Given the embarrassment of riches that Glee had at the Emmy nominations today, it seems like an opportune time to post something I’ve been meaning to write for a couple of weeks now.
June was the occasion for a couple of short road trips on our part; our godchildren Matt and Erin were both Young Artists for Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and our friend Benjamin was performing as the title role in a production of Sweeney Todd in Cleveland. Time was a bit tight; Megan was teaching a Summer I course that met Monday through Friday, the final was on Thursday 17 June, and both OTSL and Sweeney closed on Sunday, 27 June. If I didn’t want to have to get a sub for Sunday services, that made our options somewhat limited, but we were determined to make it work, and we decided to head to St. Louis over Friday and Saturday the weekend of the 19th, catching the Saturday matinee of Eugene Onegin, and to Cleveland Wednesday through Friday of the next week for the Thursday evening performance of Sweeney.
We’d never been to St. Louis before, and Matt and Erin showed us a very nice time during our whirlwind visit. Under their tutelage, we experienced two very different kinds of pizza — what was explained to us as “San Francisco-style” deep dish at Pi Pizzeria (yes, as in 3.14 etc.), and then “St. Louis-style” at Imo’s, which has a very thin crust and is made with a peculiar local dairy product called provel. Very different beasts, but worth trying. I recommend getting some reasonably substantial toppings at Imo’s, otherwise the provel tends to be overwhelming; at Pi’s I strongly suggest taking advantage of their “bartender’s choice” option, where you tell the bartender what kind of drinks you usually like, they make you something of their own choosing based on that, and it’s something like two-thirds of what a cocktail would usually cost there. I was introduced to the Blood and Sand as a result, and I think I might have a new favorite bourbon drink.
We were also introduced to Ethiopian food while in St. Louis, and let me tell you, Meskerem on South Grand is absolutely fantastic. The food was delicious, the staff was knowledgable, and we were left wanting to seek out more Ethiopian food when we got home. My only lament was — Ethiopian food, where have you been all my life? (Yes, I know, Ethiopia.)
And, yes, we went up in the Gateway Arch. Won’t be bothering in the future — it’s a long wait, the lift is really cramped, and it’s not exactly like there’s much to do up there besides look out the windows. It’s a more impressive monument from the outside than the inside.
Saturday’s performance of Onegin was definitely worth the trip; Sean Panikkar as Lensky was the standout, to say the least, but the cast was great throughout. The one thing that didn’t work was, frankly, hearing it in English. I’ve been in the chorus for Onegin twice; once in Seattle back in 2002, when we sang it in Russian, and once at IU in 2004, when we sang it in English, using the same translation as OTSL. I also spent some time working on Lensky’s opera back in Seattle with a Russian coach who knew her stuff, and it’s a work that is near and dear to my heart. It’s also music that I associate with a very intensely emotional period of my life, and as a result it’s difficult to hear it and not get a bit of a lump in my throat. Thankfully, the silly English translation that everybody uses manages to clear out the lump pretty quickly; does anybody in real life actually use the word “prosaic” to describe somebody’s face? Would a group of gossiping women really say that somebody is “an odd one, a misanthrope and somewhat mad”? Does it really solve anything to call Tatiana’s name day celebration her “birthday”? I understand the various problems of translating opera librettos so that they match the music, but actually hearing the words in the house left me with the conviction that surely somebody can do better.
The real violence that the translation does is to the poor title character. Onegin is a very difficult man to understand for contemporary American audiences to begin with; he is a product of social expectations of which we have absolutely zero concept, and this particular English translation doesn’t help matters at all, transforming him into a dull bore, the least interesting character in his own story. The duel with Lensky and the underlying protocols that make the situation what it is are incomprehensible, turning Onegin into a cold-blooded monster rather than somebody who has no choice within his societal framework but to carry out the mechanics of the duel to their conclusion.
