Opera, Historical Accuracy & Costuming


Screen shot 2013-05-11 at 6.42.26 PMI don’t know if I like the idea of Rigoletto being put into the 1950s and Las Vegas, with a Rat Pack theme.  It defies explanation.  It is an insult to Verdi.  I love Rigoletto.  I’ve seen the original Barihunk, Sherrill Milnes do it, many times.  I saw the late Cornell MacNeal do it, many times.  I would love to see Dmitri Hvorostovsky do it, but alas, next year, it is not to be.  Then again, with the recent discoveries made about Richard III, perhaps we need to rethink the way we view Rigoletto.  Richard III may have had the same physical problem as Rigoletto, but he was a terribly handsome man.  Yep, that’s Dmitri Hvorostovsky!

If you haven’t noticed, The Pink Flamingo is an opera freak.  More accurate would be the statement that I am a confessed, highly addicted Baritone Barihunk Junkie.  I love the male voice, having a very low tolerance for tenors, mezzos and most sopranos.  When I go to an opera, I want to hear the men, not the other voices.  As a confessed Barihunk Junkie, I like my male voices well (or perhaps not so well) costumed.  I like my opera, like I like my history, accurate, well staged, and don’t want my intelligence insulted.

I love opera.  I want to be able to go to an opera and take my mother or a niece of nephew.  I can’t do that when we’re dealing with what can only be described as an x-rated performance where the principle characters prance around naked, on stage.  There was a recent staging of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail that had an overture which could only be described as a pornographic S&M fantasy.  Sorry, but that’s gone way too far.  Granted, Mozart and De Sade were contemporaries, and society at the time was far less prudish than it is today (seriously, folks) but still, enough is enough.


I guess that’s why I have a tendency, now not to go see opera on stage.  It’s insulting, for the most part.  It’s deplorable, reprehensible, sometimes pornographic, and quite frequently an insult to the game. (I have a tendency to wax into baseball terms when describing opera.  There’s not much difference between the two sports).  And yes, I consider opera to be a sport.  One only needs to look as far as Barihunks to understand that a well trained baritone must be as well trained as baseball player.


Opera is a wonderful medium that combines the very best of everything:  music, theater, acting, special effects, costuming, and baritones.  It should be a visual feast for the eyes, an audio orgy for the ears, and a near spiritual experience for the soul.  One should leave a well-staged opera nearly stoned, the way The Pink Flamingo did one infamous night back in the 1980s after hearing Sherrill Milnes (the greatest baritone ever) do Simone Boccanegra.

(It is at this point The Pink Flamingo must mention that Milnes, in the prologue was one of the greatest visual feasts a woman could ever want to experience….sigh).  It is also at this point where The Pink Flamingo to admit to being such a Milnes fanatic that it was embarrassing.  My gosh the man could do a wild Giovanni!)

I was staying at the Plaza, and ended up, alone, on an elevator with one of the greatest hunk, heart-throb movie stars of my generation.  I was so stoned on the after-effects of Milnes’ Boccanegra that I did not even realize who I was visiting with – very nice man, wonderful manners – until I was off the elevator.  He’d been to the same performance, on the other side of the Met from The Pink Flamingo.  I did discover we had the same subscription seats as his best bud and his wife did on a different night.  Let’s just say the pair starred in a now iconic western from the 1970s, that was also a visual feast to the female eye.  My mother always appreciated our seats, more, when she learned just who was occupying them the night before we would!

I digress….

Opera, as theater, should be celebrated, dramatic, and exciting.  Currently, the Metropolitan Opera is suffering from floundering ticket sales.  If you don’t know why, just start looking at their current and past performances of current leadership.  To put it succinctly – THEY SUCK.

