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Fire on all sides! Descend on a cloud! Singing fish-children!: Opera’s most challenging stage directions

Opera has long pushed the boundaries of what's possible on stage.

By Elizabeth Davis (Former Editorial Assistant)

12 February 2014 at 11.57am | 4 Comments

Shakespeare's stage direction ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ in The Winter’s Tale (adapted as a ballet by Christopher Wheeldon and Bob Crowley) is famous for giving directors a headache. But rampaging bears are nothing compared to the ambitious instructions that pepper opera librettos. At the end of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the lothario’s downfall is accompanied by librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte's stage direction ‘Fire on all sides; earthquake’ (though Kasper Holten introduces a whole host of different challenges in his spectacular projection-enhanced Royal Opera production). But even Da Ponte is arguably bested by the dramatic ending of Handel’s Semele, where ‘Jupiter descends in a cloud; flashes of lightning issue from either side’.

Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten presents several intriguing posers for the director, particularly towards the end of Act I. The Empress has no shadow and cannot have children without one. Somewhat against her better judgement she persuades a mortal woman, Barak's Wife, to give the Empress her shadow. As Barak’s Wife prepares a supper of fish, she hears mysterious singing, and ‘Suddenly the voices of five children ring out fearfully through the air, as if the little fish in the pan are singing’.

Strauss worried that Hofmannsthal's directions implied that Barak might be about to eat his own unborn children: 'One is bound to identify the unborn children with the little fishes in the frying-pan!’ Though the singing fish-children stayed, Hofmannsthal did make one concession – in the ensuing scene Barak leaves the fish alone and eats some bread instead.

But all this is small fry compared to Die Zauberflöte (one of Strauss and Hofmannsthal's models for Die Frau). The serpent that opens Mozart's opera may just be a question of a little (a lot of) puppetry, but Tamino and Pamina's ‘trials of fire and water’ in the opera’s closing moments are another thing altogether. Emanuel Schikaneder’s original stage directions are ambitiously precise: ‘The scene is transformed into two large mountains: one with a thundering waterfall, the other belching out fire; each mountain has an open grid through which fire and water may be seen.’

But Wagner is the true master of impossible stage directions – his Ring cycle demanded stage effects so ambitious he had to build a whole new opera house, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The astounding technical demands of the Ring made its first full staging in 1876 a logistical nightmare. Siegfried's dragon was missing its central section – allegedly the torso had been sent to Beirut rather than Bayreuth. The Rhinemaidens of Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung were perched on tall stage wagons behind a gauze illuminated with gas light to give the impression of their aquatic frollicking. But still the Telegraph reviewer complained that they were ‘a little too mechanical and wanting in freedom’.

The impossible stage direction has become a much loved operatic tradition, enjoyed by spectators and relished by directors. These fires, earthquakes and metamorphoses are like gauntlets thrown down by composers and librettists centuries earlier. Whether directors take a literal or metaphorical approach, it is always fascinating to see how challenging stage directions translate into a theatrical experience.

This article has 4 comments

  1. Stephen Cope responded on 9 November 2014 at 1:26pm Reply

    Wheeldon's 'Exit pursued by a bear' is long since (and brilliantly) accomplished...

  2. Stephen Jay-Taylor responded on 17 February 2017 at 1:32am Reply

    Shakespeare's stage direction was a practical matter-of-fact. There were two bear-baiting pits less than 100 yards from the Globe, and dancing bears were common sights in the down-market leisure centre that was Southwark generally, brothels and all.

  3. Bryan Moore responded on 17 February 2017 at 7:59am Reply

    Personally, and I am aware many disagree, I much prefer elaborate stage direction taking the opera to the time and place the composer intended. I absolutely appreciate the thought and hard work which has gone into providing a visual experience helping to make the production memorable. Some say the music is the thing and a simple stage set focuses the mind and attention to the music, but opera to me is a rounded experience needing wonderful music and singing, superlative orchestration and full sets. To me, and this is a shallow statement though expressing my view well enough, it is the difference almost between listening to a CD and watching a BluRay DVD. I am attending the ROH next Friday and am looking forward to seeing the stage direction as much as listening to the music and watching the artists and although the simplistic stage direction has it's place, I do hope money will always be found in the big houses to maintain the high standards of staging a production w ehave grown to expect.

  4. We saw Wheeldon's marvellous Cinderella in Holland. using both Grimmer &Perrault to create something totally unique.Such a brilliant &approachable individual. He is a man of his time enthrall3d with all new technology tools at the artist's dispo responded on 17 February 2017 at 2:23pm Reply

    Missed this wonder but the article is syperelative.

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