The difficult thing is that what we might broadly refer to as “sung drama” or “lyric theatre” is itself loaded with social expectations. I’ll get back to that idea, but as I was watching and hearing the performance, I realized that the expectations of the audience OTSL wants to reach are, frankly, operating at cross purposes to what actually makes Eugene Onegin work. The English translation actually obscures much of the psychological drama, it seems to me; by trying to make it “accessible” they manage to make it even more inaccessible. One hopes that a better translation would fix this problem, but then the trouble is matching the translation to what’s in the score, and that’s a totally different kettle of fish. Supertitles (which OTSL used anyway) aren’t a perfect solution by any means, but short of Russian becoming mandatory in American schools, I’m not sure that there is a perfect solution.
Watching the non-musical film of Onegin with Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler a week or so later, the problem was underscored for me even more. Often with only a facial expression, Fiennes is able to convey everything about Onegin that the English translation of the opera obscures for the poor operatic baritone — his ennui, his passive dissatisfaction with the expectations placed on him as a result of his social status, and his resigned compliance with those expectations regardless. He kills Lensky, not because he wants to, not because he’s a cold-blooded killer, but because that’s simply the expected outcome of the process Lensky’s challenge set in motion. Tatiana’s choice to remain faithful to her husband is also more extraordinary, because the film is able to make plain that she understands it would be socially acceptable for her to take a lover as long as she doesn’t embarrass anybody.
I’ll leave Onegin aside for the moment to discuss Sweeney Todd.
I first heard of Sweeney as a senior in high school; my choir director at the time brought it up as an example of how he thought Broadway musicals had largely become immoral trash. Still, when I started running in opera singer circles at Western Washington University, I found myself hearing about it in awed, hushed tones, and in anticipation of it being produced at WWU during my presumptive junior year and hearing all of this anxiety about “needing four tenors”, I finally saw the George Hearn/Angela Lansbury video. The following points were clear to me upon the first viewing:
- I have great respect for my high school choir director and why he has the opinion he does, but I can’t disagree with him more; to dismiss it as immoral trash is to miss the point of the show.
- Stephen Sondheim has probably the most morbid sense of humor I’ve ever encountered.
- No wonder “legit” singers think it’s amazing.
- There wasn’t a role in it for me.
As it worked out, as a result of various issues, political, artistic, and otherwise, neither the WWU production of Sweeney nor its numerous rumored replacement shows (like City of Angels and Into the Woods) happened until some years after I had dropped out (and then in apparently rapid succession). (Ironically, Sweeney seems to have happened my first year at IU. So, even though it didn’t happen in ’96-’97, it still happened during my junior year as originally concieved.) It nonetheless stuck with me — I watched the Hearn/Lansbury video a number of times, listened to the Cariou/Lansbury original cast recording, watched the Hearn/LuPone PBS broadcast, and with baited breath waited for tickets to go on sale for Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production with Bryn Terfel, culminating in my very first trip to Chicago in December of 2002. It goes without saying that when the Tim Burton film was greenlit (rumored since roughly the mid-1990s), I was there the first night. I’ll discuss my reaction to the film shortly.
The Chicago trip was interesting, no less so because my theatre critic buddy, editor-at-large, groomsman, and all-around dear friend Matthew Murray palled along for it, and he brought a very interesting perspective to the proceedings as somebody with a very heightened sense of the expectations of musical theatre as musical theatre, and not the expectations that opera people bring to the table. Certain artistic decisions that are acceptable in opera (like decisions to cut or not to cut certain numbers being up to the discretion of the production, regardless of what was done on opening night of the original production) were anathema to him; the restoration of the Judge’s aria and the tooth-pulling number, for example, were absolutely unacceptable as far as he was concerned. (I argue that, at least in terms of discussing the score as an organic whole, the score is incomplete both musically and dramatically without at least restoring the Judge’s aria, given certain musical quotations and references elsewhere in the show, to say nothing of making the Judge less of a one-note character. Yes, fine, it messes with the pacing, but that’s a problem for the director to solve.) In the musical theatre world, he argued, whatever the show looks like on opening night is what the show is; it doesn’t matter what was written, what was recorded, what was cut at the last second or for whatever reason. Anything other than what was done opening night is something other than the standard version of “the show.”
