In my last Off the Cuff, I described how the work of the great British painter, engraver and social satirist, William Hogarth, had inspired at least two operas: Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and Iain Bell’s The Harlot’s Progress, which will have its world premiere in Vienna this October. I have been thinking more about the source material that inspired these operas, as well as the creative process required to construct an entire libretto from eight Hogarth engravings for The Rake’s Progress, and six engravings for The Harlot’s Progress. This left me wondering: “could that process work in reverse?” In other words, could an entire evening of opera be distilled into a small number of signature moments? And what would that reveal about the mysterious process of directing a truly memorable opera production?
Consider one of the most popular operas of all time, Puccini’s La bohème. La bohème is justly famous as a verismo opera: one that presents realistic characters and emotions in a continuous flow of music – avoiding set-piece arias that had been so popular throughout the 19th century. To run the engraving-to-libretto process in reverse, I identified a small number of specific moments that drive the narrative. In fact, if I had to pick a single moment in each act, my list would look something like this:
Act I: After relighting Mimi’s candle, the seamstress and Rodolfo look for the key that he has purloined and accidentally touch hands. Mimi already shows signs of coughing and physical weakness.
Act II: My tableau for this Act would show two tables: the first, loaded with food and drink for the four friends from the garret and their guest, Mimi and the second, where Musetta holds court to the discomfort of her aging paramour, Alcindoro. In this scene, Musetta is trying to recapture Marcello’s affections, as crowds of Parisians delight in the chase.
Act III: Mimi discreetly listens in to the exchange between Rodolfo and Marcello, with snow falling around them. In this tear-jerker scene, Rodolfo describes how overwhelmed he is by Mimi’s fragile health, not realizing that Mimi can hear every word.
Act IV: Mimi’s death scene, surrounded by her friends, holding the muff that Musetta has purchased for her.
If we were to engage a brilliant painter to depict these scenes, could they function as a visual narrative sequence, à la Hogarth? The answer, I think, is only partly. A talented illustrator could build in subtle visual clues, much as Hogarth did. As an aside, the first engraving from A Rake’s Progress in which Tom Rakewell inherits his wealth and abandons his country fiancée, Sarah Young, includes many visual clues such as an emaciated cat, hidden gold coins, and a disused fireplace showing that Tom’s recently deceased uncle had been frugal to a fault.
For each engraving in the series, Hogarth also provided a descriptive title (e.g. “The Heir,” “The Levèe,” “The Orgy”) which helps guide the viewer through the narrative thread. Each of these titles is a mere two or three words. In the earlier series, A Harlot’s Progress, Hogarth employs descriptive phrases for each work (e.g. “The Arrival of the Harlot in London”; “The Harlot at her Dwelling in Drury Lane”; “The Harlot Beating Hemp in Bridewell,” etc.).
Returning to Puccini, much of the narrative richness, and the emotional impact of Puccini’s verismo style, would be lost through distilling the work to a handful of scenes. On the one hand, I find this a little surprising, given that Mimi’s eventual passing from consumption is, sadly, as inevitable as Tom Rakewell’s infection and ultimate death from syphilis. Around this tragic story, however, Puccini weaves other emotions, including the warmth and tenderness of Mimi’s and Rodolfo’s early love; the on-again, off-again passion of Musetta and Marcello; and other comic touches (e.g. the Bohemians mock outrage upon learning that their landlord, Benoit, has been having an affair and Musetta’s invented complaint about her shoes as a pretext to get Alcindoro out of the way. In a nice final comic touch, she stiffs him with the bill for dinner for all of the Bohemians). One could imagine a series of six engravings for Bohème as follows: The Bohemians’ new wealth; Rodolfo meets his neighbor; the Bohemians dine in the Latin Quarter; Musetta reunites with Marcello; Mimi learns the truth; the death of Mimi. One could also imagine all of the supporting details that could be incorporated into the images (hmmm…how to show the source of the Bohemian’s new wealth is from poisoning a parrot with arsenic?). Not even a genius like Hogarth, though, could reinsert all of the details from the opera into these scenes to duplicate the richness and emotional depth of the original.
