Are we relying on big?
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
I am a child of the opera.
Before I saw my first real play, at 14 or so, I had been to the opera several times. My first was a production of La Bohème (what else) at the gorgeous Palais Montcalm in the heart of Quebec City. People dressed up in furs and suits and even tuxes (me in my blazer, grays and clip-on tie - I was 8). I was hypnotized by Act I. But if you know the opera you also know that the test of a company happens in Act II - Christmas Eve in the streets of Paris in front of Café Momus. Now you'll remember there were no surtitles in those days. You read the story in the program or even followed along in librettos sold at the door. Act II of La Bohème seemed invented to rip the society snobs, the bored and the eight-year-olds from their programs and onto the stage. It is 30-odd minutes of BIIIIG! It was when that curtain rose, on Act II, that this l'il Charlebois fell hopelessly in love - with opera, theatre and BIIIG! (Decades later, when I wanted to seduce my Significant Other into an opera house I promised him splendid surprises and dragged him to the Met, La Bohème, directed by Zefferelli and an Act II that is so goddam huge you have to be made of ice not to gasp.)
My second opera was Faust, mounted for Expo '67. Huge. Humongous. Showing the world what we can do.
Then at the end of 1967 my father and family were shipped to Germany by the army and it was three years of big shows at opera houses throughout the Ruhr Valley. Aïdas, Traviatas and Bohèmes, one bigger than the other.
In the middle of this wondrous operatic crash course was a Trovatore in a decently sized heavily-subsidized provincial house. I knew the music (we always had opera playing in the house) and looked forward to The Anvil Chorus and all the evil and magic. The curtain rose and - horrors! - there was no set! There was just a series of low platforms and that music (my favourite of all of Verdi's). And in the lights (no weirdo projections or special effects or 3D or mirrors) the story and the relationships became clear to me. The follow-spots (so absolutely necessary and gawdawful in those other gargantuas) were so subtle you hardly noticed them. The parapets, the fires, the prisons were crystal clear in the imagination of an eleven-year-old.
I hear they're about to remount Les Mis on Broadway. Reimagined. (Read: huge!!!!!) I am a sucker for Les Mis. I've seen it in different places over the decades. My first time, however, was with my best friend at the time, on Broadway. It was the production you all know and I was impressed. But when my friend and I left the theatre into a near-midnight New York City in the era before Mayor Giuliani had hidden away the homeless, the contrast between the gigantism we had seen and the wretchedness on the streets was striking. The next night my friend and I saw a show made up of real young kids from Soweto on a fairly basic set. Sarafina was an explosion of energy like I had never seen in any house before and few since.
So how about this... How about a new Les Mis that allows the actors to show the wretchedness? How about letting the audience imagine the rest and rejoicing in their imaginations' pictures? How about relying on the material instead of drowning it in a series of literal-minded simplifications that almost always underestimate the intelligence of the spectators? How about believing in the talents of our actors to deliver the energy and our designers to find the answers to problems that - yes - could be solved by a buttload of money but don't need to be because our designers are brilliant too?
How about theatre?