I’d also say that in general, the very things that made the performance appealing to me as an opera singer were exactly what made it lacking to him as a musical theatre critic. He came away convinced that opera singers should probably stay away from Sweeney Todd; I came away convinced that it’s exactly the kind of repertoire American opera houses should be doing.
Tim Burton and Sweeney Todd was a concept that struck me as a match made in… well, not heaven, exactly, but you get the idea. From the first time I heard his name attached to the project in the mid-’90s, I had an idea of what he could do with it. The show is Tim Burton-y enough on its own; surely there would be no better director.
Maybe the film that Burton would have made in the mid-’90s would have been a different beast from the one he made in 2007. I only saw the film once in theatres; I didn’t think it was horrible, but what he did was nowhere near as compelling as I felt it should have been. I watched it again at home before we headed to Cleveland for the first time since seeing it in theatres, and it seemed to me that Burton threw out a lot of what actually made the piece work, then overdid what was left, making the movie a grotesque half-adaptation. Again, it wasn’t horrible; it’s just that it’s now a Tim Burton Movie like every other Tim Burton Movie, fulfilling the expectations of the genre of the Tim Burton Movie, rather than being the special match of auteur and source material that it should have been. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are fine, I suppose, from a dramatic standpoint, but they just don’t have the range of vocal choices available to them to make the music part of the equation work. It’s as though Burton ultimately decided that he could handle the gore but not the tunes, so he over-emphasized the gore and hoped you wouldn’t notice that he’d reduced the impact of the music. In a lot of ways, the trouble does not lie with the script; there are some smart choices by the screenwriter in terms of conveying information cinematically that the stage version conveys musically, but in the final product, much of what makes the score work as an organic whole has been chopped up. Certainly the movie was not approached as a means to broaden the audience for the stage version; the stage version was approached as material by which to further the Tim Burton brand.
When we got to Cleveland, Ben talked a lot about the challenges he’d had during the rehearsal process. In a nutshell, as somebody who was first and foremost an opera singer working with primarily musical theatre people, he found that despite an intense dramatic focus during his operatic training, what he was doing just wasn’t sufficient for musical theatre purposes. His instincts regarding movement, delivery, presentation, and so on turned out to be virtually wrong in every respect for the purposes of what they were doing. I had had a similar experience ten years ago as Tony in a production of West Side Story, and the conversation that ensued about these musical theatre dabblings was very interesting. Again, it all boils down to expectations — does the drama direct the music, or does the music direct the drama? Is it enough to fit the drama in around the singing of the role, letting the music and libretto do their work, or is it necessary to fit the singing of the role in around the drama? Which has primacy, the text or the music? In musical theatre, the text is essential — in opera, as I found with the English translation of Onegin, the words almost have to be ignored.
And, to drop a hint as to how I’m going to tie this all in to where I started this essay, how do things like Glee wind up changing the audience expectations even more? I’ll get back to that.
The conversation involved playing a number of different clips of different people singing “Epiphany,” including Cariou, Hearn, Depp, Terfel, and even Christopher Lee(!). Terfel, Benjamin asserted, could not be taken seriously as Sweeney; he would get laughed off the stage on Broadway singing the role the way he does. He argued that an opera singer approaching the role needed to do their homework regarding performance tradition and convention just like they would for any other role, and take into account how people like Cariou and Hearn approached the score.
My own sense of the matter is that Terfel’s approach is a perfectly legitimate one, as long as everybody is approaching it the same way he is. In other words, everybody needs to be in the same show, whatever aesthetic the production uses. To give an example of what I mean, I recently saw the movie W., and Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice is simply not in the same movie everybody else is. She’s not awful, like a number of reviews claim; she’s actually very good. The trouble is that she is approaching the part as though the film were an SNL sketch, bringing a level of almost cruel, caricaturizing detail to her performance appropriate to that aesthetic, but she’s the only one doing that, and sticks out like a sore thumb as a result. If you’re going to do Sweeney Todd as an opera, do it as an opera, with everybody on the same page about doing it as an opera. If you’re going to do it as musical theatre, do it as musical theatre.
