Opera in Conversation: 'Romantic Comedies' Takeaways

Feb 5, 2020

Mozart’s hilarious sit-com The Abduction from the Seraglio lights up the Orpheum Theater for two performances only, February 7 & 9! Tickets start at $19: operaomaha.org/abduction

Thank you to everyone who came out on this cold winter’s evening for our final Opera in Conversation event before The Abduction from the Seraglio! Director Alison Moritz and Dr. Diana Martinez PhD of Film Streams had a fascinating conversation about the film influences in Moritz’s production of this opera, and about the parallels between film and opera. While it would be impossible to summarize everything that was discussed during the expansive conversation on Tuesday evening, this summary hopes to provide an overview of the main themes.

Martinez began the discussion by posing a question; how does one begin to devise an opera production, especially one that updates the setting as much as this one does? For Moritz, this process starts with research. In the case of this production, much of the research centered around classic Hollywood films of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, in particular the genre of the ‘Americans abroad’ film. Films in this genre include the ever-popular Casablanca (1942), as well as more obscure titles such as Road to Morocco (1942), as sources of inspiration. Some influences are concrete and narratively-oriented; for example, the two love triangles featured in the opera parallel Rick, Ilsa and Victor Lazlo in Casablanca, while other influences are more abstract but no less important. For example, the role of and power afforded to the women on screen was important for Moritz. As she noted, comedies have historically been the place for women to break out of society’s mold, while the more serious, ‘Oscar-worthy’ films have been more conservative in this way. This is reflected in Abduction; while both women ultimately force their partners to apologize for their baseless accusations of infidelity, Blonde, the more slapstick character, is bolder in her interactions with Osmin and Pedrillo than Constanze is with Belmonte and Pasha Selim in the more serious love triangle.

The Abduction from the Seraglio is technically a Singspiel, a form of German music theater generally considered a type of opera today. Singspiel alternates operatic songs with spoken dialogue, much like the American musical theater which was blossoming in the United States in the 1930’s and 40’s – in fact, this similarity is one reason that Moritz chose this period as the setting for the production. Singspiel was performed in the German vernacular for an audience mostly comprised of the common folk. This is in stark contrast with the Italian and French opera of the day, which was through-composed and attracted a mostly upper-class crowd. The mass appeal of Singspiel meant that it was essentially the mid-budget comedy film of its day, in that it was considered less ‘artful’ by seasoned operagoers but attracted a much broader audience. The stars of Singspiel developed cults of personality around them as do the biggest names on film and stage today. Mozart himself was also something of an impresario and was personally involved in casting decisions for his operas.

At this point the conversation turned to considerations of preservation versus reimagination in opera and film. Martinez explained that an original print or cut of a classic film is typically priceless, and that those we consider classics today are only a fraction of what was actually produced. This is certainly the case in opera too – the libretti and scores for many operas have been lost or destroyed, meaning they will never be able to be performed again. However, Moritz argues that in opera, while respect to the composer’s wishes is of course important, so too is the continued relevance of the stories being told on stage. Much like a good remake in film, a new production of an opera is an opportunity to update references and make something as fiercely relevant to today’s world as the original was when it premiered. In the case of Abduction, the original setting of a Turkish palace was a familiar visual language due to the influence of Turkish culture on the Habsburg Empire in the late 1700’s. Today however, this setting, while still fascinating, is not as immediately relevant and can serve as a distraction from the underlying power and social dynamics in the opera due to the orientalism and cultural stereotypes it employs. Director Moritz’s updated setting of a Turkish-themed German nightclub employs a visual language and set of cultural references that resonate with us today as Mozart’s setting did with audiences in the 18th century, while also sidestepping the distracting, outdated elements and allowing the audience to instead focus on the interpersonal relationships and story arcs. The production can therefore use Mozart’s pre-established characters and story to offer its own critique of the more modern society represented on stage, particularly in relation to gender roles and power dynamics in relationships, as well as socioeconomic class.

Moritz and Martinez also touched on the way opera, like film, has often been a hotbed for innovation, both in storytelling as well as technology. In the case of the former, new opera productions can constantly reinvent and reimagine old stories in innovative ways and allow us to grapple with age-old dilemmas with fresh eyes. Both opera and film have also instigated and benefited from technological advancements. In film, the advent of technicolor changed the methods and tools of storytelling. In opera, experiments with color and lighting have been part of productions since the inception of the form, while in recent decades, amplification and microphones, which are used in the dialogue in Moritz’s production, have become part of the toolkit.

Thank you to all who attended our Opera in Conversation series for The Abduction from the Seraglio. We have talked in great depth about Mozart’s wonderful music, learnt about Neil Fortin’s beautiful period-inspired costumes, and now we have considered the parallels between opera and film, as well as the specific film influences in Moritz’s production. Now you just have to join us for one of the only two performances, February 7 & 9!

Jack Hardwick
Opera Omaha Weitz Fellow

Get your tickets for Friday or Sunday here.

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