Wednesday, December 15, 2010

It's The Vision Thing

Next to "Read my lips: no new taxes," one of the quotes former President George H. W. Bush probably regrets the most is "Oh, the vision thing." One reason why Bush may have been a one-term President is not that his campaign was based on the idea that the Presidency was owed to him simply because it was "his turn," but because it had a singular lack of vision.

While many operagoers bemoan the heavy influence of stage directors in modern productions, the truth is that the stage director often provides the artistic vision that unites a creative team of performers and musicians as well as costume, set, and lighting designers.  Some stage directors (Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Harold Prince, Jonathan Miller, Francesca Zambello, Mary Zimmerman) do such intriguing work that audiences are willing to follow them on a dangerous journey.

Sometimes, a simple idea can be used in different productions of different operas. In 1987, two operatic staples were subjected to the same directorial gimmick with fascinating results.

In June of 1987, Francesca Zambello's staging of La Cenerentola (1817) for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis updated Giaochino Rossini's treatment of the Cinderella legend to a l930s Busby Berkeley sound stage in Hollywood. The strength of Zambello's approach rested in her thorough re-examination of the score (a rock-solid piece of homework which allowed this acutely sensitive director to take some daring risks).

In OTSL's production, the tutor Alidoro doubled as a Busby Berkeley-ish film director. Prince Ramiro became an egotistical movie musical tenor. Offscreen, Dandini was a preening matinee idol while Cinderella was transformed into a Kathryn Grayson type of Hollywood starlet. Dominating the brick wall at the rear of the stage was a lightboard with the words "Silence," "Action," "Rehearsal" and "Storm," to indicate the mode of behavior being used onstage.

This gimmick worked brilliantly, allowing Zambello to circumvent the usual silliness employed in staging Rossini's operas while switching back and forth between rehearsal and action shots with uncanny ease (thanks largely to the work of set and costume designer Neil Peter Jampolis and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski). 

The storm scene, which showed the standard devices used on a Hollywood sound stage, was one of the funniest sequences I've seen on the operatic stage. Don Magnifico's drinking aria came precariously close to resembling a golden shower scene between a male soloist and male chorus.

Later that year, when the Houston Grand Opera moved into the new Wortham Theater Center, director Peter Mark Schifter took a brilliant multimedia approach to Mozart's opera, Abduction from the Seraglio (1782). Like Zambello, Schifter set the action on a 1930s Hollywood sound stage where all kinds of wild shenanigans were taking place.

When all the elements of a tricky production come together (as they did for that 1987 Abduction), the creative team can get some incredible results. Consider the following examples:

First, a scene from Jacques Offenbach's beloved The Tales of Hoffmann as staged outdoors in a Roman theatre in southern France (the Theatre Antique d'Orange seats approximately 9,000). Here is Natalie Dessay performing Olympia's famous "Doll Song" on a windy stage at the 2000 Choregies d'Orange:

Next, a sequence which shows how site specificity can influence a stage director. On some occasions, there have been historical reasons to perform a certain opera in a particular location.

In October of 2010, the Cairo Opera Company staged one of Verdi's most popular operas, Aida (which received its world premiere in Cairo on December 24, 1871 at the Khedivial Opera House in 1871), in front of the Pyramids at Giza. In 1999, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino staged Puccini's last opera, Turandot, where the opera's story takes place: in Beijing's Forbidden City. Here's the spectacular finale:

One of the great operatic stage directors of the 20th century, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle often designed the sets for his productions (which were staged by opera companies throughout Europe and North America). Ponnelle also filmed several of his productions using the same sets created for live performances.

