John Eaton: Involving Audiences in the Sweep of the Music



John Eaton
Interview Excerpt #7


JOHN EATON: In Italy and in Germany, when a new opera’s being done, people will go the week that it’s being done, and they’ll buy the libretto… By the time the opera performance they attend takes place, they’ve really kind of absorbed that libretto. American audiences won’t do that.

FRANK J. OTERI: No. [laughs]

JOHN EATON: I mean, you know, for instance, I think Clytemnaestra‘s had over 20 performances, and I would be surprised if, in all those performances, more than 200 libretti were bought. I mean, they just won’t do it.

FRANK J. OTERI: I also think that we have another notion about theatre, that’s very different from thinking of theater as ritual or educational, and that’s thinking of theater as a suspense spectacle. Think about the things that are important in American culture; think about a baseball game. No one wants to go to a baseball game if they know who’s going to win.

JOHN EATON: Right.

FRANK J. OTERI: You know, everybody gets really upset when a boxing match turns out to be rigged. They feel cheated. Or wrestling… When wrestling was exposed as being a theatrical thing that was rigged, everybody was really upset. I mean, did it really change the experience? No. But all of a sudden everybody felt lied to. And, certainly people go to movies for the surprise element too… I remember this movie a few years ago, some critic had revealed how the movie ended and everybody was outraged because, how dare this critic tell the end of the story? He spoiled it for us. But, you know, this is the opposite notion of wanting to read a libretto before seeing an opera. I don’t want to know how it’s going to end, I want to, you know, I’m American, I want to go to this thing, and I want to be surprised to find out at the end that Clytemnaestra kills Agamemnon. Uh oh — gave it away. Sorry, folks. [laughs]

JOHN EATON: On the other hand, think of what occurs to me is Columbo. You know, where you always know beforehand who the villain is and you get involved in watching how Columbo unravels it. There’s suspense on one level, and hopefully people could read a libretto and go see one of my operas and the music does enough that there would still be suspense, the music and the stage action do enough that there would still be a great deal of suspense, because, really, a libretto, I think Dallapiccola said it, is just the punctuation of an opera. It shouldn’t tell you everything. Maybe it shouldn’t even tell you the essential things. But, again, I have to go back to the fact that nearly every plot that Verdi or Puccini chose was something that was something the audiences of the day were familiar with because it had been a popular theatrical piece, or it had been a popular novel, or something. They certainly worked with stories that were familiar. And very seldom did they make anything up out of, you know, yard cloth.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. Well, nowadays, what are the things that people are familiar with? We’ve talked about sitcoms, but certainly so are motion pictures, and I know, or I know when they did the opera of A Streetcar Named Desire that André Previn wrote a few years back, I was so amazed because I thought, you know, I’m looking at this thing, and already I have my notion so preconceived about this thing, I’m looking at Stanley and Stella and I couldn’t erase Marlon Brando from my brain. It got in the way for me. You can’t compete with that image. That image is indelible. And there were things that were very effective about the opera. I thought Renee Fleming was a stunning and convincing actress. But we know too many of the details of the myth, as opposed to, you know, these other ur-myths like those in the Greek dramas where people knew the plot but we didn’t have a specific visual image of the characters associated with it. It’s getting much harder to have these kinds of myths nowadays and, as audiences get more fragmented and marginalized, it’s getting harder to have any plot that a large audience would all already know.