Opera, Realism


Yesterday I glimpsed a few minutes of Jonathan Miller being interviewed in front of a studio audience about directing opera. He explained how he had stopped singers from waving their arms about and making stock gestures because real people don’t behave in that manner. The audience was highly amused at these artificial gestures, but presumably had no trouble identifying with men who are unable to recognize their own wives wearing a different frock or those who, when stabbed, instead of dying, sing. Opera looks artificial because it is artificial, and is intended to be. Miller appears not to have grasped this concept.

I’m not sure quite what makes opera productions effective and what doesn’t, but too much realism in one aspect can spoil the illusion in others.

I watched somebody being murdered a few feet away from me the other night. Scissors into the stomach, cigarette burns on the neck, then garrotted. I have never seen it done before so have no idea if it was convincing or not, but not for one millisecond did I think the victim was dead. He was an actor. I knew he was an actor. So why on earth was realism important?

The same applies with opera. If the performer makes a reasonable stab (no pun intended) at the motions/emotions, then I’ll suspend my disbelief – have we all forgotten that’s part of the bargain we make? After all, I can hardly ignore the 60 musicians sitting in a pit between us, or the fact that he is singing in a fake street in a manner likely to get anyone sectioned, so I think I can pretend the inappropriately waving arm was caused by his distress.


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