Directing Early Opera: The Ultimate Operagasm
by James Marvel
Throughout mythology, it is a common sentiment that humans believe themselves to be a plaything of the gods. In much of early opera, the gods are not only referenced by the mortal characters, but they actually walk amongst the mortals intriguing, beguiling, and foiling their plans. And because the gods are immortalized as characters in these operas, the gods actually become the playthings of the actors and directors whose task it is to portray their stories. They set our imaginations ablaze and give us license to don the mantles of capriciousness, licentiousness, and immortality.
In our most extreme moments of physical and existential pleasure and pain, we can often be heard crying out to the gods for mercy and relief. One need not be a person of faith to experience this divine, sublime emotional extremis. The operatic music from this particular time period is both essential and fundamental. The sounds and utterances of this ancient art are primal, if not primordial. The fact that we still desire ourselves to be ravished by these demonstrations of lyrical ecstasy speaks to the ability of these early works to touch upon our most basic urges. In response to a production of Gluck’s Orfeo in 1774, Julie de Lespinasse wrote, “I could listen to that aria ten times a day; it tears me apart, sends me into an ecstasy of sorrow….the music drives me mad: it sweeps me away, my soul craves this kind of pain.”
It is no secret that the early music community is characterized by an idolatry of the forms and formalities of the Baroque period that borders on the fetishistic. Practitioners and devotees of these early works would seem to derive a level of ecstatic pleasure from the laments, cries, and convulsions that borders on the euphoric. And why not? We all seek out stories that push our emotions to the very limits of our fragile nervous systems. As Nietzsche points out, “art alone may transform these horrible reflections on the terror and absurdity of existence into representations with which man may live. These are the representation of the sublime as the artistic conquest of the awful, and of the comic as the artistic release from the nausea of the absurd.”
These emotional spasms, tremors, and contortions are present in every aspect of the music, the discords and resolves of which are so pure as to seem plucked directly from the continuum of human experience. Humans are depicted as they are: at once base and divine. Holy in our aspirations, hopeless in our efforts to elude fate. These secular works turn sacred when gods and humans intermingle in a ritualistic bacchanalia of poetry, music, and dance, the result of which is supernatural, shamanistic, and incantatorial. As this consummate art form nudges us ever closer to catharsis and apotheosis, we realize, however prematurely, that an operagasm is a prayer reduced to its simplest form.
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.