Modernising Opera: Triumph or Travesty?

Ilona Domnich as a 1920s movie star in ETO's The Tales of Hoffmann
Ilona Domnich as a 1920s movie star in ETO’s The Tales of Hoffmann

ETO’s Box Office & Marketing Assistant, Genevieve Arkle, looks at the arguments surrounding this controversial subject, and makes the case for creative interpretation. 

‘If after my death something does not sound right, then change it. You have not only the right but the duty to do so’
– Gustav Mahler

In its Autumn 2015 season of French opera, ETO has chosen to reinterpret Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann in the style of 1920s cinema and set Massenet’s Werther in a domestic scene in 1950s America – two modern reimaginings of classic 19th century French operas. But in recent years there has been much controversy from opera goers over the idea of modernising opera, and in general, modernising classical music. Classical music has been battling with its elitist stereotype for decades, but debate frequently sparks over  whether a new production is sacrilegious to the composer’s intentions, or whether the modernisation of a work decreases its worth and value as a high class art form. While modern stagings of operas do frequently grace our theatres exhibiting controversial and fresh approaches to traditional works, they rarely receive popular attention, and period stagings of La Bohème and The Marriage of Figaro still reign supreme as crowd-pleasing favourites.

The fact that you have made it here to the English Touring Opera blog and that you’re reading this post means you might have already formed an opinion on the topic of modernising opera, or you have had some kind of experience with classical music that makes you intrigued about learning more or joining the debate. It is likely therefore that you fall into one of two categories: those for modernisation and those against. Those who are against tend to be advocates of traditional period productions and feel that if the composer’s intentions are not adhered to and if the score is not obeyed, that we are being disrespectful to the original work or even to the composer himself. Many similarly feel insulted by modern stagings; Peter Sellar’s infamous Don Giovanni no doubt caused a stir among Mozart fans, and I dread to think what traditionalists thought of the all male Don G that took place at the gay nightclub, Heaven, here in London a few years ago.

Don Giovanni at Heaven nightclub, 2011

But as in many cases with opera, the composer has passed away and therefore is unable to share his desires, thoughts, feelings or intentions on the presentation of his work, and more importantly he is unable to be affected or offended by any given performance of his piece. So if you decide that you want to produce an all male La Bohème with two gay couples then by all means, because Puccini certainly isn’t coming back to stop you. But many people feel that in some way the essence of Puccini lives on in his music, and that to present his opera in such a way would be disrespectful not only to the work, but to Puccini himself. These ideas about the composer being enveloped in his music as a sort of god-like figure began to take shape in the 19th century, as prior to this, performers were at liberty to edit a composition however they deemed fit, adding embellishments and ornamentations in order to suit their personal needs, as with the da capo arias in Handel’s operas.

More so, famous early 19th century Italian sopranos would sometimes take arias from other operas and insert them into new works in order to show off their vocal ability and skill, or simply because the piece was a crowd-pleaser. But with the arrival of composers like Wagner (who claimed his operas were the gateway to spiritual transcendence) and Stravinsky (who stated that ‘interpretation is the root of all errors, all the sins’) and the notion of the composer as ‘hero,’ meant that the composer was considered to be a god-like figure who’s intentions should not be denied. The famous twentieth century performer Gustav Leonhardt concisely summarised this view when he stated in an interview: ‘No, I have nothing to say, I am only a player.’ After being asked ‘As opposed to?’ he responded, ‘to a real musician, which is a composer’. So why is it that performers and directors feel the need and more so, the pressure to respect the composer’s original intentions even after their death? The philosopher Geoffrey Scarre has theorised that perhaps this is because we believe that death is not really final, and that in some way the composer lives on in his work; as the music is all that we have left to remember him, we feel we should continue to preserve the integrity of the work and obey his original intentions.

But intentions, of course, have to be intentional, and there are many circumstances where issues begin to arise in attempting to present a work as the composer intended. Originally, many Handel operas used castrati performers; however of course nowadays due to the extinction of these voices we have to substitute these singers with countertenors. This is of course not what Handel intended, and while people may strive for a stylistically suitable alternative, it is left to mere speculation as to what Handel’s next choice of performer would have been. There is also is an argument to say that perhaps the composer was not actually satisfied with the instruments of performers of his day, and therefore the setting that some try so hard to recreate was actually not the composer’s desired outcome for his work. If he had had access to the wealth of instruments, performers or staging options that we have today, would he have taken advantage of them and deployed them in his opera?

