It’s About Time

March 18, 2008

180px-clock_tower_-_palace_of_westminster_london_-_september_2006.jpg Once I was part of a small theater party that included one of the world’s most famous singers. The play was Romeo and Juliet in a remarkable production. It struck me forcibly that the director’s creativity revealed itself most vividly in manipulation of small-scale time. Everything — every word, every action — happened at the most telling moment, and not always the most obvious one.

At intermission I mentioned this to my companions, making the commonplace observation that these devices couldn’t be employed in opera, since the exact plotting of when things happen is the most basic given of the composer’s contribution to opera. It is imperious, non-negotiable.

The eminent singer recounted a particularly clear illustration of this. She was starring in a German production of an opera based on an important play. For a substantial period, the director rehearsed the singers as though they were non-singing actors. No music. Just word and action. It was, the diva told me, a memorably thrilling experience, and they all felt that this would result in the dramatic coup of their careers.

Then they added the music. “It all went right down the drain. All that work had produced results that we couldn’t use.” The reason, of course, was the temporal element. A gesture that had been searingly telling in passing could not be sustained over the long seconds, or even minutes, that the music accompanying/amplifying it would take. And there was nothing that could be done about the time the music required. Everything else had to accommodate it.

I’ve never seen a production of Victor Hugo’s Hernani, but last night at the Met I saw Verdi’s opera based on it. It was a thrilling evening that had nothing at all in common with realistic drama. In all the exciting efforts to bring the insights of legitimate theater to the operatic stage that occupy us these days, I hope we don’t forget the limits of what that can accomplish. We could ruin what is best about the special dramatic world that the opera Ernani inhabits by importing from another medium devices that are foreign to the uncompromising temporal character of early Verdi, in which a single emotion can occupy a good chunk of time, and will do so rewardingly only if we give in to the unrealism of it.

But I’m not really worried. Opera, like any other performing art is success-driven, not to say success-dependent. If something doesn’t work, we’ll be forced back to what does. Opera has its own version of the “free market,” and it won’t brook contradiction or defiance for long. So bring on the experiments, I say! Opera is clearly around for the long haul, and time is on our side.

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