Mozart’s ever-popular opera The Magic Flute provides another good test case. Since the work is based on a fairy tale, and a convoluted one at that, it is much more difficult to distill the entire opera down to a handful of scenes. We could, of course, identify a number of stunning visual moments. Some of my favorites would include Tamino being pursued by a dragon; the three ladies together with Tamino and the birdman, Papageno (who is wearing a golden padlock as a punishment for lying); the grand entrance of the Queen of the Night; the three sprits preventing Papageno from committing suicide, and suggesting he uses the magic bells to call Papagena; and the trials of fire and water. There is no doubt that we could identify many beautiful images – but this is not the same as uncovering the skeleton of the narrative, any more than even an extensive set of images could explain all of the twists and turns of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The trials of fire and water, for example, are visually stunning, but their context would not be clear without significant explanation.
Part of why Hogarth’s engravings work as a narrative framework is that the scenes themselves are easily recognizable (e.g. a brothel, an orgy, an insane asylum, a funeral service). Some of the scenes are more subtle, but rely on Hogarth’s genius for storytelling (e.g. the engraving of reading the will from A Rake’s Progress noted earlier). Also, Hogarth left us clues, and sometimes annotations, in the various pictures, and even incorporated well-known historical figures (such as Mother Needham as the Madam in the first engraving in A Harlot’s Progress). Sometimes Hogarth’s clues were quite explicit, in order to make sure that his satirical point hit home (view it here).
Hogarth’s engravings also work as source of material because they share the same moral universe as many well-known 18th-and-19th-century operatic conventions. We recognize iconic scenes in the Hogarth engravings, and we know to expect a negative outcome. As I mentioned in a previous “Off the Cuff,” opera is somewhat addicted to the tragic. Suppose you were to attend a 19th-century opera new to you, and the First Act focused upon an apparently happy marriage between two characters: Fidelio and Fidelia. What would you expect to occur? Three more hours of domestic bliss? I think not.
In Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, librettists Auden and Kallman cleverly avoided turning the opera into a series of set-piece clichés. Wisely, they also strengthened the narrative thread—and reinforced the inevitability of the tragic outcome—by introducing Nick Shadow (a.k.a. Mephistopheles). Once the audience recognizes Nick for who and what he is, a tragic ending is certain. Because of his choice to compose in neoclassical style, Stravinsky writes the work incorporating both dialogue and arias, but this, too, fits well with the episodic Hogarth source material.
Even with some of the limitations noted in the case of Bohème and The Magic Flute, I find the process of identifying pivotal visual and dramatic moments in an extended art form, such as opera, extremely helpful. If we are to aspire for a performance that “stays with you,” as virtually all opera companies strive to do, I like to keep these “Hogarth moments” clearly in mind – even if, as a stand-alone engraving, they might require a lot of annotation. Yet, if we can pinpoint these “Hogarth moments,” we’ll have a much better understanding of where the key dramatic moments reside within the body of a work, enabling us to deliver an even more powerful and effective musical and theatrical experience.
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in TheaterJones.com. Below this photo is a list of previous columns:
- January 2012 "A Scheme of Delight"
- February 2012 "Visiting Wagner's Bayreuth"
- March 2012 "Commissioning a Successful Opera"
- April 2012 "The New Opera Audience"
- May 2012 "Rivers and Deltas of Musical Time"
- June 2012 "Operatic Blockbusters"
- July 2012 "Maximizing Dallas Opera's Community Footprint"
- August 2012 "The Santa Fe Festival Model"
- September 2012 "Postcard from Glyndebourne"
- October 2012 "Verdi's Egypt: Cracking the Code"
- November 2012 "It's Not Just Contemporary Anymore"
- December 2012 "Singing the Blues"
- January 2013 "Puccini's Golden Dozen"
- February 2013 "Opera and Popular Culture"
- March 2013 "A Dangerous Experiment"
- April 2013 "The Case of the Jealous Mezzo"
- May 2013 "Winning the Red Queen's Race"
- June 2013 "Managing the Opera Company of the Future"
- July 2013 "Raked Over the Coals"