I think it might be so many years as an examiner – seventeen of them and then several more as a University external examiner and more still as a festival adjudicator – but what that taught me is to have eyes that constantly swivelled around the playing space noting everything: costumes, props, lighting, set, sound and, of course the acting. Going to the theatre is still a huge part of my life… HUGE. But I can’t help myself. Old habits die hard. The eyes swivel. The fingers twitch to manipulate the pen on the no-longer-existent notepad. Does it get in the way of enjoyment? Not a bit! With most productions it enhances the experience, allowing me to dwell lovingly on the attention to detail many of them bring to the design elements but just occasionally …!!
Let me digress a little. I was a latecomer to opera. With a Mozart fan for a father, I was familiar with the music of most of those, but somehow, every time I turned the radio on [we’re talking many years ago] it was always some fruity-voiced soprano with festoons of vibrato that I caught singing something from one of the heavier Wagner operas. From these small experiences, I got the idea that opera was not for me. Imagine my wonder, then, when a friend took me to Glyndebourne. We saw Janacek’s Jenufa and it was the most exciting experience in years. Seeing my face, my friend often leant in to ask was I enjoying this? Was I?! I wanted to tell him to stop bothering me! I wanted to be in a bubble and immerse myself totally in sight, sound and feeling! It was Total Theatre. How could I ever have thought I wouldn’t like opera? Done well, it’s the ultimate theatrical experience!
So whenever I could I started to go to operas and, of course, learned that they vary enormously. And sadly, far more than most theatre companies, it is the details, the design, and worse – too often the acting – that is below par. I get it that great singers are not always great actors and can make allowances for the conventions of opera, which are different from the conventions of theatre, BUT…. and this is the point of this blog – what I can’t forgive, what makes me grind my teeth in the audience, is when you pay vastly inflated ticket prices and hardly any of those important details of design and acting are attended to. I find it, frankly, insulting.
Don’t get me wrong – this has never been true of Glyndebourne productions, which I catch regularly on tour. Even if I haven’t liked the opera itself, the design and the direction has been stunning. But over the years I have sat through professional touring operas with wonderful singing but wobbly amateurish sets, poor use of staging space, dreadful dark lighting, in short no overall directorial vision for the piece. And it has spoiled my enjoyment. More than that, I have ranted all the way home in the car at my poor theatre companions!
Then last week I went to see Strauss’s Die Fledermaus done by Ellen Kent Productions. I didn’t expect it to be moving or uplifting, to speak to my soul; I knew it would be light, frothy. But I did expect glamour, spectacle and humour. Especially since I had paid a lot for my ticket – nearly as much as for Glyndebourne on tour. The sets were fine and gave some of the necessary glamour. In fact, the design elements were mostly good. In this production, it was the acting that had me cringeing in my seat.
No direction worth its salt had been given to the mainly very young chorus. They simply stood around the stage and pulled the occasional face at each other. Their dancing was of the sidestep and kick variety – in fact that was their principal dance step – and in a line. Think village hall pantomime. I have seen better work from many amateur companies. [And actually many good and fun village hall pantos.]
The cast could sing – no question. Most of the cast came from the Ukraine or Russia – and there’s nothing wrong with that. So why did they elect to perform in English? Opera goers are used to reading translations above the stage. In this case their English was, in many key cases, so bad – wrongly stressed, laboured and slow because they did not understand what they were saying – that, presumably for this reason, they had to put the English translation up anyway! Reading the notes in the programme, it says that Kent worked from an old Russian translation of the text – 40% of which is spoken not sung – so why not sing in Russian, since the translation had to be there for the audience in any case!? One character in the final act was a non-singing comedy part. He mugged exaggeratedly to the audience, trying to achieve laughs with his face at least, struggled through the lines, often read them from a couple of carefully placed props, could not point the lines properly or put over any of the humour because he did not understand the English words! Poor man! And poor audience. I found myself wincing every time he came forward to speak. If I hadn’t been with others, I’d have walked out. I felt by this time so angry. There’s no excuse for this in today’s professional theatre surely!
Now you know why I might be the worst person to accompany to the theatre…