Can Stage Directors Make Opera and Popular Culture ‘Equal’?



How to Cite

Toutant, L. (2008). Can Stage Directors Make Opera and Popular Culture ‘Equal’?. M/C Journal, 11(2).
Vol. 11 No. 2 (2008): equal
Published 2008-06-01

Cultural sociologists (Bourdieu; DiMaggio, “Cultural Capital”, “Classification”; Gans; Lamont & Foumier; Halle; Erickson) wrote about high culture and popular culture in an attempt to explain the growing social and economic inequalities, to find consensus on culture hierarchies, and to analyze cultural complexities. Halle states that this categorisation of culture into “high culture” and “popular culture” underlined most of the debate on culture in the last fifty years. Gans contends that both high culture and popular culture are stereotypes, public forms of culture or taste cultures, each sharing “common aesthetic values and standards of tastes” (8). However, this article is not concerned with these categorisations, or macro analysis. Rather, it is a reflection piece that inquires if opera, which is usually considered high culture, has become more equal to popular culture, and why some directors change the time and place of opera plots, whereas others will stay true to the original setting of the story. I do not consider these productions “adaptations,” but “post-modern morphologies,” and I will refer to this later in the paper. In other words, the paper is seeking to explain a social phenomenon and explore the underlying motives by quoting interviews with directors.

The word ‘opera’ is defined in Elson’s Music Dictionary as: “a form of musical composition evolved shortly before 1600, by some enthusiastic Florentine amateurs who sought to bring back the Greek plays to the modern stage” (189). Hence, it was an experimentation to revive Greek music and drama believed to be the ideal way to express emotions (Grout 186). It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when stage directors started changing the time and place of the original settings of operas. The practice became more common after World War II, and Peter Brook’s Covent Garden productions of Boris Godunov (1948) and Salome (1949) are considered the prototypes of this practice (Sutcliffe 19-20). Richard Wagner’s grandsons, the brothers Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner are cited in the music literature as using technology and modern innovations in staging and design beginning in the early 1950s.

Brief Background into the History of Opera

Grout contends that opera began as an attempt to heighten the dramatic expression of language by intensifying the natural accents of speech through melody supported by simple harmony. In the late 1590s, the Italian composer Jacopo Peri wrote what is considered to be the first opera, but most of it has been lost.

The first surviving complete opera is Euridice, a version of the Orpheus myth that Peri and Giulio Caccini jointly set to music in 1600. The first composer to understand the possibilities inherent in this new musical form was Claudio Monteverdi, who in 1607 wrote Orfeo. Although it was based on the same story as Euridice, it was expanded to a full five acts. Early opera was meant for small, private audiences, usually at court; hence it began as an elitist genre. After thirty years of being private, in 1637, opera went public with the opening of the first public opera house, Teatro di San Cassiano, in Venice, and the genre quickly became popular. Indeed, Monteverdi wrote his last two operas, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea for the Venetian public, thereby leading the transition from the Italian courts to the ‘public’. Both operas are still performed today. Poppea was the first opera to be based on a historical rather than a mythological or allegorical subject. Sutcliffe argues that opera became popular because it was a new mixture of means: new words, new music, new methods of performance. He states, “operatic fashion through history may be a desire for novelty, new formulas displacing old” (65).

By the end of the 17th century, Venice alone had ten opera houses that had produced more than 350 operas. Wealthy families purchased season boxes, but inexpensive tickets made the genre available to persons of lesser means. The genre spread quickly, and various styles of opera developed. In Naples, for example, music rather than the libretto dominated opera. The genre spread to Germany and France, each developing the genre to suit the demands of its audiences. For example, ballet became an essential component of French opera. Eventually, “opera became the profligate art as large casts and lavish settings made it the most expensive public entertainment. It was the only art that without embarrassment called itself ‘grand’” (Boorstin 467).

