6 January 2007
Expectations Shrugged

What happens when you plan to attend a performance at a major opera house? As a member of the profession do we have unreasonable expectations of the music staff, the artists, the technicians? In Europe recently, I attended the first performance of a revival of Don Carlo and found myself severely disappointed. Had I expected too much? What would be good enough?

But moreover, it was all too clear how easily the “lowest common denominator” can be far too low. Sometimes, the lack of vigilance about the focus of a light, or the intention of an action starts a cascading effect — where suddenly the performance becomes “every singer for themselves” — you begin to see desperate front-and-center acting because the performers begin to feel the staging does not support them well, and their only hope is that the conductor might look up and allow them a moment to express themselves.

And I'm fortunate to know many of these performers. They are capable of some of the best work I have known in the opera house. But when they feel threatened or stranded, all too quickly the performance goes from drama into concert-in-costume mode. More rehearsal might have helped, but also a willingness to not just recreate a familiar pattern, but reignite it!

There are only a very few artists who can walk in without rehearsal and — through charisma or sheer force of will — can succeed in getting all the planets to align for a good night at the opera. And I think that's what we owe the audience and our colleagues – a good night! What is being discovered? What is being evolved? Usually we aim for the tension of strong contrasting elements to maintain our interest and engagement with the piece. So the physicality has to contain it as well, chorus as well as principal. Watching a full stage in the auto-da-fe barely flinch when Carlo pulls his sword on his father King Philip was exasperating! It's as if it didn't matter. Or when Elisabetta stands in the dark as her husband confronts her – someone dropped the ball.

When I am responsible for a revival of a production, I find myself returning to the sources as much as possible, walking in the creators' paths, at least figuratively. And as I watched Schiller's tumultuous drama wilt onstage last month I wondered how those thrilling and dangerous ideas became stale.

This poor, maligned Verdi opera was a reminder to me how important everyone's role is in the house, be it a revival or new production, to maintain a level we would expect to see ourselves. I'll keep going to the operas, and I'll keep my standards high!


Behind the set for Idomeneo with Joyce DiDonato and David Baldwin, Paris, Dec. 2006
Photo courtesy of David Baldwin