In this 1981 film of Rossini's La Cenerentola, Ponnelle uses a special effect during the Act II sextet of Rossini's opera that he could never have achieved in live performance. Like several operatic ensembles,  "Questo è un nodo avvilupato" involves a group of characters expressing their inner thoughts as they react to a shocking piece of news.  Watch what Ponnelle did for the film version:

Sometimes, a new theatrical approach to an opera can bring a stunning theatricality to a long-neglected work. Planned as a co-production between the San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Grand Theatre de Geneve, Robert Carsen's staging of Arrigo Boito's only completed opera, Mefistofele, was essentially mounted as a vehicle for Sam Ramey. The following video clip of the opera's finale gives the viewer a sense of the production's theatrical impact:

Then, of course, a directorial concept can become the raison d'etre for a production. Since its 2006 premiere in Munich, the "Aida, Monumental Opera on Fire" production has traveled to Monterrey, Mexico, Sao Paulo, Budapest, and Abu Dhabi. This clip of highlights easily demonstrates its appeal to the masses:

While spectacle is a given with certain operatic productions, how does a stage director bring a grand artistic vision to life in a small theatre? Two recent productions by theatre companies in the East Bay approached the challenge from very different directions. Markedly different budgets led to markedly different results.

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There's an old saying that "Too many cooks spoil the broth." While that might not be what caused the world premiere production of Lemony Snicket's The Composer Is Dead to implode under its own artistic weight, this was a prime example of what happens when artists fall in love with their artistic process and try to "improve" it by adding too much of everything all at once. Like a steroid-enhanced and overly-endowed porn star whose blood flees his brain whenever he gets an erection, the Berkeley Rep's staging (which certainly looked buff and fabulous) turned out to be a remarkably dull affair.

It helps to consider how this project evolved in order to spot what might have gone wrong along the way. As director Tony Taccone explains:
"The show is based on Lemony Snicket's book The Composer Is Dead -- a deceptively slim little volume, which chronicles the fact that a composer has been murdered.  Lemony Snicket wanted to teach children what orchestras do and build appreciation for the classical music that he loved. He went out and collared his friend Nathaniel Stookey, who is a living composer, and the two of them dreamed up this story and symphonic landscape. It was published with a recording of the music by the San Francisco Symphony.  Then these guys said to us, 'Let's make a theatre piece based on this book.'
Photo by: Kevin Berne
By that time they had already partnered with Phantom Limb -- who are these expert puppeteers and designers -- to create the characters that were going to be in this world.  When we first talked about producing a play, the script only lasted a half an hour. We said, 'Well, we have to have a piece that lasts an evening,' which is at least an hour. So we came up with this idea for an interactive film.  Please don't ask me how or why. It seemed like a totally inspired choice. In order to introduce you to a live event -- the magic of living, breathing theatre -- we're going to show you a movie.  Right?  It makes absolutely no sense, except it absolutely does make sense in the world of Lemony Snicket, who is completely eccentric, wildly imaginative, and clever, and hysterically funny."
Geoff Hoyle with the puppets (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The wonderful thing about the creative process is that it is messy and allows artists to fail. The obvious risks in trying to turn a 40-page illustrated children's book into a 65-minute stage production include the following:
  • An illustrated book designed for children ages 4-8 is a very delicately crafted piece of work that can serve as a lean, mean teaching machine. Brevity is of utmost importance.
  • In her review of the book (which was published along with an accompanying CD of Stookey's music) in School Library Journal, Wendy Lukehart noted that "Due to the length of the musical portions, it is unlikely that children will listen and read simultaneously. It is quite likely, however, that both formats will provide entertainment and enlightenment, in whatever order they are encountered."
  • According to Taccone, making the film part of the production was an on-the-job learning experience for him (he had never made a film before).
  • The show's 65-minute length might be perfect for a children's audience, but seems rather skimpy to paying adults who are out for an evening of theatre.
  • The new work would inevitably invoke comparisons to a piece composed by Benjamin Britten in 1946: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Here's a clip of Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Britten's 18-minute piece:

Once Lemony Snicket's The Composer Is Dead (which was preceded by a short piece entitled The Magic of Living, Breathing Theatre) made it to the stage, something quite astonishing happened. Even under Tony Taccone's direction, veteran performer Geoff Hoyle (one of the Bay area's great talents) found the material falling flat with the audience. 

