The Little Black Dress
“A production is a fusion of musical, dramatic and visual
elements, they said, and assessment of the vocal and dramatic
suitability for a production is ‘fundamental to the art form’”
One would have to reside on the isolated isle of Naxos itself to have escaped the flap over the firing of soprano Deborah Voigt by the Royal Opera House because of her weight and her resultant inability to fit into the slinky costume designated for the role of Ariadne in the new Strauss production. Growing up as the plumpest kid in my elementary and junior schools and developing into a reasonably thin man with a fat person living inside of him, I cannot begin to tell you how horrified I was to encounter this vile piece of discrimination emanating from my own corner of the artistic world, but, for the purposes of this argument, I shall dispense with any histrionic diatribes and concentrate rather on the etiology and symptomology of a disease which is increasingly infecting our global perception of the role of culture in society. We will take as a given Ms. Voigt’s competence in the role and are even willing to be swayed by those who are able, without any physical restrictions, to sing her praises as the best Ariadne in the world today, especially since my companion and I were able to thrill to her Chrysothemis some years ago (when she might have actually fit into that dress) opposite Hildegard Behrens’ Elektra at the Met.
It is, in fact, memories of the Met which haunt me as I stew over this issue. Many years ago they presented an excellent production of the revised Ariadne auf Naxos that emphasized the contrasts and relationships between each possible pairing of the three main characters (all, significantly, female). In the pivotal role of the composer was the very young Teresa Stratus (of course wearing trousers) and in the juicy, scene-stealing part of Zerbinetta was the ebullient and slightly irreverent Roberta Peters. I am sorry to say that I do not remember the name of the Ariadne, but she was decidedly (and correctly) a very imposing full-figured woman, who stood up on that rock like the Wagnerian figure of fun that Strauss intended. Ms. Peters’ acrobatics as she danced in the sea with her commedia del'arte mates constituted the perfect foil to the grandiloquent image that Ariadne and Bacchus seemed to need to project of themselves. Gods only exist if people worship them. Even if they could have handled the vocal transformations, imagine how inappropriate it would have been for these two women to have exchanged roles!
But in London, apparently knowledge of the opera and its meaning is irrelevant. I suppose that some future director might encounter the problem that all of the prospective singers for an Ariadne were slim and attractive. It might then be necessary to ask the audience to suspend its disbelief in order to still mount a vocally powerful show (after all, much more important than how anyone looks). But, in this case, the Covent Garden folks had the perfect candidate already under contract. There is someone who should be banned from future productions there, but it is actually casting director Peter Katona.
So much for the effect, but what of the cause? Coincidentally, a new Strauss production premiered this week in New York. Karita Mattila stars in a Salome wearing (and not wearing) provocative costume. New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini devoted 15 paragraphs to his review of the piece and only mentioned the quality of the singing in brief phrases in the penultimate paragraph, leaving his impression of the unfocused conducting of Valery Gergiev to the very last. Ms. Mattila appears in black negligee on the front page of the arts section. Now Mr. Tommasini is a very knowledgeable reviewer with a prodigious musical background. I’m guessing that he had many other interesting thoughts about the actual performance, but he doesn’t share them with us because he spends the bulk of his time, as do most contemporary opera writers, describing the costumes, sets, lighting effects and relative glandular attributes of the cast. The Times could probably save a lot of money if they simply hired stringers from teen magazines to write their opera reviews. No one seems to care any longer about the music itself.
Recently Keith Olberman, host of MSNBC’s “Countdown” show, tongue firmly in cheek, tried to define the difference between news and gossip: “When Martha Stewart goes to jail, that’s news; when Diana Ross goes to jail, that’s celebrity news.” Mr. Tommasini’s newspaper uses the term “legendary diva” now only for the likes of Mariah Carey. If indeed the media is the enabler, then the disease is an addiction to sensationalism.
Dead white male composers have been attacked in recent years for irrelevancy, but it is the very fact that they are deceased that allows their product to be so vulnerable to dilution and outright distortion. Once it survives its initial assault by an editor, a book is more or less permanent, at least for those who can read it in its original language. Even a film, an amalgam of individual talents fused more often than not into a pale realization of the director’s original vision, can, after release, stand on its own relatively unscathed. But an opera appears to be fair game in our short attention span society, simply a rotting host for a variety of ravenous parasites. Musically, this has been the norm for quite some time. Gustav Mahler, for example, was considered the greatest Mozart conductor of his day, even though he substituted arias from other operas on a regular basis to showcase the individual talents of his favorite singers. But in the past fifty years or so, it has become de riguer to stage operas in non-traditional ways. That fabulous Pierre Boulez Ring is remembered today not for its orchestral brilliance, but for Patrice Chereau’s look. Conductors are no longer rewarded with critical acclaim if they only go the extra mile to present great musical interpretation; they had better also have some pizzazz to their staging or the event is an automatic failure.
One of the most successful operas here in New York is Sir Elton John’s Aida. It thrives primarily because of star power and lurid publicity. It’s opera, it’s New York, what’s the real difference between Toni Braxton and Leontyne Price? For that matter, what’s wrong with doing a remake of a classic? Remember that contemporary version of The Wizard of Oz? Oh, wait a minute, wasn’t that Diana Ross and Michael Jackson?
Frederick L. Kirshnit