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Monday, 18 June 2018

Opera, ethics and dignity

There are messages on the London Underground, in railway guidelines or even brochures of the Royal Opera indicating that they have a “no tolerance policy” when it comes to abuse by members of the public of other users of their services or of their staff. It is sad that we are living in times where such guidelines are needed, but it is essential that we realise that they are needed, and that we act accordingly and provide guidelines which are enforceable by law. I wonder whether it has ever occurred to the performing arts industry whether such guidelines are necessary for performers in terms of what they are expected to do on stage. I have written about this before (2013, 101-112) raising the following questions:

·       Are those who object to some expressions of theatre simply narrow-minded, or conservative to the extent of rejecting innovation?
·       Is it all just a matter of taste, and therefore relative, subjective, personal, and therefore ultimately not relevant for or interesting to public / critical / academic debates?
·       Are there, should there be limits beyond which theatre should not go—regarding the extent to which the dramatist or director may demand behaviour from the actors that in many contexts other than theatre would be considered highly problematic, morally suspect, possibly with legal implications?
·       Could there be any circumstance in which such activity, both gross and subtle is acceptable?
·       Is its unacceptability subject to debate?
·       What are the criteria a serious critical discussion needs to establish and then adhere to?
·       To what extent can the canon of ethical writing provide the context?

The examples from my own theatre experience and from reading reviews focused on quite openly controversial issues, such as defecating or urinating on stage, real or faked, smearing themselves with real or stage blood, or any other bodily fluid, for that matter, and killing live animals, for real, on stage? Today I want to address things that performers (in my examples, opera singers) are expected to do that are much less crass and gross than the examples above. They need addressing nevertheless because of their potential adverse impact on performers and because they represent instances where the purpose and nature of art are fundamentally misunderstood.

At a recent production of Siegfried by Wagner at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Düsseldorf, the tenor had to eat real food on stage during the performance--how can this not have an adverse impact on his singing? It was embarrassing to see the overweight mezzo soprano singing Erda in the same production having to lie down on a sofa that was way too small for her size, and later sit up on the sofa, only to be covered by a heavy large piece of cloth for some 45 minutes. Who would doubt that the first experience is humiliating for the soprano, and the second one somewhere on the scale between somewhat to very uncomfortable. Yes, the tenor can still sing, the mezzo soprano can still sing; in comparison, these examples may come across as relatively harmless, and they may be. However, what does it do to the singer’s career if the review mentions her ability to endure under the blanket rather than her vocal qualities? How does the humiliation impact on the soprano’s well-being, both subjectively (i.e., she felt humiliated and noticed it) and objectively (she is a rationaliser, in psychological terms, feels not affected by it, but empirical research could show physiological reactions that she is not aware of, and which correlate to the humiliating stimulus)? What if the tenor cannot do full justice to one of the most difficult roles in the opera literature because he had to eat during the performance, and does not get invited to the next higher level of the opera hierarchy by the artistic director who saw him in a performance marred by him having had to eat?

In artistic terms, should not part of the director's role include demonstrating at least the amount or the extent of insight it requires not to threaten, by the directorial decisions and choices, the sound quality the singer is able to produce? If we, as non-singers, recreate for ourselves some of the physical positions we see singers in on stage, we have difficulty breathing and speaking. Some training that the singer has, and we don’t have, may compensate for the effect such positions have on the professionals in comparison to laypeople. Singers may also develop their own survival strategies. But some adverse effect is sure to remain; assuming it is not sheer nastiness on the part of directors to choreograph a problematic physical position for their singers, is can only be ignorance, and directors should take it upon themselves to be knowledgeable about how a singer’s body works in relation to singing. Even an experienced and highly renowned singer such as Klaus Florian Vogt cannot produce the best of his sound in his signature role of Lohengrin in Act I Scene 3 in the phrase "Durch Gottes Sieg" on the high note of "Gottes" if he has to freeze, after the fight, before that line, in the physical position where he hovers above Telramund, right foot forward, left foot behind, and has to lift the huge and heavy metal sword in such a way that his left arm is highest and carrying most of the weight--i.e., in counter-balance to the position of the feet. Vogt had difficulty with the "Gottes" with that choreography at the current London production directed by David Alden, although he was brilliant at covering up that difficulty and many will not have noticed. But he was forced to sing less well than he can, and to cover a difficulty.

Should not the director be in charge of a production that is both telling a gripping story to the audience and allowing the singers to use their bodies, to hold their bodies, in the positions that are best for them to produce the best sound with their voices? I would even argue that achieving such a combination of gripping storytelling together with an insight into the singer’s craft is much more challenging for any director than simply forcing their singers into physical positions, and movements that they have to work against while on stage, rather than being supported by them in their singing.

In addition to supporting or hindering the singers' singing, directors have a further major role in dealing with their singers' physicalities. It is still the case, for whatever reason, that many singers are, in medical terms, overweight. No extent or degree of political correctness, which might require us not to mention this, can hide this fact. It is equally fact, and even more contentious that people relate weight and beauty. Is it for what could be considered one of the most conservative and conventional art forms, opera, to serve as an educational tool for changing people's attitudes? Possibly. However, if that is one of the aims of opera, for some directors, how is it best achieved? By doing almost everything possible, or at least a lot, to show, parade and expose the excessive weight of the singer? Does the audience get a better image of obesity when the near-immobile tenor is asked to engage in movements that an agile performer might find challenging, but which cannot fail to make the overweight tenor look ridiculous? Is there any point, whatsoever, really, in having the overweight soprano, particularly an older one, in a costume that is sleeveless? Do we need to encounter the sight of the flabby, wobbly excessive fat on her upper arms and armpits? Is the revelation supposed to make her look beautiful? To challenge our idea of beauty? Of course, the director may want to show that a character looks ugly and uses the singer’s physical givens as a starting point, showcasing them intentionally. Such an intention on the director’s part, however, is rather an egoistic insult on the part of the director, or design team, to us, but especially to the soprano in question. It is also an example of poor story-telling because the intended outward ugliness clashes, in most instances of the operatic canon, with the beauty of the music (unless the playing of that music is equally distorted by the conductor and orchestra). In most opera, ugliness or evil and the like are hinted at, implied, or expressed and carried in contexts and through means that are in themselves explicitly beautiful. Not surprisingly, revelations of a singer’s obesity tend to occur predominantly in productions that have problems with their storytelling to start with, and usually throughout. A brief look at the fashion industry will not fail to demonstrate that there are plenty of ways of showing and foregrounding that an overweight person, no matter whether male or female, can look beautiful in line with current norms. That is a major shift of insight, well worth for opera to be focusing on.

Great opera merges vivid, cogent story-telling, which can be conservative or innovative in approach, with a splendid interpretation of the music by the conductor and the singers. Within that framework, opera can afford to take the demands of the singer’s voice in relation to their body into account and can afford not to threaten the best possible voice production for each singer. Opera can take up the challenge of all great art, of presenting its plots and its characters in a way that is beautiful even if the circumstances at the centre of the plot, or the traits of the characters, are all but beautiful. That is the potential of art; realising that potential and doing it justice is the challenge to all artists. Realising and safeguarding the performer’s dignity is an essential part of that.

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