Posted on Thu, 2014-01-16 10:20 by Opera Explorer

What is a dramaturg? This strange-sounding word, which literally means “a maker of theatre”, is heard most frequently on the continent, where there are traditionally two dramaturgs in every opera house: one who researches editions of operas, and is an expert on the musicological nuances of the scores, and another, who works closely with the director, researching the production, and keeping a close eye on the intentions propelling the story along, as well as the wishes of the composer. Dramaturgs often work in the theatre, too, with Kenneth Tynan (1926-1980) famously overseeing the introduction of new literary works at the National Theatre as literary manager and Dramaturg, following his audacious work as a theatre critic with the self-appointed mission statement; 'Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds’.
Since I joined WNO in January 2013, I have discovered that the role of the Dramaturg here in Cardiff is about giving an insight into opera - both in the context of when it was written, and in terms of how we make it happen at WNO. I give free pre-performance talks before WNO operas and concerts in Cardiff and on tour; I translate the text of operas (so far from Italian, French, German and Pali!) into English for the surtitles; and I also write programme notes for WNO Orchestra concerts.  I’m mentored in the post by WNO Chief Executive & Artistic Director David Pountney, and so far, highlights of the job have included: spending two weeks in Florence learning Italian; co-directing excerpts from Donizetti’s Tudor operas with Polly Graham, and taking these excerpts to National Trust properties around the country; watching rehearsals backstage; seeing The Magic Flute on Lake Constance at the Bregenz Festival; and most recently, talking with Sean Rafferty on BBC Radio 3 “In Tune” about the forthcoming “Fallen Women” season.
A bit about me: my background is in languages and music – but I would say that I didn’t get the opera bug until I was around 21 years old, when I was studying ‘cello at the St Petersburg Conservatoire as part of my degree. It was there that my studentcheskii bilyet – or student ticket – enabled me to see performances at the Mariinsky Theatre for next to no money, and I was hooked. I went to see everything – from shiny new productions of Mozart’s Magic Flute, to Soviet-era museum pieces depicting Russian national history, like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Maid of Pskov, which surprised me during an interlude with the unexpected introduction of several live horses galloping across the stage.
I’m frustrated by the perception that opera exists in a ‘bubble’ – that it is removed from reality, and has nothing to do with popular culture. There may be some truth to this on paper. After all, in the majority of operas, everybody is singing to each other; and it’s true that many of the same 19th-century works are performed again and again, sometimes using productions that don’t seem to have been updated since then.  All of this contributes to the fallacious impression that opera, like much of classical music, is not a conversation.

However, when it’s done well, opera is one of the most mind-bogglingly engaging and multi-faceted of art forms that takes the best from art, music and theatre, with its huge orchestras, dynamic sets, and dramatically gifted singers who have trained to use the natural resonance of their voices to project their voices over fifty-five instrumentalists without amplification.  And not only that: partly due to the enormity of the operation, and the lengthy process of commissioning new works, to quote the Artistic Director of the Royal Opera House, Kasper Holten; “Opera is a crap business model!”  Although in the current climate of cuts to the arts, and slashing of cultural budgets, this could be seen to spell doom for the entire art form, it has historically meant that that since its inception in the 16th century, opera has constantly got caught up in the apparatus of state patronage.  It has been shaped by history as much as it has subverted relationships to authority and challenged moral assumptions in its own right.

There is also a direct line from “classical” music and opera to the popular music today.  Although the purists may scream in protest, the bel canto trills and runs of the great soprano Maria Callas in Bellini’s aria Casta Diva, and the vocal pyrotechnics of Mariah Carey in Hero are distantly related.


As Alex Ross has written, there are “common strands of musical DNA” which recur throughout history, and across cultures.  New opera productions are a way of continuing the conversation with composers and writers who are long-dead. The best directors can help guide us through the story that the composer set out to tell, but can also shake up our expectations by highlighting certain aspects that may not have occurred to even the most seasoned opera-goer.

For me, live opera is not just a transcendentally powerful experience in performance. With a nod to my Russian Studies, I’d say that it’s rather like the city of St Petersburg - an elaborately constructed, utterly absurd, yet mesmerising illusion, and a “window on the West”.  It is a window through which we can explore a world of culture, history and politics that can be both brainy and visceral, refined and offensive.  Onwards, comrades, it’s time to raise whirlwinds!

Sophie Rashbrook