Yesterday's The Times contained a long piece by Rory Bremner on the subject of his forthcoming translation of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld. I'm a great admirer of Rory: he's extremely funny as well as being right on the nail in his observation of politics and all sorts of other things (US readers: he's a brilliant impressionist, stand-up comedian and political satirist who's had his own TV shows here for years). But his approach to translating nineteenth century opera gave me pause for thought:
"And herein lies the problem for translators: here are two worlds, Greek mythology and the French Second Empire, which have little modern relevance, and what to Parisians of 1858 would have seemed a witty, even scandalous, satire now looks like, well, silly people doing silly things... I soon realised, along with the director Oliver Mears, that we needed to revive and refresh the piece and add some twists of our own."
Over the last year, I've seen several examples of directors who think the opera they're directing is no longer relevant. To name just three: in ENO's Don Giovanni, Jeremy Sans's translation altered out of recognition the words of famous arias. In the Merry Opera Company's Troy Boy, billed as an adaptation rather than a translation of Offenbach's La Belle Hélène, Kit Hesketh-Harvey translated the musical numbers reasonably straight, but played fast and loose with the spoken dialogue. In Komische Oper Berlin's Die Entführung auf dem Serail, Calixto Bieito didn't have a translation to work with, so original words were left incongruously juxtaposed with incompatible events on stage.
I keep coming back to one question: if the director thinks an original opera is no longer relevant to a modern public, why stage it at all? I have no doubt that Bremner is completely capable of writing a splendidly funny libretto for a new comic opera that would entertain us all far more than shoe-horning his humour into Offenbach. Adaptations of old stories can be fine, too - when Bernstein and Sondheim decided to reinterpret Romeo and Juliet, they didn't do a new translation of the Gounod opera, they came up with a masterpiece in the shape of West Side Story.
I suspect that the answer is this: opera promoters don't really believe that they can find a composer working in the classical field who will write music that is half way as engaging, catchy and populist as Offenbach (or, indeed, Bernstein: West Side Story may be classed as a musical rather than an opera, but it's performed by opera companies more often than his "proper" operas Candide and Trouble in Tahiti). They would far prefer to rebrand Offenbach than to spend substantial money getting new work written by a composer whose results, they suspect, will be unlistenable to for a large percentage of their audience.
I hope to see it soon - a New Opera, libretto by Rory Bremner, music by XXX, causing a smash hit on the London stage. And I have no idea who the XXX would or should be.
4th September 2011