Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Modern Sad Castration Of Operatic Comedies

I didn't see it at the Met, I just thought this poster by Chagall was too cool not to use.
I went to the opera, and I saw The Magic Flute.  Of course it was great.  It's a Mozart comedy.  What's not to like? 

At the same time, I gotta say that staging-wise, I got issues.  My complaint is this.  Going to modern productions of operatic comedies, you'd think that somehow irrationality, sex, sexism, and sexual inappropriateness were, like, so over that the audience would be mystified by their appearance.  Everything weird and difficult and touchy about sex gets staged in a way to make it completely ... completely foreign.  Like silly.  Like, not comico-serious, as these things were clearly intended, but just comical.

In The Magic Flute, the comico-serious elements include:  the idea that trusting women gets you into trouble, because women are irrational and lie; the idea that learning to become a full male adult means learning how to be cold and cruel to your girlfriend, the idea that some people are unlucky enough to never have love and sex and that's just the way it is, and the possibility that some of those unlucky people will, like the "lustful slave" Monostato, force others to have sex with them.

Can we all agree that these are all difficult and troubling things?  Can we also agree that they're not at all irrelevant to modern life? 

Like all great works of art, The Magic Flute doesn't tell you what to think about any of these things; it just puts them into a certain kind of context so you see them and have to think about them in a certain way. 

But the production I saw just short-circuited all of that by making it unreal.  In this case the unreality effect was achieved by staging the action of the opera as if it were a play-within-a-play, a cute play at an eighteenth century garden party.  We're not watching Monostato; we're watching some nice young man play at being Monostato.

This way, the troubling things aren't real at all; they're rendered completely distanced from us and harmless.  Now the story isn't, "Yikes, Love And Sex Make People Crazy," instead, as my friend said, the story is more like "Oh, Those Eighteenth Century People Were So Weird, Isn't It Cute And Funny?"

Right.  Because now that we've had feminism and the sexual revolution everything's like hunky dory and men and women just come together with perfect understanding and part with perfect peace and nobody feels left out of the sexual lottery. Uh-huh. 

Obviously I know that the distancing isn't really because people think that but probably has to do with things like "Oh, people going to the opera want a Nice Evening Out and for most people nowadays A Nice Evening Out is incompatible with thinking about things like the rape of a young beautiful woman by an ugly, unloved, and unwanted man. 

Sure.  But that can't be the whole story, because the operatic tragedies don't seem to run into this problem, only the comedies do.  We have no problem, it seems, with the other big themes in opera. I went to see Aida last fall and it was staged in such a way as to heighten the tension about war and enslavement.  

Violence is OK; it's sex we seem to be upset about.  It's funny, here we are, willing to post our sex lives and love lives on Facebook and share the most intimate details, but we can't manage a post-adolescent engagement on the operatic stage.

I guess it just means in three hundred years people will be saying "Oh Those Twentyfirst Century People Were So Weird, Isn't It Cute and Funny?"  Plus ça change and all that, I guess, but it seems a little sad.

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