In Defense of A Giant Horses Head

What follows is my second post from my recent excursion to Germany for the Fulbright Berlin Seminar 2014. Hop back one post to see the introduction about the seminar, who was there, and one of my first experiences.

This time, I'm fast forwarding to my last full day in Berlin. I had decided early in the week that I had to catch some sort of major concert there--Berliner Philharmoniker, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Staatsoper (Berlin State Opera), Komische Oper, or any of the huge assortment of chamber concerts happening in town. As luck would have it, Deutsche Oper had Les Troyens in rep that Sunday. What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon and evening than with 4 hours of opera spread over a 5 hour evening?

First off, the ticket experience. Traveling with only my old phone (turned tiny tablet since I can't use it for phone calls), I had to go to the ticket counter. I assumed if I showed up about an hour and a half before, it'd be open, and I'd splurge and buy a nice ticket. Tickets range from 29€ to roughly 100€. I wasn't going to splurge on a 100€ ticket, but I figured I could find something in the middle.

Instead, I arrived to find the office still closed and a line forming. The line seemed to be composed mainly of people my age or younger, or much older individuals. My guess was that the younger group were all students and the older group was probably picking up will call.

The offices opened promptly 1 hour before the show, and it seemed my guess were mostly correct. Most of the older audiences members scrambled through the line quickly, while the younger members were pulling out cash. Being the introverted person I generally am, rather than strike up a conversation with any of the nearby young students, I just listened a bit to what was happening around me, and took a chance on student rush tickets. 12.50€, cash, only available day of, an hour before the show.

My experiences with student rush tickets have been varied. When I went to the Indianapolis Symphony as an undergrad, and student rush tickets were inexpensive ($10), but they weren't guaranteed seating. This meant that we had to wait in the lobby till the last second, then go through and see if there were open seats. Sometimes during the large crowds, I even missed the first piece, having to look for a seat during the break between the first two pieces. Other times it meant getting a fantastic seat in an expensive section--I remember wanting to sit fairly close for a concert with Bruckner's 4th Symphony so I could see Mario Venzaga conduct, as well as see more individual members of the orchestra. It paid off, and I sat in what was probably one of the more expensive seats in the house. Student rush tickets at the NY Phil are similarly priced (I think they were $20, but the site now says $13.50), are reserved seating, but only in the least desirable section. But, generally, I'm ok with having a cheap seat when I'm paying cheap money.

At the Kunglinga Filharmonikerna, students just get 10% off the ticket price. Considering the relatively low price of tickets (the most expensive ticket runs around 345SEK, which is only about $54), I generally "splurge", buy an orchestra level or 1st balcony ticket for 290SEK after the rebate. And as I've blogged before, this group is top notch. I recently saw them perform Bruckner's 8th Symphony with Alan Gilbert directing, and they blew me away. At this point I'd take them over the NY Phil, especially since I'm paying a fraction of the price.

Ticket prices are, of course, an apples to oranges comparison. In Sweden and Germany, the opera, orchestra, and other cultural institutions are heavily state subsidized. This helps keep ticket prices low. The differences between the groups are incredibly striking. But it's not the price of the ticket that I'm interested in, it's how the students are treated.

In Indy, it was a "here ya go, fill in where you can!" experience. Not bad, and for a 20 year old heading to the symphony, perfectly fine. For the NY Phil, I ended up paying full price for tickets rather than student tickets--even though I paid 10x more per ticket, I didn't feel like sitting in the rear of the 3rd balcony, especially to hear one of my favourite pieces. In Sweden, the tickets are generally inexpensive enough that shaving the 10% off doesn't matter too much, but it will buy me a coffee before or after the concert (yes, a latte will run you anywhere from 25-40SEK, or roughly $3.75-6.25...around Konserhuset, expect the higher amounts). In Berlin, I wasn't sure what to expect.

I was handed a ticket with an assigned seat. I checked the ticket--Did that say Parkett (or orchestra level)? Huh, that's odd. Wait, row 3? Seat 34? Hold on...that sound like front row, just off center...

Sure enough, that's where I was sitting. According to their website, these were normally 92€ seats. Why was I handed a 92€ seat for 12.50€?

The answer was obvious when I started to look around, and saw the balconies filling. This seat was the simply an empty seat an hour before show time. I looked around and saw quite a few of the students I was in line with entering the same section. Dressed in our khakis or jeans with a button down shirt, or a pair of dress pants and a dressy top for the ladies, we sat next to older, possibly more distinguished people with their suit coats and dresses. The room felt a bit chilly to me, so I left my hoody on...and no one batted an eye. But enough about the amazing surprise that was my student rush ticket. This post is about a giant horses head.


The quickest summary of Les Troyens is to simply state it is Virgil's Aeneid.  It starts around the time of the Trojan Horse and ends with Aeneas leaving Carthage for Italy, causing Dido to commit suicide and swear revenge--so it covers roughly the first four books of the Aeneid.

Much of the talk lately is on chamber performances, how to make leaner (and meaner) productions, bringing music out of the concert halls and to the people. These are all admirable pursuits, and while there are plenty of issues I have with this movement, I stand in common with them in regards to the basic idea that the largest companies need to change. The how is an area of which I debate.

Aristotle listed six areas that should be included in theatrical productions. These six things were hammered into my brain during my year of playwriting courses.

  • Character Delineation
  • Ideas or Themes
  • Action, the order of events
  • Speech, dialogue (projection and the words themselves)
  • Sound (all the other sounds used. Remember, Greek plays often had singing and instruments)
  • Spectacle, or everything you see. 
Which one of those is most difficult with a smaller budgeted opera production?

