NARRATIVE IN THEORY AND PRACTICE
Last night's Bay Area Summer Opera Theater Institute (BASOTI) master class took a fascinating and informative departure from its predecessors. It was conducted by BASOTI Artistic Director Yefim Maizel, whose expertise is in stage direction. Thus, while the offerings followed the usual pattern of six solos by six students (this time two sopranos, one countertenor, two tenors, and one bass-baritone), the content of the class focused on theatrical, rather than musical, skill.
By happy coincidence, author John Banville provided a framework for approaching this experience in his essay on Vladimir Nabokov in the current issue of The New York Review. This essay begins with a valuable quotation from the literary master himself:
… there are three points of view from which a writer can be considered; … as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three ….
The same may be said about the art of music, except that Nabokov's principle may be extended to both composer and performers. Implicit in Maizel's coaching were three questions that could be asked of the composer but may then be turned to the performer:
What story is being told?
What will the listener take away from that story?
What "enchantment" draws the listener to the story and fires the desire to learn from it?
In Nabokov's world these are questions of narrative theory that probably first surfaced in the "Poetics" of Aristotle and, during the twentieth century, were pursued at great length through the frameworks of the Russian and European structuralists and literary critics such as Kenneth Burke and Northrop Frye. Thus, it is not out of the question to think of any vocal solo as an effort to put narrative theory into practice through media that extend beyond the literary text.
Among the different structural schools of thought, there is one tripartite division that serves musical texts as effectively as literary ones. In both cases the text embodies three aspects:
The plot of the story, basically the events that unfold in the chronological ordering of time.
The discourse through which the plot is represented in text, which need not reflect the underlying structure of the plot (as is the case when a flashback distorts the chronological ordering of events).
The narrating of the discourse through one or more "voices" assuming such roles as storytellers or actors.
If one addresses these aspects in considering the question of what story is being told, then they will facilitate thoughts about the goals of both memorability and enchantment on the audience side.
In the "real world" many events "just happen." However, in the world of opera, all events that matter have been enacted by motivated agents. Every "voice" in that opera is an agent; and, beyond the scenario of the opera as a whole, every aria has its own story to tell. Maizel's focus in his master class was on these "aria-level" stories; and, while he never appealed explicitly to narrative theory in his coaching, those "aspects of the text" were implicitly present in all of his pedagogical efforts. From his point of view, the fundamental question behind staging concerns how one transforms a vocalist who has mastered the score into a compelling narrator. Indeed, much of his time with his first student was spent on spoken narration of an English translation of the Italian text being performed, through which the elements of plot and discourse (and how they were interpreted musically) could be more clearly apprehended.
Perhaps the most important feature that distinguishes an opera from a novel is that of repetition. We encounter repetition in various literary forms, but it is fundamental to just about every musical structure. Thus, Maizel was particularly informative when working with students who had to deal with repeated texts. In the case of Christoph Willibald Gluck, this involved the challenge of the classical da capo form of "Che farò senze Euridice." If Orfeo pours out all of his grief over Euridice's death in the first section of this aria, what does he do when both music and text repeat after a middle section? Maizel was less interested in dictating an answer, proceeding instead in the spirit of Patricia Racette's master class last week: What are the questions one should ask while trying to puzzle out how to deal with this repetition? The other major example was "Je veux vivre" from Charles Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. In this case the repetition is more strophic and has more to do with defining Juliette's character (whose youthful exuberance impedes elegance of speech), in contrast to Gluck's use of da capo for reflection on a complex situation. Thus, coaching Juliette is a decidedly different matter from coaching Orfeo; but, from Maizel's point of view, the task remained one of homing in on cultivating skill through asking questions.
Last night's master class was an effective reminder that "Theater" is really the operative noun in the BASOTI name. The music is clearly important, as is the cultivation of voice-as-instrument. However, opera only really comes to life when it is enacted on the stage. Through his coaching, Maizel allowed the rest of us to "look under the hood" of the well-staged opera and learn a thing or two about what can effectively turn opera into storytelling at its best.
—Stephen Smoliar - SF Classical Music Examiner