24 Reinterpreting opera: ‘Dido & Belinda’
We’ve become very used to the innovative staging of opera. For some decades, now, opera houses have been bringing in directors from (spoken) theatre to direct new productions, and naturally they have brought with them the highly imaginative approach to rereading texts that is normal in theatre. Perhaps opera houses see this as a way of seeming more relevant, more in touch with artistic practice elsewhere, and perhaps they hope to draw in theatre audiences to fill the house for a run of performances. Opera is appallingly expensive to produce, incapable of covering its costs, and needs all the box office help it can get. I don’t know enough about the economics of opera to know whether the numbers attracted by this more creative approach to staging outweigh the numbers of classical music aficionados who run a mile from innovation. I would expect that they do, by quite a substantial margin. At any rate, a Regietheater (director’s theatre) approach to opera is now the norm.
A review of Martin Kušej’s production of Mozart’s ‘Idomeneo’ at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 2014 gives a good impression of what can happen—machine guns, carnage—and how people react (‘the booers were out in force’). Here, as in every opera production almost without exception, the music remains entirely untouched by the staging. If you shut your eyes (as the booers could have) you would have no idea that anything contemporary was going on. In productions of any opera score the performance sounds much the same wherever you go.
Holly Champion (as noted in chap. 18.2) has called this the Fidelity Dichotomy (FD). The musical performance is ‘faithful’ to whatever are currently imagined as the composer’s intentions—and we’ve seen what that’s worth—while the staging is very definitely not and does not intend, nor sees any reason, to be. The stage and music directors work alongside each other using completely different and incompatible belief systems. If no one seems bothered by this it’s because few have ever imagined that the musical performance might reinterpret the score as innovatively as the staging (or indeed at all). The absurdity of the contrasts seems to be noticed only by those music purists who view opera as music with some tiresome staging—prima la musica—and for them it’s the staging that’s the problem, not the music. If anyone (perhaps the director) does see opera as theatre with some tiresome music—prima le parole—then altering the music is not a response that’s within their reach; the musical staff would never agree.
This is curious. As we’ve seen in Parts 1 and 2, there is no good reason not to reread the score just as radically as the text. And that immediately opens up the intriguing option of performing the score in such a way as to tell the same story as the staging. At last there’s a chance, and a reason, why the staging and the music might add up to a coherent whole; and beyond that offer a thought-provoking commentary on themes of much wider relevance and interest to a contemporary audience. Which in turn opens up the possibility of opera becoming not just a relevant artform but of doing significant social-political work, getting its well-heeled audience to think about more than celebrating or escaping themselves, and going some way towards justifying the enormous subsidies on which its survival depends.
This is what we aimed to show in Helios Collective’s 2016 production of Purcell’s ‘Dido & Aeneas’ score, retitled to show our intent as ‘Dido & Belinda’. We wanted to find out what else Purcell’s notes could do, and to get them to do it in exactly the same way as the text was being reinterpreted on stage. More specifically, we wanted to comment on, by subverting, opera’s predilection for murdering its heroines. We were interested in finding out how Nahum Tate’s abbreviated version of Virgil’s psychologically complex story—so abbreviated as to lose any plausible motivation for its characters—could make sense in a modern social setting, that of the international super-rich who people glossy magazines and for whom superficial motivation and interaction are a fashion statement. The tale was easy enough to retell in these terms; but what would we do with the musical performance?
Continue to Chapter 24.2: How we made ‘Dido & Belinda’
 Champion, Holly. 2016. Dramaturgical Analysis of Opera Performance: Four Recent Productions of Dido and Aeneas (PhD thesis, University of New South Wales).