The first three are a major part of the writing of the opera, though things can be accentuated in the production. Speech is in the writing and in the training of the performers. Sound, in opera, is the pit, the singing, and any other sound cues used throughout. It's a focal point for operas. And finally spectacle, the feast for the eyes.

I've worked on several small budgeted opera productions. I begged and borrowed materials for the presentation of Opera Shorts in 2009. We did rear projection for scenery, and used a couple neutral painted flats for walls when we needed to hide entrances and exits. The costumers did a great job of finding items for incredibly cheap, and all the performers pitched in with whatever they had. It was very piecemeal. For the production at the wine bar, it was paired down to only the necessities--meaning only the costumes and the main props. We even had to use a keyboard rather than a piano (luckily there weren't any extended techniques for the piano...). 

In 2013 with Black House, we had much the same. The limited budget allowed our fabulous designer to come up with some nice budget costumes, find key pieces of scenery and props, and the performers were able to make a pittance on the performances. The performances were good, the audience loved them, but...

There wasn't a giant horse head descending from the ceiling. 

When we talk about making smaller, leaner productions, it's those horse heads that will go missing. It's the explosions from the Michael Bay movie--not every movie needs gratuitous explosions, but some movies do. What if there were no more explosions because "explosions are expensive"?

Costumes, sets, props--these seem like superfluous things. But it's what happens when you go to a production with all those elements that's truly amazing.

It's the looks of shock when the horse head descended from the ceiling in Les Troyens. It was the similar look of shock when a set piece started to raise on one side, moving thanks to a chain motor and hinges, dancers strapped onto the set and kicking at Greek warriors. It's the thin silken material separating Dido and Anna during their first duet, before Anna finally finds a way through the delicate barrier to her sister. It's the matching costumes for 50+ chorus members in Carthage, the bloody statuesque body of Hector repeating "Italy, Italy, Italy!" 

Yes, Les Troyens can be done without these elements, just as the Met productions of Das Rheingold could be done without the interesting effects at the beginning of the opera to simulate being underwater. The opulent production of Mephistofele by San Francisco Opera could be done without the multi-story set for the chorus at the beginning, nor the giant telescope in Faust's room. But, in all of those productions, those visual elements brought a life to the story that a smaller production cannot. 

I've written two operas to date, and both have been written and designed with a small theater in mind. The props are few, set pieces even fewer--a counter, a park bench, a cake, a bejeweled coffee carafe, two similarly ornate mugs, street clothes, basic robes. One has three vocal parts, all female, one has two parts, one male and one female. One is piano only, the other string trio w/ simple stereo playback of files. I'm not afraid for the durability of these productions.

I'm worried about how the current opinions in music will effect the Les Troyens and Das Rheingolds of the world. I'm afraid for the loss of spectacle as operations at large companies shrink.

Because, let's be honest, the feast for the eyes is important in opera. There are some that claim that opera should be music first, music second, music third, and most everything else somewhere after, but that seems to move contrary to how opera has developed over the years. The original intention was to create a large, unified art form. Wagner codified that idea further, and without great librettists and strong stories, many of the operas we love would not have continued popularity. Yes, La Boheme's story is a bit on the trite side, and seems truncated. It's a limitation of the form, as singing anything takes longer than speaking it. However, it is still an engaging story...And it's the story that by Henri Murger, La Vie de Bohème that has captured the minds of audiences, and led to Rent and Moulin Rouge, a work of much loved theater, and an over the top visual spectacle of a movie. 

It's important to remember that opera is theater, a particular brand of theater, with it's own complex history, movements, styles, and considerations. However, it is still (usually) theater. There are, of course, examples of abstract operas, but no matter how abstract, there is still a story to be told. One that pops into my mind is XXX_Live_Nude_Girls by Jennifer Walshe, a work for 2 female singers, 2 puppeteers, camera operators, projection, and small ensemble. The work contains no spoken or sung words, only vocalizations. The action is done with dolls, shot by cameras, and projected live. It is meant as a live performance, and it's one that has some inherent costs attached to it (professional camera, video switching, and projection isn't super cheap--I should know, I did that for a living for a while). The story is abstracted due to the lack of words and human interaction. However, it is full of powerful imagery--a feast for the eyes. In a way, the eyes become the most important part of the performance. Without them, the abstract vocalizations wouldn't have the same level of meaning, but those throaty, gurgling cries mean much more when a doll is chased through a house and jumps out a window, or is date raped by another doll (yes, it is very much mature content). 

So, yes, let's talk about all the wonderful ways we can create small productions that are engaging. But let's not lose sight of the giant horse head, and the value of large companies.

Final note--"club nights" seem to be popping up a lot, with drink and food available at concert series, sometimes live-cast into a more relaxed club room. First off, I'm confused by the idea that offering alcohol and food was new to large productions. It seems fairly ubiquitous. Second off, the live-cast into an adjoining club room is a neat idea, but there's a fair amount of infrastructure (multiple cameras, high quality audio and visual feeds, not to mention the type of food and drink expected) that goes along with these experiences. Offering the same wine as always, and finger foods won't cut it. Maybe more of these culture types should hit the real clubs and see what table service is like. Yeah yeah, I know, it's not my scene either, but I've worked in enough clubs to know.

And I saw an interesting version of this at the Deutsche Oper. At the adjoining cafe during the 45 minute break, I saw people in full costume walking around outside and inside. It appears that chorus members were also doubling as wait-staff, in full costume. And it appeared several conversations were started up during my time "doing research" (ok, eavesdropping and spying). I've argued for more personal contact between audience and performers, and this seemed to be an interesting example. Too bad  I was just visiting so I couldn't pursue this line of thought easily. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've said somewhere on my blog that if we turn all these traditional classical music organizations into the same kind of populist mush we'll just have created the same problem at a different level.

Long live the giant horse heads!