a watershed moment for LA Opera--and maybe LA too
More like the way we like it. / Photo: ROBERT MILLARD for LA OPERA
One reason to see an opera when you're young is that you may see it transform into something entirely different when you are not so young. Beverly Sills was here in Rossini's Il Turco in Italia at the Dorothy Chandler in 1978. Back then, LA's opera experience was not much more than autumn stagings of chestnuts--often in English--when New York City Opera came to town.
Last Thursday night, hurling dramatically across the years, we went to the same opera, LA Opera's 2011 production of Il Turco, which ends Sunday. Dynamite seats for a great, engagingly louche production of Rossini's that is in his top-tier but not performed nearly often enough.
Though memories of anything outside of the classic coloratura of Ms. Sills (right, in Turco) are dim--I even had to consult another source to confirm the language it was sung in--one thing I do remember from 1978 is wondering if big opera stars in general had to act at all, or if they simply always stood on their blocks smiling vividly as might Limoges figurines (left), perpetually acknowledging our admiration. I ultimately accepted the fact Beverly Sills would ever stand like a glamorous caged cockatoo, facing the audience and singing magnificently, the curtain rising and lowering with every scene, handily enveloping most of her movements on and off stage, and admired along with the rest. That kind of opera has mercifully evolved...and so has my own understanding of what opera singers do.
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Along the way, there has been much else. Staging Il Turco in English, which Long Beach did in 1995, is hopefully unthinkable today. Art direction is not only more important than it was then, the arguments that unfold about it may make or break a run. The setting of these things can be anytime at all. And productions in general between then and now have been more sexualized--and about time, as especially the buffa librettos have been sexualized and oversexualized since the moments they were conceived.
Early on, LA Opera showed it was up to speed with all happy trends. Its early, gloriously grotesque production of Wozzeck, in which Elise Ross found room under her skirt for her Vietnam Vet captain's obliging head and tongue, was an international-level staging; a decade later, the late Hildegard Behrens, at 61, shoehorned into a nude body-stocking to do the dance of the seven veils in Salome; and throughout various Wagner productions have been various titillations, some even larger than our dragon in Siegfried.
And along the way, keeping the people in the seats informed, also have come dozens of eloquent commentaries about what these fusses might really be all about, including perhaps most notably Wayne Kostembaum's audacious late-nineties classic The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and Mystery of Desire, which laid bare as can be laid the certain feeling certain men get for the voices of certain women, and why they might get such feelings.
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At intermission, March 2011, Lynn dashed off to the ladies room while I went to sit under the enormous mounted Chinese screen in the bar. At the bar I spotted what I was certain were not one but two sets of young lesbian couples, not together, both dressed so responsively to the opera's art direction that I made some BlackBerry notes: pinches of gypsy, berber earrings, a tiny splash of this spring's trending coral, specks of tangerine and mint, large swaths of knitted elegance. The girls were obviously responding to the art direction in this production with its own toucan-via-Hamburg trending colors in it: the frieze of Neapolitan bathers and cross-dressers in key scenes that have been described as straight outta La Dolce Vita by some and tropical fruit stands by others. It was just a night of dress-up for the girls, but it was dead-on dress-up, to complement the opera and the chorus's colors schemes and even its zeitgeist.
[And beyond costume, even beyond art direction, dress itself plays a big part of the staging of this Turco. Racks of clothing and costumes drop from the rafters, and the chorus rifles through them while the buffa absurdites unfold. Fiorella flings shoes from her closet when despondent. The sustained masquerade referencing Cosi Fan Tutte is distilled into an energetic and ridiculous scene in which the cuckolded Italian dresses like the cocksure Turk. Tone-perfect boxing trunks echoing a long lost Ali prizefight are bared as the two antagonists square off.]
From there, I have to take Lynn's word for it, but what happened was, as soon as the first couple were inside the ladies room, they started photographing each other in the restroom's lounge, and then again in the mirrors. The second couple joined them, and they all ended up art directing their own intermission, maybe for Facebook uploads, maybe to send virtual postcards, or maybe as a prelude to their own Second Act elsewhere.
Lynn was a little amused, also initially a little annoyed because she wanted to wash up but has to elbow her way into the mise-en-scène to do so. But after working her way to a sink, she ended up in a few shots herself, and obligingly smiled. All in good fun, right?
Then we got back to our seats and noticed the program cover: Fiorella preening in a pocket mirror. Another fine fit for the goings-on we had observed.
