16 December 2007
Rattling around in my brain the past week or ten days is the goal of bringing "Truth" onstage. Gerald Finley who is currently portraying Oppenheimer in Doctor Atomic brought it up at a symposium on the opera last weekend. (click here to listen to the symposium) He reminded his audience of scientists and art lovers that in his preparation, he needs to be able to "make every moment the truth" - whether that is the chain-smoking scientist, the sensation of the weather of New Mexico in July, or the overlapping systems of beliefs that would be converging in Oppenheimer's mind the night of 16 July 1945. Finley does an amazing job of it. You can't divert your eyes, because he has captivated you by showing, demonstrating, behaving, singing with courage and confidence and clarity.
Another Chicago friend described a 7-actor production of Moby Dick where Ahab's coat became the simple identifier for the man and the myth. Apparently everyone in the cast took turns being Ahab and wearing the coat, and at the end, the coat was strung up and flown into the rafters - about as simple a theatrical gesture as you can imagine, allowing the audience to do the work of visualization.
Designer Michael Yeagan has maintained that "simplicity in the theater is one of the hardest things to achieve because everyone keeps putting something in its way." He was speaking about his set for Francesca Zambello's production of Madama Butterfly - where the clear, theatrical gesture is in full form. At the musical climax of the 2nd act (ei torno e m'ama! / he's come back and he loves me), the grey scrim lifts to reveal, brightly lit for the first time, the warm wooden interior of Cio-Cio-San's world - we call it her "happiness" instead of her "house" since it is an abstract space. But it exactly this clean, clear, honest gesture that often results in a spontaneous burst of applause.
In Doctor Atomic, Peter Sellars and John Adams chose not to have the atomic blast onstage or in the score. Yet, the tension of the countdown is real, and the color scheme projected on the cyc and the cast based on eye-witness accounts of the "brilliant luminescence" caused by the chain reaction. On opening night, it led to another truth at the conclusion of the opera - that of silence. A nearly full house at the Lyric Opera sat in quiet contemplation for a full minute before making a sound, a cough, a rustle. When was the last time any of us were surrounded by silence for 15 seconds, much less 60? The power of that completely honest response from the audience seemed to validate all our choices and, in the words of John Adams afterwards, give "a bit more hope for humanity."
Such vivid examples of exemplary theater - without flying people, trap doors, hocus pocus of diversion or extremes of manpower - make the expensive, overwrought mechanical tours-des-forces seem utterly redundant, if not conspicuously wasteful.
As we head for 2008, perhaps we all need to take the extra moment and question the veracity of what we are presenting:
What are we saying?
Believe what I am telling or showing you?
I think our audience wants that clarity of emotion, of response, and shared amazement.
I know I do.
Best wishes to everyone for the New Year!