Sunday, May 16, 2004

Composer's intentions

Over at Crooked Timber, Chris Bertram reviews the English National Opera's new production of The Valkyrie. Chris describes many changes the ENO production made to Wagner's original stage directions, including the insertion of new characters and starting the opera with Wotan and Brunnhilde accompanied by a scream rather than Siegmund collapsing in Hunding's house.

Changing stage directions, costumes, and set designs are very commonplace in the world of opera. Productions are expensive, so directors feel something new must be done to draw crowds. In addition, the artistic mentality of the director demands a personal touch to the production, something that clearly signifies what the director has brought to the production.

In instances where the composer has made very clear indications for the performance, these changes brings up an interesting philosophical dilemma . Wagner made explicit stage directions, as part of his philosophy of Gesamtkunstwerk. What obligations do performers have to adhere to the composer's intentions, communicated through the score or in other formats? With the changes that ENO made to Die Walküre, is it fair to still call it an opera by Wagner? What if music is cut out (a common occurrence in musical theater), or added (much more rare)?

Beyond the fairness of attribution, I am interested in the artistic obligations of the performer. Is there such a thing as an inauthentic performance of a musical work? If a performer decides to ignore some directions of the composer, the result will not be the same as the imagined sound the composer heard when writing the score. Given human limitations, it is highly unlikely that any performance will be exactly the same as the composer's imagination, but reasonable facsimiles are certainly expected if the performer attempts to follow all directions. If the directions are very specific, performances converge on an invariant performance practice. In these cases, what new thing can the performer bring to each iteration of the piece? If there is nothing new, why should there be additional performances?

These are not simple questions, and I do not have ready answers for them. It seems reasonable to expect performances of a piece to mutate over time, with changes in instrument design, improvements in technique, and different views of the musical language of the piece in the context of the current social framework. Something must stay the same, to say that it is the same piece, but that something can change with each work.

Back to Chris's review, Wagner's intentions were clearly being ignored in the ENO production, which made the experience less enjoyable to Chris. That makes this performance inauthentic.

Update: Chris tells me that the performance was in English, making it even more horrifying. Wagner wrote out most of his operas as narrative poems first. He would then compose the music to fit the poetry and the dramatic intents. I used to be very snobbish about translations of operas, until I experienced The Marriage of Figaro sung in English. The experience of getting the jokes as they were sung, rather than reading them, made the experience quite delightful. But in the case where poetry has been carefully written, with musical signs attached to specific words, translations are dicey at best. Also thanks to Chris, my horrific German/English hybrid-title has been corrected.

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