The Agony and the Ecstasy

Opera Features   The Agony and the Ecstasy
A conversation with stage director and scenic designer John Lloyd Davies about his new Dallas Opera production of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, which runs through January 14.

Playbill: There's an old adage that says, "Time is of the essence." It seems, in this production of Ariadne auf Naxos, to be particularly apt.

John Lloyd Davies: The situation is this: The richest man in town has engaged two very different companies to provide entertainment at the same party. On the one hand, he has commissioned a brand new opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, a very serious opera from a promising young composer. Unfortunately, he has also hired a comedy troupe to provide after-dinner entertainment to keep all his friends amused. However, the host wants to end the evening with a huge fireworks display. Because everything falls behind schedule, the order comes down that the opera and comedy routine must be performed simultaneously, so as not to interfere with the fireworks display, scheduled to begin promptly at nine o'clock. The members of the opera company are furious and the comedians are not much happier; but in order to get paid, they finally agree to perform Ariadne‹in shortened form‹with some choice comedy bits thrown in. The second half of the opera we see is, indeed, this composite performance.

What's interesting is that all the arguments that take place in the first half, about comedy being better than tragedy and so forth, vanish when it becomes clear to both groups that they have accidentally created a hybrid better than the works they started with. They all, especially the young opera composer, learn an incredible lesson from that about art and life; that it isn't just tragedy or just comedy. The greatest art includes both. I've rather flippantly suggested that the composer, at the beginning, smacks of the young Richard Wagner: obsessive and deadly serious‹but by the end he's transformed into someone closer to the young Mozart. That's particularly interesting because Richard Strauss himself, shortly before he wrote Ariadne, had created two enormous, Greek-style epic operas, Salome and Elektra, followed by Der Rosenkavalier, which harks back to the 18th century. What Strauss then did with Ariadne appears to be a synthesis of the two.

It's what happens in the greatest music by Mozart. You're constantly getting incredibly tragic moments that also happen to be funny, or else lead to something funny a moment or two later.

It's no accident that Strauss went back to a much smaller orchestra for this work. The opera is written in a very Mozartean style. It's very quick-witted, full of short scenes and quick changes. It's very fleet-footed and, structurally, quite compact. So it's not at all a great big opera like Rosenkavalier, and yet he covers so much ground. Like Mozart, Strauss is able to compress many different actions and emotions into a very small space.

Playbill: Like Mozart, this work teaches us something, not only about the nature of art, but about the nature of love, as well.

Davies: Yes, indeed. The serious content of the Ariadne story is that she has been left on the island of Naxos, abandoned by Theseus, the great love of her life. Ariadne is in despair and she spends the first part of the opera telling us she would rather be dead than endure this torment. She is convinced that there could never be another love like Theseus. Indeed, when Bacchus turns up, she initially mistakes him for the god of death and goes to him in order to be taken by him into the realm of death. Only gradually is she persuaded to see that he's rather handsome. Bacchus has come to bring her back to life. It's as if Strauss is trying to tell us that the accident that forces all these people to work and create together is a key experience‹one that unlocks a part of your life that you previously didn't realize existed or a part of your personality that you didn't know was there. And that's true for all the main characters, particularly the Composer and Zerbinetta, who are completely different personalities. Zerbinetta is a very sparky comedienne who's had lots of lovers. She is extremely flippant about love and won't take it seriously, yet at the same time she admits that she wishes people wouldn't always see her as an entertainer, always laughing and joking, because she has a more serious side.

The Composer, on the other hand, has no way of unlocking the lighter, more loving side of his personality because he's so obsessed with the seriousness of his music. What the two of them learn from the experience of being forced to compromise, in order to mount this show, is that, in fact, they have a lot to learn from each other. We never discover what happens to the pair afterward‹that would be an entirely new opera for someone to compose. Yet this momentary encounter with a person they wouldn't ordinarily associate with, a person from a completely different world, changes both their lives. They will never look at themselves the same way again.

There are many routes to self-revelation, ranging from an influential teacher to a polar expedition. But for many, it's the experience of falling in love that shows us who we really are.

Playbill: How does the set design reflect both the isolation in which we enclose ourselves from time to time, and our quest to surmount the obstacles that keep us from connecting with other people?

Davies: We've tried to create, in the second half of the opera, three very distinct areas of the stage. Obviously, the island is the metaphor of the piece because Ariadne cannot escape from it. We intend to show, through the layout, the story that is being told. Strauss establishes the atmosphere through an aria for the three spirits of the island, Dryad, Naiad, and Echo. At the beginning of the story, they sing a beautiful, ethereal trio, which sets the tone of loneliness and the impenetrability of Ariadne's isolation. Although she was abandoned on this island, it has evolved into something she has chosen for herself. There's less risk and pain in that than in pondering the possibility of another love. Ariadne would rather withdraw from the world. Although she will be completely alone until the day she dies, she'll never be hurt by love again.

Playbill: It's the known pain versus the unknown pain.

