Is it possible to act out emotions and make them seem believable? That is what theatre tries to do – and is always trying to do. Presenting emotion on stage is a theatre’s livelihood and at the same time its biggest problem. There’s nothing worse than feelings that look fake, because then the mechanics of theatre are revealed for all to see and the players’ performances look hollow, false and ridiculous. One solution is to use irony: the grand emotion is shown, but we’re not meant to take it too seriously. It works, but any empathy goes out the window.
In opera, music helps us to feel and empathise. In baroque opera, it regulates impulsive responses in accordance with precise rules, as in “Bajazet (Il Tamerlano)” by Antonio Vivaldi. Verdi was perhaps the greatest emotional artist in 19th-century opera: in his “Troubadour” the music makes a convincing synthesis of a story full of astonishing twists and peculiarities. Richard Strauss transfers the emotional world of his characters into the music and gives audible expression to their soulful actions. With his music Benjamin Britten creates not only realms of suppressed yearnings and desires but also geographical places in which his characters are trapped. And in the musical “Hairspray” the music becomes an explosive force that reveals fake social relations for what they are.
Music is the powerhouse of opera, but we should not put our blind faith in it. We have to tease out the characters of the protagonists, through the music, their words and their actions. That is the only path to the core of their true feelings.
Artistic Director of Staatstheater Nürnberg and Director of Opera