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Things That Have Interested Me

Featherlight Opera

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
13 January 2007

Flicking through the Metropolitan Opera programme with its proliferating lists of donors, one is struck dumb by the number of synonyms for stumpers-up of cash: there are founders, benefactors, sponsors, production funders, Golden Horseshoe donors, donors of the Save the Met Broadcasts Campaign, companies participating in the Met Opera Corporate Special Projects Program, and all this before you reach the Patron Program and the Encore Society. Every donation type is calibrated, from "$1,000,000 or more" to $4,000, which seems to be the lowest level at which you receive name recognition.

One might think the place was awash with money. Then one flicks back through the lists of administration, orchestra, chorus, ballet, the six prompters, the three diction coaches, the 40-odd assistant conductors, and astonishment gives way to despair. This kind of operation is surely too large for creative thought. Oh, the orchestra looks, on paper, like an orchestra, the chorus like a chorus and the ballet like a ballet, but the "roster" of artists goes on for ever, and the administration is enough for a city state.

What is crucially missing at the Met, as in most opera houses around the world, is flexibility: a sensible small theatre where new work, together with old work designed for small houses, can be presented without the expenditure of millions of dollars. New work is seldom put on in these mammoth auditoriums, but when it is, it gets money thrown at it with hysterical zeal, in the hope that cash will make up for whatever turns out to be missing from the mix. But the fact that so much cash is flying around only inhibits creativity.

Outreach is the dream of these houses. Their audiences are in danger of dying off, and it seems sensible to look for a younger generation of opera-goers. Why not turn to the world of film and see what benefits can be transferred? There is nothing wrong with such an idea on its own, so long as the chief objection is understood from the start.

A film score is not, or does not have to be, a continuous piece of music. It is like a set of episodic commentaries on the action of the film, interpreting or pointing up mood, plot, emotion. An opera, on the other hand, is typically a continuous piece of music, like a very long symphony. Like a very long symphony indeed, in some cases. Beethoven's Ninth comes in at a little over an hour. The First Emperor, Tan Dun's new opera at the Met, detains its audience (interval included) for three hours and 20 minutes.

The story derives from a screenplay by Lu Wei, The Legend of the Bloody Zheng. The first emperor seeks to persuade a childhood friend to compose an anthem to glorify his empire. The friend, who has suffered under the emperor's tyranny, refuses and goes on hunger strike. The emperor's crippled daughter tries to persuade the friend to eat, eventually feeding him from her own mouth. This last manoeuvre does the trick, and the couple make love, with the result that the princess is miraculously cured, but the longed-for anthem of celebration never gets written. In its place, what we hear is the chorus of the slaves at work on the Great Wall.

We had Plácido Domingo in the title role, and that gave us a sense of an event. We had, as director, Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, House of Flying Daggers) and the costumes were designed by Emi Wada, who won an award for Kurosawa's Ran. The composer, conductor and co-librettist was Tan Dun himself (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and he shared the work on the words with Ha Jin, a Chinese exile who writes poetry and novels in English and who came up with a script that sounded like a stilted translation from Chinese.

How to get through an opera in which everything is excellent apart from the music and the words? I went on the fourth night, by which time Domingo no longer seemed dependent (as the New York Times reviewer had initially noted) on the prompter's box. Other singers included Michelle DeYoung, Elizabeth Futral and Paul Groves. In addition to the Met orchestra there was a Chinese band on stage, and there were Chinese dancers.

The music was said to be an attempt to recreate the lost music of ancient China "as Tan Dun has imagined it based on extensive research and scant historical evidence", and to combine this with the tradition of Italian opera. Indeed, the chorus of slaves came over, in dramatic terms, much like such choruses in Verdi, while the meeting of the Chinese musical tradition with that of the western orchestra brought Puccini to mind. One thought how well, and how economically, he had achieved this marriage of styles, and how long ago.

One of the Met's undoubted successes of recent years, Julie Taymor's Magic Flute, was back again, and I saw it for the first time. This is Mozart with plenty of birds and enormous dancing bears. It was lavish to some purpose, filling the large auditorium with colour and fun. One wouldn't call it a great interpretation (or, indeed, a great performance), but it was a great spectacle, and that seemed fair enough to me.

You could enjoy it in two versions. I went to the full performance in German, with JD McClatchey's words available on the screen at your seat. The alternative, aimed at children, was a reduced 90-minute version, singing McClatchey's text. Since The Magic Flute doesn't make much sense, it did no harm to see it treated as a musical in the same genre as The Lion King. But I kept thinking how tiny the original theatre in Vienna, and how skimpy the original production, would have been, and how much easier it would have been for the Queen of the Night if she had been performing in a house of idiomatic, Mozartian size. Indeed, how much easier it would be for all opera singers.

When the big houses do something that bursts their seams, as happened when the Met put on Tarkovsky's production of Prokofiev's War and Peace, with horses and so many extras they had to extend their changing rooms into the car park, the result can be incomparably thrilling and true to the idiom of the original. But not all opera is grand. Vastness yields a diminishing return. For a small-scale work, a smaller house gives the better, vaster effect.

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