Opera must get back to the basics - The Explorer: Editorials

Opera must get back to the basics

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Posted: Wednesday, February 25, 2009 12:00 am | Updated: 1:36 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

I’ve been a regular at Arizona Opera for more than 20 years. I’ve watched it grow, mainly under the leadership of the late, great Glynn Ross, from three operas per season to five, and observed other good things. I also saw its leadership move further into the Phoenix area, where the disproportionate funding comes from.

After last week’s performance of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” I need to vent.

The Don is an 18th Century character. I have read of attempts to modernize him, even making him a pimp in Harlem by the same bozos who made Rigoletto a bartender in Brooklyn. Here we’re told that players are dressed in semi-modern attire that “hints” of the 18th Century. Huh? I have yet to discover why Director Michael Scarola ( a position relatively new to opera - in what we call the “golden age” that role was usually possessed by the conductor) decided to dress the cast like Harry and Bess Truman.

This wasn’t the only odd setting. Arizona Opera earlier this season put Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love” in 1917 Kansas. Something about the Army recruiter character being more relevant to Americans. Double “huh?”

Operas now receive translations on a screen above the stage. It is glaringly obvious that texts concerning 18th century Spain and early 19th century Italy are often in conflict spoken and sung by folks dressed from and living in another era and culture. This is disconcerting, totally unneeded, and confuses both old and new patrons.

Another move has been to alter texts. This is now common with Gilbert and Sullivan, where things have been “updated.” Unless they’re as talented as W. S. Gilbert, replacing his verbiage with someone else’s politically correct third string meanderings are simply more “dumbing down.”

We are also told that opera has become more “physical,” and that the company hired the acting and stage manager at the UA to teach fight scenes for the Don, while scenery consisted of six large vertical bricks on rollers which we watched stagehands turn around.

Arizona Opera isn’t alone in this trend. The Met has proudly given us opera at the movies with most of their current season. They’ve stretched programs by interviewing and discussing every boring aspect. Accents on visual supercede what opera fundamentally is – music. Interviews with the conductor are replaced with a pathological egalitarianism that has reduced him to the status of a set maker and somewhat below that of a gown designer.

Opera has gone through many manifestations about who’s in charge. France in the 17th Century was dominated by composers. Later eras saw the power shift to singers and impresarios. By the end of the 19th Century conductors were king - and occasionally queen, a practice carried well into today. We still speak of Toscanini’s Puccini and Knappertbusch’s Ring Cycle. I was pleased when Arizona chose conductor Joel Revzen as artistic director a few years back, and I have no complaint with the sounds he produces, only that they are being overridden by great batches of trivia.

See where this is going? Turandot as a ninja princess? Cio-Cio-San whomps on Pinkerton? Instead of a stealthy dagger thrust, Tosca whips Scarpio in a sword fight? Carmen leads a jailbreak? Feminist outreach!

The greatest single stimulus to opera in the last 20 years was clearly the Three Tenors Concerts. Three great voices - Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti, backed up by a fine orchestra led by Zubin Mehta. It did more to promote opera than all the visual aids, re-writes and hokey gimmicks combined.

It was three guys in tuxedos standing on a stage singing.

Proving governments aren’t the only entities that should return to basics.

Hear Emil Franzi and Tom Danehy Saturdays 1-4 p.m. on KVOI 690 AM.

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