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One of the biggest problems with opera is that because it CAN be presented, and quite contentedly enjoyed, as music only, in purely concert form or as a recording or broadcast, and that apropos of that, singers, conductors, orchestras, and entire companies can remain active in presenting it without having to spend money on sets, costumes, props, staging, and a pretence at drama, there’s a prevailing belief among some that the dramatic aspects are not as important, and not deserving of as much care and attention as the singing. The common catch-cry that opera is “all about the singing” is patently and unequivocally false, and I’ll fight you on that point. Just because it CAN be done without the theatre elements doesn’t mean that it should. And I suspect that a significant majority, if not the entirety, of the greatest opera composers in history will join me in fighting you on this point.

Why write an opera at all if not to have it staged? That’s its home — what it’s built for. There are symphonies, concertos, cantatas, oratorios, religious masses, art songs, (etc.) enough for the purposes of music-only performance. Opera exists in the first place because of the drama. The drama is therefore EQUAL to the music.

One of the upshots of the myth of “the singing above all” is that directors of opera have come to be relegated, largely, to one of two camps — the traditionalists who are content to direct traffic and who don’t push the dramatic elements too hard because they’re at least partly, if not wholly, in thrall to the singing myth, and the regietheater vandals who invariably end up using the score as background music to their own egomaniacal, self-indulgent, brain fart productions anyway.

Directors such as myself, who actually take the dramatic aspects of opera super seriously, who care deeply about nuanced human interaction, psychological truth, the absolute credibility of behavioural, emotional, and spatial dynamics on stage, the sheer professional and personal discipline of constant onstage truthfulness and presence, and who assertively push the cast to explore character subtleties and bash beats, actions, objectives, & super-objectives as hard as they bash notes… we tend to be in a minority — assuming we’re employed by opera companies at all.

To move deeply into the heart of the human emotional landscape in the way I’ve described above is bloody hard work, and given how much hard work is already involved purely in getting the SCORE ready, it’s no surprise that the hard yards involved in serving the drama in this way can often be shortchanged, especially given financial considerations in the average modern performing arts organisation; if a director and their cast are given a mere two weeks to mount a Tosca or an Otello, “just getting it done” and “that’ll have to do” become the order of the day.

It breaks me in two that no one seems to even WANT to try to serve this absolutely vital and absolutely equal aspect of the basic operatic experience. Singers with an eye on their own ongoing growth as artists are RAVENOUS for it, as are a great many of the audience. And those audiences who are not missing it are largely unaware of what they’re missing, blithely accepting the operatic Uncanny Valley of barely-there stagings from directors who often lack even so much as entry-level technical skill, never mind an awareness of how to create authentically impactful drama.

As a critic, I’m apparently notorious for being a hard taskmaster when it comes to the dramatic realisation (or not) of opera. One of the reasons I am so willing to call out other directors is because I see them actively wasting opportunities to push themselves, their colleagues, and the artform towards true transcendence. Doing it by the numbers and taking it as read is no way to grace the good fortune of being gainfully employed as a professional storyteller, especially in this economy. And here’s the thing: we don’t actually need to REACH transcendence. It’s not about the destination. If you aim for 100 and you only make it to 75, then you’re doing a whole lot better than if you’re only aiming for 50. Or 30. Or 10. If you’re not actively trying to set everyone’s imaginations on fire, to transcend mere efficiency, and be more than simply workmanlike, then as a director, what are you even for?

And frankly, in this financially perilous, post-Covid reality, if “that’ll do” is the default standard, why SHOULDN’T opera companies save themselves a buck, abandon the scenic and production elements entirely, and revert to purely concert presentations or broadcasts? Why stage opera at all if you’re not going to kick it in the proverbial?
If you’re not part of the solution…

David Meadows

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David Meadows


David is a career performing arts practitioner based in Melbourne. He aspires to transcendence in his artistic endeavours. When it comes to opera, he has very little patience with those in professional practice who attempt anything but the same.

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