Opera as blood sport: the Hutcheons contra Regietheater

I raced at top speed, not from jungle to city but from one end of the U of T campus to the other after work, afraid I’d be late for the (lecture about) opera, somewhat like the hero of Werner Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo.  It was a keynote by Linda and Michael Hutcheon, as close as I could get to hearing Caruso at 5 pm on a Friday in Toronto (the relevant clip is the first nine minutes).

“No work of art can withstand the alchemy of adaptation without suffering the consequences of tranformation, especially when the adaptation is from one art form to another.”

So said Nilo Cruz as cited on the first slide of Linda & Michael Hutcheon’s talk, titled “Operatic Transformation: Translation, Adaptation, Transladaptation”. Theirs was a keynote address at the Trans- Conference 2016, at the University of Toronto Centre for Comparative Literature.

I’d like to digress for a moment to unpack that by quoting the conference call for papers.

Internal and external changes. Movements outside, beyond, or within. Our annual conference explores the theme of trans– in any of its forms. Particularly of interest are explorations of the relationships between movement, position, and change. What mind shifts are required with trans– shifts? In transition, what is lost and what is gained? pIn times of increasing mobility and placelessness, how can we ensure the transmission of meaningful information between generations and across borders?
The organizing committee of this conference invites all contributions that respond to the need to think about trans- as a subject and as a prefix in our disciplines and in our world. Possible topics for presentations include, but are not limited to:
transgression Traduction Transgenre translittération transfert transformation
transport transmission Transubstantiation transversal transplantation transnational
transhumain transrationnel Transposition transcription Transaction transcendance

As you can see on that poster, this is a trans-disciplinary conference, and as such an ideal venue for a conversation about operatic adaptation & interpretation. Michael & Linda situated their conversation in the collegial space that is jargon free, explaining their terms when necessary. By working more or less from first principles it made their argument all the more powerful.

After explaining history & context, they did a bit of a case study comparing two different approaches to the Mozart/da Ponte opera Don Giovanni:

  • Against the Grain Theatre’s #UncleJohn presented in Toronto in December 2014 (after an earlier workshop presentation in Banff).
  • The Canadian Opera Company’s Don Giovanni presented in January- February 2015 (which had been presented in Europe).

The COC DG was directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, while #UncleJohn was a new translation and adaptation of the Da Ponte libretto by Joel Ivany, leading to a new word coined in response, namely “transladaptation”.

Early on we were treated to an image of the score of Don Giovanni, suddenly splattered in red, suggesting that the opera was a crime scene for this case study. There’s a word missing from the title of their CSI, namely Regietheater (or director’s theatre). I have to think this talk was a very cathartic experience for a pair of opera fans who have likely been frustrated before by invasive and transgressive directors.  Michael did admit that he was not entirely thrilled by Tcherniakov’s interpretation, likely the motivation for that bloody image.

There’s no arguing with their conclusions, contrasting the reception experience of the two operas. The Hutcheons were raising a simple question, namely when does an interpretation go so far that it’s no longer an interpretation but something else? It’s a sticky one to answer, although we were offered some criteria to work with such as the notion of “Werktreue” (a concept that could be translated as “faithfulness to the composer’s intention”).

Instead of fussing unduly over that question, we spent far more time looking at two contrasting approaches and how they impacted the audience horizon of expectations, which was understood to be the site where this battle is ultimately fought, for the hearts of the operatic audience:

  • Tcherniakov’s DG was presented by the COC with surtitles and stage action that seemed nonsensical at times. One might argue that this production was no longer the opera Mozart & Da Ponte wrote (in other words, no longer true to the work: Werktreue), but an adaptation, that deserved to be identified as such.
  • Ivany’s #UncleJohn foregrounded its divergence from the original work, declaring its differences, its bold newness,  in its name & a subtitle. I vaguely recall seeing “transladaptation” at the time, although I don’t know that I paid much attention, as I was mostly busy enjoying the production: and the work.
Hutcheons signing (1)

Linda and Michael Hutcheon at the launch of their new book last summer.

What seems clear is that a work honestly presented and advertised as a modernized adaptation encountered less friction than a production purporting to be the original opera. I couldn’t help wondering if the forthright communication strategy of Against the Grain is a big reason for the smooth reception (which is kind of ironic when you remember what “against the grain” literally implies). It might also be relevant to observe in passing that while Ivany’s transladaptation modernizes and juggles a few elements of the story, that it feels less divergent from the original than Tcherniakov. Perhaps the key is the avoidance of the cognitive dissonance from too much of a gap between expectation and the transgressive production, whether by means of honest advertising or in hewing close to the original.  Then again the fact that COC productions are much pricier could also be a factor. I couldn’t help wondering if the COC’s ventures into Regietheater would be easier to sell with clearer communication.


Left to right: Miriam Khalil, Sean Clark, Betty Allison and Cameron McPhail, in the December 2014 Toronto production of #UncleJohn

I was perhaps out of step with many in this room (horizon of expectation being associated with “interpretive communities”, presumably a way to separate out different history & varieties of taste), as someone who loved Tcherniakov’s DG: but then again I had seen it on TFO at least three times before I saw it live in the theatre, one of several operas of his that i had seen and enjoyed. Similarly someone called the COC’s Semele “bad”, a position I don’t share, believing it to be one of the best things I’ve seen there this past decade: but in that case too, I had advance preparation in getting to see the set from up close in a backstage preview.

But however i may rationalize those experiences, I’m grateful that this presentation today elegantly theorizes Regietheater and its reception.

Joel Ivany headshot

Director Joel Ivany

So perhaps because I saw a rationale for these two interpretations, because i’d either done my homework (watching DG on video) or been educated (by being invited backstage by the COC to see the Semele set), I was more ready to meet those works on their own terms. Divergent as they may have been I was not similarly impressed by Claus Guth’s Figaro. No wonder then – in conversations about productions eliciting varying degrees of dismay—that Against the Grain stands out as a beacon in an otherwise dark conversation.

At the back of the room sitting un-noticed was the hero of the hour, namely Joel Ivany himself. In a few days he begins rehearsals for Carmen at the COC opening April 12th (NB a standard production rather than an adaptation), while in May Against the Grain will offer their third and final transladaptation based on the Mozart- da Ponte trilogy, namely A Little Too Cozy.

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