Bondy, Chéreau, Sher, and Gelb on Opera, Theater, and the Phenomenon of Booing

October 9, 2009

“I was scandalized that they were so scandalized!” said Luc Bondy at a NYPL Live talk last night. “I didn’t realize Tosca was the Bible!”

Along with Met General Manager Peter Gelb, Bondy, Patrice Chéreau, and Bartlett Sher, all of whom are engaged to stage new Met productions this season, participated in a charged exchange on opera, theater, and the challenging art of directing, moderated by the library’s Paul Holdengräber. Bondy joked about the violent reaction among some audience members to his headline-grabbing, season-opening new production of Puccini’s opera, which, not surprisingly turned into a major topic of conversation at this event presented at the New York Public Library. Addressing the ongoing Tosca chatter, the speakers deliberated on the phenomenon of the boo, even demonstrating and analyzing the acoustic carrying power of the word itself. Sher pondered the complicated interaction of time, tradition, and change that can lead to such a vehement response, describing booing on the one hand as an audience member’s “self-interested expression of ownership.” But he added that it was also a sign of passion preferable to quiet muttering—“a good thing that’s creating a conversation about the nature of what we’re doing.”

All three directors—and Gelb—stated unequivocally that none of them are interested in deliberately courting scandal or controversy, joking that they are too old for that. Chéreau famously encountered a huge dose of scandal when he directed the 1976 centennial production of Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Bayreuth Festival and chose to set the mythological operas during the Industrial Revolution—closer to Wagner’s own era. Chéreau reflected on how, after sustaining almost violent reactions in its first season, the production went on to become one of the most beloved and legendary in the festival’s history. He summed up the opera director’s objective: “We are interested in telling a story. And we have two texts to work with—the libretto and the music.”

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Chéreau spoke with great enthusiasm of both the libretto and the music for Janacek’s From the House of the Dead, which he helms for its Met premiere on November 12. He describes the opera, based on Dostoevsky’s semi-autobiographical novel about life in a Siberian prison camp, as “not a traditional love story, as you often see in opera. But it is about men who killed, and often they killed for love because they wanted to be respected. I was very compelled by that.” Thanks to a DVD made of an earlier run of this co-production, the audience at the talk was treated to a sneak preview. Chéreau said he was energized by the collaboration with new cast members and a new conductor (the eminent Finnish maestro, Esa-Pekka Salonen) at the Met. “When you re-read a book or listen to music in another tempo, you can see something new to do with it,” the director explained.

Like From the House of the Dead, Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann is a series of vignettes that benefit from a directorial approach that makes them part of a dramatic arc. Sher’s new production, which opens on December 3, emphasizes the outsider status of both the title character and Offenbach himself.

Sher made his Met debut with Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia in 2006, and he reflected on his experience directing the Rossini classic, based on the Beaumarchais play, and the veiled theme of tyranny he sees in the piece. He broke new ground with that production, literally, by staging parts of it on a specially built walkway that extended beyond the orchestra pit and placed the singers almost in the laps of audience members. “I was looking at the space of the Met differently, just as Beaumarchais was exploring the rise of the middle class,” explained the Tony Award-winning director. “There’s an interesting tension between space and politics in this.”

The rush of new productions at the Met is part of a major effort launched by Gelb to bring fresh perspectives to familiar pieces. “If you do the math,” Gelb explained, “it’s impossible to run any theater with the same production forever. The only way to keep an aging art form alive is to present new productions. You can’t do it any other way… There is no production at the Met that will not eventually be redone.” Bondy and Chéreau were both of the opinion that a production should ideally be retired after four or five years.

As the night drew to a close, talk turned once more to Tosca and New York’s response to Bondy’s rendition, which eschews lavish scenery in favor of a tight focus on the characters. “Tosca is a double opera,” Bondy explained. “It is a wonder and a horror at the same time. Yet if you cover any opera with too much decor, you can’t see it clearly. It’s like sauce: Here is the church-sauce, here is the society-sauce. It becomes too much.”

Audiences can judge for themselves. The new Tosca runs through October 17, returning again for a run in the spring, and it will be shown live in HD to movie theaters around the world this Saturday, October 10. “The main criteria for success in a show is the public,” Gelb concluded. “I feel, as these directors do, that we all have the same goals—to lead, to excite and to stimulate. Then, we have to hope that the public will come and, if they do, that could be considered a success.” —Caroline Cooper