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I mention all this because it is precisely the kind of scene that interests me in the way opera lives today when it fetches a promising young audience, as this Turco has. Maestro Conlon, this inordinately gifted soprano Nino Machaidze &c. are certainly thrilling to see work their magic, but they don't nearly interest me so much these days as young people responding to something new at the opera. At the opera, you often have a chance to see the way the opera public themselves are, but magnified; opera is larger than life, and it always calls out its public to be. And the people who come for the love of coming are, when they are deeply involved, for me the very best part of the show--and this is a show in which every performance is outstanding, even memorable. Venerable Thomas Allen as the accident-prone poet Prodoscimo, locates both the hidden agility of a circus clown and the suave machinations of an ever-hopeful lyricist. Kate Lindsey as the wispy, forlorn Zaida, Paolo Gavanelli as Don Geronio, the beleaguered cuckold--and Matthew O'Neill, Simone Alberghini, and Maxim Mironov, all spot on, all eager and willing to make this production not merely special but stupendous.
My mind went racing in many literary directions, wanting to get this Proustian moment down and wanting to get it right. So--say you're a performative-gender buying, culturally transgressive social mediatrix interested in looking at the world and interested in making your own life as vivid as a toucan's beak. This can be one of your games, then: dress-up at the opera, where art direction now, formerly stilted and historic, can be as rich as a grand finale. The subtle and not-so-subtle art directions we routinely see (and routinely argue over, as though they are make-or-break decisions) in LA Opera productions, like productions in many other opera-enlightened cities, often pushes its appreciative public towards such variously fashion-forward, sexuality-forward, alternately Vogue spread or la cage aux folles moments, even capable of transforming urban chic itself.
For most of the brittle ones in Founders Circle, for whom opera attire is evening attire, suits and modest gowns, this dress-up subculture, this time inspired by the art direction and the costuming of Herbert Murauer (left), is often simply indulged as goofiness; but for a spirited, younger few, dress-up is a large part of it. It's not precisely the same as dressing up for Rocky Horror midnight screenings but it's a snooty cousin of it.
And this kind of vivid art direction, which for so many now is opera's top story, often falls very flat in sanctimoniously Nestorian corners of the city these days, where such phenomena, when they are noted at all, are noted as something gone wrong. But when I am out in this city, or even in one like San Francisco or New York, it is reflective of and a stimulant to the kind of life that I see everywhere.
This is all incautious ground but I find many elements of American urban life extremely interesting as people strive to find ways to distinguish themselves from the overriding relentless homogenization of their political and economic lives. I also lived through NYC in the mid-1970s and I have to say that as Fear City was spectacularly falling apart--the way LA is presently--people simply threw themselves into cultural craziness with abandon--which is also happening in LA presently. Back then it produced a kind of cultural renaissance (from Pavarotti to Richard Serra and of course the more-than-banal but true-to-the-times Brat Pack) because the day-to-day lives of the young frothy things were too miserable to endure without these then-new phenomena cheeking them up a bit.
LA is having this kind of a renaissance too, but news of it doesn't break out much in mainstream media. MSM so often doesn't want to document so much as to confirm suspicions about what the young frothy things are doing--they want it it to be outrageous and silly rather than performative and sublime. The media types typically whiff on the youth reality most of the time. The street artist JR got two covers in town these past two weeks--and Nino Malchaieze none. Cartoon-artist Banksy's half-baked scams on LA have generally been the artistry-of-record for March; the 3,000 or so people turning out for dress-up buffa at the Dorothy Chandler these past three weeks have largely been ignored.
What the deplorable politics and equally deplorable media of urbi-et-orbi have brought us in the mainstream is largely a social network of hectoring sanctimoniousness. We can and should and do let this go at the opera--which is not mainstream despite video's attempt to make it so--and more should notice that we do, and more of the brittle octogens should not sneer but should watch it happen and even whip up some enthusiasm for it. Also, many in media who are chasing the latest bas-culture trends are missing this kind of refreshingly apolitical American watershed moment, in which things of interest, artistic, cultural, sexual, are sure enough happening all around us, even in high culture--if only we're willing to bear witness to them. This production--in which an airstream trailer, Neapolitan bathers and a magnificent actress-vamp-soprano--so far removed from a caged cockatoo in a period gown--gave me as many goosebumps as Bubbles ever did.