Friday, June 09, 2006

It's a day of Grendel

here at Frank's Wild Lunch. One of the things I neglected to mention in my previous post about the opera revolves around a post on my lovely fellow blogger and CMU alum Lydia's blog, The Kittensnake, who has created a list of things for American opera directors to avoid when they start emulating Eurotrash opera trends in the future. The link to the post is here; I'm excerpting pertinent passages below:

(FYI, in the world of the Kittensnake, there are a couple of generalizations to note, for better or worse: European opera = Eurotrash; American opera = Anachroshit. I'm assuming you can ascertain why.... God, just go back and find my post about LAOpera's Vanessa if you need further illumination.)
I feel the need to educate both potential purveyors of Eurotrash and Anachroshit on what I condider to be a few ground rules when it comes to staging an opera in either Europe or America. These are not only a reaction to what I saw tonight, but to what I have been seeing over the last seasons in Europe (in other words, what America might see in its regional opera houses in thirty years or so...)

Here it is. Lyd's deadly S's...

STROBES: Please do not substitute a strobe light for an actual visual idea that co-ordinates with a climactic moment. That includes scenes depicting war, storms, earthquakes, etc.

SEX: No matter how talented they are, a soprano and tenor trying to simulate penetrative sex while hitting high Cs will only end up looking silly. Also by and large, opera singers are not very sexy. Nobody would even really want to see it, even were the pair in question to make it even slightly believable.

SPLITTING: This is the practice by which two singers, embroiled in a particularly dramatic face-to-face moment at center stage, suddenly split out to mid-down-stage-right and mid-down-stage-left in order to blankly decry whatever emotion they're supposed to be expressing directly to the audience. Please try to prevent this, as it is unspeakably lame.

SLAPPING: Either convince your singers to actually slap each other to the full extent of their strength (which is actually possible, and uncannily satisfying), or make some ironic visual comment about the fact that they can't, or just aren't. Keep in mind that opera singers are constitutionally unable to master naps (faked whacks, claps and the like that accompany standard "stage" combat).

STABBING: If your props guy can crank out a sweet trick, you're golden. Otherwise, think of something else.


STARING: Please do not, in the absence of any cleverer dramatic ideas for a particularly declamatory choral moment, instruct your chorus to stand as far downstage as possible, staring into the audience looking "forceful". This will always prove weak. Doubly so if you decide to raise the house lights at the same time.

STUFFED ANIMALS (also dolls, small 3D likenesses, etc.): Should be used either with intentional humor or extraordinary cruelty and crassness--and certainly with a great deal of technical precision. This can also be readily applied to the use of masks, prosthetic limbs, and comprimario tenors.
Now, in case you were wondering, Grendel had four of Lyd's eight deadly S's -- Strobes, Slapping Staring, and Stuffed toys (they were human figures, to be precise). I hesitate to include swordplay and sex, although there were definitely swords, and there was definitely simulated penetrative action; Taymor was thoughtful enough not to stage actual swordfights in favor of having the dancers just thrust them about powerfully. And as for the sex, it was silent and upstage while Grendel lamented his loneliness at the apron. I feel pretty positive that splitting did not occur, but JW, do you agree? Not sure.

Regardless, I had to stifle laughter at inappropriate moments because I was noticing the Eurotrash elements Lyd warned against as the opera progressed. For example....
1. Oh no! They're all coming to the front of the stage! And staring at us! And I wanted to like this moment, too!

2. Is that a doll? It's a doll! It's a female doll and Grendel's preparing to rip its legs apart! Why does it look silly? Oh right, thanks Kittensnake....

3. And there's the slap! Why did it just get a laugh?

4. The strobe -- it looks pretty good...but wasn't there something about strobes during battle scenes being hackneyed? Dammit....
Hey, the upside is, I didn't have to wait 30 years to see it on these shores.

Oh, Kittensnake, you've ruined me for America's trailblazing directors! Curses!


The Kittensnake said...

The Kittensnake is indeed very sad to hear about Ms. Taymor's little dip in the deadly S wading pool.

Her Oedipus Rex in Osaka, Japan still stands out as the greatest ever staging of that particular oratorio. Ever. Possibly the greatest staging of anything.

But strobes? What becomes of man when his idols die?

He reads Frank's Wild Lunch and shits himself from giggling.

frank's wild lunch said...

The Kittensnake comments! Yes!!

Anonymous said...

Just fyi-

It was pretty clear that the slap was intended to get a laugh. And that the doll was supposed to tread the line between violence and humor. And using an arbitrary set of rules that tell opera directors what to do and not to do pretty much guarantees that you won't notice the whole point of a production such as this. Not saying it was genius. Just saying it had a really interesting point, and Taymor told it well.

frank's wild lunch said...


Thanks for the information. I'm sure you're right, and the slap was intended for a laugh. I just don't recall why, and I wondered in the moment of the scene. Generally speaking, I found the use of the Shadows so muddled by that scene I was pretty well confounded.

However, I have no idea why or how that doll moment was intended to be funny. A monster was about to pull a woman apart like a wishbone while talking about her "ugly hole." That's more unseemly to me than anything else. And to double it using a doll hampered the menace of the moment as much as it felt stagey and campy.

I would agree that an arbitrary set of rules is, well, arbitrary, but I would also suggest that The Kittensnake might've been just a little playful in assembling that list, as I was in linking to it. The most telling thing to me about my own responses to the opera, after my reading Lydia's deadly S's, was that I was allowing moments that I found to be truly effective to be diminished by the knowledge that Taymor might not have been the first person to use a strobe in a battle sequence. That's an unfortuate consequence, both of education, and, well, second-guessing your own responses to art.

The MOST telling this about all these discussions, as my JW would say, is this: if the music were more distinctive we probably wouldn't be bothering with dickering over directorial choices at all.