On Opera and Choreography

I’m so glad Anna is introducing me to all these marvellous Rameau-operas (see here and here). I never even knew Rameau’s name before, which seems almost a crime, considering how incredibly beautiful his music is.

And then these wonderful French Rameau stagings! I am quite in awe. What strikes me the most is the brilliant choreography.  I fondly remember the dancing frog-prince in Platée as well as the dancers in the same production, depicting the awkwardness of love through a series of humorous, epic pas-de-deux, and I loved those almost spastically harsh movements of the strained, brutal boreades during their entrance in Les Boreades. I really think that this is a tragically rare thing in modern opera stagings, and I think it is a big problem that the directors neglect to give the choreography sufficient attention. Because choreography is arguably a significant part of an opera! Not all operas, to be sure, but a good deal of the operas that you’ll find on the typical repetoire of an opera house.

Diegetic and Extra-diegetic music

Within dramaturgy one speaks of diegetic and extra-diegetic (or “non-diegetic”) music; the former being music that exists within the scene depicted, and the latter being music that is not part of the narrative sphere. The latter is naturally the most prominent in operas, it is the music that depicts the atmosphere in the scenes and the sentiments of the characters, or, as Anna very beautifully put it recently: It is the breath of the performance. However, as soon as the trumpeters on stage start out with their victory fanfare in Aida, or a distraught Gilda knocks rhythmically on Sparafucile’s door, that’s what you would call diegetic music in an opera, that is, music that takes place within the opera, and that the operatic characters perceive as music.

There is plenty of this to go around in operas, and as Anna and I agree, this diversification on the operatic composers’ parts is a lovely and very subtle exploration of the levels on which music lingers in our consciousness.

Which it why we feel that it is so important that the directors draw attention to this diversification! How, then, to do that? I think the answer is: through choreography. Dancing. Ballet, if you will. As anyone who’s seen Amadeus will know, ballet has always played a great part in operas, and opera composers have been known to purposely write ballet sequences into operas. I believe that choreography is the best way of underlining the music within the music: Because choreography in an opera performance enables us to see characters reacting concretely and physically, with their bodies, to music within the music. And thus I think that it is an artform whose importance is grossly underestimated in many of today’s stagings.

I was reminded of this just this Saturday, as Anna and I attended Don Giovanni at The Royal Theatre. Don Giovanni  is an opera in which diegetic music plays an important part: At Masetto and Zerlina’s wedding, we hear three pieces of dancing music playing that is specifically mentioned by the character – menuetto, folia, and allemagna – and the music functions as concrete party music at the wedding. The disastrous turn of events at the wedding (the attempted rape of Zerlina – disastrous for Zerlina for obvious reasons, and for Don G because it is a failed seduction) becomes audible as the diegetic music becomes overpowered by the extra-diegetic music, that is, when Zerlina’s abstract-musical screams break the tempo and the key of the concrete-musical party music, and the menuetto, the folia, and the allemagna are abruptly stopped. What a beautiful point! What a genius Mozart was – this dramatic climax in the first act practically stages itself through his musical depiction of etiquette and courtliness, and then the fatal break-down of etiquette and courtliness that a rape is. Brilliant!

Get thee behind me, Travolta!

…Yet, what does Keith Warner do in his staging of Don Giovanni? He pays absolutely no attention to this brilliantly subtle point. Not only does he neglect to give his singers a proper choreography to work with, leaving them to do an extremely poor immitation of a menuet (two steps to the left, then one step to the right) and improvise various modern-style dancing moves with awkward results, he also completely ignores the fact that the party music comes to and end after Zerlina’s outcries, and lets his characters continue their dancing! For crying out loud…!

And sadly, Warner is not alone when it comes to this dramaturgical error. I’ll venture that lack of attention towards choreographical sensitivity on the director’s part has been the key problem with a lot of the stagings that Anna and I have attended and been less than pleased with. In Faust at the Malmö Opera, the joyous, festive mood, which the ballet music of the first act depicts, was completely lost because the singers had been told to work directly against the bidding of Gounod’s music, dancing in a modern discoteque-style to music that was as far from Saturday Night Fever as it could probably get. At the Danish Opera’s staging of Macbeth last year, banquet-host!Macbeth’s reckless behaviour became less effective, because the strict forms of the banquet had already been broken by the singers uncultivated, unmusical, and loud touching of glasses.

The other way around, the Cesare/Cleopatra “V’adore pupille” scene in  Francisco Negrin’s Giulio Cesare is captivating partly because of the careful choreography of the calculatingly seductive Cleopatra’s very appropriate vogue-style port-de-bras, Konwitschny’s Elektra is chillingly effective because of Klytaimnestra’s and Elektra’s brilliantly vicious dances of victory, and Siegfried endears himself to the audience as he moves about the stage rhythmically with the eagerness of a young child and a recorder in his hand, to the warbling of Wagner’s Forest Bird in Kasper Bech Holten’s staging of Siegfried.

So what I’m trying to say here is, make an effort, opera directors! Put some thought into the choreography. And if you feel incapable of doing this yourselves, then hire a choreographer! And if your singers have absolutely no sense of rhythm and resemble sacks of potatoes on a dancefloor, then hire dancers! But give us something in terms of choreography.




December 21, 2006. Music, Opera.

One Comment

  1. confidentialattachees replied:

    I think this is a most interesting discussion. I would like to broaden the definition of choreography a little bit though. Instead of just being dance or ballet I think movements and reactions as such should in some cases be thoroughly choreographed. You could call it good acting, but sometimes it is more a question of the director taking the actor/singer by the hand and showing him/her how a certain passage should be interpreted physically. Sometimes the music is clearly written in accordance with some sort of physical comportment and I think the director should consider this. Then it’s up to him to interpret – either in accordance with the music or in contrast (that can be quite striking). It is a question of musical awareness in the direction and far too often I think the directors neglect it. Marie gave some good examples, I will just add one tiny example of how subtly it can be done. Look at this clip from a production of Don Giovanni.
    The lady is Donna Anna (Isabel Rey) and the gentleman is Don Giovanni (Rodney Gilfry). Don Giovanni says he will follow Donna Elvira who has just accused him of being a libertine and that he will serve Donna Anna in any way. But that is not really what is interesting in this interpretation. What is interesting is that by her acting Isabel Rey shows that this is the moment Donna Anna realises that Don Giovanni was the man who tried to rape her in the beginning of the opera. She realises this because he talks behind her and his voice and the (languishing) tone of his voice is the only thing she can identify him by since it was too dark that night for her to see his face. Her shocked expression shows that she understands this and his expression when he sees her expression tells that he understands!
    This is a free interpretation (by Jürgen Flimm btw) – but I think it works very well since Donna Anna in the following tells Don Ottavio about that night. This is in my vocabulary a physical interpretation borne by the music, here by the amorous tone Don Giovanni uses in these phrases.
    I think it is very important in opera which in the nature of the case is a combination of music and acting.

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