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  • Debate: What do you think of operatic edits?

Debate: What do you think of operatic edits?

If the drama demands it, should passages of works be cut; or should we leave works as intended by the composer?

By Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media)

14 January 2015 at 3.15pm | 22 Comments

It's a situation that many opera fans will have experienced – after an explosive series of enthralling musical acrobatics and taut drama, you find the action lulls. In some cases, these lulls do little to give us insight into the characters, and at times they simply don't match up musically to what came before. At their worst, the longueurs can leave you irreversibly switched off to an entire composer's oeuvre.

The question is – what to do about these potentially troublesome sections? Is it acceptable to make cuts and edits to the work of history’s great composers?

Cuts can and do happen, with varying degrees of obviousness. Perhaps most dramatically, Peter Konwitschny's English National Opera production of La traviata makes substantial cuts, bringing the running time down to less than two hours – approximately 25 minutes less than Richard Eyre's (uncut) Royal Opera production. Not quite as drastic, Kasper Holten's Royal Opera production of Don Giovanni makes edits to the finale, following in the footsteps of a number of famous directors and conductors – including Gustav Mahler – who've dabbled with the demise of Mozart's famous anti-hero.

Then of course there are edits that are invisible to all but the most scrutinous score-studier – tiny tweaks to single lines of recitative or snippets of arias. 'An audience must have the confidence to admit that there are structural inadequacies in the great works', Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, Jude Kelly recently told the Guardian. Away from the lyric stage edits are commonplace, with iconic works by William Shakespeare regularly subject to cuts.

All this, of course, is before we even begin to explore those composers who routinely rewrote and edited new versions of their own works.

Alternatively, should we remain strictly hands-off when it comes to the classics? After all, there's no accounting for taste – one person's 'boring' is another person's favourite bit, or for someone else it's a chance for respite from the sensory overload of an opera – after all, many of opera’s most thrilling moments come from contrast. Indeed, we may need to learn to experience them more passively rather than expecting immediate gratification. Having the music wash over you – for many – is intrinsic to the opera-going experience.

We asked our Twitter following what they think of operatic edits:

What do you think of operatic edits?
If the drama demands it, should passages of works be cut; or should we leave works as completed by the composer?

By Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media)

14 January 2015 at 3.15pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged aria, cuts, debate, discussion, editing, history, recitative, score, Social Media

This article has 22 comments

  1. Ivis Bohlen responded on 14 January 2015 at 4:45pm Reply

    I think it's acceptable. It's not as if all other versions will disappear! Happens with Shakespeare at the RSC, so if it's allowed for them...

  2. Peter Martindale responded on 14 January 2015 at 9:57pm Reply

    Most of us only know if it's glaringly obvious, gross or someone tells us. If the edit is true to the piece, is necessary and works, it's ok. But there should be prize for the company that has the courage to approach libretti with a pair of scissors. Take Dansker's farewell to Billy Budd: 'Goodbye, Baby'. However it felt at the time it no longer works. 'Goodbye, Billy' scans just as well, doesn't change the meaning and frees us from the indulgent sentimentality with which the original words are loaded.

  3. Of course an opera can be edited - or rather re-written - by any person who is a greater artist than the composer. Peter Konwitschny must consider himself to be a better composer than Verdi, and evidently ENO accept this.

  4. Ann O'Shaughnessy responded on 15 January 2015 at 5:09pm Reply

    Occasionally acceptable. However in the case of the recent Don Giovanni a bad production was made even worse by the liberties taken with the storyline.

  5. Steve Harrison responded on 15 January 2015 at 5:12pm Reply

    It can be very annoying when a favourite aria is cut. Il mio Tesoro in Don Giovanni for example. We rarely have the ballet music from Macbeth. Start the performance earlier.

  6. Peter responded on 15 January 2015 at 5:43pm Reply

    I thought the cut to Don Giovanni was unmusical and I am not much persuaded that Mahler provides us with a respectable precedent. Would anyone still perform Wagner's version of Gluck's Iphigenia in Aulis other than in the context of exploring Wagner.

