On theater

Here’s a quote I had on my home page for a while. I found it years ago and kept it, because it inspires me and makes me think of why opera is, for me, the ultimate form of theater. The quote is from an interview with historian turned playwright Charles L. Mee:

“The decline of theater as an essential art form coincides with the triumph of naturalism and the well-made play — which is boring people crazy out of their minds. The great hope of the theater is that it return to the immense energies that were in Greek theater and Shakespeare, theater that includes not just text and interpersonal relationships but also spectacle, music, dance, physical performance, color, noise, fabulous events happening.”

Now, I love Ibsen, Tennessee Williams and all those good guys; they certainly  knew about giving the audience full value, but their descendants create basically talky plays, which can be good, but they offer but a sliver of what theater can offer. Theater can encompass so many more elements, as Mr. Mee lists. Opera has always encompassed music (duh!) but also as a matter of routine, dance, spectacle, color, noise and fabulous events.

I know I’m not an objective observer, but I’ve never really understood why opera per se should scare people off trying it. I do understand the language barrier — which is why I’ve never been dogmatic about opera having to be sung in its original language: whenever I’ve seen opera sung in English (given a decent translation, of course) the immediacy surpasses any surtitles hands down. And short of the biggest theaters, the language really can be understood, and yes, English is a fine language to sing in — just look at the songs of Cole Porter or the Gerswhins, say. Opera is essentially fabulous theater — or, it should be — in which music and the singing are the medium (which is the message) and great emotions are experienced both tragic and comic. I suspect another thing that puts off some from the opera is in fact the “bigness” — the bigness of the voices, the hall, the plots, the emotions — and not a few people are afraid of these things, their fear often being expressed, tellingly, in scoffing and put-downs. They should be afraid! They might just be overwhelmed! And that, of course, can be scary.

There is also opera on a smaller scale — chamber opera — but in this genre the bigness of emotions and voices remains. No form of theater has ever been or should be “safe.” Even at the birth of opera in the European courts of the 17th century, where they were meant to communicate the power, wealth and majesty of the ruler, the bigness and “in your face” aspect of the spectacle and the mythical stories enacted at once said: we are safe here, but also, don’t mess with us, the celestial and sublunary gods. So it still is: at the Met, say, I feel safe and marvel in awe at the fact that the we are so fortunate to witness such an amazing phenomenon at all, but also I feel the peril in the high-wire acts of the singers, the stake in success or failure, the dare to really take in the emotions that are being expressed and enacted — in all this and more I feel the danger — the danger of vying with our own gods — and I come out of the theater uplifted, having contemplated and felt deeply the magnificence that humanity can be.

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