Opera, Image, and Content

by Eulalia Solé

(Article published in Catalan in the newspaper Avui. Barcelona, October 5, 2000)

It is touching to see how, in all media outlets, music critics and others tear their garments commenting on the premiere of Don Quixote in Barcelona at the Liceo. Unanimously, everyone wonders, among various observations, where the opera is to be found. Surprising...!
Surprising because, up until the premiere, news channels only discussed the production by La Fura dels Baus. In no case was the music, the libretto, or the performers taken into account. Honestly, did any reader, listener, or viewer know the name of the composer, the librettist, or the singers? Despite the fact that, by their very nature, they are the essence of opera; it seemed that the only thing of interest was the staging, the spectacle, the technique. The comments from all media were limited to this aspect of the performance.
It was only after the premiere that it became widely known that the composer is José Luis Turina. The same happened with the author of the text, Justo Navarro, or with the baritone, Michael Kraus, and the countertenor, Flavio Oliver. They were all mentioned, at last, amidst disappointed opinions about the overall production.
Obviously, what mattered was the spectacle, the image above the musical elements, the visual effects over the quality of the music and voices. An attitude that is nothing more than a reflection of the era we live in, of the values that are sold to us. Those of appearance above content.
That society is heading towards infantilism is doubted by almost no one. Culture has become an industry. The more consumers are dazzled and the less demanding they are, the easier the business becomes, and the success is more assured. At this point, I cannot help but quote Salvador Cardús when, reflecting on the mystique of culture, he uses the example of large rock festivals, where "the correctness of instrumental execution is not evaluated but rather the atmosphere that surrounds them, the excitement of the senses they provoke".
This same system has been brought to the Liceu and has been marketed to the public through the media. And it has failed. Not because the technique and fantasy of La Fura dels Baus are not valuable, but because the essential part of the operatic performance has been disregarded.
Scenography has always been at the service of the text, the music, or the dance, and not the other way around. It is part of the spectacle and should be valued for its importance. What cannot be allowed is for it to try to become the star, ignoring, as was the case in the Barcelona premiere, that a completely open stage harms the singers, some of the true protagonists. It cannot fall into the demand, for technical reasons, that voices that naturally sound should use amplifiers.
All of this, a tangle that could only be attributed to ignorance if everyone involved were ignorant. As this is not the case, we can only conclude that what was sought was not the triumph of art but the triumph of the entertainment industry. If it has failed, it is because there are still areas that cannot be manipulated.