Friday, September 10, 2010

Tyrone Guthrie Tribute

Stage directors and performers should be ever grateful for the legacy of the great director Tyrone Guthrie.
Guthrie was not only a great director (including the world and Met premieres of PETER GRIMES) but the pioneer of regional theater in the U.S. He founded the Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival and then the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. These were the precursors to ACT in San Francisco, the Ashland, Oregon Shakespeare festival, the theater in La Jolla, Portland and probably in every medium and large city in our land.

Here are some brief anecdotes and quotes from this brilliant and often outrageous artist.

TYRONE GUTHRIE: "Don't you love your character?"
LAWRENCE OLIVIER: "Tony, How can you love a man like Richard III?"
GUTHRIE: "If you can't love him, you'll never be any good as him, will you?"

GUTHRIE:" If you want to know what HAMLET means, don't ask Shakespeare. He only wrote it."

GUTHRIE (DIRECTING ACTOR  ALEC GUINNESS): "Don't write it down. You'll remember the good stuff and forget the bad."

GUTHRIE: "The best ideas I ever had just popped into my head out of the blue."

Opera director/translator Ross Halper reveals how his high school field trips to "The Guthrie" sparked his life in the theater.
"Our theater teacher in high school, the wonderful and wonderfully named Les Schimmelpfenig, would prepare us by readings and lectures for the plays we would experience at the Guthrie and other adventurous  places in theater-rich Minneapolis. Guthrie based his two North American stages on Shakespeare's own Globe theatre, where the magic was created by the spoken word rather than by lavish sets and productions. I don't recall ever seeing Guthrie's own productions, but I experienced how the synopsis and the text was but a skeleton to be fleshed out by living actors. After college, I had the chance to sing in the Guthrie's MERCHANT OF VENICE and got to rub shoulders with future stars such as Mark Lamos, Blair Brown and Len Cariou."

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Mystery of Don Ottavio

DON GIOVANNI: Don Ottavio “Dalla sua pace”
This aria is  the touchstone of the tenor repertoire, vocally and dramatically.  Any tenor can get through it easily, but to sing it perfectly, the voice must be able to “speak” in the  passaggio, the “cracks” of the voice.
Even the smartest tenors have found no more  in this aria than to pause and reflect movingly on the tender love Ottavio feels for  Anna. Successful as that can be when sung by a fine artist, this interpretation seriously underestimates the genius that is Mozart/Da Ponte. Indeed the character of Don Ottavio is one of the great mysteries of the opera repertoire. Is he a hero or a milquetoast, a pampered aristocrat or a sensitive lover?

The answer is all of the above, and much more. Though to call him a hero is quite an overstatement, as he is forced by circumstances and bullying by Donna Anna to put into reluctant action the skills he learned in officer training. The handsome, lovable dork must have been the butt of ridicule from his fellow recruits.

Ottavio is a real personality, an amazingly original creation, whose facets are revealed in every line. He is also essentially a COMIC character. While his arias are not to be played for laughs, they too have a touch of wistful humor, especially “Il mio tesoro”, in which Ottavio urges his allies to go into Anna’s house to comfort her rather than going in himself. Then he won’t let them go in, adding just one more thing! I suspect they give up and enter on their own, or simply leave. Ottavio repeated swears vengeance in his second aria, but then does nothing. Perhaps he is heeding basso Richard Cross’ wise words: “Opera is hard. You must swear eternal revenge, while keeping your jaw relaxed!”

The bulk of his part, especially in the recits, is plainly comical. Ottavio is rather useless though well meaning in emergencies and endearingly clueless about the dark side of life, especially in his own Spanish aristocracy. Mozart and Da Ponte are portraying the effete side of nobility as they did the cruel side in the characters of Giovanni and Count Almaviva. But all three are portrayed with such human variety, that they rise beyond their social stereotypes.

Ottavio will seem to many to be the most, even the only, outrageous interpretation in this book. In directing (and playing) him, overwrought Ottavio sniffed the smelling salts before giving them to the passed-out Anna in the first scene. I of course believe it’s all in the score, but even if the reader resists this slant, I hope it will inspire a unique and non-boring portrayal of this unique nobleman.

