Lay the Blame on Dame

You would think that La Cieca would climb on her very high horse about the elementary school music theater in Colorado who riled up parents by showing the “Who’s Afraid of Opera?” version of Gounod’s Faust to her students. And certainly some of those parents overreacted in the good old American way. (One mom called the show “a satanic video,” when the real problem is the cheesy production values and Dame Joan Sutherland‘s mushy French diction.)

Oddly enough, though, La Cieca is inclined to take a contrarian position on this issue. Even when performed by a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and a supporting cast of hand puppets, Faust isn’t really a story for children. Take away the “classic” status, and what’s left? Attempted suicide, making a bargain with Satan, a song about how the Golden Calf rules the world, a virgin seduced with a box of jewels, the same girl (now pregnant and unwed) tormented by demons in a church, a brother cursing his sister just before he dies, insanity, infanticide, and a specifically Christian representation of an after-death experience.

Saying that video games or television shows are just as bad is irrelevant: the teacher didn’t bring Doom or “The O.C.” into the classroom. I really believe her heart was in the right place, and I think it’s wonderful that kids have some kind of exposure to opera. But the sexual and religious themes of this particular work are ripe for misunderstanding and consequent panic on the part of parents.

The good news is that opera can still be regarded as something other than anodyne. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, wouldn’t you know that La Cieca has a relevant video handy?

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13 Responses to “Lay the Blame on Dame”

  1. celticpriestess Says:

    Regarding the “relevant video,” the singing of all concerned sounded fine. However, if I were a parent and my kid saw it, I would be very hard-pressed to explain why Angela Gheorghiu was doing some rather herky-jerky movements and sticking her fingers in her mouth! Granted, Marguerite is supposed to be insane at the end of “Faust,” but this is a bit crazy in another sense of the word.
    Perhaps I would have to explain to the little cherub about the facts of life…that is, about some of the oddities of stage direction in opera! It might also teach little ones that SOME things just cannot be explained!

  2. Il Tenore di Coloratura Superba Says:

    At least the techer didn’t show them Ken Kazan’s (brilliant!!) production of Faust which is so explicitly sexual and really preys on the dark undertones of the storyline and drama. It’s a magnificent production – some may regard it as being slightly inappropriate or too over-the-top – what with the rape scene on stage and naked demon/cherubs peeing – he got into a huge row with AVA about it (some friends of mine were in the production) and AVA made him cut out some of the more graphic scenes in the opera.

    I didn’t see the production, but from the pictures and descriptions from various people who have performed and worked on the production with different companies, it seemed like a stroke of genius. Not to mention Ken is a lovely person and he works very hard on his productions. I’ve worked with his partner, Paul Curran, who is also a wonderful director and is becoming much more prominent on the opera scene.

    P.S. I caught a brief glimpse today of Mr. Costello, sadly, I did not get to hear him.

  3. rysanekfreak Says:

    The teacher should have shown them the famous Sam Ramey “Mefistofele” video with all the male chorus members sporting gigantic phalli during the Witches’ Sabbath.

    And the students could have discussed whether the phalli were real or simply sewn into the crotches of bodystockings.

    Young people need to learn how to discuss these things.

  4. I’m happily down with that, as long as we can also all agree, please, once and for all, that Die Zauberflöte is also NOT a children’s opera. Please stop torturing kids with something they are not ready to understand and bastardizing a magnificent and complex work by turning it into a cartoon. Just because it’s funny doesn’t mean it’s juvenile.

  5. Boringwhitegirl Says:

    Is Zauberflote magnificent and complex? Not even Julie Taymor managed to convince me to like that second act — in which we spend a lot of time trying to convince ourselves the trials are REALLY SCARY. I listen to it all the time for the music, but dramatically, I can’t engage past the first act.

  6. It is really difficult to find the right opera/opera production to use as a child’s intro to the art, so I have a modicum of sympathy for the teacher. I was totally fortunate San Diego Opera had a school outreach program that included my elementary school. My first opera was Hoffman with Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle. I saw the very Fille du Regiment La Cieca has linked us to on this very site as my third opera. Lucky, lucky me.

    When it came to starting my daughter on opera, though, that has been a problem. Her first opera (age 4) was a local production of Butterfly directed by Licia Albanese. We left after the first act, so her first impression was of beautiful music and colorful costumes (score one for me).

    Next, though, we went to see Hansel & Gretel at SFO. That was nearly the last opera I could take her to: all monochrome, regie theater with a huge open mouth and bloody teeth for the backdrop. Weehee. The ^%$&$&* witch didn’t even fly. Interesting to me as a theater fanatic, not so great for a 6 year old.

    I suppose I should be grateful I didn’t have to explain giant phalli or angelic urination.

    At nearly ten the girl is a great, seasoned audience member, but when I scan the season each year it is very difficult to choose. So far, for those of you patient enough to have read this far, she has loved everything she has seen, but she was particularly taken with the Zhandra Rhodes designed Pecheurs (naturally).

    Of course not everyone is happy to see a child in the theater (she has very good manners, but I get it), but Juan Diego Florez flirted charmingly with her at a cd signing, so it about equals out.

  7. rysanekfreak Says:

    A few years ago, I went to a San Francisco “Wozzeck.”

    I didn’t really want to see “Wozzeck,” but it was starring Hildegard Behrens, whom I wanted to see, and was being done without intermission, so I knew that once it started, I could get through it.

