Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The fictive dream and the folding chair

Recently I enjoyed an opera on opening night and relished seeing friends in the chorus. The opera house demanded a compaction of usually grand settings onto a smaller stage. Lovely and inventive costumes, heartfelt singing, a magical opera, a beautiful story in which people of high rank are battered and tossed by great forces, and a rural, fresh-air opera house with grand acoustics... I had a great time.

Now I want to make it very clear that I liked the opera (though a certain tomb scene should have been kept in--the alteration to the end makes the closure too much like "Romeo and Juliet.") But I'm not going to name the opera or the opera house because what I'm really after here is certain tendencies in art.

The parts of the opera I don't like are no surprise. It's easy to find examples of parallel decisions in all the arts and in plenty of other operas.

One problem that relates to the decisions of artists drifted through my mind more than once: the whole business of "updating" and "making relevant" a story that, treated in a less clever manner, partakes of timelessness. The set (said to be modeled after a chamber in one of Hussein's palaces) was one of dingy, war-dirtied grandeur, and the designer and director chose to update the "war room" atmosphere in the fashionable mode with computers and folding tables and chairs. Likewise, the director utilized episodes with water-boarding and execution by lethal injection.

These are elements that distract and tear me out of a fictive dream.

Why should they? 

After all, we can't help being of our time. Our versions of the past will always be grounded in the present. (For example, many of the splendid costumes clearly refer to pharaonic times and invoke grandeur but use the flowing fabrics of our own. Or to take a different opera, I'd point to the wondrous marriage of old and new in the conception, design, and marvelous lighting of Mark Adamo's "Little Women" back in 2002.)

Well, the business of logic tugs at me: why are we invoking contemporary Iraq with an Egyptian historical setting? There's something that feels a bit careless (or perhaps simply a bit axe-grinding) about the conjunction, in part because the ancient histories of each country are so rich and so widely divergent. 

The desire to be relevant when dealing with a timeless work of art: it's just not helpful. It puts up billboards saying that we're going to make the work relevant for you poor, benighted contemporaries. Relevance is not needed because a timeless work is always relevant--otherwise we couldn't possibly call it timeless. Nevertheless, there is a mania for relevance and innovation in opera and elsewhere--certainly the desire to "be relevant" and "say something new" spoils a good many novels and poems and dates them with great rapidity.

A sense of "telling people what to think about issues" pervades the use of images and actions derived from water-boarding and lethal injection. (And in order to do so, they had to neglect the opera's Egypt-and-Ethiopia setting in order to invoke water-boarding and Hussein's palace.) I find it bothersome when an artist tries to commit axe-grinding. As a novelist and poet, I'm not the least interested in telling my readers what to think about current hot-button issues (although I don't think that those two topics are hot-button but rather old-hat, and most people know what they think already.) My readers are smart and don't need me to lord over them with some faux-superior knowledge, I feel quite sure. And that's not my purpose in fashioning a work of art.

Moreover, there is a deliberate, chosen ugliness in the stage design and props that is in keeping with the past century's war against beauty, and this occurs particularly in the water-boarding and lethal injection scenes. I've so been wanting to get beyond the endless legacies of Modernism and return to beauty, that wondrous quality married to love, truth, and transformation. The elements I thought particularly ugly: the homely folding chairs and table that made distracting noise (because hey! metal folding chairs make noise, and there's nothing a person can do about it if they need to be moved) during an aria; the scaffolding used for various purposes. The mixture of the  ugly with the beautiful (the music--they can't uglify the music and libretto--and fashion, which is still allowed to be lovely) muddles a story that arrows toward love, sacrifice, and death.

That business about time... Immersed in a theatrical dream made of out words and notes, we enter a world where time is lost. A single Western, modern folding chair can collapse that delicate house of cards. Plenty of opera directors and designers use clashing elements for a purpose. That kind of now-familiar and yet still fashionable cleverness simply does not work for me. I very much doubt that anybody except a person ideologically bound to post-post-post-etc.-modernism could love it..