Even when Ottavio gets it right, it seems all wrong. He correctly exclaims before “Il mio tesoro” that Giovanni is the killer and rapist, but the preceding scene has made it clear to all the other characters that Leporello is the guy. Only the audience knows that Ottavio is correct. He looks like a fool to the other characters at the very point that he finally figures it out.

Anna is clearly not attracted to Ottavio, especially after having tasted the white heat of Giovanni’s passion. The match may have been arranged by Anna’s father. And yet, in the final duet in the act II finale, after having gone through a terrible day together, and after Ottavio has accepted Anna’s pleas for a delay with such grace, the music of their little duet finally seems to suggest the possibility of marriage, mutual love, but not necessarily sex. Whether Anna was raped or ripened by Don Giovanni, it doesn't bode well for Ottavio's virginal state.

Ottavio could be compared to the cartoon mountie Dudley Doright or even to Flanders in THE SIMPSONS cartoons.  Well bred, handsome, sincerely in love, but innocent to the ways of the world, he is lovably funny. Brendan Fraser, who played Dudley Doright in the movies, might be an ideal Ottavio if he could sing it.

Ottavio could be older or noticeably younger than Anna. He is painfully anxious to lose his virginity, a prime motivation for his constant urgings to Anna. In their first scene and duet, he is clearly entranced by her, holding her unconscious and lightly clad, soft and fragrant in her nightgown. Take me as husband and father, he nobly but hornily exhorts her, rather inappropriately, after her loss.  In all of his scenes following, he must be aching, and (before “non mi dir”) not so gallantly, for more than her hand. The sensual violence of Giovanni has awakened many things in that hot Seville night. Bob Dylan stated it well in his great song: “Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”
In the finale of the opera, Ottavio has achieved a nobility by experience far beyond that learned by his breeding and training.

This aria is much more than an expression of love. Ottavio is wisely reconsidering his commitment to Anna. Even in the best of times, she must be “high maintainance”, and now he is being asked to face death, and to rebel against one of his own class. Combine that with Anna’s usual treatment of him, probably a mixture of tolerance and impatience at his doting, Ottavio wonders if he’s up to it, and even if she’s worth it! Then too, he is aware that she has been undergoing a catharsis.Yet in the end, his love and devotion shine through.

[suggested subtext/actions in brackets]

Don Ottavio:
 Dalla sua pace la mia dipende. [sudden, quiet realization, emphasis on my]
Quel che a lei piace vita mi rende, [“piace” coloratura = “aha!”]
Quel che le incresce [growing anger]
morte mi
. [ He rashly pulls sword out halfway]
Morte!!?? [suddenly stops himself – wait a minute… death!!??]
Morte mi dà. [Replaces sword slowly. Do I really want to die for her?]
S'ella sospira, sospiro anch'io. [He paces, trying to work it out]
È mia  [She’s mine! he proudly exclaims.]
quell'ira, [Hmmmm, but so are her foul moods…]
quel pianto è mio. [I have to watch every word I say!]
E non ho bene, [he sits in confusion]
s’ella non ha.[She’s impossible to please! ]Publish Post
E non ho bene, s'ella non l'ha. [(sighing) and yet I still  love that girl…]
E non ho bene, [He rises - but dammit, she’s such a handful!]
s'ella non
l'ha….. [Whatever shall I do?…]
Dalla sua pace la mia dipende. [sung piano - Who am I kidding?]
Quel che a lei piace vita mi rende! [Helpless chuckle - call me crazy, but I’m stuck on her]
Quel che le incresce morte mi dà!. [If anyone dares hurt her, I’ll kill him!]
Mor-te! Morte mi dà. [(piano) – and he could kill ME…]
Dalla sua pace la mia dipende. [paces, sums up, counting on his fingers the pros and cons, on four words in italics]
Quel che a lei piace vita mi rende,
Quel che le incresce morte mi dà,. [overwhelmed, throws hands up, it’s too much!]
Morte! [Wait! Am I ready to die?]
Morte mi dà. [Well, I’ve got to be!]
Morte mi dà. [So be it! -  he slowly draws his sword]
Quel che le incresce  [Bring it on! – slowly raises his sword valiantly]
morte mi ,. [salutes, pledges with sword across his chest]
[Postlude – Oops! Ottavio sees a spot on his sword. Exhales on sword and rubs it off with hankie while exiting quietly]

