Friday, May 4, 2007

Postmodern Staging

Today I am working on AOT's annual report so not a lot of opportunity to write a new blog. Instead I am posting the essay I promised on the nature of opera stage direction in the 21st century. I wrote this for inclusion in AOT's playbill for its 2005 workshop of Charpentier's "David et Jonathas". The company is revisiting this work next spring both in Washington DC and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Perhaps I should revisit this essay as well, but for now please know that I am posting it without reworking. Let me know your thoughts...(I fear it might be a bit controversial).
In my beginning is my end and in my end is my beginning
Postmodern Staging for Postmodern Music
“Prometheus Unbound”

The first title of this essay is taken from Guillaume de Machaut's 14th century cannonic puzzle-piece. The essay has absolutely nothing to do with it. It does, however, have to do with the paradoxes inherent in the concept of “period”, “authentic”, or “historic” performance practice – that indeed there at some point ceases to be “early” and “modern”, “beginning” or “end” - and is only present.

Commentators on the “authentic” performance phenomenon have developed two explanations for its inception and its aesthetic. The respective most vocal proponents of each are two of the most important musicologists of the twentieth century. Peter Burkholder writes extensively on the notion of “authentic” performance practice being born out of a music-as-museum-piece ideology. Richard Taruskin propelled himself into infamy with the controversial proposition that “early” music is actually a quintessential example of post World War II modernism.

On some level, music performance following romanticism became about discovering the composers “intent” – how the music was “meant” to be performed. The “authentic” performance movement is simply the extremity of this idea, but even modern audiences for performances of Wagner or Stravinsky assume a certain amount of fidelity to the composer's, or at least the transcriber's, intention. This intention-centric view stands in opposition to the long held performer-centric view. It makes music in performance a museum piece – closer to a finished painting rather than a living expression. In the “early” music movement we see the phenomenon of urtext and the idea that an authoritative, or that dirtier word “authentic”, version of a piece can exist. For Burkholder, the performer's task becomes striping away the excesses of “tradition”, the dirt from off the painting as the popular metaphor goes, until the performer dictates only what is on the page of the autograph. Finally, the optimal aesthetic of “early” music is realized – whether seen as pure or cold, clean or empty, focused on pattern or devoid of expression.

Richard Taruskin does not reject that the music-as-museum-piece mentality exists, but focuses on his perceived failure of the “early”music movement to realize “original intention”, and yet haste to claim it has. Taruskin's view is that the movement has collected dots of historic information and bond them together with a connective tissue based on its own subjective aesthetic. Thus it has created the sound of “early” music. He then looks at this aesthetic – clean, streamline, intellectual over emotional, reserved over expressive – and points out the obvious parallels to the high modernist aesthetic. He also notes the twentieth-century take over of academia by modernists in both composition and musicology – the former rejecting emotional expressivity in new works, and the latter rejecting non-urtext elements of expression in old works. He does not argue with the artistic merit of “early” music performances. Rather, he maintains that all competent performers use directive dots (historical or traditional), but then connect them with a personal musical aesthetic. To not allow the performers “self'” into the performance would not only be unmusical, but disingenuous. Richard Taruskin simply wants the “early” music movement to admit that, though their dots are based on scholarship, the lines connecting them in performance are not historical and really quite modern.

The success of “authentic” performances has spawned a resurgence in early opera productions. Opera, in its duality of music and movement, requires a more refined aesthetic decision from producers. In the case of the “early” music movement, opera has been accompanied with “period” staging – that is an attempt to recreate the original look of these works. After having considered Burkholder and Taruskin, this phenomenon begs the question “why?”. Clearly it perpetuates Burkholder's position as it makes directors and designers into curators for these “museum pieces”. The entire museum concept is expanded to include ever greater aspects of the production (while one rarely sees concert performers with powered wigs and tights). At first glance it might appear that Taruskin's modern aesthetic has been absent in these productions. On the contrary, in the puritanical fidelity to “what we know”, a fidelity that smothers creativity, modernism rears its head here as well. The spirit of period staging, at least so far as it has been realized, is a continuation of the post WWII avoidance of emotional expression and strict adherence of rules.

Since the flames that Richard Taruskin fanned in the mid-eighties burned at their hottest, a wind of change has cooled the battle regarding musical performance. While Taruskin stubbornly refuses to recognize the existence of historic facts in performance practice, “early” musicians have begun to recognize the validity of many of his points. For every extant source saying “it” was done this way, there is another source saying “it” was done that way. Treatises decrying certain performance practices substantiate the existence of those very practices. “Early” musicians have begun to recognize geographical and socio-economic exceptions to rules that had been considered fundamental. Minkowski uses chord clusters and portamentos. Christie has singers absconding with orchestra members' instruments and banging on his own harpsichord. Jacobs has added every imaginable early Italian instrument to historically minimal Venetian opera orchestras. “Early” musicians have begun to embrace just how much they do not know. Creativity and subjectivity have creped into “early” performance – and it is all the better for it. Though claims of “authenticity” still sell tickets, it is the energy and ingenuity of performers that has the final word. Hopefully this signals a move away from the “original intention” obsession At the very least, “early” music, following the general aesthetic paradigm shift of our time, has become postmodern.

