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.