Changing an Opera’s Setting – a Good or a Bad Idea?

Salute Signore e Signori,

Many modern stage directors take a direction in producing opera performances that I want to take issue with: namely the way they significantly change a composer’s (and librettist’s) settings and even the plots of standard operas.

I recently saw a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto in which the action was transferred from 16th century Mantua, Italy, to 20th century La Vegas, Nevada. As you can imagine there were MANY deviations from the libretto, some of which might have been acceptable symbolism to people familiar with the opera, but didn’t really make sense in a modern setting and turned this intense drama into a farce.

For example, Rigoletto’s obsession with keeping his daughter, Gilda, in near total seclusion, would almost be considered child abuse in today’s Las Vegas.

Similarly, having Sparafucile, a professional assassin hired by Rigoletto to kill his daughter’s rapist, the Duke of Mantua, instead kill the next person to enter the room, who turns out to be Gilda in disguise, and then stuff her body into the trunk of a Cadillac; in a modern context comes off as more a comedy-of-errors than tragedy.

But I think the real injustice of this modern setting results from the fact that, in today’s world, very few people would take a curse placed upon them seriously. In this opera, however, the curse is really the major theme of the opera. Verdi had originally planned to name the opera, La Maledizione or The Curse. In the last words sung in the opera, Rigoletto blames the entire tragedy on “la maledizione”. Again, in today’s Las Vegas, the concept of a curse would most likely be taken as a joke and the opera would thus be considered a farce. What a terrible thing to do to one of Verdi’s greatest operas.

If any of you good readers have similar or opposing thoughts about this practice of modern stage directors, I encourage you to respond to this blog page at www.annapolisopera.org.

Ciao, 

Ed Crump
Annapolis Opera Trustee

Fondazione Teatro Lirico G. Verdi

Rigoletto in 16th century Italy

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Rigoletto transformed to 20th century Las Vegas

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8 Comments
  1. Karen

    There is that moment when the lights go down, the audience is quiet and the show has not yet begun that I cross over an invisible line in to the world of fantasy. Willing suspension of disbelief is the stock term, and without it, very little in opera (or ballet and perhaps 50% of theater) makes sense. Start with the whole premise of people singing as a method of communication. Other than the people greeter at my local Home Depot, no one I interact with regularly sings as a method of regular conversation (and, in all honesty the people greeter strikes me as a bit peculiar).

    So, without suspending my ideas of what is reality, many of opera’s plots and twists do not make much sense. But I accept these details or premises because of the beautiful music on which they are conveyed. One of the reasons why my mind accepts the idea of suitors lining up to answer a riddle that will most likely get them killed in “Turandot”, is that I know “Nessum Dorma” is part of the evening’s beautiful music. After all – even in a setting of long ago in a far off land – this idea does not really make “sense”. Or, no matter what the time setting, women unable to identify their disguised sweethearts (unless perhaps they were using the Mission Impossible mask maker), seems silly at best. But, I know “Soave sia il vento” is part of “Cosi fan tutti” and so I accept the premise.

    Do some settings make less sense than others? Certainly. And does it seem as though directors occasionally want to make their interpretation of an opera more important than the music? Yes. And I don’t really enjoy worrying about the safety of the singers when the production includes crazy sets, but if safety is not a concern then I am willing to enjoy a new interpretation of a classic just to see how it expands my concepts and ideas of what an opera “should” look like. If the quality of the singers and musicians is good, then I can go along with most settings/interpretations.

    To paraphrase Garrison Keillor’s on Lake Wobegone, for me, going to an opera is entering a world where all of the women are beautiful, all of the men are handsome and the music is sublime. I am willing to put up with settings and ideas that challenge my preconceived notions, as long as I also get to enter this beautiful make believe world.

    • Oscar Dewill

      I have seen many operas in “correct” settings and many in wildly abstract or updated or unusual settings and mostly, as long as most of the libretto references are still fairly meaningful (no sea chanties in the desert, for instance, or religious scene in a bordello) I don’t care. I am carried away by the music–the orchestra, the singers–and everything else is secondary and good enough–except for hideous mistakes.