Davies: Absolutely. We've made a very clear island for her to inhabit in the middle of the stage and we will surround it with a sea, a lake, of real water. The pool is inhabited by the three nymphs, who can move about freely, but because they are spirits, cannot take up residence on the island. Sadly, they circle the island, singing, but they can't become a part of Ariadne's world or help her because they're not substantial. The real human beings occupy the land around the water. That's where Zerbinetta and her comedy troupe friends cavort, but they cannot cross the water to reach the island. What's interesting about this is that only one person can reach her‹and it has to be the right person. So, in a strange way, it is the exact same principle as Brünnhilde on her mountaintop, surrounded by a circle of fire. Once Wotan leaves his daughter, only the right man, the right hero, will be able to get through the flames in order to awaken her, rescue her, and love her.

The theme of the "right man" shows up in Arabella and several other Strauss operas; the idea that if the right person comes along to love you, they will know how to approach you and penetrate your defenses. Indeed, that is exactly what Bacchus does. Gently and persistently he persuades Ariadne to realize that she has turned this initial betrayal and abandonment into a principle by which she lives her life. And she doesn't have to do that. He offers Ariadne the chance to reach out to someone else and, in the end, she realizes that this is what she wants. She embraces this opportunity‹and this man‹as a new beginning.

In essence, it's the different ways in which idealists and realists approach the world. One says, "I can only have love if it is pure and perfect," while the other believes the world is imperfect, yet full of possibilities. There's a lesson here that goes beyond love, to touch everything we do. Each of us has dreams that go way beyond what we will ever realize, but our failure to realize them doesn't make us a failure. And there's something else: In art and in life, the value of other people in pursuit of a common goal cannot be calculated. You have ten, 20, 50 people coming together to bring a work to life, and every single time you perform it, it's different. No matter how strong or dogmatic you are as a director or designer, half of what happens onstage is the result of the chemistry between the people. If it's different people, it will be a different show. It's such a good lesson in communal life. We spend a lot of our lives being highly individualistic, pursuing our own goals. But it's a fact that human beings are social animals and to be like Ariadne‹stuck on a deserted island‹is our worst nightmare. It's largely other people that make us happy: other people appreciating us, loving us, and being loved by us.

Working with other people, whether on an opera or a sports team, to create something different than what any one individual would create on their own, is a fascinating thing. Paintings and novels tend to be the work of a single person; however, an awful lot of art depends on collaboration, on different points of view. Art is a much more social medium than people think, and that's what I love about theater and opera. It's not just a social medium while you're making it, it's equally social in nature while performing it. The effect of the audience is crucial: If you sit through a run of performances of the exact same production, it's not just that the performers do something slightly different each night, it's the energy and reactions of the audience members that change, as well.

Playbill: Quickly, before this becomes a dangerously uplifting conversation: What about the inspired silliness built into the libretto and this production?

Davies: I'm impressed with Strauss and Hofmannsthal's ability to change directions in a heartbeat. At the end of Der Rosenkavalier, you have this huge, very beautiful aria shared by the young lovers. When they finish singing, they leave the stage, and that would be the end of the piece. And yet, after this very serious, beautiful duet, Strauss adds this tiny, witty, and quick bit of music for the Marschallin's servant boy who comes in and retrieves a handkerchief and runs away. The first time you see it, you think, "What's that doing there?" Ninety-nine out of a hundred composers would never have done that. And then you realize that Strauss had such a good instinct, that he gives us a way out, an "antidote" to the piece that provides a counterweight to this very serious love duet. While love is happening in one person's life, in the Marschallin's life, she's lost her handkerchief and has to send a boy to find it.

The exact same thing happens in Ariadne. There's a huge love duet at the end when Ariadne and Bacchus get together which, logically enough, would simply come to an end and that would be the end of the opera. Except that Zerbinetta comes back just before the duet ends, not as an interruption or intrusion, but as an unseen observer. Seeing what's happened, she turns to us and makes one gentle, rather philosophical comment: "When the new god, the new lover comes, we're powerless to resist. Because this is what we're born for‹we're born to be loved."

It's a very simple little line that just serves as a counterbalance to this massive love duet. And the function served in the piece by the comedians is the same, to say we can't construct our life to be a tragic epic, as Ariadne is attempting to do, because there is always something irreverent or funny or crazy hovering around the edges.

The constant interruptions that take place every time the Composer and his group attempt to emphasize the seriousness of their venture to Zerbinetta and her low-brow companions are, in fact, the latter's refusal to limit art to so-called high art. Naturally enough, high art‹like opera‹has a tendency to become something people revere. Now, don't misunderstand what I'm saying: It's fine for people to love opera, but the existence of Tristan doesn't preclude the existence of The Simpsons. Richard Strauss's point, and Hofmannsthal's, is that part of the joy of the world in which we live is our ability to enjoy Tristan one night and Homer Simpson the next.

Humor is one of the very things that distinguish us as creatures; animals don't have this ability to find something, even ourselves, particularly amusing. The ability to stand outside ourselves and laugh is what it means to be human, and the very greatest artists‹Mozart or Shakespeare‹show that quality. Most of the other Elizabethan or Jacobean dramatists duplicated Shakespeare's "blood and guts" but little else. The amazing thing about Shakespeare is that he is always giving us dramas constructed with comedy co-existing right alongside the tragedy. And, I think, part of what makes Ariadne such a profound piece is this: it is deadly serious about the things it's serious about, but knows when and how to laugh at itself, too.

Suzanne Calvin is Associate Director of Marketing/Media and PR for The Dallas Opera and producer of Inside The Dallas Opera on WRR-FM. She is also an award-winning journalist, playwright, and former news anchor.

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