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Women and the Royal Opera House


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Thanks for posting. It's an interesting, though somewhat confused article - my view is that I'm comfortable with most canonic operas and plots as written: while some are more misogynistic than is ideal, I can view them with equanimity as products of their time. What I'm personally unhappy with is recent stagings - such as the William Tell mentioned in the article - where violence against women is offered IMO gratuitously. Gang rape as the device of a (male) director short of inspiration or looking for controversy is not OK.


I wonder if the RO are planning to discuss modern fashions in direction - an area over which they do actually have some control - or whether that will hit too close to home and they'll opt instead to pin it all on Dead White Men.

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While I'm not keen on the trend, I'm also a little tired of the focus on opera directors casting on looks/figure. These have *always* been a primary consideration in straight theatre, film and television, entirely without controversy. The only reason it gets remarked on in opera is because it has historically been - and in many cases still is - blind to these considerations, so it's a little unfair to single out opera for such criticism.

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Yawn.  Here we go.  There'll be nothing left soon.


Interested to read that the purpose of Open-up was to make new audiences feel welcome.  Perhaps they should define audience:  does that imply attending a performance or coming in out of the cold to use the facilities?  How immensely patronising to imply that acres of beige carpet and a concourse that lacks any identity or soul, will somehow make people feel welcome.  Are we really saying that beautiful buildings are unwelcoming?  

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Of course I may be being cynical but this sounds horribly like an excuse to commission a few more productions from Katie Mitchell to give a feminist perspective on a few more operas from the Italian repertory. The roots of the ROH's problem, it seems to me,  are the very narrow view of the standard repertory taken by the last artistic director and musician currently in charge of the opera side of the organisation and the  dominance of the director's vision when it comes to staging productions. No opera house can stage more than a finite number of operas each season but the standard opera repertory is considerably wider than the programming at the ROH would suggest it to be. The dominance of the late nineteenth century Italian verismo repertory is the music director's choice.


Under Haitink and his predecessors the house's active repertory embraced a far wider range of major works than is currently the case. The standards of its opera productions  were set by the likes of Visconti and Zefferelli and that tradition was continued by the likes of Sir Peter Hall, John Copley and Elijah Moshinsky who all enabled singers to exercise their skills as interpretative artists rather than constraining them with their artistic vision as director, They did not impose their view of the characters on the audience or tell its members how they should understand the opera. I suspect, that the "opera company" will only be free to stage a wider repertory than it does at present if it manages to regain its reputation for staging productions which bear repeat viewings. Only then will it become less reliant on regular revivals of works such as La Traviata, Butterfly and Tosca to mitigate its seasonal  losses, if not balance the books.


Perhaps the answer to the question about how to reduce the dominant influence of the director in the world of opera is to be found in staging family friendly productions. i know that the new Hansel and Gretel did not please all of the critics because they thought it too tame and not frightening enough. But that rather missed the point. The production was intended for a family audience and no doubt management would have been concerned if they had received complaints that the children who had gone to see it had woken in the middle of the night with nightmares caused by attending a performance. it seems to me that if you can stage a  concept free production for a family audience you can do the same for an adult audience as well. It would be truly refreshing to attend a production which the composer and librettist might recognise as having a close connection with the work they created where we are given new insights into the work in question because the director has found something in the work which he wishes to share with the audience  as was the case with Hytner's productions of The Magic Flute and King Priam. What I object to is having the director's ideas imposed on me as a member of the audience whether it fits or not.  My objection  to being told what to think even extends to director's ideas which represent a valid interpretation of the music and libretto because even that limits the interpretative possibilities available in performance. The ROH's most recent Peter Grimes gives the audience its first sight of Grimes not in the hall where an inquest is being held into the death of his apprentice but shows  him standing centre stage with a coffin tucked under his arm. Labelling him a child killer from the outset. It gives the singer tackling the role of Grimes far less room to give his interpretation of the role than the production which it replaced did and it gets in the way of the audience fully engaging with the work which Britten and Crozier created.


Some of the children who went to see Hansel and Gretel may want to go to another opera at Covent Garden but i am not sure what I would recommend apart from Butterfly and Tosca neither of which I care for that much as operas or productions. Both of which, unfortunately, reinforce the idea that opera is essentially a misogynistic art form. Perhaps the Magic Flute  but the production does not give Pamina the active role which Hytner gave her in his production for ENO.


I think that the young man in charge of opera productions at Covent Garden could do with a checklist to avoid some of the problems which Holten encountered and some  encountered by earlier regimes. 


1) Check that the director actually likes the opera he/she is to direct before you sign him/her up. That way you will avoid another debacle like the production of     Idomeneo staged a couple of years ago when the director wrote in his essay for the programme how much he disliked the opera and proceeded to do the work as much damage as he could in his staging of it.


2) Remind the director that the house is horseshoe shaped and that you expect everyone not sitting in a seat specifically designated "restricted view" to be able to see all the main characters throughout the action of the opera as you do not want to have to refund money to anyone who turns out to be sitting on the "wrong" side of the auditorium. 


3) In the case of works being staged for the first time and those being staged for as" family friendly" productions insist that the production is one which the composer and librettist  and composer would recognise as their work and consider  whether they might not be best sung in English. The Hansel and Gretel would have had a more immediate theatrical effect if the Poultney translation had been used.


4) Check that those designing the set have the correct dimensions of the Covent Garden stage. This is particularly important in the case of a co-production where the initial performances are taking place at another theatre.


5) Ensure that singers are engaged for their voices rather than body type.


6) Avoid trips to the bargain basement for singers and conductors.


7) Avoid engaging directors who use the staging process as a form of state funded therapy.


😎 Ensure that you have a binding agreement about who is to choreograph any dance elements of the production.


9) Avoid  engaging directors who insist on using a large number of non singing extras as their presence tends to incense those members of the audience who pay for their own tickets and are already angry about price hikes.


10) Remind directors that as far as the audience is concerned they are there for the music and the drama and that anything which interferes with this such as clanking metal sets; unscripted yelling, shouting and screaming and any other noises not provided for by the composer are a no-no.


11) Intervene when directors want to include tiresome  repeated action during the overture or scenes of unscripted nudity and humiliation not required by the libretto.


12) Make and keep a list of other elements in stagings which tend to upset audiences and keep it updated. Make sure that the director is aware of its contents


I am sure that there are plenty of other tips which others could suggest.

Edited by FLOSS
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