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Some Respect, Please, for What Verdi Intended

March 13, 2000|ELLEN BRANDT

"Verdi, Meet Armani," proclaimed the headline on Elaine Dutka's Sunday Calendar story (Feb. 27). Opera aficionados, hold on to your tempers, for here we go again!

The kindly disposed call us "opera buffs"; the more viscerally

inclined prefer terms like "opera nuts" or "opera cuckoos." We don't really care and gladly admit that we are an


species, a breed apart. What we do resent are destructive moves that further threaten our survival.

Bruce Beresford, acclaimed and talented film director, has staged Verdi's "Rigoletto," currently on view at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as the sixth production of the Los Angeles Opera season. Dutka's interview repeatedly reassures us that Beresford really loves opera. "Rigoletto" was his first exposure; he's loved opera ever since. Although his first love is film, he continues to love opera--and therein lies what rubs us. I personally love theater. I also love movies, ballet and Cirque du Soleil. But I don't merely love opera. I am passionate about opera. There is a difference.

Rational people don't expect the rest of the world to share their passions, whatever they may be, but want a modicum of respect for such strong feelings. I would like to convey this to Beresford and all other future opera directors who merely love opera: Respect the genius of the composer. Respect the music! Verdi composed this score exactly 150 years ago, and I'll bet audiences will still be drawn to "Rigoletto" in the year 2150.

Operatic overtures have a definite purpose beyond merely satisfying the composer's ego and proving his ability to write a pretty piece of music. An overture serves as a parting curtain. It provides a few minutes of reflection. It draws a line between the humdrum outside world of reality and the inside vision of make-believe. The overture is meant to get us ready to be absorbed, to explore fantasies, to laugh, to cry. It is a time for quietude, for a different mind-set from our day at the office, in the kitchen, behind a counter. It's warm bathwater into which we allow ourselves to be immersed. In other words, the overture is the signal that we may now indulge our passion.

Why then does Beresford use the overture as a background soundtrack for a piece of sleazy film shown on stage? Why such blatant disrespect for Verdi's music? The term "stage business" has a very distinct meaning: It keeps someone on stage busy. The purpose of such busy-ness can be manifold. Among any number of valid reasons are to divert attention, to provide a level of comfort, to elicit laughs. But such busyness is out of place at an emotionally charged moment. It defeats everything opera stands for.

I'm not averse to clothing the characters of "Rigoletto" in Armani suits. Giorgio Armani is a designer of quality and taste. I'd much prefer to look at his attractive costumes, no matter the time period, than some unflattering, musty old clothes left over from a prior production. I'm not averse to updating most operas. Old-fashioned staging and stodgy direction can be just as distracting as neon tubes, a la Peter Sellars. Yet that same Sellars placed the ridiculous libretto of "Cosi fan tutte" in a modern diner with total sense and sensibility. A lot of operas would benefit greatly if a strong vacuum cleaner sucked away the cobwebs. They were dumb stories to start with and provide not an iota of identification with our 21st century morality and lifestyles.

But please, opera directors everywhere: Use some discretion. Don't swing the pendulum too far the other way. Show us that you are thinking people and, above all, respect the music.

Opera simply cannot be equated with film. Beresford contends that were we to show only a handful of movies over and over again, audiences would stop coming. He's absolutely correct, but we attend the opera to listen to great music--sung by ever-new singers with fresh interpretations, performed by musicians with different takes, each time bringing us new visions, each a unique experience.

Opera is on the highest level of emotional involvement. It is the embodiment of cerebral excitement and exhilaration. Opera cuckoos open their hearts in anticipation, their expectations, their souls, their essence. It's like a big pot on the stove that just needs to be stirred and brought to a boil to be served as a satisfying meal of laughter or tears. That's what opera passion is all about.

Ellen Brandt produced plays on Broadway, including "Brief Lives" in 1974, and was an executive producer at the Westwood Playhouse. She writes on theater.

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