Also composer’s intentions can be frequently misunderstood. Following the Second World War, a new generation of singers such as Lotte Lehmann and Fischer-Dieskau began to make recordings of some of Schubert’s songs. Instead of performing these pieces with the direct and simple emotional expression that Schubert intended, these performers embodied a new style in which they chose to depict intense and deeply expressive emotional turmoil. Nowadays when critics and song enthusiasts go to a Schubert song recital they expect to hear the ‘dark psychological disturbance’ that they believe to be authentic to Schubert’s compositions, but these are actually the intentions not of Schubert, but of performers from over a hundred years after these songs were composed. There are also issues regarding unfinished works and pieces that have been completed by another composer on their behalf. For example, Puccini died before he was able to complete his incredible opera Turandot; the popular production that is known and loved today was actually completed by Berio. To be truly authentic to Puccini’s work should we only perform the unfinished version, as how can we know if Berio’s conclusion is what Puccini would have intended for his opera?

ETO’s The Tales of Hoffmann, 2015

Similarly to the case of Turandot, Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann has undergone a variety of re-workings and arrangements, as Offenbach did not live to complete this, his final opera. Following his death, Offenbach’s son asked Ernest Guiraud to complete the work, however many other composers also tried their hand at rearranging it, resulting in a variety of arrangements and arguments over the ‘most appropriate’ interpretation. Offenbach did not manage to complete all of the recitative, therefore when we hear the work performed with complete recit we are hearing an amalgamation of Offenbach’s and Guiraud’s work. Many composers however did not feel this was an authentic approach and so chose to leave the moments without recit to be spoken by the singers instead. There have also been discrepancies regarding the number of singers used for the opera; frequently opera companies will use three different singers to play Hoffmann’s three lovers, however Offenbach had originally intended for all of Hoffmann’s women to be performed by the same soprano. People also frequently rearrange the order in which the stories of Hoffmann’s lover’s appear, moving Hoffmann’s heart-breaking love for Antonia to the end, swapping places with the devastatingly cruel tale of Giulietta. The re-workings and cuts of this opera have been so severe that at the Vienna premiere in December 1882 the work appeared without the Giulietta section entirely. If we are to think about authenticity and adherence to the composer’s wishes, one can only imagine what Offenbach would have made of the frequent re-workings of his final opera, but regardless it has gone down in history as one of his most enjoyable and most famous works. Should the opera no longer be performed in its variations because this is not what Offenbach intended? ETO certainly think not, with their vibrant and charismatic approach to the work, performed with both recitative and some spoken dialogue, and with all four of Hoffmann’s lovers being performed by the incredible soprano Ilona Dommich, just as Hoffmann had intended.

My objective here is not to take the limelight away from the composer or to say that their intentions are obsolete, but rather that performers and directors should be free to create their own interpretations of a piece rather than being tied to the precise markings of a score or by a traditional, period staging. By bringing out modern productions, opera companies are attempting to entice all viewers, young, old, opera enthusiasts and those who don’t know who Mozart is, to try and experience something new because they, much like me, are perhaps  concerned about the seemingly inevitable fate of classical music and the possibility of its extinction. If period productions of operas continue to dominate our theatres, there is a risk that young people and those who are new to opera may never think to get involved with the genre as they may deem it to be out-dated or old fashioned. Similarly, the longer that the stereotype of elitism that is associated with classic music lingers in theatres and concert halls, the less accessible and inviting it is for those who are new to the genre to join in and become a part of the classical music community. As Lawrence Kramer said, ‘its rewards have nothing to do with the elitism and esotericism too often associated with this music. They are accessible to anyone with open ears and a sense of adventure; they require no mysterious rites of initiation.’

I care deeply about the continuation of classical music, and of opera in particular; I believe it to be a vibrant, emotive, accessible and entertaining art form and if modernising opera enables it to live on today, then I support the movement whole heartedly. A new interpretation of a work does not deny the brilliance of the original, it merely presents a different reading, a fresh outlook or perhaps it simply just gives us something to think about. Even someone’s dislike for a new production adds to the excitement and variety of opera as art – it sparks debate and controversy and gives us all something to talk about. While one interpretation may be a popular and resounding part of the musical canon, it doesn’t mean that this is the only interpretation the piece can have; let us for a moment move away from what does take place and start to instead think about and embrace all that could take place with classical music. In the end, it is only when people do something different that change can occur, for better or for worse, and if we continue to restrict the change we will never really know what classical music, and more specifically, what opera is truly capable of. If the performer or director religiously obeys the composer’s intentions then indeed, there is less margin for error, less misinterpretation and less possible vandalism of the sanctity of the composer’s ‘holy text’; yet there is also less meaning, less freedom and less possibility. Let us imagine the opportunities if these constraints were to be lifted, or rather, let us strive for this opportunity – perhaps then we bring the soon to be out-dated world of classical music into the 21st century.

For more info on these topics have a look at Lawrence Kramer’s book, ‘Why Classical Music Still Matters’ or Daniel Leech-Wilkinson’s essay ‘Compositions, Scores, Performances, Meanings’.

Genevieve Arkle 
Box Office & Marketing Assistant, English Touring Opera

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