by Lars Harald Maagero
In the fall of 2020, I was appointed by the Opera Academy at Oslo National Academy of the Arts to direct a production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte with the students on their foundation course. This was an exciting and intriguing task: working with a group of students in their early 20s whose worldview of course is coloured by contemporary culture and values, with historical material that in its clash with modern attitudes and values is problematic. Few would deny that Mozart’s music is brilliant and beautiful, but the story of Cosi fan tutte portrays relations between young lovers that sits particularly uncomfortably with modern-day sensibilities: two young men who decide to test the loyalty of their girlfriends by pretending to enroll in the military, returning in disguise, and seducing each other’s girlfriends. Despite being angry when their seductions are successful, they decide to reveal their identity and marry their original love-interests, because, as the title Cosi fan tutte underscores, ‘all women are like that’. The girls agree, and the opera ends like a conventional comedy with a double wedding. Before rehearsals, I was curious as to the tension I predicted would occur between the modern-day worldview of the students and myself and the historic values of Mozart’s opera.
Canonical works obviously play a huge part in the theatrical repertoire, and in opera – an art form in which the repertoire is more limited than in other performance traditions – the canon is all-important. Compared to the abundance of operas that exist, the standard repertoire that is performed again and again consists of relatively few works – Mozart’s operas, including Cosi fan tutte, among them.
Selection for the canon happens through slightly different criteria for opera than for theatre. Although stories are being told on a stage, the main criterion for canonical status is the music, and canonical operas are often the ‘finest’ examples of different styles of music, of a composer’s work etc. In fact, many of the most famous operas have stories that are either weakly plausible, thinly plotted, dramaturgically flawed, or – as here – problematic to modern-day sensibilities. What is famous is the composer: the music itself. A key aspect in an opera’s admissibility to the standard repertoire is a practical one: casting. In opera, this is determined by the specifics of voice qualities. For example, if you know you have a fantastic mezzo-soprano in your company, Carmen is going to be a tempting choice, because the title character is such a good part for a mezzo. This practical aspect is foregrounded in educational/conservatoire training settings like the one in Oslo where I just directed Cosi fan tutte – this opera is a perfect choice for a small class of opera singers. It has few parts (six to be specific), the parts are divided between different types of voices (two sopranos, one mezzo, one tenor, two baritones), and all parts have a more or less equal amounts of music. The only problem: It tells a ‘bad’ story, the kind of story from the past that in other circumstances would perhaps be written off, not performed at all, or at least substantially challenged. This presents a problem for directors and singers who wish to produce Cosi fan tutte.
When I began my rehearsals at the Opera Academy, it quickly became clear that this tension between the contemporary, young students and the canonical opera, and particularly the music, would be a feature of my rehearsals, but in a different way than I had first imagined. On the first day of rehearsals I asked my students what they thought about the plot in Cosi, and after some hesitation (this is after all a classic in the opera world) they all voiced some sort of skepticism towards it. But the moment we moved on from talking about the opera to actually rehearsing it, the students were far less concerned with the story we were telling than with singing the music correctly. Their work on Cosi until the first rehearsal with me, the director, had solely been devoted to studying the music. None of them had thought much about their character or its place in the story. Some of them had used google translate to understand the Italian lyrics, but from set piece to set piece, and not overall. They only translated their own lyrics, not the words of the other characters. This of course does not reflect badly on the students, who were as eager and engaged as any singers or actors I have ever worked with. But it says something interesting about the specific conditions offered by working with opera. The musical aspects of opera demand such extreme focus and skill that the story comes in second line, at least until one begins working specifically on the staging. The challenge for the director and the singers is to get beyond the technical aspects demanded by the music and really investigate also the story we are telling. As artists, we would expect to, or hope to, be conscious and critical of the stories we choose to tell. But this depends on the conditions and context of the particular medium: different for opera singers and directors than for, say, authors, actors, filmmakers etc. At some point I realised the tension between ourselves and the story the opera portrays itself offered new potentials.
Uncovering these potentials became a starting point for our work with the production of Cosi as a whole. In the rehearsals we gradually moved away from a musical focus, and we started playing with staging not only the opera itself, but also our own relationship to it. We staged some of the big ensembles in ways that made the confusion the characters felt about what happened to them merge with the actual struggle the singers underwent singing the music. In the second act, one character, Fiordiligi, sings about how she feels resigned to her situation: we merged this feeling with the singer’s feeling of near resignation towards the submissive behavior of the character she had been assigned. In the last number we brought Mozart himself on stage: the girls’ maid, Despina, dressed up as and pretended to be Mozart in order to marry the couples. But when she found out that she had unknowingly helped the two boys in their scheming, she removed her Mozart-wig and left, refusing to sing the last ensemble. These were tiny gestures, and I am not sure how much they communicated to the audience, but they became ways for us to attempt not just to take the opera and its story for granted, but to investigate our own relationship to it, including its problematic sides, explicitly on stage.
I am not here arguing that we should stop performing the opera canon. As an opera enthusiast that would break my heart. What I do argue, however, is that the musical quality of an opera should not make us as contemporary artists exempt from finding ways to critically question and challenge both the opera canon, and our own relation to it. One way of doing this, as we attempted in Oslo, is to merge our experience working with the opera with the experience of the characters in the plot, and stage the tension between both of these stories.
Lars Maagero has a Phd in drama from the University of Kent and is currently working as a lecturer and freelance director of theatre and opera.