We have officially opened here in Geneva, with an emotional opening night audience to say the least. I don’t think there was any doubt that the performance was received quite rapturously, but, as seems to be predictably common, the production was met with a torrent of – displeasure – shall we say. I hesitate to say too much, because it seems a bit taboo for an artist to speak out on such things, and I do believe to a certain extent that the audience should be presented with an interpretation, and left to decide how they feel about it all on their own. However, I have been in the audience when I felt completely lost and would have greatly appreciated a bit of insight as to what was going on up on the stage, so I’ve opted to give people the chance to get some basic information before attending, for better or for worse!

So, let me first break down our production here in Geneva just a bit, and then let’s have a discussion about the bigger picture. However – this is a spoiler alert!! If you don’t wish to have the details on our production, please do stop reading, and scroll to after the photos for my thoughts. If you would like some insider scoop, keep reading. (and reading!)

The first thing to address, is that our director, Christof Loy, has changed the ending and as a result has taken a few liberties with the score. Elena does not end up with Malcom, but instead with the King. Right, wrong, misguided or brilliant, it is how our show ends.

(**All photos are © of Monika Rittershaus and may not be reprinted without permission)

Elena dreams of love at the start of her journey. She is a kind of worker, set-up girl in a local lodge, which is the central meeting point for the town’s provincial choir rehearsals, meetings, receptions, etc, and houses a small stage where they can put on local shows. She is very much a wall flower, frightfully shy, fragile, and while she wants to be a part of things, she instead lives inside her dreams and fantasies where she feels safe. She sneaks onto the “stage” when no one is around, finding a story within herself that gives her a sense of being alive. Her reticence is even more pronounced as the war between the clans heats up, and her impending nuptials to the warrior, Rodrigo, becomes something she can no longer escape – she finds the freedom she longs for in her dreams:

Elena’s fantasy world becomes a kind of reality as the stranger that has “happened” into her world (or did she create him?) begins to cross the line between real and imagined. She imagines setting up a home with him, but obviously, he cannot stay in this world for long…

…but for a fleeting moment, she finds contentment in her ideal fantasy:

But Elena’s world of fantasy comes crashing down as her idyllic “imagined stranger”, Umberto, learns of her impending nuptials to Rodrigo and confronts her. The tragic conflict of duty vs. love is now unavoidable for her:

After the enormous opening duet between Umberto and Elena finishes, in this production, Elena remains on stage and is confronted with her “subconscious”, Malcom. Christof sees the role of Malcom, played wonderfully in our show by Mariselle Martinez, as Elena’s alter-ego, her guardian angel, or protector. Each time her situation turns quite dark, Malcom arrives to help her through. In this first scene, Malcom tries to get Elena to look at herself and face her situation with courage. Malcom asks Elena to be true to who she really is, to stop running away from reality:

Elena is now faced with the harsh reality of her imposed wedding to Rodrigo (the wonderful Gregory Kunde), and has not found a way to speak out against it. She is trying to honor her duty to her father and her clan by marrying a man she does not love. Her pain is immense as she says, “I have lost any hope of peace.” However, war breaks out before the ceremony is complete, and she has been given a second chance to find her way:

As the act comes to a blazing close (such fabulous music!) with war songs and talk of “fighting to the death”, it becomes too much for Elena, and she collapses with dreams only of her true love, the stranger who appeared earlier, and voilà, he appears at the table, as normal as ever, which sets up the start to the second act:

As the curtain rises on Act 2, normally the stage is left to Umberto (the King himself) to sing of his love for Elena. But in Christof Loy’s version, it is Elena who conjures him up to sing of love and peace. She sets the stage, in her mind, to be the complete opposite of the war and bloodshed that haunts her reality, and for a brief moment tastes tranquility and love. What could be a more ideal picturesque setting, than to flood the stage with romantic Sylphs who surround her for protection:

But Elena is growing up and realizes she cannot escape into her dreams forever. The reality of what she is a part of is crashing down on her, and she is slowly realizing she must take responsibility. As the Sylphs flee her mind, she is left face to face with herself and the situation she has gotten herself into with the stranger:

