Fifteen years ago, I had just enrolled in my second year at university studying economics. I was working at the small gallery of contemporary art and enjoyed daily communication with living artists, interpretations, ideation, and everything my 18-year-old brain could give to the visual arts. And for five long years, I was absolutely sure that I was doing a great job and no matter how much I adored the story of art, I believed this type of work was the most important since people’s recourse to modern art was really hard and an essential direction to the local art scene.
And so it was, that five years later, I got my first contract with a museum. Only then did I begin to understand the infrastructure of art, the industry, and how it should serve the arts. Besides the inspiration and bright ideas, there was always something that came before. And while some pieces are living, never losing their relevance, others remain in the shadows, and many are constantly being rethought and redesigned. But who decides their fate?
What makes a good museum? The most obvious answer is a collection. You won’t compare the collection of The Met Museum or Louvre to the museum of my hometown. And yet there’s one more important thing — the curation.
The way we see the masterpieces of the past when their creators passed centuries ago is mostly not our own. We read the texts, we see the light, and we reflect on it. And yet, there are always more people than just a viewer and creator, there’s a voice telling us what to notice and how to approach the work – the curator’s voice.
And so it happens in opera, no less than in the visual arts. And the most common curator’s approach to the old masterpieces is to make them relevant. To rethink, to redesign. The opera companies here are closer to the galleries hosting exhibitions, where some productions become real masterpieces, others fade after years or months. But not many give an idea of the source.
Opera as a Museum
When Haymarket Company announced it would release Handel’s “Orlando” in three parts, many started to analyze this modern (COVID related) approach. Is it too difficult to handle three hours of Handel? Is it a marketing strategy? After a year of direct communication with a company, knowing their approach and sense of responsibility, I thought they had a better reason. What was their “Orlando” about?
“The warrior knight Orlando is madly in love with Angelica,” the company started their release. I couldn’t stop thinking of the warrior-countertenor and how the common perception of this voice changed over the centuries.
The hero with a silk countertenor voice is part of the taste of the time and of the late Baroque aesthetics, already outdated, almost slipping away in many arts at the time of Handel but still living and popular in music. The music that was supposed to be divine and abstract, and everything natural in it was felt as something trivial, devoid of artistic qualities. How far it is from our understanding. And how difficult it would be to fit it into the big (updated) picture of the director’s vision? And what can make us believe and feel the way people did almost 300 years ago?
The operatic source is beautiful indeed, but do we keep Handel in “Orlando” safe and whole if we change the approach, the perspective, the vision? Should “Orlando” be modernized?
I’ve heard “Opera is not a museum” so many times and yet, I’m sure it must be. Not always, but in certain cases it is. There are numerous pieces that weren’t heard as they were written for centuries. And if one has the knowledge, passion, and responsibility to bring not only the original sound but the original vision back — we should only praise it.
Let’s not think about conservation. Haymarket is a company that used many practical innovations from the very beginning of the pandemic. And the company approached “Orlando” with great preparation and confidence. If you check out the production team, besides Haymarket’s CEO and the Musical Director — all the professionals behind the production are technicians. Specialists that aim not to conserve but to bring the piece to the audience as vividly and brightly as it was created.
Good curation is when the author has passed long ago and the goal is to bring his / her / their initial vision to life. This begins with a list of aspects of the work that were important to the creator.
In “Orlando” this would be a vocal part — starting with a strong yet sensual protagonist, that has to develop a complicated emotional character arc. Star-countertenor Bejun Mehta is an unquestionable right choice for the main role. His voice is powerful and flexible, having all the Bel canto characteristics, remaining way above the usual range. The youthfulness and gentleness of his vocals are then naturally developed into the wider range and soon filled with fiery anger. So opposite and so credible.
Then comes a bouquet of female voices, different but perfectly harmonizing. Erica Schuller was a gentle jilted Dorinda, bringing her best to her truly sad parts. Kimberly Jones’ agile instrument was another princess jewel as Angelica. Meanwhile, mezzo Emily Fons, with her rich and expressive voice, was a beautiful embodiment of Medoro, the androgynous presence in Handel’s opera. Every one of them easily amplified and highlighted the vocal presence of any other character on stage.
And don’t forget the “voice of reason,” that even by the “modernity” of his timbre, speaking to the rest of the characters as if out of time. David Govertsen with his rich and weighty bass-baritone, was a necessary anchor of the emotional staging.
The next component is the reading of the score and the orchestra. Craig Trompeter’s readings of old scores always sounds so natural that I often wonder if he ignores all prescriptions and regulations or simply forgets his ego, giving in to the flow of the music. The orchestra follows him just as effortlessly and naturally; which in fact means unbelievable heated passions and dramatic instrumental climaxes.
The third is aesthetics. As with previous screen productions, the setting for “Orlando” is the original work of Chicago artist Zuleyka V. Benitez. All paintings were created especially for the performance and inspired by historical baroque theater panels, which allows you to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of Handel’s theatre. Meanwhile, the subjects of the paintings follow the story literally without high-flown and abstract metaphors which strengthen the storyline and its epic mythology. Designer Stephanie Cluggish created laconic period costumes, that made the characters visible and stand out from the epic canvases.
And the last element of good curation is more modern and dictated by circumstance — the time to watch. And here, I guess, the company’s assumption proved to be 100 percent true. For “Orlando” you need time to dig in. These days, we are not attending beautiful halls, we are not putting on our most exclusive clothes, we are not shinning. But do you believe many of us would find three hours to sit and watch with no interruption? No. And even less would know when to take a break.
That is why three parts dictated by the company as a curator, work so well. Moreover, the release schedule — once a week — gave enough time to reflect, to rewatch, to enjoy the performance afterward in silence. All those feelings allowed for a buildup and need to cleanse them and see the beauty of eternal motives. Because being just a shape — high voices and harmony clad in gold — “Orlando” would have never survived the centuries. It’s so much more and with a discreet and unobtrusive curation of Chase Hopkins, you can enjoy it to the fullest.
I think we could easily place this production of “Orlando” in an empty room and it could not stay empty. It would be full of beauty, sound, life, and a vision of George Frideric Händel.