    Cutting something because it doesn't fit in with your conception of the work does seem a bit odd to me. Why does everything have to make sense?

    Cuts of course have to happen. And as someone has also said the music lives to fight another day.

  7. Andrew Luff responded on 15 January 2015 at 5:51pm Reply

    Simone Camilleri asks whether we would edit symphonies, concertos etc. The answer is yes, this happens all the time. The symphonies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, for example are subject to the conductor's decision whether to include repeats or not. Cutting repeats (which happens frequently) alters the running time of the work significantly.

  8. amp responded on 15 January 2015 at 5:54pm Reply

    What the composer wrote should - or must! - be the guiding light unless, like Boris Godounov, there is no definitive version.

  9. Michale Palmer responded on 15 January 2015 at 6:12pm Reply

    Often the most infuriating cuts are the tiny ones in Rossini or early Verdi where the second verse of the cabaletta is cut, making it lopsided and ungainly, and hardly saving any time or the singer's voice.

  10. Gordon Turnbull responded on 15 January 2015 at 6:52pm Reply

    If we must continue to suffer the folly of having every opera reinterpreted (Manon Lescaut for example) it would make the performance less anomalous if the score and libretto were also reinterpreted to suit the new story. I no longer go to "New productions" - "New" means "Reinterpreted rubbish".

  11. Robert Baty responded on 15 January 2015 at 8:46pm Reply

    The two examples you quoted; ENO La Traviata and ROH Don Giovanni did not work. La Traviata missed out the gypsy dance, a big miss. Don missed out the get together in the Inn afterwards, a smaller miss. But there are operas that drag on too long and include low spots, including some Handel ones and perhaps Mozart's Idomeneo. Most people like to arrive at 7.30 and leave by 10.30, so with a 30 minute break that leaves 2hrs 30 min, some operas could be sensitively edited and improved to fit in. Many will view the original operas to be sacrosanct, so the editing is an incredibly difficult task. Some less popular operas would benefit.

  12. Peter Martindale responded on 15 January 2015 at 11:08pm Reply

    The performing arts will always be interpretations and the visual arts restorations. It's only with literature we have the original words as they were written; and as time passes their meaning fades to a point where we need glossaries to understand them. All art is an approximation reborn in each generation. I sometimes think that purists hear the notes and not the music.

  13. Eugenio Bonetti responded on 16 January 2015 at 9:11am Reply

    It's clear that the guy who wrote this article is not a musician. If you ever see a Mozart' score you'd understand what I'm saying; every single note is perfect as is; instead of thinking about copying/pasting the old masterpieces, we all should ask why the new artistic languages can not reach the heart of people anymore. Conceptual art is dead, too difficult to understand, seems that the more is difficult the more is artistic. But at the time operas were written there was no tv, no mobile phones, no internet. But everyone could understand. Last, we should mention that there are some great personalities (i.e. the conductor R. Muti) that fight against changes at the original score introduced by the singers over the years. This should be the goal, not cutting or editing. Viva Verdi!

    • Peter Martindale responded on 16 January 2015 at 5:06pm

      Not being a musician is not always a disadvantage, we have fewer preconceived notions of what we will hear; which is not to say musicians don't enrich our lives with their understanding. I loved Rattle's Rheingold with the Age of Enlightenment, but is all Wagner to be played so? As to rewrites, Mozart wasn't above that and took his pen to Messiah to enhance it, just a little.

  14. John Hyams responded on 16 January 2015 at 1:44pm Reply

    Prohibiting editing is very dangerous. Don't ban it, but make sure that the producer who wants to to do it has a modicum of common sense. Obviously, cutting the brindisi from La Traviata is the work of an idiot. On the other hand shortening or removing the ballet from Aida has its merits. Jonathan Miller's Rigoletto and Cosi are both excellent entertainment, because Miller keeps to the composers' basic dramatic plan. The current fashion for conceptualistic settings has ruined many a performance of a masterpiece (Wagner has suffered particularly cruelly).

