• The Things I Will Not Do When I Direct An Opera Production

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    A few years ago, I discovered this hilarious list: The Things I Will Not Do When I Direct A Shakespeare Production, On Stage Or Film (http://angevin2.livejournal.com/148520.html). In the comments section, someone suggests that a similar list should be made about opera productions, and even recommended an entry involving Tosca. So I decided to make one.

    Some of the productions referenced here are productions I’ve actually seen, but most of them I’ve only heard of. Some people reading this may have seen them and found them perfectly effective, but they sound iffy to me. Feel free to post comments and add your own contributions to the list: goodness knows, there’ve been more ridiculous opera productions out there than any one person can ever see or read about!


    1. I will not cast Floria Tosca as a google-eyed, unstable, brick-stupid ninny, no matter how much I personally find such women irresistible. The story loses much of its impact if this woman is not a force to be reckoned with. (this one was recommended by the person who suggested this list)
    2. At no point in La Clemenza di Tito will a woman meant to be Berenice ride across the stage on a giant potato. (thanks, John Gilks!)
    3. If I direct Carmen I will use either the original spoken dialogue or Guiraud’s recitatives. I will not combine them, or have the singers speak the text of the recitatives, rhymes and all.
    4. I will not set Lohengrin in a laboratory and costume the chorus as white rats.
    5. I will not let any singer sob uncontrollably onstage unless he or she can do it convincingly, without it sounding like comical drunken laughter. This especially applies to tenors (Rodolfo at Mimí’s death, Canio at the end of “Vesti la giubba,” etc.).
    6. Just because I personally dislike a character, I will not decide that the composer and librettist must have intended for us to hate him or her, and force a naturally likeable singer to play the role as repulsively as possible.
    7. I will not attempt to portray Sarastro as a villain and the Queen of the Night as a noble, tragic victim, no matter how much of a feminist I may be.
    8.  I will not portray Mozart’s Figaro as a Vietnam vet who has a flashback during “Non piú andrai.”
    9. Nor will I portray Susanna as having already slept with the Count, or the Countess as madly in lust with Cherubino.
    10. Under no circumstances will I let a singer masturbate onstage – not even as Don Giovanni.
    11. I will not have Alfredo physically abuse Violetta during the money scene, not will I have Germont physically abuse her during their Act II scena.
    12. Either the original couples are happily reconciled at the end of Cosí Fan Tutte, or not. I will make the decision early in rehearsals and stick to it.
    13.  I will not have Don Giovanni get shot by the dying Commendatore, spend the rest of the opera bleeding and in pain, and in the end die of his wound instead of going to Hell.
    14. I will not end Gianni Schicchi with the title character being stabbed by Zita, delivering his final monologue in agony, then dropping dead and being cried over by little Gherardino.
    15. If my Wotan cancels at the last minute, I will insist that his stand-in not be drunk.
    16. No matter how much I want to shorten the running time, I will not cut the recitative from Barber of Seville in which Bartolo tricks Rosina into believing “Lindoro” is unfaithful. Doing so makes her subsequent accusation nonsensical.
    17. I will not, in an attempt to be modern and edgy/add LGBTQ representation/make Baron Ochs more intelligent/titillate, stage a production of Der Rosenkavalier in which Octavian really is a woman and she, the Marschallin and Sophie are all lesbians.
    18. I will not fill Die Entführung aus dem Serail with violence and kinky sex.
    19. I will not stage any opera with costumes that start out traditional, but become progressively modern throughout the performance to demonstrate that the story is “timeless.” It’s been done before and is a flimsy concept to begin with.
    20. Nor will I mix the costumes of different eras at random throughout the opera.
    21. If I’m forced to cast a famous, arrogant diva as Mimí, I will cast a little-known young singer as Musetta. I will not cast an equally charismatic diva whom Mimí will see as a threat and constantly attempt to upstage.
    22. I will not set Aida in Nazi Germany.
    23. I will not cast a black singer as Jokanaan unless I’m forced to, and if so, I will make the production a surreal one that lets him wear white body paint. I will not just ignore Salome’s ecstasy over the whiteness of his body.
    24. I will not portray Madame Butterfly as a mature woman comfortable with her sexuality from the start.
    25. In no death scene (except Violetta’s) will I allow the “dying” singer to inexplicably rise to his/her feet, stagger to center stage, belt out his/her final words to the audience rather than the character being addressed, and then drop to the floor. No matter how big a star said singer is.
