I’m trying to wrap my head around something. It first caught my eye in Peter Hinton’s Louis Riel in the 2017 Canadian Opera Company production. Hinton added a chorus of silent witnesses to the action, lending weight to the proceedings, while effectively revising the troubled piece. While Harry Somers’ opera reflects its time, a dialogue between the two contending cultures as he saw it, Hinton adds the vital perspective of the Indigenous populations. Riel was Métis, judged & executed in courts of the colonist populations. Whatever you may think of the verdict, the silent witnesses broaden the scope of the work immeasurably, arguably an act of redemption for a work that otherwise is problematic in its narrow focus.
This past week I experienced something similar with the Staatsoper Hamburg production of Lucia di Lammermoor, directed by Amélie Niermeyer. Where Riel is a text concerning nations & cultures in conflict, Lucia addresses romance and marriage. The addition from Niermeyer is a ballet chorus of protesters, witnesses to rape culture & the ongoing expectations of subservience imposed upon their gender. Lucia usually goes mad, killing her new husband on their wedding night, singing a sad Mad Scene celebrating a kind of picturesque heart-break. Niermeyer and her rebel-Lucia cracks that open.
When I started to write this I could only think of the two examples, wondering to myself: “do two examples constitute a trope?” But then I remembered a few other instances.
At the end of his Bayreuth Festival production of Götterdämmerung Patrice Chereau has the crowd of bystanders turn to face the audience.
And at the beginning of François Girard’s Parsifal there is pantomime by the silent chorus during the prelude, as the brotherhood of Grail Knights assembles into a circle. The hero is present, observing silently. It’s not as absurd as it sounds considering how gendered the work is, with the sung chorus in the outer acts male, the “chorus” of flower-maidens in the middle act female.
While this video is the whole two hour act I’d direct you to the first fifteen minutes especially .
I am sure there are other examples in opera and also spoken theatre, but these are the ones that come to mind.
What’s especially remarkable about the examples from Hinton & Niermeyer is the political effect, an oppressed group who are usually a forgotten piece of subtext. Yes the Indigenous people were already here long before the story of John A Macdonald and Louis Riel. Yes the women regularly endure such treatment, before and since the time of the original Lucia, modernized in Niermeyer’s treatment.
The silent chorus bears witness, changing the optics and the political balance of the story.
I had an idea. In the world premiere production of Hadrian directed by Peter Hinton for the Canadian Opera Company, I liked the staging, didn’t mind the music, but felt the chorus of Hebrew voices at the end of the opera didn’t work. I’m not sure what was intended, but in some ways it’s the precise opposite to what Hinton achieved with Riel. While his silent chorus lends credibility to what is otherwise the spectacle of a grave miscarriage of justice in Riel’s execution, the chorus in Hadrian show up only at the end. What if the next revision shows us some chorus –perhaps silently—in earlier scenes? Wainwright & librettist Daniel MacIvor might consider giving us glimpses of the subject who turn up so powerfully at the end of that opera. At the very least their earlier appearance would better connect them to Hadrian’s life & story. If they had a few lines to sing, or were mysteriously seen (more apparitions alongside the other ghosts in this opera) it could help prepare the ending. Just my 2 cents worth.