Two subjects came to the fore in discussions on the venerable listserve Opera-L this past week in which discussions we took a small part. One subject was the "disgusting" libretto of Puccini's opera Turandot, and the other the lack today of an opera singer's freedom of onstage vocal expression unfettered by interference from such pesky types as conductors and opera stage directors. We wish to make record here on S&F of our contributions to those discussions and for that purpose reprint them in context below. First, the Turandot matter:
And last, the more contentious singer/opera matter.Mr. Douglas: How about if we change T____'s sentence just a little bit - like - Great voices can make the opera libretti less distasteful than might otherwise be the case. For many people, myself very emphatically included, great music making trumps all other facets of the operatic experience.For all opera (i.e., for all _dramma per musica_) — from the most slight French or bel canto confection to the most profound Wagner music-drama — the music and its performance are the work's _sine qua non_ and central dramatic element. There can be no argument concerning that point. But the libretto is of utmost importance as well, as, again, from the most slight French or bel canto confection to the most profound Wagner music-drama, the libretto acts as armature of the drama providing as it does those critical narrative and concrete details music alone is incapable of expressing. Great voices can make a weak and/or clumsy libretto more convincing and lend it more weight than it otherwise would have, but if a libretto is truly distasteful then distasteful it will remain no matter how great the voices singing it or the music accompanying it — that is, if one is actually paying attention to what the libretto is saying. And if one is not, such a one is missing a critical part of what the opera is about no matter how superb the music and no matter how deep one's enchantment and involvement with that music might be. The synergistic dramatic coupling of text and music — a genuine organic unity in a Wagner music-drama (as opposed to his operas); something less, sometimes even much less, in ordinary conventional opera — is principally what makes opera the unique dramatic artform it has grown to be.
It is elsewhere that we find singers who sing today, enjoying their prerogatives as complete and unencumbered artists, but never in the opera world. To hear singers sing the way Patti did, with sovereign command and the complete control of what they want to do and without the barest hint of interference, one has to go to the world of pop, to rock, and to country western....And that's precisely where such anarchic, individualistic performance practices belong. They have NO place in opera. Ever since the first public opera houses opened in the mid-17th century in Italy where pimping theater owners/managers understood that pandering to the tastes and sensibilities of opera-going groundlings was the way to make the most money, singers became the dictators of what appeared onstage in those houses because they and the pimps understood what the groundlings valued in opera: spectacular voices singing spectacular songs amidst spectacular sets and stage effects. About opera as a new and unique dramatic artform the groundlings couldn't have cared a rat's ass worth and so opera as _dramma per musica_ all but died almost at its very birthing a mere half-century before. It's been a long, hard, bumpy ride from that time to this, but finally today, with the help of a few extraordinary geniuses, opera has managed to reestablish itself as the unique dramatic artform it was intended to be by its late-16th-, early-17th-century innovators, and singers now understand their proper place in the artform: as another part of the musico-dramatic machinery whose every effort must be focused on achieving the most vivid and compelling realization of the opera creator's concept and vision as made manifest in the score (music, text, and stage directions) under the direction of first-rate conductors and stage directors devoted to achieving that end.