We’re expecting snow here in Toronto, but it’s already somewhat inclement, if we think chilly or unmerciful.

I am expanding on the experience of La Clemenza di Tito Sunday in Toronto.  I was enraptured, as were the audience: until the director & his design team appeared onstage.

Some of us bravo’d enthusiastically, yet the sound was as sour as raspberry noises.  I suspect it was one loud person, perhaps with their companion.  The rest of us redoubled our effort.  Either we easily drowned then out or they were making a hasty exit.

Tonight I am thinking of this in context with the show I am working on, the lovely students & staff at this university caring so much about every little detail.  Of course our production is faithful to the text so I believe we’re safe from the textual vigilantes out there.  Still, these students would probably be stunned at the idea of supposed defenders of art booing.

Dancers backstage, Ballets Russe, “Le Sacre du printemps” Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 1913 (click for more thoughts on Le Sacre)

In today’s discussion on the CUNY listserv  I looked back at two startling events in the history of audience protest.  One hundred years ago this year, Ballet Russe premiered Nijinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du Printemps, with a startlingly original score from Igor Stravinsky.  I reviewed a performance by Esprit Orchestra just a few days ago, so the historical significance of the performance is still on my mind.  In 1913 the audience went a little nuts, booing very early on, upset with the look & the sound of the performance.  Fifty years earlier – another great moment in audience stupidity—Richard Wagner crashed into the stubborn opposition of the Paris Jockey Club, who wanted ballet in the second act of their operas. Wagner had thought he’d made enough of a gesture in inserting a ballet into the first act of his opera.  Nope.

I believe some people believe that such events –and perhaps the booing in Toronto—are good for attendance.  There’s an old adage that says “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”.  Indeed, by writing this piece I am hoping to redeem the booing in publicity, possibly helping generate extra interest in the production.

What does it take to connect?  I notice in my church that when the children sing, everyone listens with a kind of reverent awe, and clap without judgment for the performance.  Similarly, when an old person steps forward we see something like that.  And the people who are neither very young or very old: can we not empathize with them too?

When I think of those boo-birds, I sense they have no idea that what they’re doing is a kind of heckling, that ridicules and disrupts the enjoyment of those who liked that production.  I have talked to some who boo, and they seem very civil, thinking of booing as part of the broad spectrum of audience response that includes wild applause.  In other words I suppose I can also cut them some slack, allowing for a dissenting view at the end of the show, however much I may disagree.

No matter where you go in the world some productions work, some don’t.  Opera is exciting in many of the same ways as food or sex: where good intentions and ambitions can’t always overcome weaknesses, accidents or indifference.  Steak is safe, good cuisine is riskier, surely. Here’s a paraphrase of Robertson Davies’ idea that i think i’ve cited before, namely, that

“Nine times out of ten that I go to the theatre, the experience is unpleasant; but the pleasures of that tenth time fully justify those nine other visits.”

This applies as fully to composition as it does to direction, but it applies to invention, discovery, anything risky.  Research and development entails failures, wastes of money & effort.  Not everyone could be Christopher Columbus, Bill Gates or Richard Wagner.  Some people fail.  Directors and composers may set out in search of something, but that doesn’t mean they can make it there.  A person begins such an enterprise in a spirit of hope and excitement, not one of exploitation or cheating.  It’s a sacred process. Now of course if you sit back with a sense of entitlement, insensitive to the risks these people are taking, merely demanding brilliance every time out, then of course you won’t appreciate the moderate success in some productions.  Indeed failure can be heart-breaking, and often still deserving of great respect.  I was very sad watching and hearing Deborah Voigt’s Cassandre, particularly in view of how she used to sound in this role (the Dutoit CD for instance). But she’s earned the right to get out there and sing her best, even if it’s not as opulent as it used to be, perhaps worn by the Brunnhildes; there is still much to be celebrated in her work.  Do i boo an athlete whose batting average has fallen, or a tennis player who isn’t as quick afoot as they once were? They’re still doing their best.  I understand we may want to treat them as commodities given that we buy and sell their CDs and DVDs.  Even so i believe we should honour them, rather than throwing them on the scrap heap of history.  It may require a huge act of imagination (another suspension of disbelief?) but i think we need to remember, need to presuppose that they are people not objects, that they are doing their best.  Nobody steps in front of an audience wanting boos.  They have no reason for shame, whereas the judgmental philistines?  hm…Ah now that’s another question.

“Deconstruction” gets a bad name in this.  I spoke at length about Christopher Alden‘s analytical approach to historical icons & the official story, probing beneath the surface of the perfect Tito we see in the opera’s text. Peter Sellars’ Tristan und Isolde, which we’re also seeing here in Toronto, is largely faithful to the work, even though some parts are distorted; and so in this reading all of the acts of violence become virtual (Melot barely touches Tristan: as if he were Melisande; Melot & Kurwenal die of invisible blows). Why no violence? i suppose one could quibble with it, but there is so much else in this story, so much brilliance, i am able to make it work.  Isn’t that the idea: to suspend your disbelief (as Dr Johnson described it)?

Hm, did Dr Johnson ever say anything about suspension of judgmental attitudes & prejudices? You may not be Robertson Davies, but aren’t we all going to the theatre for a good time?  If we can use our imagination to see the beautiful young woman or man (as the role specifies) rather than the aging singer, why not use that imaginative faculty (hopefully well-developed from frequent trips to the opera) to attempt to understand the relationship between the original text and the experimental reading…?  Clemens Risi, in his talk about Regietheater at the Opera Exchange Saturday in Toronto, spoke of the pleasure found in the tension between the original & the experiment, in the awareness of divergence. Sometimes experiments, like voices & banks, fail. Life is a risky proposition. It’s a very conservative idea to attempt to barricade yourself into a safe corner, to arm teachers, to demand certainty in a chaotic world.  I believe some of the original opera patrons were just like that, demanding only flattering operas from their servant composers, censoring or censuring what they didn’t like.

Have we come full circle?

Michael Schade as Tito (standing), and the chorus in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of La clemenza di Tito, 2013. director Christopher Alden (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Michael Schade as Tito (standing), and the chorus in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of La clemenza di Tito, 2013. director Christopher Alden (Photo: Michael Cooper)

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