Lopardo, singing Don Ottavio’s great aria from Don Giovanni – simply fantastic with the proper style. Thanks Heavens some good ones still exist – but I feel sad to see the degree to which insanity has perverted art nowadays including opera singing. Remembering Sutherland’s performance in Lucia as if it was yesterday, I just cannot think that the ROH would break with its own glorious past days and stage now the very mockery of what once was a planetary, sensational, operatic event…”

On seeing a draft of this post, Jacques Franck wrote:

“Mike, Thanks. I’m happy with this quote because it expresses all I’ve been longing to say publicly about the awful decadence that has occurred in operatic art for about twenty years. None of the great singers of the (still) recent past would accept what’s going on nowadays. I mean people whose shows and recitals I’ve attended with my wife, that is Callas, Sutherland, Schwarzkopf, Norma Procter, Mado Robin, Régine Crespin, Rita Gorr, Monserrat Caballé, Mirella Freni, Marilyn Horne, Gundula Janowitz, Dame Janet Baker, Jessye Norman, Margaret Price, Frederica von Stade, Tito Gobbi, Giuseppe di Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi, Dietrich Fischer-Diskau, Hermann Prey, José Van Dam, etc., etc. And I feel sure that those ones of the younger generation like Angela Ghiorghiu, Renée Fleming, Jonas Kaufmann, etc. don’t think otherwise but accept the situation because it’s hopeless and there isn’t much they can do about it.”

It might be added that Franck is especially well qualified to speak on such technical music matters: on our pointing out a video link to a live performance by Joan Sutherland of the final scene of Lucia di Lammermoor (instructions above), he responded:

“Not only have I had Sutherland’s mad scene in my collection of favourite records since the early sixties, but don’t forget what I told you in confidence one day. I was born with a totally anomalous/exceptional coloratura soprano voice revealed at the age of 13. It lasted as such until it partially broke at the age of 20 and then extended towards the deepest lower notes. During that period the voice would cover the range of 4 octaves up to a counter-counter F which is 7 notes higher than the highest note in Mozart’s famous second aria of the Queen of the night! Just imagine that I was able to sing anything in the written coloratura repertoire of Western opera. In fact my voice was 9 notes above Sutherland’s highest one and very close to that of Mado Robin, whose voice was like mine the highest ever heard. Listen to her Lakmé online in which she emits a counter A. However, when the voice broke off, it was left with a shortly extended baritone in the lower register while keeping an enormous high “soprano counter tenor” in the upper one. Which means I could still sing Lucia and all the Bellini/Verdi/Mozart coloratura parts without difficulty although the voice had to be re-educated and trained. At the time, since it was impossible for a male singer to make a career with such a voice, I used it as a means to learn all about the art of singing just for my personal information and pleasure. Imitating the art of Callas, Sutherland, Schwarzkopf and the like was part of my lessons. It lasted until the age of 44 when my larynx developed an ulcer (due to causes strange to singing) that kept bleeding each time I would sing: my doctor asked me to stop singing. My last “exercise” was the famous aria “Son vergin vezzosa” from Bellini’s “I Puritani” which I sung a major fourth above the original score, terminating with an enormous, rich counter A as a conclusion of a most thrilling and instructive experience. Every time I listen to Sutherland, not only I do understand what she actually does technically and the high level of her art, but I live it from inside. Now you can understand fully how much, like you, I suffer from what’s going on at the ROH and elsewhere in the operatic world to date.”

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