Last summer I attended a performance of the American Ballet Theater’s Romeo and Juliet, and wound up sitting next to someone active in the dance world. My ticket was for standing room, but she plucked me from purgatory and gave me a spare ticket to a much better seat next to hers (“you look like a dance person”, was her explanation for picking me over the other standees). She seemed rather disappointed upon finding out I was an opera person instead of a dance person, and explained to me that she didn’t really enjoy going to the opera because the singers don’t move properly on stage.
Available on YouTube is some rehearsal footage of a scene from Opera Atelier’s upcoming production of Acis and Galatea. Thomas Macleay as Acis sings “Love in her eyes sits playing” to his Galatea while the voice of co-Artistic Director Marshall Pynkoski is heard in the background giving him directions. Both of the company’s Artistic Directors come from the dance world, and the detailed attention to movement evident in this clip makes me wonder if they share my ticket benefactress’ frustration with conventional opera direction.
What caught my attention the most in this clip are the abundant gestures of physical affection. Acis and Galatea embrace, kiss, and caress each others’ face and hair during the aria. Many stage opera couples, though meant to be passionately in love, do little more than hold hands with the occasional side hug for duets. A singer playing Carmen might make a few theatrical gestures meant to signify lust, but these tend to be unconvincing (Don José typically just sits there). And if the love story is unconvincing, the opera often loses a lot of its steam.
Some, apparently, prefer things that way. I was surprised to find a mini-controversy in the comment thread for this clip, instigated by one Miss Cecchetti:
Oh yes, the breast-groping and french kissing is very baroque theatre isn’t it?
Mind you it surprises me seeing Pynkoski set this much physical contact on a male-female couple. He usually reserves that for the male-male couples, as in their production of Iphigenie.
This seems like sheer prudishness (not to mention blatant homophobia) to me – this scene, and what I recall from Iphigenie, would be rated PG at most. As for period accuracy, while my knowledge is admittedly spotty, the 18th-century plays I’ve encountered have generally been on the bawdy side and classical mythology is riddled with debauchery of all varieties.
I went googling around and dug up an old interview with Pynkoski wherein he talks about the importance of movement and emotion in his opera direction. I recommend reading it – it gives a lot of clues to why OA’s productions consistently seem so different from most opera I’ve seen, and how they manage to seem vivid and new despite the period stylings. It opens up a very different path for Making Opera Relevant, one that I think is just as viable as putting everyone in leather trenchcoats.