Thoughts on Performing Opera

Thoughts on Performing Opera

Thoughts on Performing Opera

Gary Bertini

Of all the arts, music is the only one whose recipient, the listening audience, has no way of perceiving it other than through the intervention of a performer. The ability to read music while “hearing” it with the inner ear is limited to the very few; in any case such “listening” is not the composer’s intention. Music is meant to be experienced as an acoustical reality. What the composer writes down still lacks the breath of life. Until the music has been played or sung it only exists potentially, and is neither perceptible nor able to move our emotions.  The performer’s role is to give music the breath of life, to lift it from its potential to its real and vibrant existence. The performer has to convey the written “core” as precisely and faithfully as possible. 

Here a distinction should be made between fidelity to the work (“Werktreue”) and fidelity to the score. Fidelity to the work, understood as the composer’s intentions, is an impossible, self-defeating goal. Nobody, however accomplished a musician, can be sure what precisely a composer intended. All he can and must do is to be as true as possible to what he wrote down: namely the score. And even when the performer reproduces as accurately as he can what is written down, he is well aware that the score itself cannot convey all the necessary information he requires for a performance. Certain parameters that are essential to a performance of a work cannot be written down in unequivocal terms and therefore are missing. What is missing can be supplied only by the musical knowledge, sensitivity and intuition of the performer. Thus only can he elevate himself from being the merely faithful deliverer of the score to a creative artist in his own right. 

In principle I tend to see the performer’s role as that of a postman delivering a letter from sender to addressee; the envelope is not firmly sealed. The postman opens it and as he understands the language of the “letter”, can read it to its “addressee”. In the course of the reading, however faithful he can be to the text and without skipping a single iota, the “postman” must fill in the gaps that are part and parcel of the text. For instance, he decides the speed, and the changes of it at which he reads, the varied phrasings, accentuations, changing inflections, raising and lowering of the voice, loud and whispered moments and their exact degree of contrast and continuity – all things which affect the meaning of the “letter”. The musical message is contained in the notes of the score but locked into code. Since the composer is unable to fully clarify his intentions, the obligation to unlock the code rests, volens-nolens, on the performer. 

Music exists in time, the essential dimension of music. Everything that takes place in music – the sounds, the links and transitions from one to another, their dynamic shadings – are all part of the “texture of time”. “Time” is notated with great precision, but generally only in relation to a given time-grid which differs from place to place and moment to moment and which can be determined only by the performer. Herein lies the uniqueness of his task. It is he who brings to life the proportions of time-units and, through his unique creative powers and musical imagination transforms them into musical time. It is important to bear in mind that musical and real time are not the same thing. Musical time, as opposed to real time (as measured by the clock) is determined by the inner relationship of musical happenings. 

Even though the performer remains faithful to the written score it soon becomes clear to him that the composer himself could only specify his intentions to a certain limited extent, so that what he imagined can never be totally understood. Often during rehearsals of a contemporary work, even the most experienced composer may be nonplussed by questions about his intentions in a passage, offering only a hesitant reply, and maybe secretly hoping that the performer himself will find a satisfying solution. Thus the performer, the “postman” faced with lacunae inherent in the written score, fills them in, and becomes the composer’s partner in creativity. 

In the performance of opera, musical sound is associated with acting, staging, sets, costumes, lighting, and other non-musical elements. Here, precision in the realization of the information contained in the score is a very different matter as it involves these other dimensions which affect or limit the performer’s freedom of interpretation of the work. The score gives maximal (but never complete) information about the musical ingredient and the text of the opera. It is only one ingredient, though the main one, of what takes place in the theatre. As for staging, acting, specific characterizations, sets, the information provided will tend to be fragmentary and limited. At best the hero’s entrance or exit through a doorway or window might be indicated, but its size, shape, style, and color are left unspecified. Most of the time, nothing is said about any or all other objects on the stage such as furniture and accessories. Nor is there an exact description of the acting area: is it round or square? All this is left to the imagination of the performers: stage director and set designer, who are as committed to faithfully conveying the composer’s and librettist’s intentions as stated in the musical score and in the libretto, while having much less information to go on than the conductor. Thus, staging an opera encourages the stage director and his collaborators to “interpret” the libretto and to find different meanings in, or ways of realizing the opera. In opera, the musical score, including the text like any musical composition, is immutable – or should be, but the theatre is not. 