As Umberto confesses his love for her and demands that she respond, she simply begs him to accept her friendship instead. In this version, she truly loves him, but knows that it is not right, so she continues to fight it. (In “Rossini’s version, it is, in fact, Malcom that she loves, and to whom she remains faithful until the end.) But this struggle sets up a monumental trio between Elena and the two tenors. (My ears are still buzzing from the storm of high “C’s” all around me!!):

But chaos has ensued. With Rodrigo’s arrival on the scene and his discovery of Umberto to be a true threat, in vintage manly fashion, war breaks out. Elena, in turn, breaks down, and finally realizes that one can never, ever escape the reality around them. One must face it directly and in accepting it, there is a kind of peace that can then be built upon. She has been at war within herself for too long (again, the conflict of being true to herself and following her heart, verses the understandable desire to be dutiful to her father), and it is only when she gives over to herself that she can find peace – and in turn, bring peace to those around her:

With this new found peace, Malcom arrives back on the scene and finds that his job with Elena is complete. She has relinquished her suffering and her pain to her other self and says goodbye to it. Malcom takes it on for her and, as was predicted in the beginning, dies for her, in the sense of letting the past fall away behind you:

Once Elena has found a way to her new found inner peace, the world changes and her dreams become a reality, in veritable fairy tail fashion. The stranger is, in fact, the King, he reconciles with her father and asks for her hand in marriage, which she gladly accepts. When Elena sings the line in her famous aria, “Tanti Affetti”, she sings of finally having found “la bella pace” – the beautiful peace – she has been longing for from the opening aria, and for me, this is the heart and soul of the opera. (I am always quite emotional when I sing that line!) After her immense journey, starting out as nearly mute, she finally has found a voice to sing in front of the entire town:

The final word of Elena’s famous rondo, which serves as the finale to the entire opera is “felicità” (“happiness”). Indeed, she is overcome with joy and the vocal fireworks that paint this elation serve as an incredible expression of unrepressed abandon. It is truly one of the great moments a singer could ever be given on the stage, and in this particular telling of the story, carries enormous weight, for the distance this character has come is enormous:

So, perhaps that was a futile attempt to make an argument for our little humble production. I have no idea if it will help or not, but it’s a little synopsis to perhaps fill in some of the blanks. But I would like to share a few thoughts about the different aspects of this crazy world of opera that this experience brings up.

Conceptual opera:

Ugh. It has such a bad connotation, and yet some of the “concept” operas I’ve taken part in have been the most rewarding (Hercules in Aix, Barbiere in Paris, Cendrillon in Santa Fe). Likewise, I’ve had unbelievable experiences with what some will call “stale, old, out-dated” productions that are supposedly the bane of opera today (Rosenkavalier in SF, Nozze in Chicago and Paris, Cenerentola in Milan). I’m a huge believer that any opera that tells the story well, with committed singing actors, a director who respects the art form and the music, and a conductor in the pit that can marry the stage to the orchestra pit can be immensely moving.

But I’m also a huge believer in innovation and exploration – opera can be the catalyst for many things: provocation, revelation, transcendence, laughter, self-reflection, discovery. I don’t dare assume that we have found all the possibilities that exist in the operas in our repertoire. It is one of the reasons they are masterpieces and that we keep coming back to them – they can be looked at from many different angles and we can find new elements that speak to us. Surely, what I find in Nozze now is not what I saw in it in 1998!

So as artists, we need the chance to explore and discover additional layers in these works. Sometimes we will succeed, but often we will not. We are human, we are not machines. And what speaks to one person, will often not touch the adjacent listener.

So let me speak a bit about this production. Christof used as his inspiration the shattering, disturbing, and ultimately uplifting movie “Breaking the Waves”. In it he found a very fragile girl living in an oppressive, closed-minded society, who found a way to her happiness with unconditional love being her only ruling force.

Her fragility is evident, but it is her strength which endures in the memory. I believe Christof wanted to find a way to make a perhaps outdated libretto speak to a modern day audience. Yes, this is the now politically correct dilemma facing directors and producers today, but I wonder if we are making it more difficult than it needs to be. I trust the music and I trust the emotional impact of these stories. I believe in them. But that doesn’t mean a different look at something can’t also bring an interesting psychological journey for the characters and the audience:

What do we do, in our every day lives, to avoid the reality around us? How do we escape? How do we alter our perception of things (for the better or for the worse) in order to cope? How do we handle feeling like an outsider? Where do we go when war, either physical or mental, seems to encompass everything around us?

