Buckling That Swash – Please?


Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 11.00.37 PMLast week, the operatic world was in something of a flutter, at least many female opera fans were.  It was quite simple.  You take 1 incredibly good looking man with the best baritone voice of our generation, and put him in that shirt, and we lose our minds. Trust me, part of it is THE SHIRT.  There should be a law requiring men wear shirts like this. They are romantic, in every sense of the word: romance.

I must admit, one of the few shows I watch, regularly, is the BBC’s version of The Three Musketeers.  On Saturday, while I was watching it, it finally dawned on me why I don’t like much of the operatic staging today.  For some reason, today’s sophisticated, and I use that word sarcastically, operatic producer and designer is madly in love with the 1930 and Art Decco.  The flirtation is coming out of Europe.  I have a tendency not to wax very poetic about philosophies behind operatic production.  My personal preference is that it should be what it should be, and the final notes of the composer should be the last word.  It was the composer’s last word.  If Puccini went out of his way to set Tosca (one of my personal favorites) during the the Napoleonic wars, specifically basing the opera on the play by Victorien Sardou, then one should honor the playwright’s wishes.  He put a specific date of June 17, from early morning, until after midnight on June 18, 1800, then the opera should be staged that way.  To do anything else violates the wishes of the composer and the body of work upon which it is based.

BBC America
BBC America

This is the shirt and the photo that started me thinking about opera, women, and buckling that swash. It’s a simple shirt, timeless. It says something else to us today, to we women. It is heroic, masculine, and, well, just plain attractive, to put it mildly. Add a cape over the shirt, and that swash can be buckled.

Today’s ultra sophisticated and world-weary critics might complain about just another hackneyed production, but the reason they are critics is because that’s all they can do, bitch and criticize.  It tends to jade a person’s world-view.  If you can’t say something nice, then you become a critic.  Critics today are in love with the 1930’s and Decco stagings.  They want edgy, and something new.  If you want edgy and something new, write it yourself.  Don’t condemn the world to your cultural and historical ignorance.

I love Tosca.  I love the time frame.  You would think, today, with the 200th anniversary of Waterloo Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 10.50.43 PMpending, that someone might make the connection between the demise of Napoleon and an opera which foreshadows just that.  Unfortunately, that requires more knowledge of culture, sociology, and history than today’s poorly educated operatic producers have.  It is also a thumb in the nose of life.  They are better than we, the unwashed masses are.  They know better. They are the superior ones.  We barely know how to brush our teeth and apply deodorant, evidently.  No matter that the costuming in Tosca is what we today like to term ‘Regency’.  Anyone with half a brain cell knows that Regency is all about Jane Austen.  Any dolt who bothers to check movie reviews, Oscar nominations, ticket sales, book sales, and so forth and so on might be able to comprehend that Regency sells.  In the day and age where the ultra sophisticated and perennial child of privileged, Peter Gelb, is now reduced to basically pawning the Chagalls.

One of the reasons is because Gelb’s taste in modern staging doesn’t sell.  His choices of edgy, modern productions can’t fill the seats.  The sophisticates decry the fact that the Zefferelli La Boheme and Turandot are trite and need to be traded in for something updated and more modern.  It’s like this – they are money-makers.

Unknown Subject by Nicholas Hilliard, c 1600
Unknown Subject by Nicholas Hilliard, c 1600

People like the productions.  Sure, those people, the little people, have barely managed to pull themselves up from the primordial swamps and have only recently evolved from the amoeba, and the sophisticates are well – sophisticated.  But, there are only so many sophisticates in the world, which is populated by We the Little People.

There is a problem with catering to the sophisticates and the billionaires who are like the immortals, periodically coming down from the clouds to walk among us, holding a nosegay – a small bouquet of aromatic flowers to their well-sculpted and turned- up noses, so the need not smell our unwashed bodies.  It is basic economics.  Even billionaires can only buy so many new refrigerators a year – maybe a couple thousand at most.  When the economy is bad, only billionaires can afford new refrigerators.  They don’t need that many, so the plant which manufactures refrigerators lays off workers, who can no longer afford to buy a new refrigerator.  The company selling refrigerators is now selling even fewer refrigerators, so they must now close the plant. Suddenly, only billionaires can truly afford new refrigerators, and the manufacturer who is trying to survive, is out of business.Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 11.18.37 PM

The same basic theory should apply to opera.  In an era when smaller companies are struggling to survive, and many are, Peter Gelb doesn’t quite get it. Within a 400 mile radius of where I live are several small operatic companies who are churning out decent work.  I can drive to Santa Fe in a couple hours.  I can drive to Dallas quicker than I can fly to New York.  The same thing holds true for Phoenix.  If you start doing a little investigating (and again I am being sarcastic) someone like Peter Gelb might just discover that world class opera is being staged in Santa Fe – world class. While Gelb goes begging, had in hand, pawning the silver, Santa Fe easily raises money to make a good thing even better.

Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 11.47.06 PMWhile we’re on the subject, these larger operatic companies are now priding themselves on their casts.  Santa Fe’s are world class.  So are those in Dallas.  So is Phoenix.  On any given night at the Met, one might get a star.  Superstars these days are rare.  Once upon a time, the Met was nothing but a rooster of superstars, who appeared – constantly.  You would have a Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras, Krause, Gedda, and a Hofmann – world class tenors, in each and every performance.  Today, no one even knows the tenor’s name.  There is an unfortunate tendency of some opera houses today, to no longer list the cast.  One of these days, we’re going to see the same thing with the Met.  The cast will no longer be important.

When the most important opera company in the world no longer fields superstars on a nightly basis, people go elsewhere – even in New York.  If there’s a new production, a local opera-goer will hit it once, if it isn’t all that much.  But – you put a world-class superstar in that same production, and, like building a better widget, people will be knocking on your door.  This day and age, incredible young talent is so plentiful, and so very good, if there isn’t a reason to make a trip to New York, why bother,Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 11.34.04 PM when you can go to Dallas, or Phoenix, or Santa Fe, spend less, and see opera that is world-class?  Even better, go to the smaller companies and get a glimpse of the stars of tomorrow.  Gelb has mismanaged the Met so badly, he’s already starting to bring in the younger singers.  No, it isn’t because they are good.  It’s because they are C-H-E-A-P.   I’m not going to spend a small fortune to travel to NYC to see someone who is is not a world-class voice.

But – if a Peter Gelb isn’t willing to bring the big guns in on a nightly bases, he’d better have a production which still appeals to the unwashed masses.  Let’s go back to Tosca.  We the little people, especially we the romantic, fat, slobs of femininity who do nothing but sit on the sofa and stuff our piggy faces with cheap chocolate and fast food, are addicted to the Regency period.  I know, we don’t Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 11.29.33 PMlook good and aren’t conducive to being photographed for the society and culture red carpet, but we are willing to spend what little spare change we have these days, on something we like. We love the clothing.  We love the romance, and (sigh) we love the men! Sure, Art Decco ice queens created by David Alden for his incomprehensible new Un Ballo in Maschera, have critic appeal, but the staging makes the entire opera abjectly silly.

The tale is based on the era of revolution in Europe.  There is basically only one time frame in much of modern history where is during that age.  The perfect costuming is early ‘Regency’ or early ‘Empire’ from around 1798 – 1802.  You go right back to Jane Austen, Tosca, Pride and Prejudice, and that amazing romantic look. Instead, we are treated to late Art Decco, and early classic Hollywood, circa Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and the beautiful style of the era.

Unfortunately, there is no real beauty in many of the productions which stress this era.  Instead, they Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 11.15.22 PMappear to be bringing the very dark overtones of the 1930s.  It was an era of great despair, world-wide depression, and the growth of Fascist dictators and all the brutality involved in the lead-up to a war which saw the death of nearly forty million men and women.  It was an era of genocide, eugenics, and brutality.  Like today, Jews all over Europe were endangered and threatened.  It is entirely possible the overly sophisticated men and women who are giving us these productions are picking up on the cultural, historical, and sociological similarities.  After all, many of the production designers brought in by the Met are not from this country.  Americans aren’t good enough for the current management.  We just aren’t sophisticated enough for their jaded palate with its almost overt hints of sadism, brutal sexuality, and cruelty.  They have stripped all the visual beauty from the genre and replaced it a moment in time which lasted maybe 2 years – in Hollywood. It is as though we are living in repeat of history, where today’s operatic sophisticates are living in a world before the imposition of the Hays Code on Hollywood.  Anything and everything goes.  There are no standards.

Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 11.23.55 PM“…Dozens of films produced in 1932 and 1933 presented women using their sexuality to get ahead. The “bad girl” movies, including Red Headed Woman starring Jean Harlow, were huge box office hits. “She slept her way to the top, she was into S&M; there’s a very naughty scene where he starts beating her, and she just loves it,” comments Eve Golden, Jean Harlow biographer….Moviemakers and scriptwriters acquiesced. They accepted the Code as the rule by which they had to work and created films that met Breen’s standards. Some actors survived; others were not so fortunate. Under the watchful eye of Breen and the PCA, Jean Harlow learned to play the all-American, girl-next-door and her career flourished. Others, like Mae West, were ruined in part because sexual innuendo and the double-entendre — her trademarks — were forbidden by the Code. Hollywood Censored shows reel-to-reel evidence of Breen’s influence. The films released after July 1934 were radically different from those that had come before. “It’s the difference between Mae West and Shirley Temple,” explains film Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 11.33.14 PMhistorian Thomas Doherty in the film…”

What is quite fascinating is that, once the ‘Code’ was put into place, Hollywood saw the rise of very powerful, dominating actresses and the rise of very strong character roles for women.  Then again, maybe the sophisticates are reflecting society as a whole.  Their opera production, as a whole, are having a tendency to degenerate women.  They are not created for women, but for a certain class of individuals who are as important and culturally sensitive as are they.

