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When behind the scenes becomes centre stage in opera and ballet

Operas and ballets often take themselves as a subject – with comic, confusing or even violent results!

By Paul Kilbey (Content Producer (Ballet))

6 May 2015 at 3.30pm | Comment on this article

Matt Rogers and Sally O’Reilly’s new opera The Virtues of Things follows the De Selbys, a family of operatic prop-makers. The Virtues of Things is unmistakably a work of the 21st century, with a madcap plot and wildly diverse music. But the idea of a piece that looks behind the scenes – at the lives of the people who make the show happen – is not so new. Here are a few of our favourite examples, often confusing or violent (or both), from across opera and ballet history.

The Singers

Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) dates from 1786 and is an early example of putting a performing company’s travails centre stage. Frank, the impresario, auditions two singers, but they argue about which of them gets to be prima donna in the particularly amusing trio ‘Ich bin die erste Sängerin’. Continuing the theme, Donizetti’s Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali (1827) concerns a disastrous rehearsal for the new opera Romulus and Ersilia, which culminates in a terrible performance and the troupe’s hasty exit from the city.

Richard Strauss’s marvellous Ariadne auf Naxos (1916) dramatizes an awkward encounter between a serious-minded opera company and a comedy troupe, culminating in an operatic performance shot through with perplexing comic interjections. Strauss also wrote an opera troupe into his seldom-heard 1935 opera Die schweigsame Frau.

The most dramatic opera about an opera company, however, must be Leoncavallo’s exceptionally violent opera Pagliacci (1892). The jilted, melancholic clown Canio murders his wife and her lover, in front of an audience who aren’t sure whether what they’re seeing is brilliant theatre or horrifying reality.

The Composers

Onstage composers tend to bring confusion with them. Strauss’s Composer in Ariadne is initially outraged by the intrusion of the comedy troupe, but after talking to Zerbinetta he seems rather unsure. Ernst Krenek’s 1927 ‘jazz opera’ Jonny spielt auf likewise features a composer at a point of crisis – the lead character Max is torn between highbrow classical styles and the allure of jazz, represented by the character of Jonny, a free-spirited jazz violinist.

In Janáček’s Osud (Fate), meanwhile, the composer Živný writes an opera about his wife, who has died, but it causes such emotional turmoil that he collapses during a rehearsal. And in Gerald Barry’s The Intelligence Park, set in 18th-century Dublin, Paradies’ attempts to write an opera are hindered by writer’s block, aggravated when his fiancée runs off with a castrato.

Pfitzner’s magisterial Palestrina (1917) is another composer at a crossroads, his conservative style out of step with modern life. At least he continues composing, though: in Peter Maxwell Davies’s Taverner (1972), the 16th-century composer decides to abandon composition in order to join the religious zealots of the Reformation.

The composer Flamand in Strauss’s Capriccio (1942) is rather more sure of himself, although the opera itself is one long question mark: a composer and a poet compete for the affections of the Countess, who still cannot decide as the final curtain falls.

The Dancers

Ballet also takes plenty of glances backstage. Christopher Wheeldon’s Electric Counterpoint contains recorded interviews with its dancers, describing the rehearsal process and their own performance anxieties. Jerome Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun, set to Debussy’s famous tone poem, concerns two young dancers who idly rehearse in a studio, gazing out into the audience as if into a mirror. Taking a more sinister approach, Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson depicts a ballet teacher who conducts a private lesson with one vulnerable student – with a horrifically grim conclusion.

There’s yet more gruesome violence in Fokine’s Petrushka, with its famous Stravinsky score. At a circus show, the puppet Petrushka is brutally torn apart by his rival in love. Even the inanimate, it seems, cannot escape from the horrors that lurk behind the scenes.

The Virtues of Things runs 2–6 May 2015. Tickets are still available.
The production is a co-commission and co-production with Aldeburgh Music and Opera North.

Afternoon of a Faun runs 29 May–4 June 2015. Tickets are still available.

Ariadne auf Naxos runs 10–16 October 2015. Tickets go on general sale 14 July 2015.
The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet.

Pagliacci appears as part of a mixed programme with Cavalleria rusticana and runs 3 December 2015–1 January 2016. Tickets go on general sale 14 July 2015.
The mixed programme is a co-production with Opera Australia, La Monnaie, Brussels, and The Göteborg Opera and is given with generous philanthropic support from The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.

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