Narrative bore

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the confluence of various events: the woes of ENO, the success of their new Akhnaten production, a debate on Facebook about whether opera is losing out to music theatre, Mark Rylance’s Oscar acceptance speech, and an experience of my own.
The chances are, since you’re reading this, that you already know I recently directed an opera – Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – for the first time. Sorry, I don’t mean to be a bore about it, and I’ve also decided I’m not going to write a book about it with the word Bottom in the title. How arrogant would that be? “First-time director writes a book about directing.” Spanking My Bottom? No, I don’t think so.
But it certainly threw some novel experiences my way. The most unsettling experience – and I hope some proper directors are going to back me up on this one – was looking at my production over and over again during the later rehearsals, as a director must, and worrying to the point of sleepless nights if it was any good.
The audience, when at last we got one, seemed to think it was, and greeted it with reassuring enthusiasm. But my mind was on the bigger scheme of things, beyond the one-thousand-seat auditorium of the Tryon Theatre, in the huge university town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. My mind was on the big wide opera world.
I’d decided to go a bit conceptual on Shakespeare. Not hugely but just a bit; which is nonetheless risky in America with its famously literal tastes when it comes to opera production. I transposed the setting to the small, fictional but feasible town of Athens, New Hampshire in the present day. The opera culminated at the high school prom.
The audience seemed to get it, except perhaps for the local critic who thought the show should have been set not in New Hampshire, but in Maine where there actually exists a town called Athens. You see what I mean about the literal thing? (Mind you, I can be the same, watching a film. The number of times I’ve thought “ah, yet another shot of “central London” that was filmed in Greenwich”…)
Aside from the concept, or “context” as I preferred to call it in local interviews, I focussed on telling the story, in making the narrative as clear as possible. In fact, I reasoned, the contemporary context made the narrative more understandable than it would have been if the cast had been swanning around in tights and codpieces. Or togas, heaven help us.
But it’s this narrative thing that has led to the sleepless nights and the self-doubt. I couldn’t help watching the show through the eyes, not of an Illinoisan who doesn’t go to a lot of opera, but through those of one of London’s opera “gatekeepers”, and thinking how much they might find lacking in it. Chances are they wouldn’t consider it ground-breaking. “You told the story? So passée! Where is the other narrative? The one about paedophilia? Or the one in which it is Lysander and Demetrius who are the star-crossed lovers? Did you cover the front of Hippolyta’s dress in menstrual blood? If not, why not? Where are the Nazi armbands? When Thisbe, the man-woman, dies, why didn’t the cast scream silently, sharing the hero-heroine’s history of transgender persecution?” And so on…
No, I was pretty sure my show wouldn’t appeal to some of our arts leaders who for too long have (apparently) rated being in with the cool crowd high above any other consideration. Witness to this the shortage of productions on show in London by directors such as Paul Curran, Martin Duncan and Daniel Slater, to name just a few; all expert and first-rate tellers of stories, and experienced opera directors to boot, but, with all due respect to them, unlikely to feature in The Guardian style section talking about their new kitchen or favourite kale recipe; which presumably disqualifies them from working at the London Coliseum.
I also think it’s too easy for arts leaders, who swan around the world on expense accounts getting free tickets to see a lot of opera, to forget that their audiences are not the same. Most audience members are not seeing, say, Don Giovanni for the umpteenth time. They don’t necessarily share the arts leaders’ appetite for something radically different.
Which led me back to thinking about ENO and its woes, and the place of opera in modern entertainment. Because, like it or not, opera is competing in the entertainment market. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to advocate a return to literalism in opera, but I think where we’ve gone wrong is in ignoring narrative. Or, too often imposing a completely different narrative on top of the existing one. I haven’t seen it, but apparently Akhnaten has no narrative, so one is invented, as it was in Satyagraha, also by Glass. Opera’s rare chance to deliver something truly and properly abstract and they go and make up a storyline for it. Perhaps the success of that approach helps to prove my point.
Mark Rylance, in his Oscar speech, said that he loved the telling of stories. In theatre, in my experience, no matter how much a director messes about with the period, no matter how abstract the designs, they always aim to tell the story. One of the most brilliant productions I’ve seen recently was the Young Vic’s A View From The Bridge. There was no scenery to speak of, no Brooklyn accents. Everything was stripped away to focus on the narrative, and it was riveting.
Music-theatre too – admittedly a commercial venture which can’t afford to risk alienating its audience – concentrates on telling the story as clearly as possible. If the audience leaves thinking “huh?” then the chances are they’re not going to recommend it to their friends.
So, if I had a word of advice for ENO, I’d say forget your insatiable desire to win awards for being perpetually and rather tediously “ground-breaking”. The audience isn’t there to look at your awards display, they’re there to hear stories.

Christopher Gillett

8 Comments

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you–I agree 100%. It really is about the stories. Which, as you point out, doesn’t necessarily mean “literal”.

  2. Yes! I totally agree. Other recent productions at ENO have annoyed me for the same reason. Telling the story should be the ultimate goal. I’m sick of directors asking me to play against what I know I’m supposed to be portraying for the sake of a concept that doesn’t quite fit the plot. Why are we trying to apologise for great operatic works that have stood the test of 100’s of years (or less). Let’s celebrate them, instead of trying to use them for another agenda.

  3. You’re absolutely right about telling the story but interestingly, there are many ways to do this that don’t necessarily involve menstrual blood!. I’m really pleased to let you know that during the past year, ENO productions have been telling stories more successfully than you might expect. I’d love to see your Dream over here soon., If it’s OK for Illinois, it’s OK by me

  4. I agree with a lot of what you say here ? But, I will take you to task a little bit about Glass’s AKHNATEN. I haven’t seen the new production at the ENO so I cannot comment on it, but I did sing the title role in the American and UK premieres and so feel somewhat qualified to comment on the piece itself. I can only say that Akhnaten clearly has a narrative running through it, a very clear sequence of events telling the story, so narrative doesn’t have to be invented at all. I think this was made very clear in the old David Freeman production at the ENO 31 years ago, which was very faithful to the score. It is a well constructed piece of story telling ?

  5. I so agree, Chris, with all your comments – especially re ENO and awards: it’s NOT what Lilian Baylis would have wanted – neither do most of the audiences! I have just seen English Touring Opera stage Donizetti’s ‘Pia’ – almost unknown. A simple yet imaginative production which concentrated on making the story as clear as possible to the audience: it was also well played/conducted, and superbly sung, which helped. Hackney Empire was full! How ETO do it on the subsidy they get goodness knows!!!
    By the way, you did promise to write another book a few years ago, and we are all still waiting……..

  6. Thanks for positive feedback! John, yes, mea culpa, I’ve stalled on book 3. Too much blogging which uses up my material, dammit.
    Chris, I made the observation about the Akhnaten narrative based on what I’ve read in the press, most of which remarked that it’s sung in various languages and that there are no surtitles, which would imply that the narrative is deliberately obscured.

  7. Brilliant – as always Chris! I’m so out of all this now and I love reading your stuff as it brings me right up to date and always seems to hit the nail with wry but enjoyably illuminating accuracy! So there!

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