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November 14, 2008


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if you haven't already, check out some interesting points about the libretto, from an author/poet: http://www.slate.com/id/2202878/

And also Greg Sandow (a composer/music critic): http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2008/11/must_reading.html

It's pretty great that a lot of folks are seeing this opera (not just music or opera people), and expressing reservations about it.

Ben TS

Great post. I think the problem with opera directors is that in that world you're often dealing with multiple performers in the same role, co-stars who spend virtually no time together, and more than a few "stars" who are commpletely bereft of acting talent. So you end up with directors who throw up their hands and say, "Well, might as well come up with a kickass concept, make some nice tableau, and hope for the best."

Scott Walters

I had a class with a man named H. Wesley Balk, who was an opera and theatre director who wrote some outstanding books that I recommend highly. He talked about the three modes: hearing mode, seeing mode, and kinesthetic mode. Seeing mode is centered on the face, and involves emotion; hearing mode centers on the voice, and involves sound; kinesthetic mode is centered on the body, and involves movement. Most people have one of these dominant, and their choice of artistic genres reflects it: seeing mode prefer theatre; hearing mode, music; and kinesthetic mode, dance. The problem, according to Balk, is that opera combines hearing and seeing modes. Hearing mode audience members get angry when people are moving around when they're singing -- they want to focus on listening, and the movement distracts them; seeing mode audience members get frustrated when the singers stand and deliver, because they want something to happen emotionally. The opera director, who has his own dominant mode, ends up making a choice between the two. Clearly, this director, in the 30 - 60 seconds when music was playing but there was no singing, saw that time as a caesura, and the audience should be focusing on hearing the completion of that musical phrase. You, Isaac, as a theatre person, are impatient with what you perceive as the gap in the world of the play's drama. It isn't that you're wrong and the director is right, or vice versa, it is that your modes aren't matching up. What is ironic is that Peter Sellars is often hated by traditional opera buffs precisely because he brings his seeing-mode orientation that he got from theatre into the opera, driving the opera buffs crazy with seeing-mode distraction. All of which is to say: it's complicated...!


Speaking as a "hearing mode" person: the instant you put that shit on stage, it's drama. When you are on stage, the rules of the stage prevail. Or at least, they ought to. People who do not want stuff to happen on stage because it distracts them from the music should sit at home and listen to the cast album, or go to unstaged concert performances. But even the most hardcore, old-school fans of stand-and-deliver style opera demand the visual spectacle of sets, costumes, lighting design, etc. Why they do not also demand competent direction and purpose-driven performances from the cast is something I have never been able to wrap my head around.

Scott Walters

Well, that's not how true opera hearing mode people feel.


True opera "hearing mode" people don't demand opulent sets and lavish costumes? Scott, I am not sure which opera buffs you have been talking to, but I can assure you this is not generally the case.


I haven't seen Dr. A yet (though I hope to catch the movie theater broadcast on Wednesdays) but I think the operative word that Isaac used vis a vis the hearing seeing distinctions is "futz." You can be a hearing or a seeing person, but if the singers are just "futzing" on stage, it's irritating. Not much to watch, and distracting to the ear. Nobody wins. It happens a lot.

Ideally, any action onstage is generated somehow by the music, and the two should have a happy symbiotic relationship. Whether this means a lot of action or very little depends on the score, but a good opera director will bring the eye and ear into union. I like the distinction of hearing and seeing mode people, but not if a hearing mode person is someone who wants to be watching a concert and not if a seeing mode person refuses to listen for the drama as well.


I saw Dr. Atomic last week, and while I really enjoyed the music (my opinion of John Adams grows and grows with every piece of his I hear), but I had real problems with the libretto and direction. As for Sellars' "libretto," the found material stitched together tended to bore me (the great exception being the "Batter My Heart" aria using the poetry of Donne, which was beautiful, and as you say Isaac, Gerald Finley performs the SHIT out of it). Though it might have seemed novel to have the text be nothing but Oppenheimer's favorite poetry and various bits of official documents/correspondence, it ended up having the effect that much of documentary theater has (on me, at least): It may be "real," but it's not interesting. The letters, documents, and poetry that Sellars used should have been a jumping-off point for a libretto, background material for a more character-specific text (See Adams' great "Nixon in China" with a wonderful libretto by Alice Goodman). As is often the case, a leap of imagination would have gotten us closer to the truth than the "facts" do.

Steve Smith

Excellent analysis, and one with which I'm largely in agreement. As for those inert passages in the opera, the places where the music continues to build but the action goes completely dead... well, I don't remember every last detail of the original San Francisco production by Peter Sellars, and haven't yet attempted an A-B comparison with the DVD of that production made by the Netherlands Opera, but it's perhaps worth noting that one key element in the first production was altogether missing in the Woolcock staging: the choreography of Lucinda Childs. As I remember it, many of those seemingly empty musical passages were originally filled with busy, bustling motion. And it was exactly that sense of animation -- of the electricity of the event and of the moment -- that I found so sorely lacking in the Met's new version.

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