DP's blog: Lulu week 1

Posted on Tue, 2013-01-29 10:39 by David Pountney

A marvellous first week on Lulu with an excellent cast – in this kind of opera getting the casting right is 75% of success! It’s been fascinating to see how working on this kind of complex musical score underlines the diametrically opposed focus of the participants. And this really is a complex score! You could say that there is a steady decline in freedom allowed to the artists in opera scores, from a great deal in Handel, to quite a lot in Mozart, to still some in the 19th century Italians, to much less in Wagner (typically this is where the rot sets in!) till we reach a kind of apogee of control freakery in the 2nd Viennese school. Richard Strauss famously claimed that he could describe anything in music, and went on to show off with bleating sheep, shuffling cards, rippling fountains etc. But Berg doesn’t do this so much with the compulsion to show off – that is definitely Strauss’s domain – but rather with the compulsion to control every second of the performance, right down to non-musical stage actions. So we have precisely notated taps of the foot, gasps of asthmatic breath – in and out – don’t get them the wrong way round! - the drinking of a glass of schnapps, and every conceivable type of gesture not to mention a plethora of brilliantly realised musical effects  - an obsession with doorbells, the wheezing of a harmonica, and many more.

You may imagine that if so much effort is spent in the score controlling strictly non-musical details, what degree of detail is poured into the music itself and what the singers must sing. Hence, the overwhelming and essential focus for them and the main call on the power of their brains is “getting it right”! I, on the other hand, inhabit a totally different universe! Ashley Holland, our Dr. Schön, remarked ruefully the other day “How great it feels when you finally do get it right!” which prompted me to answer that, interestingly enough, the director could never ever get it right because there was no such thing as right in the field of action or characterisation, or whatever a director might invent to realise and transfer a scene from the page to the stage. There is probably a point at which you can say that a director has definitely got it wrong, particularly if that involves doing something that makes it actually impossible to realise the music – we have all seen cases of that – but objectively “right” is an unfullfillable category in this area.         

So for the director all this “getting it right” is a hugely irrelevant distraction, soaking up everyone’s brain power in what is, from his own selfish point of view, a pointless pursuit, except of course that if the scene keeps breaking down – as it frequently must at this early stage – then no-one can get anywhere. All this requires a remarkable amount of mutual tolerance and patience which, I must admit, I don’t entirely possess! That is because these first rehearsals, when each page is new and for the first time, are terribly exciting and demanding, and in these chaotic and confused moments decisions will be made and turnings taken that will still have consequences weeks later. So while they are all clinging onto the need for accuracy like shipwrecked sailors on a raft, I am trying as hard as possible to cast myself loose on an open sea and let my instincts tell me the next step forward!