Celebrate Perversity: Stage Director James Marvel examines the role of Sophistication and Filth in Opera
Bringing you the Best of 2013! An exploration of the dark side….
“I am strongly drawn to camp, and almost as strongly offended by it.”
-Susan Sontag – Notes on Camp, 1964
Opera, when done properly, is among the most violent, carnal, and visceral art forms in the world, filled with moments of astounding tenderness, absurd hilarity, and profound sensitivity to both the sacred and the profane. It depicts all that is best and worst in humanity with a ferocious and uncompromising insistence on uncovering the extremes of human behavior and emotion. This motley parade of psychopaths, perverts, and sexual deviants lends itself to the outlandish and outrageous spectacle that has come to define the genre.
When directing an opera, I often ask myself how a given piece wants to be performed for a particular audience, in a particular venue, in a particular city, at this time in history. The result of this question may very well lead to my creating an entirely traditional production, or it may lead me to push the very boundaries of the art form itself. In March of 2013, I directed a production of Cavalli’s Eliogabalo for the audacious and visionary Gotham Chamber Opera, a company known for producing challenging operas in site-specific locations.
Eliogabalo (218-222 A.D.) was a Roman Emperor whose wonderfully repulsive life included instances of child sacrifice, self-castration, and prostitution. He established a female senate consisting primarily of prostitutes, and his sexual proclivities and appetites appear to have stood out as abnormal even against a backdrop of a society that is itself often described as being excessively wanton and libidinous. He was an aspiring transsexual who offered vast sums of money to any physician capable of equipping him with female genitalia. While composer Francesco Cavalli may not have been a medical doctor, he did manage to write Eliogabalo’s role for a (male) soprano voice and populate the rest of his opera with cross-dressing, gender-bending travesti characters, as was common for operas in the Baroque era.
In 1667, Cavalli’s Venice was every bit as replete with prostitutes as Eliogabalo’s court had been. The publically funded brothels of Venice and its infamous carnival made its reputation synonymous with permissive behavior. In considering dozens of New York venues for this production, the New York nightclub The Box, with its reputation for shockingly irreverent and graphically overt programming, proved to be the perfect marriage of form and function. While the heart of Cavalli’s opera does not focus on excessive or gratuitous sexuality, it does explore a romantic and sentimental ideology against a perversely sexual backdrop, and Eliogabalo’s scatological spirit seemed uniquely at home within the confines of this lascivious space, which featured a catwalk that extended into the audience – a phallic protrusion violating the audience’s personal space.
The opera’s libretto positively drips with innuendo, entendre, and the kind of poetic filth worthy of the Earl of Rochester or the Marquis de Sade. To do justice to these kinds of irreverent works, one must approach them with extreme reverence, as they so deftly intermingle coarse and base content with profound sophistication. Delving into the true spirit of Eliogabalo’s baser characters requires a suspension of what one might normally consider good taste and a whole-hearted commitment to elevating the profane.
Indeed, I often found myself cringing and averting my eyes from my own production as I allowed the fully embodied characters to offend my own personal sensibilities. And yet, I would not trade the experience of being challenged and offended for anything. In fact, I look forward to the opportunity of having my sensibilities assaulted. Those who mistake opera, classical music, or art in general as being an exclusively high-minded endeavor fit for polite society profoundly miss the point. A willingness to embrace baseness and filth in the arts does not indicate a lack of sophistication on the part of an individual so much as it implies a lack of willingness to honor the kind of pretense that too often accompanies notions of sophistication. If the author and composer have gone to the trouble of inserting this kind of material into a piece, it is my obligation to give it proper (or improper) treatment, regardless of how abrasive it might be to my own sense of taste and decorum.
The danger in presenting this kind of content is that it can quickly become banal if handled carelessly, but when camp and base humor are handled with great artistry, it becomes a form of self-conscious mediocrity that can be called High-Camp. On the other hand, Cavalli’s opera contains just as many characters whose mind, body and spirit are of a noble, moral, and heroic nature. These characters represent all that is beautiful, sincere, and honest in mankind, and the musical and dramatic treatment these characters receive is in direct contrast to those characters with a base nature. While the sentiments expressed by the base characters are frivolous and earthy, those of the noble characters are poignant, heartfelt, and devoid of affectation.
The effective portrayal of base and noble characters requires an equal amount of scrutiny and attention to detail on the part of the performer. The sacred and the profane are motivated by different body parts, but neither can be said to have more artistic or intrinsic value than the other, for in the end, as we move our way up from the groin to the heart, a thrust may be just as arresting as the beauty of a romantic gesture.
James Marvel (Stage Director) made his Lincoln Center debut in 2008 for the Juilliard Opera Center with Maestro James Conlon conducting. In March 2011, he made his debut with Opera Africa in Johannesburg, South Africa with a new production of Carmen that was hailed as “stupendous” by the local press. In 2011, James made his Carnegie Hall debut working on Katy Tucker’s video production of Carmina Burana. In March 2012, James made his Paris debut with the L’Homme de La Mancha at the Theatre des Varietes.
Upcoming engagements include the United States premier of Cavalli’s Eliogabalo for the Gotham Chamber Opera in NYC, La Traviata for Teatro del Lago in Frutillar, Chile, and Suor Angelica for Teatro Comunale in Sulmona, Italy.
In 2009, James made his debut in Seoul, South Korea and directed a critically acclaimed new production of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria for the Wolf Trap Opera Company. In 2010, James returned to Wolf Trap to direct Mozart’s Zaide and made his Canadian debut directing Rape of Lucretia.
James was named Classical Singer Magazine’s “2008 – Stage Director of the Year.” Since his professional directing debut in 1996, he has directed over 100 productions in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, South Korea, and the Czech Republic.
Other career highlights include groundbreaking new productions of Les Pecheurs De Perles for Opera Boston; La Voix Humaine at Florence Gould Hall in New York City and for the Royal Conservatory of Brussels, Belgium; and Tosca at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.