    26. I will not stage the finale of Orfeo ed Euridice in a way that conveys obvious disdain for the happy ending.
    27. I will not set Rigoletto on the Planet of the Apes.
    28. I will not imply incest between Don Magnifico and his daughters in Cenerentola. Just because he’s the “bad guy” doesn’t mean he needs to be “creepy.”
    29. Even if I take a cue from RENT and portray Colline and Schaunard as a gay couple, I will not portray Schaunard as a flaming stereotype.
    30. I will not stage Fidelio with a giant dumpster onstage, into which all the costumes and props are thrown to symbolize that “theatre no longer exists.” I especially will not make Florestan sing his opening aria from inside said dumpster.
    31. I will not depict Dr. Bartolo’s house as a giant, nude female torso and place Rosina’s balcony on one of the boobs exactly where the heart is located.
    32. Madama Butterfly is Madama Butterfly and Medea is Medea. I will not change the ending of Butterfly to have the heroine kill her son instead of herself.
    33. Euridice is a teeny-tiny role in Monteverdi’s Orfeo. It isn’t vocally demanding. Therefore, I have no excuse to cast a physically unattractive soprano in the role.
    34. I will not stage Un Ballo in Maschera as a critique of modern American society, and even if I do, at no point will I include a procession of nude men in Mickey Mouse masks.
    35. If a singer opts to cry real tears in any given scene, I will supply him/her with a handkerchief. I will not let him/her sniffle all the way through any subsequent aria.
    36. I will not replace Hansel & Gretel’s gingerbread house with an industrial kitchen.
    37. I will not attempt to remove all trappings of religion from Dialogues of the Carmelites.
    38. At the same time, however, I will not have the Old Prioress strike a “Christ on the cross” pose just before dying.
    39. I will not set Carmen in a museum with the title character as a cleaning lady and have paintings that represent “the eternal feminine” (Salome, Mona Lisa, Marilyn Monroe, etc) come to life and dance with her throughout the production.
    40. Nor will I make it into a Baz Luhrmann homage set in a Moulin Rouge-style nightclub and give Carmen a long red wig, a la Nicole Kidman. Why use Carmen to pay tribute to a movie that was clearly inspired by Traviata and Bohéme?
    41. No matter how villainous or lecherous a character is, I will not show him kissing or humping a statue of the Virgin Mary just for shock value.
    42. If I decide to make the Commendatore’s statue an equestrian statue, I will not force the singer to mount the horse on a pitch-dark stage, possibly resulting in him being revealed to the audience sitting backwards.
    43. If I make a movie of Dido and Aeneas, I will not have Dido sing “When I am laid in earth” only for her body to be burned on a pyre in the end instead.
    44. I will do my best to ensure that The Magic Flute’s dragon/serpent doesn’t collapse before the Three Ladies “kill” it, and that Nothung in Die Wälkure shatters when it’s meant to, not when Siegmund first pulls it out of the tree.
    45. I will not let a character described as blonde in the libretto be dark haired onstage, or vice-versa. Even if I know that most of the audience won’t notice because they don’t speak Italian/French/German/what have you.
    46. At the end of Traviata, I will not have the other characters exit during Violetta’s final lines, implying that the whole final act up to that point was a hallucination and that Violetta actually dies alone and forgotten.
    47. At no point during Nabucco will I cover the stage with phallic symbols.
    48. I will not set Suor Angelica on and around a giant reclining statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. Especially not if it leads to the dying Angelica lying on the statue with the spirit/hallucination of her son similarly clasped in her arms.
    49. If an opera’s heroine is repeatedly described as a sweet, innocent angel by other characters, I will not incongruously portray her as an angry, snarky “tough girl” just for the sake of feminism.
    50. I will not stage Madama Butterfly so that every character’s costume makes them resemble an insect (Butterfly a butterfly, Pinkerton a scorpion, etc).



    • I enjoyed this very much – great stuff!

    • Hi Pamina,
      This is an awesome list (and funny, until you realize some of this sh… er stuff has been done!) I agree with you on almost all instances. However:

      I found #4 to be a lot more effective than I expected;
      I think #12 lends itself to ambiguity—of course there’s a difference between the audience not knowing for sure, and the director not knowing for sure;
      and #29 is kind of already there, so I don’t mind if it’s played up a bit. I mean, who IS Don Giovanni anyway? Who really knows for sure?

      Meanwhile, I’ve heard about, but not seen 39 and 50, but frankly the ideas fascinate me!

      Thanks for your clever posts!

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