      It seems to me that the reason why updated settings are so popular is money. It is very expensive for a small company to create in any convincing way the wigs, makeup, costumes, and furnishings of the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Modern clothes–modern settings–move better and cost less.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts in this article! Sometimes a few changes are necessary and will help spice up opera performances. However, in the instance you discussed, I completely agree that is was not necessary to completely change the setting and plot. Like you said, those changes end up changing the whole opera. I think change is good sometimes, but for most instances in operas, it is best to leave some things alone.

  3. lisa bajor

    Yes I agree, it takes out of the play the original magic and beauty.
    If someone has a better idea about a long time composed classical opera, do not still the music and the basic plot, write your own.
    I would never willingly by tickets or go to see dos turned inside out, up side down, artificial forced playes.
    I could make more important points against, but the bottom line is, the Composer made the opera how he dreamed of and for Centuries was very loved one to see in life, or listen to.
    It is easy to “borrow” and make an ugly second hand play.

    • Richard

      I agree with jor. An opera’s setting is as integral to its nature as the score and libretto. While composers would sometimes make changes to suit particular performing conditions (say, transposing an aria so a different singer could perform it), those were done under the eye of the creator of the work. To set a world envisioned by Verdi in a place he would never have imagined in a time a century after his demise makes no sense while keeping his music and libretto the same. If you want to update Romeo and Juliet and set it in the barrios of New York City, fine, write West Side Story; don’t do someone else’s Romeo and Juliet and pass it off as “performance” of that work. That’s artistic dishonesty and laziness.

  4. Robert

    I think these changes are, for lack of a better word, sily. I am going to go see The Marriage of Figaro at L.A. Opera because I liked their Barber of Seville. But once again I was lured into paying $600 for orchestra seats based on the video of a production with staging and costumes which are not those of the L.A. Opera production. This is fraud. The same thing happened with Thaïs. where they sang about Alexandria and bathing their hands and lips in water from the oasis with not so much as a palm frond and for some idiotic reason men run around in top hats and tails. Stage and costume designers need to get a grip and lose their self- important egos that give them the idea that the opera is about them and that the words in the libretto don’t matter. If you live in a place where you might have seen Thaïs 10 times or The Marriage of Figaro 25 times I guess you might not mind a change in setting, but not in Los Angeles where you get 6 operas a year. Yes, the Ring production nearly broke the bank so they have to do things on the cheap…but really, when the supertitles tell you that they’re singing about when they were in Alexandria and the oasis in the desert and there are, I guess, some of Thaïs’s Johns running around in some 19th century top hats and tails it just makes what is already a genre that suspends belief with everyone singing the dialogue it just makes the genre even sillier, especially if you can actually understand the French or Italian words. I searched the internet for clues as to the staging of Figaro and I thought I was being careful in choosing to pay $600 for orchestra seats based on the video clip that L.A. Opera provides but I now see from photos that I am going to be treated to scenes with things, for example, like a red 1960’s telephone and some 1950’s prom dresses. I am a long-time opera goer and I’m not tired of what the composers and librettists intended and people holdind what look like wedding cakes when nobody actually gets married. If the company can’t afford to stage an opera then they should do more borrowing or not do that opera and, above all, they shouldn’t show video exerpts of other productions that try to give the false impression that that is what you are going to see. I don’t care how innovative or how boring Berlin or Vienna or New York might say L.A. opera is. These productions should be for us who live here and seldom get to see the real thing.

  5. Betty J. Reeves

    With the exception of attending the LA Opera’s production of Thais (yes, those men in top hats and tails was a real jolt) my experience with opera consists of the Met’s HD live-streamed operas at my local theater, youtube, and dvds at Amazon. I agree that experimenting with the original version envisioned by the composer more often than not fails. I recall watching on youtube a French version of that wondrous Meditation scene from Thais performed by a mostly naked woman doing a kind of pole dance above the soprano who was sleeping below on a chaise lounge. Ugh! Also, when Lohengrin (Jonas Kaufmann) appears bearing an obviously stuffed fake swan, which after a camera shift, becomes a living boy, I burst out laughing. Better he comes in carrying the boy as white swan feathers drift from his arms. Then, too, there are those productions that use heavy-handed symbols, as if anyone needs to be told what the action and music really mean. I have seen updated versions of “Carmen” that work, though.

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