Contemporary Opera Productions

Opera continues to be popular. According to a 2002 report released by the National Endowment for the Arts, 6.6 million adults attended at least one live opera performance in 2002, and 37.6 million experienced opera on television, video, radio, audio recording or via the Internet. Some think that it is a dying art form, while others think to the contrary, that it is a living art form because of its complexity and “ability to probe deeper into the human experience than any other art form” (Berger 3). Some directors change the setting of operas with perhaps the most famous contemporary proponent of this approach being Peter Sellars, who made drastic changes to three of Mozart’s most famous operas. Le Nozze di Figaro, originally set in 18th-century Seville, was set by Sellars in a luxury apartment in the Trump Tower in New York City; Sellars set Don Giovanni in contemporary Spanish Harlem rather than 17th century Seville; and for Cosi Fan Tutte, Sellars chose a diner on Cape Cod rather than 18th century Naples.

As one of the more than six million Americans who attend live opera each year, I have experienced several updated productions, which made me reflect on the convergence or cross-over between high culture and popular culture. In 2000, I attended a production of Don Giovanni at the Estates Theatre in Prague, the very theatre where Mozart conducted the world premiere in 1787. In this production, Don Giovanni was a fashion designer known as “Don G” and drove a BMW. During the 1999-2000 season, Los Angeles Opera engaged film director Bruce Beresford to direct Verdi’s Rigoletto. Beresford updated the original setting of 16th century Mantua to 20th century Hollywood. The lead tenor, rather than being the Duke of Mantua, was a Hollywood agent known as “Duke Mantua.” In the first act, just before Marullo announces to the Duke’s guests that the jester Rigoletto has taken a mistress, he gets the news via his cell phone. Director Ian Judge set the 2004 production of Le Nozze di Figaro in the 1950s. In one of the opening productions of the 2006-07 LA opera season, Vincent Patterson also chose the 1950s for Massenet’s Manon rather than France in the 1720s. This allowed the title character to appear in the fourth act dressed as Marilyn Monroe. Excerpts from the dress rehearsal can be seen on YouTube. Most recently, I attended a production of Ariane et Barbe-Bleu at the Paris Opera. The original setting of the Maeterlinck play is in Duke Bluebeard’s castle, but the time period is unclear. However, it is doubtful that the 1907 opera based on an 1899 play was meant to be set in what appeared to be a mental institution equipped with surveillance cameras whose screens were visible to the audience. The critical and audience consensus seemed to be that the opera was a musical success but a failure as a production. James Shore summed up the audience reaction: “the production team was vociferously booed and jeered by much of the house, and the enthusiastic applause that had greeted the singers and conductor, immediately went nearly silent when they came on stage”. It seems to me that a new class-related taste has emerged; the opera genre has shot out a subdivision which I shall call “post-modern morphologies,” that may appeal to a larger pool of people. Hence, class, age, gender, and race are becoming more important factors in conceptualising opera productions today than in the past. I do not consider these productions as new adaptations because the libretto and the music are originals. What changes is the fact that both text and sound are taken to a higher dimension by adding iconographic images that stimulate people’s brains.

When asked in an interview why he often changes the setting of an opera, Ian Judge commented, “I try to find the best world for the story and characters to operate in, and I think you have to find a balance between the period the author set it in, the period he conceived it in and the nature of theatre and audiences at that time, and the world we live in.” Hence, the world today is complex, interconnected, borderless and timeless because of advanced technologies, and updated opera productions play with symbols that offer multiple meanings that reflect the world we live in.

It may be that television and film have influenced opera production. Character tenor Graham Clark recently observed in an interview, “Now the situation has changed enormously. Television and film have made a lot of things totally accessible which they were not before and in an entirely different perception.” Director Ian Judge believes that television and film have affected audience expectations in opera. “I think audiences who are brought up on television, which is bad acting, and movies, which is not that good acting, perhaps require more of opera than stand and deliver, and I have never really been happy with someone who just stands and sings.” Sociologist Wendy Griswold states that culture reflects social reality and the meaning of a particular cultural object (such as opera), originates “in the social structures and social patterns it reflects” (22). Screens of various technologies are embedded in our lives and normalised as extensions of our bodies. In those opera productions in which directors change the time and place of opera plots, use technology, and are less concerned with what the composer or librettist intended (which we can only guess), the iconographic images create multi valances, textuality similar to Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of multiplicity of voices. Hence, a plurality of meanings.