These are, in my opinion, absolutely relevant questions to be posing – which is, after all, one of the functions of art, is it not? Let’s hold a mirror up to ourselves and find some truth lurking around in the dark corners in there! It’s not exactly that we as a species have learned from all of our past mistakes! But having worked with Christof these past weeks, I believe his pure intention was to find some of these answers.

Now, from a technical standpoint – I believe it was Chris who asked me on my last posting – how much “say” do we as artists have in regards to the production. I would say, in the vast majority of cases, we have 0% say. Nil. None. Nada. When we arrive for the first day of rehearsal for a new production, the set has already been built, and that set is based on the concept of the director. Costumes have been designed. Usually, the general architecture of the piece has been laid out, for there is no time to decide how many functional exits the stage will need, and what period it will be set in, and how we will look. We are essentially puppets on the first day of rehearsal.

Ideally, what happens at this point, is a collaboration begins, and the director works to convince his/her singers of his/her vision. I MUST gain some understanding about the “why” of the character. If they cannot convince me of that, I cannot function on the stage. I simply cannot do it. Without the understanding of what the character is living psychologically, how in the world do I choose my vocal color, my physical stance, the pace of my movements? But if I want the show to work, I have to meet the director half-way under the constraints of what has already been laid out, and I have to find a way to find a voice within the concept.

I can say that with very few exceptions, I have been able to find a way to make the director’s vision work for me. Actually, I’m trying to think of an exception…I’m sure there is one, but in the end, I have been able to reconcile most everything. (There was that one director who wanted Rosina to try to kill herself with Figaro’s razor – yeah, that didn’t go down too well!) We have no responsibility for how a production looks, for the period it is set in, or for the overall aesthetic impact. We MIGHT (and I emphasize MIGHT) get a say in tweaking our costume or wig. A bit. But that’s iffy. Yes, times have changed. (And personally, as much as I have my own artistic ideals, I do still like my job and prefer not to be fired!)

I have found my journey here as Elena to be very rewarding and fascinating. It’s an exhausting night for me, because I never leave the stage, except for one costume change, but I find that by the time “Tanti affetti” rolls around, the journey has been very truthful and real for her, and I think the impact for the finale is all the more powerful. You see a girl with no voice at the start, no sense of identity, come into her own in the most thrilling way. And I think the emotional impact is real.


So what to make of a torrent of booing for the production team? I’ll be very direct. It’s quite simply the worst feeling in the world to be on stage and be on the receiving end of such violence. Yes, even if it feels as if the boo’s are being directed to a select group on the stage, by the time opening night has come around, usually we are like a family, and when a member of that family is being singled out, it’s nearly impossible to separate yourself from them. We feel it deeply. I completely respect the audience’s right to have opinions and express them – but I believe you fall into one of two camps, and I decidedly fall into the “I hate booing” camp.

To be honest, if the audience really wanted to have an effective impact, they would simply fall silent. This is by far a more potent and effective way to express their feelings, without what feels like some sort of physical attack. Besides, does booing REALLY carry any weight anymore? To be honest, it’s passè and outdated – it’s as if the premiere isn’t a success without some boo’s! No – silence is a much more effective (and to my thoughts, civilized) reaction.

I just wanted to go on the record with my opinion. Again, everyone has the right to express their thoughts – but truly, there are more effective ways to accomplish it. I do hope, however, that in the end, artists are still given the chance to explore and grow. There will always be “misses” (Mozart even had them!), but we all know that in the theater, when we get a “hit” and that elusive transcendence overwhelms us, it is SO good!

Gracious, is anybody still reading this post?!?! I suppose this comes out of wanting the audience to have a rich experience in the theater, and this is my small attempt to help facilitate that a bit. Not that everyone needs it, because I have definitely heard from many people that they find this show profoundly moving. See – it’s so funny how art impacts different people!

Personally, I have found my experience here tremendously rewarding, and look forward to spending a lot of time with this lovely Lady of the Lake (or the lodge!) in the future.