Opera is fantasy.  It should be staged as such.  It is also important to be stages as the composer wished it to be staged.  There are currently times when what is put on stage, production wise, is disgusting.  Case in point is the current staging of David McVicar’s Giulio Cesare.  I don’t give a rip if it is well criticized.  It’s disgusting.  It also reflects the very real problem facing opera and the world today.  Giulio Cesare is about Gaius Julius Caesar and Cleopatra.  It is NOT about some fantastical staging about the British Empire.  It is about very real men and women who lived and died at a given point in history.  Now, granted, in Handel’s day staging would probably have reflected his Baroque era, but, if we bow to tradition, then staging today should be quite modern.  Frankly, The Pink Flamingo would rather see staging that would be out of the HBO Mini-series Rome.  Let’s face it, you keep this up and someone’s going to set Aida as a step child to Gone With The Wind before it’s over.  (Actually, the wouldn’t.  That would take a knowledge about costume and fashion, and today’s opera reflects none of that).

The Pink Flamingo is a costume freak.  I am currently doing early edits and revisions on a book that contains nearly 2200 unpublished photos reflecting American fashion from 1860-1910.  I know my fashion and my costume.  Before his Alzheimer’s set in, my father could look at a car and tell you the year.  I can look at a women’s dress and tell you the year.

Once in awhile you can get away with a different staging.  The Pink Flamingo happens to think that Don Giovanni is one of those operas that can be an anything goes with staging.  If reflects the life of Don Juan of Austria, the illigimate son of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (Verdi’s Ernani), who is currently being reassessed by historians.  A womanizer, he was also responsible for beating back the Muslim forces at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.  If he has not died of typhoid, and had not been held in check by his half-brother, Phillip II, the outcome of the Spanish Armada would have been entirely different.

Don Giovanni was first staged in 1787.  Because Mozart was probably the first modern rock star with the life-style to prove it, I think you do anything to it, and that’s what is happening.  Once upon a time, The Pink Flamingo was involved in a correspondence with the late, great Boris Goldovsky about the Don Juan Legend.  Goldvosky felt the legend was eternal.  The Pink Flamingo has spent thirty years researching it.  It basically does not appear before the late 16th Century, almost contemporary with Don Juan of Austria.

Because of Don Juan’s nature, staging can be fun.  The Pink Flamingo would love to see a Regency version of the opera, complete with Don Juan as Mr. Darcy.  Modern versions of the character are part of our contemporary every day culture:  James Bond and Captain James. T. Kirk. Both settings would make a wonderful staging of the opera.  Frankly, the Trekkie in me would love to stage Don Giovanni as Star Trek with Don Giovanni as Captain Kirk (old uniforms, please).  FYI, The Pink Flamingo prefers Simon Keenlyside’s Giovanni. He is quite elegant in the role.

You can have fun with opera.  The other night I was reading an opera post about recent stagings that basically border on the pornographic.  Burkhard C. Kosminski, who did the production, is pushing the envelope way to far, in my humble estimation. I suspect what brings this post on, now, is a current staging of Tannhauser that is an obscenity.  There is no other way to describe it.  The Pink Flamingo doesn’t care that there are those who say the production should not have been canceled.  It should never have been allowed in the first place.  During the overture (my personal most favorite piece of music in the whole world – aside from Live and Let Die) a group of naked Jews are executed, by the Nazis.  I’m sorry, but that’s going way too far. With a little bit of luck, this will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and brings some sense and beauty back into the staging of opera.  One should not require a NC-18 rating on an opera production.

This is one of those operas where we have a very real date of when it should take place.  Wolfram von Eschenbach, a principle character in the story – and one of the greatest baritone arias ever – lived from c. 1170 – c. 1220.  It is high Medieval, with all the beauty of the period.  Don’t make it anything else.  The Pink Flamingo did see a clip from a version where they turned it into a Gauguin moral play.  It might work in that era, but I can’t see putting it anywhere else.

One recent exception is Willy Decker’s recent staging of Verdi’s La Traviata.  While Traviata might have been Wyatt Earp’s favorite opera, it is not mine.  In fact, until I saw the Decker staging, I never cared for the opera. I suffered through it one time at the Met, simply because Sherrill Milnes was doing Germont.  Decker’s staging transformed the opera.  I don’t like modern renditions, but putting it in the era of AIDS, makes a heck of a lot of sense.  I don’t mind adding that I prefer Dmitri Hvorostovsky to Sherrill Milnes as Germont.

