Thursday, July 31, 2014

My last Glimmerglass post of the season. Maybe.

On Friday, July 25, before leaving Glimmerglass for the summer (Boo! Hiss!), I was privileged to be in the audience while opera director Jonathan Miller held a masterclass--really an open rehearsal--with several fortunate members of the Glimmerglass Young Artists Program. Mr. Miller has quite an impressive list of accomplishments, including quite a long list of of opera productions, as well as stage and television.

Jonathan Miller works with members of
The Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists Program
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
The Young Artists were presenting the last act of La Traviata, in which, as we all know, poor Violetta dies. Quite dramatically. Mr. Miller is a former medical doctor, and has witnessed many real deaths, and one of his primary goals was to make Violetta's death very realistic. Not a bit histrionic. Over and over again, he coached the young singers in real reactions, not stage reactions.

Jacqueline Echols, who so charmed us in the Ruth Bader Ginsburg program, and also as the ingenue Giuletta in last season's King for a Day, sang Violetta. Mr. Miller frequently coached her to give less, less, ever less movement. A dying person has no energy, even for a wracking cough. And in truth, the more still Miss Echols was, the more effective she was. And when she was directed to actually stir about, that was more effective by contrast. As usual, Miss Echols sang with beautiful tone and musical expression.

Marco D. Cammarota, who had also impressed in the Ginsburg program, sang Alfredo. Mr. Miller also took great pains to coach Mr. Cammarota. Nobody knows what to do or say at a loved one's death bed, especially if it's the first time one has experienced such a loss. Under Mr. Miller's guidance, Mr. Cammarota gave us an Alfredo who was clueless but not weak.

Photo: Karli Cadel/ The Glimmerglass Festival
It was an education to watch this and to gain an insight into this opera. Mr. Miller concluded with some thoughts about what one audience member termed the artificiality of opera as compared to the naturalistic way he was directing the Young Artists to act. I'd love to have a transcript of his reply to that question, and indeed, the entire afternoon, because it was brilliant. In a nutshell, he stated that man is the only animal that has this level of pretending, this state where we know it's not real but we are caught up in the emotion nonetheless. Most every culture has some form of storytelling or literature or theater where we as audience willingly suspend disbelief in order to become part of the story.

To add my own opinions to Mr. Miller's statement, our culture seems to forget that theater is about the willing suspension of disbelief. Today's audiences seem to demand blatant realism in some ways while at the same time tolerating, even celebrating, "concept" productions that bear no semblance to reality at all. (To be clear, there are updated or modified productions of operas that I have liked very much.) This seems to me to be a contradiction. I won't go on and on about post-apocalyptic Parsifals under freeway overpasses and Roberto Devereuxs in boardrooms, because I've made my opinions on such matters clear before. One hopes that in all these productions, the truth, the true feeling and meaning the composer and librettist intended, are evident, as one hopes the director who created such a concept is as skillful as Jonathan Miller was with these Young Artists.

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