- Opera and Objecthood:Sedimentation, Spectatorship, and Einstein on the Beach
Once it became imaginable that a "world" could be "contaminated" by the mere fact of being beheld, the situation was ripe for the emergence of an esthetic that would accept such "contamination" as the basis of its procedures.—Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before1
"There is no rulebook defining the right approach to performance and interpretation," announces Tom Sutcliffe in the opening of Believing in Opera (1996), a book credited with introducing the discussion of contemporary operatic staging practices to English-language readers.2 In the sentences that follow, though, the critic goes on to offer a rulebook of his own. "The purpose of performing opera," Sutcliffe writes, "is to bring the work to life, to make its meaning tell, to help the audience believe in the truth and vitality of its message. Every serious attempt to perform an opera adds to the richness and depth of that process."3 The three "purposes" adumbrated here may seem both modest and self-evident, but there is one dominant approach to staging they exclude. Speaking of what might be termed "traditional" or even "authenticist" productions of Wagner's Ring cycle, Sutcliffe observes: "We may believe like the composer and critic Robin Holloway that the music of Wagner's dramas requires the flowing woollen and skin costumes German chieftains wore a thousand years ago. But those are our associations, connected with our knowledge of the gothic revival or of the deeper past or of grand opera in the time of Queen Victoria." These associations "are not inherent in the works themselves."4
More than twenty years on—in the wake of regietheater, and well after debates about "historically informed performance" have run their course—Sutcliffe's defense of innovative stage direction may seem uncontroversial, his interlocutors remote. Believing in Opera is worth revisiting, however, because its opening gesture lurks behind another, more sophisticated, and now vastly more influential account of operatic [End Page 40] staging, one published some ten years later. "Although a stage production can unsettle a work that was thought to be settled," writes David J. Levin at the start of Unsettling Opera (2007), "opera itself is unsettled, and … stage performance, at its best, clarifies this condition and brings opera in its unsettledness to life."5 "Clarifying" a condition is not, to be fair, the same thing as inspiring "belief" in a message, but I am struck by Levin's positing of unsettledness as an inherent quality of operatic works. He relies on a seemingly innocent phrase that Sutcliffe also uses, "bring to life," as if to suggest that opera possesses an innate polysemy—subsequently termed a "condition of agitation and multiplicity"—that needs only to be unleashed:
Thus, throughout this book, I will use the term "opera text" to designate opera's agitated and multiple signifying systems—for instance, the score, the libretto, stage directions—prior to performance. On the other hand, opera in performance, its "performance text," lends expression to this condition of agitation and multiplicity while at the same time partaking of it. This is not true of certain select productions. Rather, every production (or performance text) takes up a position relative to the opera text. And although most performance texts reiterate a consensus about a given opera text (rendering it readily comprehensible by inflecting it in a recognizable relation to familiar forms of representation), some productions seek to render the characteristic agitation of the opera text.6
Levin's "two texts" theory recalls Sutcliffe's dismissal of the traditional accoutrements of Ring productions: "readily comprehensible" stagings may "reiterate a consensus" about a given opera, but that consensus is secondary to, and chronologically and conceptually distinct from, the operatic work.
If one wanted to "unsettle" a given opera, there are many reasons one might do so: to make it relevant to new audiences, to counter its political legacies, to break the status quo. Levin's suggestion that innovative stage direction is authorized by—and, in a paradoxical sense, faithful to—the inherent instability of the operatic text is thus distinctive. And if his argument echoes Sutcliffe's, it also resonates...