The other interesting thing about what Ben said is that, in effect, an opera singer performing the role of Sweeney with an eye towards musical theatre conventions and traditions is still approaching the role with operatic methodology. This is somewhat borne out it one of the reviews of Ben’s production, which said that at times he calls to mind Cariou and Hearn too much. Matthew Murray once said to me that the difference between being an opera singer and a musical theatre performer is than as an opera singer, you’re going to spend most of your time doing what other people have already done; in musical theatre, the hope is to create something new. Perhaps, then, what a real musical theatre approach would be would less take into account what Hearn and Cariou did and be more interested in what nobody has done before.
But then there’s still the trouble of musical style. The fact of the matter is, whatever happened in the rehearsal process, Ben was one of the two or three most consistent people onstage in that production with respect to faithfully presenting the score and libretto as written, musically and dramatically, and he seemed like he actually belonged in that show. A lot of the cast, to be honest, sounded like they were trying to sing Rent. Watching the Hearn/Lansbury video again, one thing that comes across is that it is very much a product of a previous generation of musical theatre, and has far more in common with Oklahoma! than Avenue Q or Mamma Mia!. To an extent, it almost seems as though you can assemble a cast that will be able to act the show but not sing it in the style for which it was written, or a cast that can sing it but might be toned down dramatically somewhat, because musical theatre people these days are simply trained with a different set of — you guessed it — expectations in mind.
So what does the success of Glee tell us about what the expectations are these days? Is sung drama only workable for today’s audiences if it is self-conscious, flamboyant and ironic, a jukebox show, limits the songs to “source” performances, or some combination thereof? Certainly the musical expressiveness of an opera like Onegin, in which time essentially stops so that the singer may emote, isn’t going to play well to most audience members’ expectations, at least not without a chuckle or two — and ironically, singing it English only seems to elicit more chuckles. We can understand far more easily Ralph Fiennes looking silently with longing at Liv Tyler than a baritone singing about it, no matter how gorgeous the music. “Because it’s actually realistic,” is often the rejoinder, except that 19th century Russian aristocracy didn’t speak or write letters in English in their homes or in the court, and if they did, it wasn’t with Fiennes’ cultured Suffolk accent. Whither “realism” in that case? “Well, that’s suspension of disbelief for a cinematic convention,” one might reply. Fine, so people will draw the line somewhere.
Even Sweeney, a product of the late 1970s, seems to overdo it for 2010 audiences — I read a review of Burton’s Sweeney that said, essentially, this would be an interesting movie if the songs didn’t keep interrupting the actors from actually telling the story. I suppose that this person’s response to analyses of how the music and songs actually do tell the story (the Beggar Woman’s melodic material being quoted in “Poor Thing,” for example — whoops, the Beggar Woman’s stuff was mostly cut, so I guess that won’t work) would likely be something like, “Well, that just doesn’t work for today’s audiences.”
I’m strongly tempted to see a correlation between this point of view and the transformation of musical experience from being communal and live to individual and canned (or at least processed). How do most people listen to music these days? Are they singing with their friends around a piano, or at least listening to CDs on a stereo with a group of people? No, they’re sitting on the bus with earbuds in, and their iPod is probably at least in part a way of shutting out any kind of communal contact. Are they listening to it live, in a room intended for that purpose? No, it’s probably at least autotuned and amplified, if not prerecorded. If the music is communal, they’re probably not paying any attention to it beyond its function as background noise anyway. If the music is live, then it is likely they’re singing along so loudly it doesn’t matter what the performers are doing, turning being an audience member into ritual self-indulgence.
Bottom line, I suppose, is that sung drama perhaps presupposes a social context in which music is experienced socially. That doesn’t really exist in the present day, beyond karaoke and concerts where everything is prerecorded and/or the audience isn’t really listening to the performance. Without that context, doubtless musicals and operas aren’t going to make much sense. The rise of the jukebox show was perhaps inevitable after Moulin Rouge!, but I have to think it’s a snake that will eat its own tail eventually. What then? Is it just not an artistic idiom that will survive in a world that can only tolerate anything less than hyper-realism if it has a gallon of self-aware irony on top?
I don’t know. But I don’t think I’m going to tune in to Glee anytime soon, Emmy nominations or no Emmy nominations.