Beyond the Bathrobe

By James Jorden

It’s the laziest of journalistic tropes to lead off with “this guy I know says…” but in this case the guy in question has provided me with what I consider a really handy peg for a first column on opera stage direction. Anyway, this guy—who’s in his 70s now, a retired opera record pirate, but, more to the point, one of the survivors from the 1950s golden age of the Met standing room line—he’s got a “line” expression for just about every operatic experience imaginable.  

So: this guy. His initial reaction to practically any news of innovation in opera production is to shrug and mutter, “Aah, Caruso in a bathrobe!” That’s not just an epithet: rather it’s shorthand for a story that, like all the most entertaining and evocative operatic anecdotes, is almost certainly apocryphal. It goes like this:

Enrico Caruso is just starting out as a singer, and he is so desperately poor that he can only afford one dress shirt. On the day that he sends out his laundry, he just sits in his room in a bathrobe, because he can’t get dressed to go out. One laundry day, there’s a message from the theater: Puccini is in town only for today, and he’s in the market for a new tenor.

“But it’s laundry day…” Caruso begins.

“Never mind, put on your bathrobe and get down here!”

So, Caruso puts on his bathrobe, shambles across the piazza, goes out onstage and wows the composer, who casts the disheveled demidivo in La bohème, and thus is born a star.

My interlocutor’s homespun point—that Caruso singing in his bathrobe is sufficient for operatic greatness, or, to put it another way, if you’ve got a Caruso on the bill, you don’t need a Luc Bondy—conveniently raises a broader question, which is: what is the value of stage direction in opera?

Why should we care so much about theatrical values in an art form which, for a significant fraction of the audience at least, is regarded primarily as a musical experience—and for a hefty subset of that group, as being solely “about” vocalism? And if opera must be staged, shouldn’t the production’s role be equivalent to that of a groom at a wedding, i.e., necessary, to be sure, but only to balance out the composition in the cake-cutting photos?

As music critic at the New York Post and on my blog, I’ve addressed these questions from time to time. In fact, for several years, a regular feature on that blog has been the “Regie quiz,” dervived from the German term for stage direction. Working from only a few photos of an outré production from some (generally) European opera house, the readers try to guess the identity of the opera.

It’s flippant, I know, but it’s not meant to belittle the work of directors who envision opera differently. (Belittlement may be reserved for latter-day purveyors of what may be called “classic Eurotrash,” the photos of which invariably stump the panelists: Is that haggard figure in the leather trench coat supposed to be Don Giovanni? Wotan? Eliza Doolittle?)

This blog will give me (and I hope, you) a chance to venture past both trench coats and bathrobes to discuss what works and what doesn’t work in modern stage direction. I’m hoping your opinions are at least as strong as my own!

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.