Women, we the little people, have been forgotten, not only by Hollywood, but the operatic world is reflecting this.  It is all rather fascinating, and is quite telling.  If Peter Gelb wants to increase the bottom line, he needs to realize that half the opera going public, the little people, we the unwashed, smelly fat, filthy masses are half of his audience.  If you Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 11.31.35 PMstage an opera to resemble a Regency or Georgian bodice-buster, trust me, people women will come.  I am beginning to thin, though, that in sophisticated opera, as in the fundamental, far right, conservative, patriarchal, dominionist world created by R. J. Rushdoony, Bill Gothard, and Gary North, and so forth and so on.

If you are a woman, reading this, the cultural implications for us all are absolutely chilling. Hollywood had fewer roles for women in 2014 than previously.  Operatic impresarios don’t even realize we are half of the theater going, and opera-going population.  Then again, neither does Hollywood.  Maybe they are just reflecting the current political trend here in the US, were women are no longer allowed to be considered feminists.  Rape is acceptable if a woman is not clothed in some far right Christian proverbial and psychological burka.

Our rights are being stripped from us almost on a daily basis.  Many of us, are now facing something Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 11.22.59 PMwe never even though we would face in the form of life-long poverty.  Are lives are growing bleaker and more diminished by the day as we witness the rise of dictatorial and fascist tendencies even here in the US no only in the form of libertarian loving individuals who know more than we do on the federal level, but in our everyday lives. Any normal person, today should be absolutely terrified at the thought of being stopped for a traffic violation.  We are living on the precipice of far right fundamentalist religious domination not only in exotic parts of the world, but right here in this country.  On Tuesday, a godly, Christian Republican in Montana introduced a bill which would outlaw yoga pants on women, or anything else form fitting or low-cut.  Fines would begin at $1000.  A third violation would result in the woman spending the rest of her life in prison – for wearing yoga pants or a blouse low-cut the way I do.

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 1.51.33 AMI don’t know about you, but I think we need men in THE SHIRT.  Maybe it is the romance they offer, the fight for the rights of we the little people, heroes, marching in to save us all.  Like Zorro, they rode in, cape blowing in the wind, and made the world safe for the unwashed masses.  They made the world safe for women to no longer be afraid of being brutalized by society.  Sure, they were probably bastards, but, the women they romanced, loved, and probably left, never seemed to complain.

I think it was the shirt.  The shirt is a hallmark of the Alpha Male.  I like men who are Alpha Males, not because they are dominate, but they have a tendency to treat women better.  I’m not talking about the macho, testosterone laced jerk who is so unsure of his own sexuality that he must treat women badly, but the Alpha Male who knows who he is, not necessarily the leader of the pack, but the man who knows who he is, and is not afraid of who he is.  One of the problems with the little men of today is that they are cruel and nasty.  They don’t like women. It doesn’t matter about their gender orientation, they just don’t like women.  We see this quit a bit in the world of far right so-called godly ‘christian’ men here in the US.  They are pale, pallid, insignificant, twits who can only get ahead by putting women in their place.  They can only survive by dominating and forcing women to become servants to them.  Feminism cannot exist.

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 1.49.43 AMIn many ways, the world of the modern opera production which is loosely placed in the Deco era of the 1930 is all about the use and abuse of women.  The European productions strip all of the beauty and poetry from opera.  They turn it into a stark, perverted, S & M extravaganza where women are used and abused.  They put women in situations, abusive, vile situations which the composer never envisioned.  Sure, if Wagner were around today, he would be pushing the boundaries. I have no doubt he would encourage nude Rhine maidens, and his Valkyries would be topless.  I suspect we would see a tremendous amount of nudity in his performances.  Nudity in opera does not necessarily change the story.  There is a place for Don Giovanni to have an orgy, which would include women only.  There was nothing ambiguous about his sexual orientation.  But, to put the story in a modern diner, forget it.  To have S & M overtones with degradation of even the performers is not part of the story.  Let’s face it, we are looking at the opposite but the same attack on women as with the extreme Christian right. Women are to be controlled, put in their place, and stripped of all beauty.  They are nothing.

That’s why THE SHIRT is so important.