Let us take Scene 1 from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The score says: “Giardino (Garden). Night”. Following Leporello’s complaint about his hard life and his decision to become his own man – the Don rushes in with Donna Anna “forte” holding his arm. Don Giovanni “hides his face”. Mozart’s wonderful many-layered music hints at many meanings (which have occupied musicologists and psychoanalysts for generations) but there is in the score no indication about what has been going on between Don Giovanni and Donna Anna before their entrance. Have they slept together, or merely been in the vestibule or in her room? Did she acquiesce or was she forced? Is he fleeing her wrath or is he trying to get rid of her, ready for his next adventure, and is she trying to denounce him? We don’t know much about the stage set. What sort of garden or house, doors, windows or balcony? The score does not tell us what our heroes are wearing: it is night, but is it before or after sleep, nor do we know what the weather is or even the season. And the question of questions which looms before today’s director and designer is: should the opera be set in the 16th century, when and where the drama was first written, or should it be set in the late 18th century, when Mozart’s opera was written and performed (in Prague, 1787) at that time certainly in contemporary sets and costumes. Or should the eternal myth of Don Giovanni be placed in an equivalent “now,” the present time of the performance? Which of these alternatives is the most valid? Or maybe they are all valid as long as they are really serious and artistically convincing? 

If the “story” is perceived as irrelevant to the time in which it is being performed, it will not convey much to the public. On the other hand, the music is always relevant; its renewed relevance is inherent in its very performance at any time in history. The musician, even when aiming to be “authentic” in the rendition of the music of the past, will always be part of the present. In fact, one of the signs of our time is the revival of Baroque music performance practice – the so-called “authentic” performance. The musicians themselves who aim at authenticity do not feel that their quest is actually a renewal of the past (see Harnoncourt’s statements to that effect). Their “return” to the past is in itself innovative. The search for “authenticity” – to which I am not always a partner – is however, positive in that it generates renewal and moves forward the art of performance. Similarly, at the beginning of the Baroque period the Camerata in Florence sought to revive the spirit and form of Greek tragedy. But in failing to achieve their ideal, they created an entirely new form and style – opera – a step looking backward and leading forward. 

Since its invention in the early 17th century, opera has been performed continuously. But the “art of staging” (Regie) is a relatively recent development dating back to the late 19th and beginning of the 20th century. There is no real tradition guiding the nature of stage production. Having so few specified limitations to restrict his interpretation the stage director appears to others to consider himself to be a creator in his own right, at least an “equal partner” to the creators of the work. Opera directors develop “egos” which, though admittedly increasing the variety of opera productions become a source of interest in their own right. Stage performance is in a constant state of renewal and updating while the music itself remains relatively the same. In the theatre all this may sometimes create aesthetic conflict. The result may perplex operagoers and critics alike who have too fixed expectations. A further contradiction between music and theatre arises from the fact that music conveys its message most directly to the senses and in an essentially abstract manner. For it has no semantic meaning and the more we listen to it, the more detailed information, on both emotional and intellectual levels, do we obtain from it. As listeners we have the ability to react to the same music again and again as a new and renewed experience. But the same is not true for our perception of a stage action. 

Here our capacity for absorbing information is much more immediate. But the stage director too is limited in his freedom of interpretation. If he is too free with the given musical and dramaturgical material, his production will be a failure. We accept the director’s interpretative liberties only insofar as they do not distort the composer’s perceptible intentions. Opera belongs first and foremost to the realm of music, and the stage director is obliged to safeguard the interests of the music, aiming to read its meaning and to what it tells us about the composer’s own understanding of the stage action, and the riches of information in its manifold layers. If he fails to do this, his production, however impressive, will be invalid. The stage director who imposes his own imagination and ego on the music to the point of submerging it ends up by distracting the listener from the music and in this way fails. 

I would summarize in a few words: To one who believes in message, communication, and catharsis in art, the newest expression of music theatre (which thrives throughout the world), is a genuine response to the needs of contemporary audiences.   

This article was originally published in Music in Time (a publication of the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music and Dance), Winter 1994, pp. 89-94.