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Sep 4, 2020 |
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Non-traditional Treatments of Two Shakespearian Operas: A Director's Perspective

David Ronis

This is the inaugural posting of Director's Perspective, a periodic feature posted online and in NOA Notes. Read about the Call for Submissions here.

David Ronis is the Karen K. Bishop Director of Opera at the Mead Witter School of Music, University of Wisconsin-Madison. davidronis.com

Producing a non-traditional staging of a standard repertory opera can be a risky affair. While some updated or transposed productions have been quite well-received, others have left audiences confused and angry, and exposed directors to accusations of self-indulgence and bad Regietheater. Although I have no personal preference for non-traditional productions over traditional ones, I have found that, despite any perceived risk, the former can be stimulating, enlightening projects to take on and well worth the effort. For me, reimagining an opera tends to be more complicated and more challenging than mounting a traditional production. It demands a thorough examination of all the narrative elements of the piece to make sure that each plot point makes sense in the new setting. Additionally, any textual references in the libretto that either become anachronistic or can no longer be taken literally must be addressed. Ultimately, the success of a “concept production” hinges on the effective fulfillment of the same dramaturgical goals as for any theatrical piece: coherent and emotionally resonant storytelling, plus clear articulation of the work’s themes. Having worked on multiple non-traditional productions, I offer the following, detailing the realization of two such projects at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

I came to my first concept meeting with the dramaturg for a production of Verdi’s Falstaff having just had lunch with a mutual colleague, a theater director for whom I have a great deal of respect. I had told her, the theater director, of my plan to produce Falstaff and she immediately volunteered that if she were doing it, she would set the opera in the 1930s. The title character, of course, is a “fallen knight” who, surrounded by his cronies, now resorts to petty crime as a means of existence. My friend’s perspective was that the inter-war years, particularly during the Great Depression, would create a suitable backdrop for a character like Falstaff who, in his updated iteration, could have fought in World War I and was subsequently down on his luck. Although I did not choose to pursue my colleague’s idea per se, it nevertheless ignited a spark in me that I brought to my meeting with the dramaturg.

As it turned out, we did end up staying in that period, setting our show in 1930, but specifically in Hollywood. We observed that Falstaff – with its plot owing more to Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor than to the Henry IV plays – has a lot in common with the classic “screwball comedies” of the 1930s. Thus, a 1930 setting felt both logical and organic. We found easy parallels between the characters and situations in Falstaff and the Hollywood culture of the time. In particular, we were drawn to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a larger than life character on screen and off. Arbuckle was a beloved, very successful silent movie comedian whose career virtually dried up in the 1920s in the aftermath of a murder scandal in which he was implicated, tried, and later acquitted. By 1930, he had little work and not much money; he truly was a kind of “fallen knight” of the cinema, a has-been, not unlike Falstaff. In focusing on Arbuckle, our intent was not to directly portray our Falstaff as Fatty Arbuckle. Rather, the association served to anchor the production in that time and place, and as a central reference point from which to flesh out the concept.

Many elements of the transposition came together rather smoothly.  Ford became a movie mogul, and his wife, Alice, and her friend Meg Page, typical Hollywood wives of the period. Mistress Quickly was modeled on Hedda Hopper, the famous gossip columnist. The pool at the Ford’s house served as our substitute for the Thames River, into which Falstaff is thrown at the end of the second act. The previous scene, in which Nannetta and Fenton typically hide behind a screen while the other characters search for them, also adapted easily to this setting. In our version, the lovers nuzzled in a cabana which the chorus members simply lifted when it was time for them to be discovered. We chose the bar at the Chateau Marmont – the infamous residence hotel on Sunset Boulevard, built in 1929 and a likely Arbuckle hangout – as a model for the Garter Inn where Falstaff held court with fellow out-of-work actors, Bardolf and Pistol. And we located the final scene of the opera in the Hollywood Hills, complete with a backdrop featuring the Hollywood sign.

The process of developing this version of Falstaff, however, was not entirely issue-free. One sticky point involved dealing with the multiple references to “Windsor” in the libretto. How would we justify the frequent mention of a specific place in England when we were clearly in California? Incongruities like this one are not uncommon when re-setting a piece. Directors tend to address them by either introducing appropriate substitutes for the incompatible details or building their concept with less specificity. In this case, we found a solution through research. There is indeed a section of Los Angeles in which the Fords of this production could easily have resided called Windsor Square (that, coincidentally, features luxurious houses designed in faux Tudor style). Thus, the “Windsor” references were plausible in this setting. All in all, the artistic team and I were pleased with the reimagined production. We felt that placing the iconic story in Hollywood in 1930 enriched and brought a certain novelty to the storytelling. Plus, it provided some welcome food for thought. 