    When I was waiting for the elevator, two men came to wait, followed by a gentleman and a little girl who looked to be ten years old in a charming white Easter dress and straw bonnet. One of the men complimented her on her outfit but asked her if “Wozzeck” was really an appropriate opera for a little girl to see.

    In snooty tones usually heard only from aged opera queens, she replied that each season she got to see three operas of her choice and she had chosen “Wozzeck” because she was interested in “the serious theater” that it promised.
    The two gentlemen complimented her bravery.

    I had planned on going directly to my seat, but I had to hit the bar first, wondering what this girl will be asking to see when she hits her twenties and thirties!

  8. In the early fifties when I was four years old my mother used to play the piano and sing “One Fine Day” so it became very familiar to me- especially as Father recounted seeing it onstage in Italy during the war with the skeleton of the story.
    I was intrigued that she “killed herself” at the end so when “the movie” of it came to our small village to be shown once on a Wednesday night at 8pm, (well after my bedtime), I begged my parents to be taken to see it. I still remember the both of them telling me it had no talking in it and I would hate it or I would talk – and that would be unexceptable etc. With a solemn promise I wouldn’t utter a word, they took me- and couldn’t believe how I sat there in silence throughout, enthralled. So began my life long obsession with opera.
    I wonder if anyone remembers that film – it starred Nicolai Fillicuridi and an extremely beautiful Japanese girl whom I was later told was an actress who mimed. Years later I saw Filicuridi do it onstage and he was pretty dishy – sang well too 🙂
    I also saw the film again when I was 20 and realised the opera was cut to pieces but it still captured me. I have scoured the VHS and DVD lists to see if anyone has ever “found it” again but so far no luck. Does anyone else remember it?

  9. SDsoprano Says:

    When my daughter was 2, my mother brought her to see me sing Butterfly. I, being the fantastic mother that I am, forgot to explain to my little child that mommy kills herself at the end. So, when I crashed through the screen, she looks at my mother and asks tremulously, “What’s wrong with mommy?” My mother stuck a pacifier in her mouth and told her it was pretend and I’d be out for a bow in a moment. She saw it to be true and is now, at 6, a seasoned opera-goer. She, too, gets the looks – but really, who cares. She behaves beautifully and loves going. I did not, however, subject her to my Tosca, as I did not believe she needed to see mommy ravaged.

  10. “Lulu” would be an excellent introductory opera for children.

  11. our local opera house in this most enlightened and worldly of european city-states put on a production of tannhäuser last september where the venusberg scene featured a rape of europa enacted by a french art-porn star and his usual female sidekick. the gentleman made his entrance wearing a large bull’s head and nothing else, sporting an impressive erection au naturel (21 centimetres, according to the press office, no stuffed phalluses here) with which he proceeded to hump his partner until it was time for the leda and the swan scene.

    there was quite a kaffuffle at the time (which made it all the way to dear la cieca’s cher public, who were all abuzz about the fact that a respectable opera house had hired a MALE PROSTITUTE) around questions of taste and propriety, and would children be allowed in the house to witness the olympian stiffie??? in the end, a simple caveat was posted at the box offce and at the ticket barriers… and no ID cards were requested for the younger members of the audience.

    ITDCS, i have no idea what AVA is but it sounds nasty and censorious. do you people really live in “the land of the free”?

  12. Il Tenore di Coloratura Superba Says:

    ginerva, we actually had discussed that production here a few months ago – I think I was the one who brought it up. One of the singers in that production was telling me about it in the Met’s green room (he was there covering Ramfis). The man who told me of the experience had used the term “male prostitute” rather than “porn star” – seeing that English was not his primary language (he is Icelandic) I could understand if he was not acquainted with the correct terminology – I merely repeated what had been told to me when posting it here with the intent of allowing discussion to ensue and also to get an idea of what actually took place, since, like I have said, the gentleman was not very specific in his details. What was the name of the French porn star? Does anyone perchance to know?

    AVA is the abbreviation for the Academy of Vocal Arts. Like I said, I was not there in attendence to view the production and wasn’t a part of it either so forgive me if I am unable to supply further details of the production. I only know what has been told to me by one of my closest and oldest friends who was in that very production, several other AVA students that I know, and a well-known costume designer that worked on the same production with a different opera company. It does make some sense that AVA or any university would choose to censor such an explicit production given the nature of their audiences which tend to often be made up of family members (including children), other musical students, accademic sorts, and the general public. Since AVA is an accademic institution of sorts, they may have felt that utilizing such an avant-garde and graphic production may have upset sponsors, patrons, faithful opera-goers. Even though it is art, and I truly admire Mr. Kazan’s work…certain things are very difficult for the general public to swallow and understand – they can be easily offended by certain things (i.e. watching Marge get raped on stage). I’m not saying that I necessarily champion their decision to chop up Gounod’s masterpiece and Kazan’s brilliant visual interpretation of the storyline…but I can understand their point of view.

  13. ITDCS, many thanks for your kind and detailed explanations on AVA. i understand the issues at hand (harrumph!) better now. academic institutions of that ilk can be priggish, prudish and over-bearingly mothering at times, but hardly censorious.

    the french art-porn star is called hervé-pierre gustave (aka HPG “‘ash-pé-gé”). you can read more about him (en français, cher public) on http://www.360.ch/presse/1999/10/dossier_x_tout_ce_que_je_fais_est_extreme.php; or visit the gentleman’s personal website on http://www.hpgnet.com/

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