Opera: A Balance of Vocalism, Drama & Spectacle

The Metropolitan Opera's (New York) new Ring Cycle (Wagner) productions are all designed around an enormous, sophisticated and malleable mechanical set known as The Machine. You can see its exciting and versatile potential for yourself in the trailer Deutsche Grammophone produced for its DVDs of the four-opera set. 



It looks quite stunning in these shots, doesn't it? 

However, The Machine breaks down from time to time, as it did briefly during last Saturday's matinee of Das Rheingold, and when that happens the magic of the music gets upstaged by the technical difficulties. Even when it works smoothly, many are concerned that the singing and dramatic interpretation are still being upstaged by its special effects, as well as nervous about the acrobatics the singers are called upon to perform as part of the productions.


While I certainly understand and support singers' desire to put music, drama and safety first, the history of opera has always been an evolving relationship between vocalism, drama and spectacle, with certain periods often emphasizing one over the other two and then the three-way pendulum swinging away in another direction. In the late Baroque when composer Christoph Willibald von Gluck innovated a simple, declamatory style of text setting to emphasize drama and authentic emotion, he did so in reaction to an overly-ornamental style of singing that he felt obscured the meaning of the text. Baroque opera also had plenty of elaborate stage machinery used to evoke things like storms and miracles.  

The Verismo movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was similarly inspired by a desire to emphasize authentic human emotion and experience over the vocal virtuosity that prevailed during the Bel Canto period.


I get why modern opera companies are interested in creating fantastic stage spectacles. Movie audiences are becoming more and more used to spectacular special effects, and stage shows emphasizing acrobatics created by companies like Cirque du Soleil are becoming more and more popular. But history suggests that this moment will fade. The Met's Ring Cycle has pushed the envelope about as far as it will go, and I already sense a growing desire to start moving in a direction that will emphasize the power and beauty of the human voice over mechanical display. 

Enjoy the fireworks while they last!

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