Although, for the most part, the pieces of the Falstaff puzzle coalesced with relative ease, another non-traditional setting of an opera with a Shakespearian text, Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, proved to have a more complicated gestation and birth. After choosing the piece, the planning calendar necessitated that the dramaturg, designers, and I started working on the production with hardly any lead time to consider an approach. Thus, we all arrived at the first concept meeting, admittedly, having done minimal preparation. (N.B. I strongly do not recommend that directors or designers follow this example, but I do want to put the creative process for the project in context.) My goal for this meeting was to explore fresh perspectives on this wonderful work that would be engaging and entertaining. I also knew that I wanted to cast the roles of the Fairies with undergraduate women (as opposed to children) in order to give our students more performing opportunities, and I wanted to avoid a traditional, Elizabethan setting.

After a stimulating and rather free-form discussion in which we let our imaginations run, the idea surfaced of setting the show at The Factory, Andy Warhol’s workspace-cum-playspace. The Factory was the center of the universe for the pop art world of the mid-1960s. By day, Warhol and his employees made and sold art there. By night, A-list celebrities, wannabes, and a colorful array of people representing “alternative” lifestyles regularly gathered at The Factory to party. The critical question for me was whether we could effectively tell the essential stories of Midsummer in this environment. I had concerns regarding the viability of setting a magical comedy about the vicissitudes of love in an atmosphere pervaded by what seemed to me to be a kind of cold and depersonalized art. After quite a bit of discussion, though, the seeds of a plan began to emerge. But I was not yet convinced. There were too many details to work out.

In order to develop the concept, it was important to articulate ways in which we could effectively integrate Warhol’s world with Shakespeare’s comedy. How would this setting transform the character relationships? How would we represent the inherent magic in the piece? How could we reconcile the evocative outdoor ambiance of Midsummer with the inside of a Manhattan loft space? As I worked through each of these questions and more, I consulted with the artistic team. Their individual and collective input proved to be invaluable as far as evolving each element of the story. After six weeks – including a period during which my doubts led me to revisit three alternative concepts, eventually rejecting them all – I came full circle and was ready to commit to A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Factory. As it turned out, my concerns about the seeming coldness of Warhol’s milieu receded as I realized that the romantic spirit of Midsummer and Britten’s evocative score would easily take over and infuse the setting with beauty and magic.   

In order to bring Midsummer into Warhol’s world, we modeled many of the characters on people in his inner circle. First and foremost, we decided to make Oberon, the King of the Fairies, resemble Andy Warhol. Sporting a platinum wig, he playfully manipulated and connived his way to the dénouement while also occupying himself with art making and decorating. Our Tytania was loosely based on Edie Sedgwick, Warhol’s close friend and muse. The conflict between the two regarding possession of the “changeling boy” became, in our version, jealousy over which one of them was currently bedding a young man, a non-singing character, who we introduced into the action. Puck was a kind of mashup of Ondine, one of the particularly audacious Warhol Superstars, and Billy Name, Andy’s right-hand man. The Fairies became young women in the fashion and entertainment industries, regulars at The Factory; the Lovers, artists and workers who were employed there; and the Rustics, or “Rude Mechanicals,” blue-collar laborers by day, who came together after hours to form an amateur theater troupe seeking their “fifteen minutes of fame.” The Factory was the place to which they all gravitated and the de facto locale for their stories to play out. The climactic scene featured the Mechanicals, in an homage to the avant-garde theater style of the 1960s, performing their ridiculous Pyramus and Thisbe play at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta – in this setting, a rich art collector and his trophy girlfriend.

After the personalities and relationships fell into place, we turned our attention to the portrayal of the supernatural aspects of the story. In merging the world of fantasy and magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the real world of Andy Warhol and The Factory, we took some more poetic license. In our version, Oberon’s magical herbs conveniently translated into recreational drugs, widely used at The Factory. Oberon and Puck administered those to Tytania, Demetrius, and Lysander while they slept, and we also featured two dream-like scenes involving hallucinatory drugs. For the episode in which Puck transforms Bottom’s head into that of a donkey, we first showed Oberon and Puck creating the donkey head in the studio. When it later appeared on Bottom, we understood it to be both a magical effect and an objet d’art

We also integrated other Warholian art making activities into the action – taking photographs, fashioning silk screen images, and decorating the space with examples of pop art. We reflected that, since a certain metaphysical quality could be ascribed to the creation of art in general, we could also view such actions in terms of their representing a kind of artistic “magic.” In the end, we felt that these devices, along with the other components of the transposition, effectively enhanced the storytelling and imparted richness and depth to our version of Midsummer. And they allowed us to see the work in a new, compelling light while genuinely evoking its spirit and themes.  

These non-traditional approaches to Falstaff and A Midsummer Night’s Dream proved to be valuable on many levels. They challenged the performers to shed any pre-conceived notions they had about the works and to come to the material with a certain freshness. They encouraged them to expand the way they think about narrative in a larger sense. They energized the rehearsal process and stimulated the creativity of all involved. And they gave audiences the opportunity to see these canonic works through alternate, undoubtably whimsical, yet thoughtful lenses. I hope that, for directors considering producing operas with non-traditional settings as well as those performing in or attending them, this account will provide some insight into the process.

David Ronis