Thursday, November 22, 2007

Whose Flute Is This, Anyway?

Most art involves the use of one's creative powers. The performing arts, however, add the dimension of individual interpretation to the package. One of the most fascinating things about opera is its pliability (on both sides of the footlights) in the area of interpretation. I stress this because, while many audience members expect the critics to take a completely objective approach to the art they encounter in the course of their work, the bottom line is that each and every person's reaction to a piece of art is entirely subjective. Ask each member of the audience to place several layers of individually-chosen filters over their contact lenses and you'll be able to understand how different people can view the same object, and yet see it in remarkably different ways.

This month's revival of The Magic Flute by the San Francisco Opera offers the perfect case in point. Unlike recorded art, where each passage has been frozen in memory on a CD, videotape or other form of magnetic media, performance art can vary as widely as one's ability to produce a perfect souffle. Anything can go wrong -- and frequently does.

The tiniest error can throw an entire evening out of whack (those of us who work on computers know what horrendous experiences can result from typing one teeny tiny mistake in a DOS command).

Anyone who has been in the opera business for a while knows how nightmarish opening nights can be. The audience's expectations are dangerously high, the artists often feel under-rehearsed and the results are frequently disappointing. The pressures of opening night are one of the many reasons why I often find myself at odds with members of the mainstream musical press, whose editorial aim is to cover the news as it breaks. Because of their influence, opening nights take on a critical significance -- often in dangerous ways that magnify the evening's stress factors way out of proportion.

In some 25 years of attending opera, I've made peace with the fact that I do not enter the theater with a negative score card, intent on awarding demerits where I feel the performers have insulted my intelligence or sense of self-importance. Instead, I go to the opera to have a good time (a motivation which does not preclude high artistic standards). Over the years, I have learned that while opening nights in the opera business tend to feel like bad dress rehearsals, by the second or third performance (when the heat of combat is over) a healthy ensemble is starting to build. The final performance of a run will often be the best because the performers are relaxed, have learned how to trust each other, and have been able to weld a tight artistic mesh.

That's why, in nearly two decades of attending the San Francisco Opera I've learned to stay away from seasonal opening nights. The chemistry is usually out of whack and the audience
-- more self-conscious than usual (and for far too many reasons that have nothing to do with opera) -- is too keenly locked into that destructive "this opening night better make-it-or-break it" mentality.

This month my hunch proved correct again. Feedback on the summer season's opening performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute was scathingly negative, depending on which critics one chooses to believe. And yet, by the third performance, the San Francisco Opera's revival of David Hockney's production offered one of the most enjoyable interpretations of The Magic Flute that I've ever experienced. Most of the credit goes to director Paula Williams who, after many years of assisting other stage directors, has finally landed in the driver's seat. In the process, Ms. Williams has not lost sight of one of the most important factors affecting live opera: the audience.

Earlier this year, when the Metropolitan Opera rented Hockney's production of The Magic Flute, audiences and critics greeted most performances with stifled yawns. What happened? The stage director took the Met's standard museum-like approach to the piece, stripping it of its humanity and comedic impact. As usual, there were no Supertitles at the Met. But Mozart did not compose The Magic Flute as a clinically intellectual exercise. He wrote it as a piece of musical theater, meant to entertain a popular audience.

Too often, stage directors forget that, which is why we should all get down on our hands and knees and thank God for people like Paula Williams (who will direct this fall's revival of Bizet's Carmen). Ms. Williams brought an incredible amount of life and spirituality back to the Hockney production, transforming The Magic Flute into the kind of superbly theatrical experience which Mozart lovers rarely have the opportunity to enjoy at the War Memorial Opera House. Her determination to let the stage action breathe naturally was supported by Gerard Schwarz's sensitive conducting (which was nowhere as gruesome as the mainstream press would lead readers to believe).

The 1991 cast was particularly impressive, with Jerry Hadley offering an unusually strong Tamino and soprano Ruth Ann Swenson delivering a radiantly-sung Pamina. While particularly nice cameos came from the campy, muscular Steven Cole as the evil Monostatos and from Sally Wolf's star-blazing Queen of the Night, I found myself totally charmed by Michael Kraus's Papageno -- a characterization that glowed with the kind of warmth and humanity one always associates with this character but rarely witnesses onstage.

All too often, a baritone will take his stock characterization of Papageno from one production to another. Or else a stage director will superimpose successful bits of shtick on an artist's performance which, at their best, seem faintly comical and basically gratuitous. In his San Francisco Opera debut, Kraus performed Papageno as if he were actually living the role in the moment. He brought with him a performance style of such tightly-knit theatrical integrity that one was not only forced to admire his craft, but wonder at the fact that the artistic strength of his performance never once tipped the evening off balance.

Other contributions included a strongly-directed trio of maidens (Patricia Racette, Yanyu Guo, Catherine Keen), Kevin Langan's usually dry Sarastro, Thomas Stewart's wizened Speaker, and Laura Claycomb's lusty Papagena. Of particular note is the fact that 1991's Pamina and Sarastro were graduates of the San Francisco Opera's Merola program -- an operation whose long list of alumni has added immeasurably to the international opera scene in recent years.

If I find it especially nice to watch these artists blossom into maturity on the stage where they earned their professional stripes, that's because the ripening of one's craft over time is a major part of the artistic process which is frequently ignored by the music industry.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on June 13, 1991.

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