Plàcido Domingo, the Eli and Edyth Broad General Director of Los Angeles Opera, seeks to take advantage of the company’s proximity to the film industry. This is evidenced by his having engaged Bruce Beresford to direct Rigoletto and William Friedkin to direct Ariadne auf Naxos, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Gianni Schicchi. Perhaps the most daring example of Domingo’s approach was convincing Garry Marshall, creator of the television sitcom Happy Days and who directed the films Pretty Woman and The Princess Diaries, to direct Jacques Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein to open the company’s 20th anniversary season. When asked how Domingo convinced him to direct an opera for the first time, Marshall responded, “he was insistent that one, people think that opera is pretty elitist, and he knew without insulting me that I was not one of the elitists; two, he said that you gotta make a funny opera; we need more comedy in the operetta and opera world.” Marshall rewrote most of the dialogue and performed it in English, but left the “songs” untouched and in the original French. He also developed numerous sight gags and added characters including a dog named Morrie and the composer Jacques Offenbach himself.

Did it work? Christie Grimstad wrote, “if you want an evening filled with witty music, kaleidoscopic colors and hilariously good singing, seek out The Grand Duchess. You will not be disappointed.” The FanFaire Website commented on Domingo’s approach of using television and film directors to direct opera:

You’ve got to hand it to Plàcido Domingo for having the vision to draw on Hollywood’s vast pool of directorial talent. Certainly something can be gained from the cross-fertilization that could ensue from this sort of interaction between opera and the movies, two forms of entertainment (elitist and perennially struggling for funds vs. popular and, it seems, eternally rich) that in Los Angeles have traditionally lived separate lives on opposite sides of the tracks. A wider audience, for example, never a problem for the movies, can only mean good news for the future of opera. So, did the Marshall Plan work? Purists of course will always want their operas and operettas ‘pure and unadulterated’. But with an audience that seemed to have as much fun as the stellar cast on stage, it sure did.

Critic Alan Rich disagrees, calling Marshall “a representative from an alien industry taking on an artistic product, not to create something innovative and interesting, but merely to insult.” Nevertheless, the combination of Hollywood and opera seems to work. The Los Angeles Opera reported that the 2005-2006 season was its best ever: “ticket revenues from the season, which ended in June, exceeded projected figures by nearly US$900,000. Seasonal attendance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stood at more than 86% of the house’s capacity, the largest percentage in the opera’s history.” Domingo continues with the Hollywood connection in the upcoming 2008-2009 season. He has reengaged William Friedkin to direct two of Puccini’s three operas titled collectively as Il Trittico. Friedkin will direct the two tragedies, Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica. Although Friedkin has already directed a production of the third opera in Il Trittico for Los Angeles, the comedy Gianni Schicchi, Domingo convinced Woody Allen to make his operatic directorial debut with this work. This can be viewed as another example of the desire to make opera and popular culture more equal. However, some, like Alan Rich, may see this attempt as merely insulting rather than interesting and innovative.

With a top ticket price in Los Angeles of US$238 per seat, opera seems to continue to be elitist. Berger (2005) concurs with this idea and gives his rationale for elitism: there are rich people who support and attend the opera; it is an imported art from Europe that causes some marginalisation; opera is not associated with something being ‘moral,’ a concept engrained in American culture; it is expensive to produce and usually funded by kings, corporations, rich people; and the opera singers are rare –usually one in a million who will have the vocal quality to sing opera arias. Furthermore, Nicholas Kenyon commented in the early 1990s: “there is suspicion that audiences are now paying more and more money for their seats to see more and more money spent on stage” (Kenyon 3). Still, Garry Marshall commented that the budget for The Grand Duchess was US$2 million, while his budget for Runaway Bride was US$72 million. Kenyon warns, “Such popularity for opera may be illusory. The enjoyment of one striking aria does not guarantee the survival of an art form long regarded as over-elitist, over-recondite, and over-priced” (Kenyon 3).

