Broken Character: Bad Reviews

October 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ah, opera. Possibly the one art form where a little smile on the face can set the critics atwitter (literally). Especially if it comes right after a very demanding, not-so-cheery aria. Especially if it happens at the Met. And especially if it involves Anna Netrebko.

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen: La bellissima herself broke character during the Metropolitan Opera’s opening night performance of Anna Bolena. Her slight smile post-aria was no longer "in character" for the opera, as she acknowledged the audience’s ovations. For many opera goers, who expect the dramatic line of the opera to be intact, this is a major faux pas.

But this wasn’t always the case in America. In fact, approaching an opera as a complete dramatic work, and not just as a showpiece for talented singers, is a fairly new phenomenon in this country. For years, prima donne and the men who love them would thank the audience with a bow, a smile, whatever suited their fancy. Some would even go so far as to sing the whole aria again! I could give you more specific examples, but a recent New York Observer article does it well enough for me.

So why is breaking character a big deal? In my humble opinion, it’s because not everyone that goes to the opera goes to hear a star sing some songs. One of the many ways that opera can remain culturally relevant today is by highlighting the sweeping, timeless stories they tell. When someone breaks character (even for a stray smile), the illusion of the story and world of the opera is shattered. Granted, the five minutes of uproarious applause can have the same detrimental effect. But when I goes to a play, I don’t expect to see the main character take a bow immediately after a heartrending monologue. In the same way, opera needs to be dramatically viable, and not just a hits parade, for the dramatic action to be cathartic. On SNL, please, break character and crack up uncontrollably- we love it. But after you’ve finished "When I am laid in earth," please don’t flash me your pearly whites.

-Jen

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