Thursday, 19 June 2014

Nudity on stage

This article first appeared at

Photo: Ruby Washington/The New York Times
There's a been a storm in a (a very small) teacup this week about a wannabe 'opera singer' stripping off during the variety talent show America's Got Talent. In the skit, a personal trainer takes her dress off while singing O mio babbino caro, revealing a red bikini with an apologetic shrug. There's nothing more to it than that. However, it usefully forms the polar opposite to the outcry against critics responding to Glyndebourne Festival Opera's der Rosenkavalier - in this converse situation the personal trainer's lack of operatic talent is obfuscated by the narrative & perception of physical attributes.

Elsewhere this week there has been real nudity deployed on stage in the genuine pursuance of lyric drama. The New York Times reports a bijou production of GF Haas' Atthis (above) in which a particularly brave soprano removes an undergarment of duct tape (yes, adhered to her body) whilst her character "sings of her despair over having lost her lover".

Meanwhile over here at the not-much-bigger Print Room in Notting Hill, soprano Callie Swarbrick removed a virginal-white costume before the magnifying gaze of a camera (projecting its image across the set) in a soul-baring-and-cleansing action for Reunion, Christian Mason's part of Opera Erratica's Triptych (I saw Triptych - Swarbrick & the rest of the company gave fine performances in one of the operatic highlights of the year thusfar). In either case, the size of venue is worth noting for the proximity of the audience to the performers.

I think that the use of nudity in any of these situations - whether or not it has the necessary effect - is quite clear and doesn't need to be discussed. However, a colleague has recently pointed out an article about the pitfalls of introducing too much 'reality' onto the stage. The author quotes dramatic theorist Bert O.
As soon as you put something real on stage, it stops the theatre – or, more likely, the thing itself stops being real. On stage, says the Austrian writer Peter Handke, "Light is brightness pretending to be other brightness; a chair is a chair pretending to be another chair."
Funnily, we come back to the Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier. Richard Jones' production opens with the tableau of the Marschallin (played by Kate Royal this season) naked in the shower. I had no problem with assimilating the 'nudity' of the performer with the aesthetic intent of the scene having realised that she was wearing a body stocking. The performer wasn't actually naked at all. What's the furthest you would be prepared to go to help realise the intent of a director? Does it make a difference if the nudity is written into the piece itself (say in Richard Strauss' Salome?)

Curtain Calls

This article first appeared at

Last night I was one of many who had the opportunity to see Terry Gilliam Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini at the cinema. There are all sorts of wonderful things to talk about but I thought I might just dwell on one of those things that often get left to the last minute in opera performances, if they get dealt with at all: the final bow. The Curtain Call is the opportunity for the audience to show its appreciation for the hard work the performers have put into the preceding show. It's also a chance for the audience to show it's relative appreciation of the merits of those performers. Either way, an appropriate acknowledgment of the reception given by an audience is advisable.

At last night's performance two of the supporting cast Nicky Spence and David Soar (Francesco and Bernadino) ran on and re-created a tummy-bump stage move from the first Act. This went down very well with the audience, self-referencing the sense of fun surrounding the event. Do you stay in character then, or appear at the curtain or take to the stage without greasepaint, actual or metaphorical? Well Spence and Soar probably see something of their own character in the likely lads of Gilliam-Berlioz's vision. Conversely Sir Willard White, appearing as a glitter-taloned Pope, clearly decided to continue to milk his casting against-type by remaining in character at the curtain of this same opera.

For many though there is the opportunity to step out of their role for a moment. For the character baddie (Iago in Otello, or Nick Shadow in The Rake's Progress, for example) this can be a tricky area to negotiate, given the British public's increasing tendency to boo the baddie (i.e. not the performer but the character). Naturally I wouldn't want to prescribe how you take a bow, given that you may be responding to what happens on any given night, let alone a specific production. Just remember that actually taking the bow (or a ballerina-style curtesy, perhaps complete with self-effacing/decorous hand-on-decolletage) is a good idea, as is not taking too much time. It's nice to smile too! Curtain calls often involve walking back to join other members of a cast in a line, so don't be afraid to look behind you when you do this. You don't want to spoil the rapture of well-executed performance with the ignominy of falling over someone else's feet at the last.

What are your top tips for making the most of your reception at the curtain?

Friday, 13 June 2014

Filming classical music - The Voice and The Lens

Today I attended a day-long seminar entitled The Voice and The Lens. Being offered as part of the periphery of the Spitalfields Festival, this series of three illustrated lectures took in all sorts of examples of filming classical music.

We heard from Jonathan Haswell, a freelance director who has overseen recordings and broadcasts for the Proms and the Royal Opera, composer Miguel Mera, who teaches on the subject at City University and Barrie Gavin, who has produced a great deal of work on modern music and worked with the likes of Simon Rattle, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Haswell suggested that bringing live musical performance to a screen is 'simply a different way of experiencing something that is beautiful' and sees his job as 'generating a level of excitement that is different to the live space'. To show this he shared some examples of work, explaining the preparation and technical execution of a performance recorded for the screen - of any size. It was fascinating hearing about how great performers contribute easily to the process by absorbing the suggested requirements of the screen director.

Mera looked back at the canon, playing through extant performances of concerts as well as feature films that use music. Moving on from the pragmatism of making the recording happen he discussed the vernacular of music in a film, touching on the issue of diegesis and looking at some films where music is not only integral (The Man Who Knew Too Much, dir. Hitchcock, 1959) but may also be said to have it's own visual lyricism, interchangeable with the music itself (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, dir. Leone, 1966).

Barrie Gavin has worked closely with composers and other principal practictioners in producing films about music. He was interested in moving away from the rather more coventional biopic (Mera had already identified the clich├ęs of musicians on screen). Instead, Gavin tried to grasp the identity of his films within their outset and looked to develop the idea of metaphor - 'the problem with the subject is that music is invisible and we deal in creating images'.

An appointment later in the day meant that I was unable to stay for the open discussion on subjects raised. Clearly their were some musicians and filmmakers of note in the audience. I would have liked to have heard opinions on the future of cinema and opera, given that discussions of accessibility at The Royal Opera (as well as other production issues at Glyndebourne and New York's Metropolitan Opera) have thrown a spotlight on the practice. Classic FM put the question fairly succinctly.

These are sociological issues though. Today was about the technicality and grammar of transferring live performance onto a two-dimensional medium (pace 3D broadcasts!) which was satisfying whilst provoking all the right quesitons to get one thinking more clearly about it as an art sui generis. You can see Jonathan Haswell's work when the Royal Opera broadcast Manon Lescaut on 24 June (to which one can compare the cinema relay of ENO's Benvenuto Cellini, to be broadcast on 17 June). I have also written about cinematic relay of opera here.