Beyond its modernist impetus, “period” staging is an illusion. It does not exist. Taruskin's metaphor of connecting the dots is well taken in regards to “historic” staging where there are practically no dots to connect. We know very little about how opera looked in the baroque. What we know comes from iconography and a very small number of treatises. Iconography is useless for recreation. It offers us freeze frames of how performers may have looked at specific moments, but tells us nothing of how those moments were connected in movement. Gesture is kinetic, and any audience member of a “period” production has witnessed the robotic affect of utilizing iconography. At the same time, the scarce treatises available are relative to time, place, and a host of other factors. While there is some information on gesture in 18th century France, there is practically nothing on Italian gesture of the preceding century. “Period” directors have tried to apply the little knowledge that can be harvested to all baroque opera – a universalism that is all the more preposterous when one considers the cultural fragmentation of 17th and 18th century Europe. Scholars know a great deal about baroque scenography, and yet have very rarely realized its zeitgeist – that is the visceral mechanism orchestrating set changes and effects. In regards to costumes the sources are at best contradictory. Rarely do period productions use historic modes of lighting and usually the spaces performed in are completely inappropriate. We are no closer to experiencing what a production looked like in 1700 than we are to knowing what a castrato sounded like. Period staging may have come out of a performance-as-museum mentality, but it is little more than a ploy to fill seats. The emperor has no clothes.

Of course whether or not the emperor is dressed is not really important. Rather, is he a good emperor? Imagine a performance that recreates every production aspect of a baroque opera – the warm flickering candlelight, miraculously painted panels switching instantly with mechanical pulleys, definitively authentic costumes, small intimate space, carefully orchestrated seamless gestures. Even if this scenario were possible we would not have recreated an “authentic” opera experience. The one thing we are incapable of ever recreating is the mind of the original audience. To suggest that period productions get at the original meaning of a work is to suggest that such meaning is not tied up in, nor even connected to, the audience's experience of that piece. The collective consciousness of a 21st century audience is infinitely different from that of a baroque audience – pre-industry, pre-Cartesian, pre-enlightenment, pre-socialism, pre-nuclear, pre-holocaust, etc. We, as humans, are forever altered by our own story. The hypothetical “period” opera is nothing more than a historical curiosity. At best it gives, with its gestures that no longer carry comprehensible meaning, an experience completely different than that had by a baroque mind. At worst, it is rendered emotionally irrelevant.

It is time for the “early” music movement to embrace postmodern staging (and it should be noted that this is increasingly common in European houses – Minkowski's Platée, or Christie's Les Boréades and Ulisse). Of course, that cannot widely take place until “early” musicians admit that what they do is actually on the cutting edge of postmodernism. Where as western art music following WWII retreated to pattern-art, typically viewed as intellectual university or museum music – now we must crawl out of the bomb shelters and create performances of real expressive power. The core of a baroque work, what it it really about, is not inaccessible to today's audiences, but directors seeking to communicate that original meaning must speak in terms that postmodern audiences will understand. Gesture, for instance, can still communicate meaning – but it is not the same gesture. Dance can create the same emotional reaction – but it will not be the same dance. We must speak in the language of our day. Those interested in “recreation” have gotten lost in the details and have failed to recognize that what needs recreating is the emotional response in a mind and not the gestures upon a stage. What is more, with the fall of intention-centric mentality, a new being is formed: the director as creator. This authentically – and and I use that word with, dare I say it, intention – postmodern being discovers his own meaning in these works. He uses this material to tell his own story. He is no longer translator, but author. Prometheus is unbound and made Zeus.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot


Clayton said...

I recall reading this beautifully written essay in the David et Jonathas program. As I now read Philip Gossett's "Divas and Scholars," I am wondering if it is at all possible to achieve a completely authentic performance of any opera in the older repertoire. There are so many elements in the music and in the staging that shift and change even during an opera's premiere run. That said, to those who would attack the "museum piece" approach to performing opera, I still agree with the view that many of us go to the opera house not to see the familiar but to see the exotic. Personally, I can appreciate both the museum piece and updating approaches and don't want to see complete abandonment of traditional stagings.

Timothy Nelson said...

Thanks for your comment. I completely agree with your idea that people go to theater for the exotic. I think it may be just a question of what is "exotic". For me it is any representation of reality that is made revealing. Thats why productions that simply update the material do not speak to me. Productions like the Sellar's Da Ponte triology update, but they also re-examine the text to create something familiary and unfamiliar at once which is extremely moving. Since you have seen as many of my productions as anyone, you know that I explore the "exotic" in most of them, in so far as the production tend to be "different" or atleast diverge from the text signifigantly. My personal aesthetic doesn't lend itself to decadence or to linear narrative. I think one can use those as tools however, but for me "exotic" is more about the approach to the work and not the look of the work.