Geoff Hoyle with puppets (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

When the piece ended and the lights came up in the theatre, the noticeably confused audience started to rise, reach for their coats, and head up the aisle. Then the most interesting moment of the entire evening stopped the show.

Suddenly, the credits for the film began to roll, with outtakes from the rehearsals and filming process appearing on the screen. Those brief outtakes --which lasted less than two minutes -- were better than anything that had been seen onstage in the previous 65 minutes!

Although I loved the sets, costumes, and puppets designed by Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko, the film component seemed less silly (in an entertaining fashion) than just silly (as a bad idea).

In the end, I would recommend this piece primarily to students of scenic design. Here's Berkeley Rep's teaser for the production:

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Whereas Berkeley Rep's production seemed like it was trying to pump up a children's book with steroids, the exact opposite seemed to be taking place over at the Ashby Stage where the Shotgun Players were trying to cram all of Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey, into their tiny theatre. Homer has had a pretty good run in the Bay area this year. In August, Shotgun Players presented Jon Tracy's adaptation of The Iliad entitled The Salt Plays, Part 1: In The Wound, Stanford Summer Theatre presented The Wanderings of Odysseus, and CentralWorks presented Penelope's Odyssey.

Tracy's latest piece, The Salt Plays, Part 2: Of The Earth, is an adaptation of The Odyssey that tries to pick up where In The Wound left off. However, unlike the vast outdoor performing space he enjoyed at Berkeley's John Hinkel Park (where all of his furious drumming dissipated into the air), the Ashby Stage is an acoustically bright environment which amplifies Brendan West's drumming and sound design until it becomes overpowering.

Dan Bruno returns as Odysseus with Lexie Papedo weaving and unweaving her threads as Penelope and Daniel Petzold as Telemachus (who is trying to reach his father through any means possible, including a new invention called television).The nurses/goddesses from In The Wound (Charisse Loriaux as Aphrodite and Elena Wright as Athena) have been joined by a furious Poseidon (Anna Ishida), a bitter Zeus (Rami Margron) and her disillusioned wife, Hera (Emily Rosenthal). Rest assured that no one is particularly happy, least of all Odysseus.

Odysseus (Dan Bruno) and his crew (Photo by: Pak Han)

In his work with Shotgun Players, Tracy has shown a great talent for achieving maximum dramatic impact with minimal physical resources. The depth and breadth of his imagination constantly amaze me (the way he depicts the Cyclops and the multi-headed monster Scylla are two low-budget coups de theatre). Aided by Nina Ball's stunning unit set, Lucas Krech's lighting, Lloyd Vance's videos, and Bridgette Loriaux's fierce choreography, Tracy delivers a riveting, heart pounding, blood pulsing (and potentially headache inducing) reenactment of Odysseus's struggle to return home to Ithaca.

Telemachus (Daniel Petzold) and Odysseus (Dan Bruno)
confront Scylla, a multi-headed monster  (Photo by Pak Han)

Tracy's artistic vision wrestles with disturbing questions about the uselessness and repetitiveness of war. As an arms dealer is Odysseus any better than someone who is pushing heroin? Is it worth sacrificing a person's daughter (Iphigenia) to satisfy the Gods? Does any of this make sense?

The way Tracy has staged the production could lead to endless debates about whether the action was all happening in a bad nightmare, a psych ward, or a parallel universe. As Margo Channing once said, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night."  It's also one helluva ride (however you react to the production, I can guarantee that you won't be bored).

Tracy's next project is directing Frank Galati's stage adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath, for Oakland's TheatreFIRST (January 27-February 20, 2011). In the meantime, The Salt Plays, Part 2: Of The Earth continues at the Ashby Stage through January 16, 2011 (you can order tickets here). Here's the trailer:

1 comment:

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