Billy Budd vs Don Giovanni

Michael Grandage’s less than brilliant production of Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera produced a really interesting blog post Opera Isn’t Theatre by Zerbinetta over at Likely Impossibilities. Zerb started to explore why successful stage directors might not succeed in opera. It sparked a lively debate in comments which is well worth a read. Having just watched Grandage’s excellent production of Britten’s Billy Budd I had a few further thoughts that I wanted to get out into the blogosphere.

All operas are not created equal. Some operas are clearly conceived as drama and some are really just vehicles for pretty singing. Billy Budd is clearly in the first category. Don Giovanni fits rather ambiguously in this schema. It seems reasonable to assume that a strong drama will be a better vehicle for a director used to the straight stage.

Language matters. I know many opera singers pride themselves on their command of the languages they sing in but there’s being good at a language and there’s being truly fluent. I think it’s hard to be a great actor in one’s second, third or fourth language. For a director who focuses on character development this could be a big issue. In Billy Budd Grandage has an anglophone cast singing in English and I think it shows.

The weight of tradition. There is a tremendous classical acting tradition in Britain (which I think is shared to some extent by the settler colonies, though less by the US). It’s impossible to grow up watching theatre in Britain, still less acting, without being aware of it. It seems to have had a spillover effect on productions of Britten’s operas in Britain. There’s almost a school of acting/singing Britten. It starts with Pears and Harper and Shirley-Quirk but it’s readily recognisable in singer/actors like Ainsley, Ens, Langridge or Oke. This has surely got to be an easier environment for the likes of Grandage than a polyglot cast of varied backgrounds.

Ensemble vs. star casting . The Metropolitan Opera is the epitome of a house that casts international stars and has, essentially, no ensemble. Even covers at the Met rarely get to sing. Far more likely that the house will go for a jump in if someone goes sick. Glyndebourne isn’t a Fest house either but there must be some sense of ensemble in all being stuck together in East Sussex for the summer. I would expect that to impact artistic cohesion. Also, I suspect Glyndebourne is less likely to tolerate the kind of singer who doesn’t learn her lines and thinks she has a better idea of how the work should be done than the director or the conductor.

None of this takes away from the many good thoughts over at Zerb’s place. Lack of rehearsal time, lack of drama training, ego, house/stage size no doubt play a huge role. I thought I’d just throw in a few thoughts based on recent viewing.

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