Sunday, August 8, 2010



“In art, all things change except the avant-garde.”  Professor Levitan of Brandeis

“The Germans are so intent upon finding the hidden meaning that they miss the moment entirely.” GOETHE

1)     The director is the most important personality involved in the production.  His vision must supercede the needs of the composer, librettist, singers and especially the audience, those overfed fools who want to be entertained and moved.
2)     The second most important personality is the set designer.
3)     Comedy is verboten, except when unintentional. Wit is for TV watching idiots.
4)     Great acting is hyperintensity, with much rolling and the ground, groping the wall and sitting on a bare floor.
5)     The audience’s attention must be on anything except the person who is singing. A solo aria, outmoded even in the last century, must be accompanied by extraneous characters expressing their angst in trivial ways near, on or about the person singing the aria.
6)     Storytelling is anathema to the modern director, like realistic “photographic” painting is to the abstract painter. Don’t tell the story, COMMENT on it!Even better, UNDERMINE IT!
7)     When singing high notes, the singer must be crumpled over, lying down or facing the back of the stage.
8)     The music must stop once in awhile for intense, obscure miming.
9)     Sexual scenes must be charmless and aggressive. Rolling on the floor a must here.
10)   Unmotivated homosexual behavior must be introduced a few times during the evening.
11)    Happy endings are intellectually bankrupt. Play the opposite. Insert a sudden murder if at all possible.
12)    Avoid entertaining the audience at all costs. If they boo, you have succeeded.
13)    Rehearse it until it’s dead. Very important.
14)    Any suggestion of the beauty and mystery of nature must be avoided at all costs! The set must be trivial, contemporary and decrepit! Don’t forget the fluorescent lights! (Klieg lights also acceptable.)
15)    The audience must not know when to applaud or when the scene/act ends.
16)   Historical atrocities such as the Holocaust or the AIDS epidemic must be incorporated and exploited as much as possible. Also the lifestyle of the audience must be mocked.
17)    Colors are culinary. Black, white and gray only!
18)   The chorus must be bald, sexless, faceless and in trench coats.
19)    If the audience is bored, this is art.\
20)   Props are items of junk piled in a corner of the set. They must be overused pointlessly, then dropped on the floor, hopefully when the music is soft. Be careful to keep dangerous objects at the lip of the stage so the blindfolded dancers can kick them into the pit.
21)   All asides must be sung next to the person who is not supposed to hear them.
22)    The leading performers faces must be painted as a white mask to ensure no individuality or variety of expressions, as opera singers can’t act anyway. They just want to pose and make pretty sounds.
23)   Preparation is important. Try to read the libretto in advance to make sure it doesn’t interfere with your staging ideas. Not much harm in listening to the CD once, though that’s not really your job.
24)   Make the conductor feel useful, though he’s really a literal minded hack.
25)    The stage director must avoid any idea that is not his own, though that idea will surely be on this list already.
26)   A costume must serve at least two of the following criteria: a) Make the singer look unattractive b) Obscure his vision c)  Make hearing the orchestra difficult d) Impede movement d) Contradict the period in which the opera is set (hardly worth mentioning)
27)   Tradition is all important in opera production. Never waver from these Rules.
28)   Boredom is a sign of Great Art.
29)   Emphasize or create a negative side to the title character. The audience   
    should have no one to root for.
30) Make sure no one remembers who the singers were.
31) Don't worry about the critics. The more confused they are by your rape of the opera, the more frightened they shall be to admit the emperor has no clothes. They'll find meaning in your perversities that even you never dreamed of.