In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera


Oct 21, 2011 11:17:00 AM
By BLO Staff

By, BLO Artistic Advisor
John Conklin
This is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Opera America Magazine . I am very interested in the "problem" of how an
audience member might approach an opera performance--whether for the first
time or the 50th--whether a standard repertory piece or a new or
unfamiliar work. Do you need to "prepare"? .... and if so how? 
I'd love to have your feedback on these questions or others raised in the
article. Let's get a discussion going here.  Next week, another excerpt.
the coming of projected supertitles, the somewhat ridiculous notion of having
to do “homework” before attending a foreign language opera performance should
have receded. In those far-off days before titles, what was one actually
supposed to do? Study a detailed but inevitably too generalized synopsis of the
action (insufficient) or memorize the libretto’s text by heart (impossible)?
The theatrical experience is a moment-to-moment accumulation of words, visual images,
sounds, music, narrative action and psychological development given from the
stage and received by any given audience member in a detailed and complicated
But with the growth of opera
company education departments (ostensibly a positive development) this notion
of homework has, if anything, become more pervasive. I myself have put together
a number of programs designed to somehow prepare people for a production. Is
this a good thing?
anecdotal case study number one:
I attended a performance at English National Opera of
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Xerxes. I was familiar with
Handel’s stage works in general but I didn’t know at that point any of the
specifics of this one. I had read no reviews, I deliberately avoided looking at
any of the publicity pictures, I didn’t read the synopsis in the program or
even look at the cast of characters. I was thrown into the midst of a
complicated plot whose character relationships I had to work out as they came
up. Plot twists, betrayals, misunderstandings were surprising, unexpected,
sometimes shocking. The opera was sung in English and, this being the era
before titles, you were compelled to really listen to what they were saying ...
at the moment. The design and the staging were complicated, witty and allusive—unexpectedly
combining Baroque elements with Assyrian motifs. In other words, there was a
lot going on, but the result, rather than one of overwhelming confusion was one
of the most compelling (and totally entertaining) evenings of opera I have ever
experienced. Much of that engrossing delight and interest was, I think,
generated by the unfolding of a surface narrative—a good story that I was
receiving and understanding for the first time as it unfolded.
In the American opera world
generally, a dearth in the repertory of new operas and the seemingly obsessive
dependence on the “standard” repertory has led to loss of the sense of
surprise, of a journey into unknown territory, of the excitement of discovery
based on unexpected revelations of plot or character or idea. We have so often
lost one of the basic attractions and pulls of theater—an attraction and pull
that seems to live on the surface but which can draw one in deeper and deeper
and lead one beneath that surface into whatever depths are appropriate and
available. And this pull is the simple storytelling question—“what’s going to
happen next?”
I understand how sharing a bit of
the plot line might be useful in selling the opera in a brochure or
advertisement, but I believe suspense, curiosity and good old-fashioned
dramatic storytelling are time-honored ways of drawing an audience member in.
You notice I say “audience member.” I am opposed to thinking of “the audience”
as an abstract entity to be educated or performed AT. Each person is different,
with a totally different and unique set of emotions, experiences that interact
with the stimulus emitted by the stage and the pit to produce a totally unique

Confusion sets in when we
think of a performance as an event that is prepared and delivered by a group of
artists to a more or less passive public that more or less receives it. In the
end, a theatrical event doesn’t actually happen on the stage; it happens in the
mind and heart and guts of each individual audience member.

Topics: opera knowledge, audience engagement, General Opera, John Conklin

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