    Editing should be kept to a minimum and fundamentally producers should be firmly bound to the libretto, including the period in which the plot is set unless it can sensibly be accommodated by the change. No more sword fights between characters in 21st. century evening dress, for instance.

  15. Michael Varcoe-Cocks responded on 16 January 2015 at 4:00pm Reply

    The most annoying thing about edits is that opera companies are so dishonest about them. They invariably fail to admit that there are any in a given production, let alone actually providing any details. Their justification is, presumably, that those who do notice the cuts don't need the information and the rest who don't notice wouldn't know what to do with the information!

    As for the notion that operas must all be edited to fit between 7:30 and 10:30 with a 30-minute interval, the originator must have intended to be provocative but ended up being ridiculous!

  16. francois responded on 16 January 2015 at 11:59pm Reply

    The problem with cuts is that most often they destroy the dramatic structure of the original score. An entertaining ballet in the middle of an Act, or a dialog without tension can be efficient in the flow of a whole work: in any opera we need a balance between climax and dramatically weak moments, the latter ones being useful to better prepare the climax.
    Therefore to cut those weaker parts is a mistake, it destroys the structure of the opera. I've seen several versions of Guillaume Tell, a very long opera. The only time I've been entirely moved and convinced by that score was when I saw it totally uncut, with all ballets, all choral parts, all scenes. At the other occasions I always felt that something was missing and that the structure was ackward.

  17. Juliet Chaplin responded on 17 January 2015 at 7:17pm Reply

    Mozart made an edition of "Messiah" because he was commissioned to do so. I have never heard Strauss's "Elektra" complete on the stage, though I have Solti's complete recording - the complete version is considered too taxing for even the greatest and strongest singer. I believe that the composer's stated wishes should always be respected. If an opera is long, start it earlier. Many great operas are long. Also "Figaro" is always cut - when did you hear Marcellina's and Basilio's arias on stage? It's a pity because they have their place in the opera.

  18. Rosemary Hoffman responded on 19 January 2015 at 3:45am Reply

    If the streetcars in Rome no longer stop running at a particular time, there is no need to truncate operas. (See the history of Verdi's Don Carlo for an explanation.)

  19. Robin I Morgan responded on 19 January 2015 at 4:58pm Reply

    Editing: "directorial" editing such as the ENO Traviata is usually disasterous as it changes the meaning of the work. Judicious cuts to improve the balance of a work may be acceptable, though the practice of deleting ballets is deplorable (as is the usual butchering of Faust). Generally though, the composer's intentions should be adhered to, even if it does produce longueurs or flat spots (but then life has its longueurs and flat spots). However I accept there can be a railway timetable imperative!

  20. gus brown responded on 6 February 2015 at 6:43am Reply

    I would like to know which version of the score Andris Nelsons in Der Fliegende Hollander is using in the current production that makes cuts to the two most exciting trios in the opera in Acts 2 and 3. Last night I felt cheated that this very familiar score was cut at the point when the music usually takes flight and we were deprived of some of the best music in the opera. Is this a decision to aid the singers from flagging or something more intellectual? I saw no rhyme and reason for these cuts, particularly on a much recorded and well known opera as this. This is something a provincial European house might do but surely not at ROH when many of the audience know this score well. Can these be reinstated?

    • Ellen West (Head of Creative Studios and Digital Products) responded on 6 February 2015 at 6:44pm

      Dear Gus

      According to our Music Library, Andris Nelsons is using a Kalmus full score which is a reprint of the Adolph Fürstner edition. Our orchestral parts are also the Adolph Fürstner edition. I am afraid that I cannot comment on the reason for the use of this edition, but I shall ask those who know.

      Best wishes

      Ellen

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