The problem is the fact that we’re dealing with such cultural illiteracy and such historical ignorance that the fortunate few who end up scoring the big productions are making fools of themselves, and the opera going public by exposing their ignorance like the cheap dirty flashers they are.  They have no grasp of history, of costume and the role of history in stage-craft. Instead of turning out something quite remarkable, they turn operatic productions into perversions of what the composer originally wanted.  As a writer, and as someone who has written a couple plays, I have written directions on exactly how I want them performed and staged.  If the production can’t follow my requirements, then don’t do the play.  It’s insulting.  I know exactly how I want my one man Doc Holiday performance staged.  I know exactly how another of my plays should be staged.  I have even written explicit instructions for costuming.  It is about respecting the material.  If you can’t respect it, don’t perform it.

Eschenbach wrote Parzifal. (And yes, The Pink Flamingo has read it).  That’s another opera that is suffering from the modern obscenities of staging.  Parsifal is an Arthurian tale. It is about Sir Percival and the Holy Grail.  As someone who has studied the Matter of Britain almost as much as Tombstone and the Wild West, the subject should be sacred.  It should be performed in an almost sacred manner, and once was.  Now, though, it is one of those operas that is subjected to what can only be described as x-rated insanity.

When dealing with operas like Tannhauser, Parsifal, and the Ring (don’t even get started on the Met’s latest insanity there) it should be a Tolkin fantasy come to life.  With all the advances in modern staging and the current trends in fantasy, these operas should be such a lush, fantastical feast for the eyes, that people would be standing in line to see them, not avoiding them like the plague.  Yes, it is a Pink Flamingo fantasy to one day stage The Ring.  If I were doing it, Tannhauser, and Parsifal, it would be like Camelot meets Lord of the Rings with a little bit of Star Wars tossed in for good measure. One could even make an argument that the Ring could be staged as a version of Star Wars, and get away with it.

Screen shot 2013-05-11 at 6.24.24 PMThe argument is that the modern audience is so stupid and brain dead they can’t comprehend traditional staging, beautiful costumes, see an opera as it was intended, and not understand what is going on without turning it into something so pornographic it rivals an x-rated film they would show after midnight on Cinemax.  Where is the art and beauty?

It’s like the recent Met production of Un Ballo in Maschera.  Don’t get me wrong, Dmitri Hvorostovsky in a Fedora puts Indiana Jones to shame, but still, the staging defies logic.  The story is about the 1792 assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden.  When he ran into trouble with the censors (as usual) Verdi put the staging in colonial America.  If you follow Verdi’s example then you do what the Met did back in the 1980s and did just that, staged it in colonial America.  I saw the production with Sherrill Milnes, and the great Luciano Pavarotti.

Screen shot 2013-05-11 at 6.28.48 PM

The new production defies imagination.  If you know anything about history, then you know that there are very few times in history when the storyline could take place would be from that 1792 about 1816 at the latest.  It was the era of revolution.  If it was the era of revolution, why not place it in that time?  If so, then you do early Regency costumes.  The production would be incredible. Could you imagine Dmitri costumed like Mr. Darcy?  Could we even stand it?  Let’s face it, there’s NOTHING anywhere like Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy.  They even refer to it as Jane Austen pornography!

I suspect this is what defies imagination.  If the various and sundry renditions of Jane Austen movies had not done so well at the box office, or miscellaneous fantasy and super hero movies did not do so well (look at the Lord of the Rings or Titanic) maybe the culturally depraved individuals who think that young audiences don’t want anything with costumes and special effects might have a point.  They don’t.  They are so completely out of touch with the realities of our culture, that they are ruining opera.  Reality is is something so lush and so romantic that people salivate over it.  You don’t even get decent box office takes for the modern or for logic depraved versions of S&M that are explicit they require an NC-17 rating.  It doesn’t work.  If people don’t go to see those movies, why would you think they would waste their money on an opera with the same sort of staging.

They don’t.




One thought on “Opera, Historical Accuracy & Costuming

  1. Thank you for a very interesting post. I understand exactly what you mean. Experimentation has been going on with Shakespearean plays for quite some time. Some are set in modern times, Macbeth in the Nazi era etc. They are not always in good taste, but I guess some people enjoy them.

Comments are closed.