A recent development is the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to simulcast live opera performances from the Met stage to various cinemas around the world. These HD transmissions began with the 2006-2007 season when six performances were broadcast. In the 2007-2008 season, the schedule has expanded to eight live Saturday matinee broadcasts plus eight recorded encores broadcast the following day. According to The Los Angeles Times, “the Met’s experiment of merging film with live performance has created a new art form” (Aslup). Whether or not this is a “new art form,” it certainly makes world-class live opera available to countless persons who cannot travel to New York and pay the price for tickets, when they are available. In the US alone, more than 350 cinemas screen these live HD broadcasts from the Met. Top ticket price for these performances at the Met is US$375, while the lowest price is US$27 for seats with only a partial view. Top price for the HD transmissions in participating cinemas is US$22. This experiment with live simulcasts makes opera more affordable and may increase its popularity; combined with updated stagings, opera can engage a much larger audience and hope for even a mass consumption.

Is opera moving closer and closer to popular culture? There still seems to be an aura of elitism and snobbery about opera. However, Plàcido Domingo’s attempt to join opera with Hollywood is meant to break the barriers between high and popular culture. The practice of updating opera settings is not confined to Los Angeles. As mentioned earlier, the idea can be traced to post World War II England, and is quite common in Europe. Examples include Erich Wonder’s approach to Wagner’s Ring, making Valhalla, the mythological home of the gods and typically a mountaintop, into the spaceship Valhalla, as well as my own experience with Don Giovanni in Prague and Ariane et Barbe-Bleu in Paris. Indeed, Sutcliffe maintains, “Great classics in all branches of the arts are repeatedly being repackaged for a consumerist world that is increasingly and neurotically self-obsessed” (61).

Although new operas are being written and performed, most contemporary performances are of operas by Verdi, Mozart, and Puccini ( This means that audiences see the same works repeated many times, but in different interpretations. Perhaps this is why Sutcliffe contends, “since the 1970s it is the actual productions that have had the novelty value grabbed by the headlines. Singing no longer predominates” (Sutcliffe 57). If then, as Sutcliffe argues, “operatic fashion through history may be a desire for novelty, new formulas displacing old” (Sutcliffe 65), then the contemporary practice of changing the original settings is simply the latest “new formula” that is replacing the old ones. If there are no new words or new music, then what remains are new methods of performance, hence the practice of changing time and place. Opera is a complex art form that has evolved over the past 400 years and continues to evolve, but will it survive? The underlining motives for directors changing the time and place of opera performances are at least three: for aesthetic/artistic purposes, financial purposes, and to reach an audience from many cultures, who speak different languages, and who have varied tastes. These three reasons are interrelated. In 1996, Sutcliffe wrote that there has been one constant in all the arguments about opera productions during the preceding two decades: “the producer’s wish to relate the works being staged to contemporary circumstances and passions.” Although that sounds like a purely aesthetic reason, making opera relevant to new, multicultural audiences and thereby increasing the bottom line seems very much a part of that aesthetic. It is as true today as it was when Sutcliffe made the observation twelve years ago (60-61). My own speculation is that opera needs to attract various audiences, and it can only do so by appealing to popular culture and engaging new forms of media and technology. Erickson concludes that the number of upper status people who are exclusively faithful to fine arts is declining; high status people consume a variety of culture while the lower status people are limited to what they like. Research in North America, Europe, and Australia, states Erickson, attest to these trends. My answer to the question can stage directors make opera and popular culture “equal” is yes, and they can do it successfully. Perhaps Stanley Sharpless summed it up best:

After his Eden triumph,
When the Devil played his ace,
He wondered what he could do next
To irk the human race,
So he invented Opera,
With many a fiendish grin,
To mystify the lowbrows,
And take the highbrows in.

Author Biography

Ligia Toutant, University of California, Los Angeles

Ligia Toutant is a Ph.D. (ABD) in Social Sciences and Comparative Education at University of California, Los Angeles. A huge fan of opera, she is a regular at the Opera in LA and she is the occasional co-host of a classical music radio show The KCSN Opera House. Latest shows include Christmas Eve aired on 22 Dec. 2004, 21 Dec. 2005, 20 Dec. 2006, 19 Dec. 2007; Luceafârul, Golem, Arald aired on 16 Apr. 2007; Ariane et Barbe-Bleue aired on 2 Jan. 2008; and Don Pasquale aired on 30 Apr. 2008. Her research interests include: studies in comparative and international education, studies in sociology, and studies in human communication.