The same thing can happen in all kinds of narratives. One of the things most writers dealing with historical settings strive hard not to do--and can do easily--is to spoil the dream by introducing something askew, too modern or from the wrong era. (I'm thinking of a much-lauded literary writer who sent Civil War characters zooming around the South on trains in a year when the Yankees had already ripped up the rails.) 

Some day our long embrace of intentional ugliness and historical hodgepodge on the stage may seem as wrongheaded as the work of those once-cutting-edge playwrights who patched happy endings onto "King Lear" and other tragedies. In the meantime, there is much left to admire, and I am thankful for that.

Yet give me the beauty and power that comes with timelessness, and don't wake me from my dream...

* * *

Letter from the Pulitzer fiction jury here.  This one is especially interesting to me, as I'm on a judging panel for a national award this year.  Their negotiation on what constitutes a "best book" is particularly thought-provoking.

Update, page for A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage


  1. I am assuming that this was a well-known and loved opera. It is well known and loved because of what it is, I would think?
    I agree that 'updating' elements of the stage sets and general feel of this sort of thing is a very dodgy business indeed. Carmen Jones, for instance, reeks of meddlesomeness, to my mind. For me it 'went off faster than milk in a thunderstorm'. (Quoting myself again. I really should not do that!)

    Should the author of this work not be honored with the respect they have earned. Paintings do not get 'updated' (at least not 'seriously'). Novels are not re-presented to the world rewritten to reflect more modern concerns - and then presented as a valid interpretation of the original.
    Why do this with Opera, or plays?

    Just write a new opera, PLEASE.

    "He knew is stuff and produced a storyline and setting that is universal! All I have to do is make it relevant for the here and now..."

    I am quoting myself again!

    I am with you 100%, Marly.
    At least the performers offered the timeless and wonderful. No water-boarding or torture there!

  2. "Went faster than milk in a thunderstorm": why is that? I like it, but why?

    Yes, no torture there...

  3. Right on, Marly! And I agree with Paul - 'just write a new opera'.

    However we did once see an extremely sensitive adaptation of The Magic Flute, a collaboration with our First Nations, not at all jarring like what you saw. The magic was not removed for the sake of post-post-modernism. http://www.marja-leena-rathje.info/archives/the_magic_flute.php

  4. I suspect some of the urge towards relevance has pretty mundane underpinnings--the egoistic desire to rescue art from obscurity, and maybe also the desire to get more write-ups in newspapers because the production has found a way to appear "ripped from the headlines" (like Law & Order).

    -- Kristen

  5. Marja-Leena,

    Oh, that does sound interesting! Shall have to go peep...

  6. Kristen,

    "Ripped from the headlines!" Yes, there is that impulse, I'm sure.

  7. Paul: Still thinking about milk in a thunderstorm... I get it that thunderstorms happen when it's humid and hot, and milk would go bad faster on such days in the good ole days....

    Also visually lightning is milk-white, so it works that was as well--an image of rapidly, forcefully spilt milk.

  8. I think it may be an old wives tale, but milk is supposed to spoil within minutes of a thunder storm if left out.
    Oddly, I have had this happen (that fast) on more than one occasion, so I believe there may be something in it.

    If not - Those old wives have even more to answer to!
    All that mindless chatter!

  9. XD

    Wiki says:

    Examples of old wives' tales include:
    Ice cream leads to nightmares.
    It's bad luck to give a pair of gloves to a friend unless you receive something in exchange.
    Toes pointed up signify low blood sugar.
    High heart rates lead to female fetuses.
    If you step on a crack you'll break your mother's back/step on a line and break your mother's spine.
    Breaking a mirror will earn a person seven years of bad luck.
    Don't swallow gum or it will stay in your stomach for seven years.
    Various other stories, all resulting in "seven years" of something.
    It's bad luck to open an umbrella indoors.
    Making silly faces when the wind direction changes will make the silly face permanent.
    Chocolate leads to acne.
    Shaving your legs makes the hair grow back thicker.

    I do know people convinced of the last one....

  10. Shave them during a thunder storm and you will spoil your legs for 7 years.
    Now that I am sure of!

  11. XD

    Never shave during a thunderstorm, so I am safe...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.