By Tan Shuo
“The technical advances that have taken place within the last one to one and a half years have given us television cameras with the sensitivity to pick up opera lighting,” said Kerryn King in 1976 in an interview with The New York Times. Texaco, the company that King served, had sponsored the Met radio broadcast for decades, and as live telecast became technologically possible for opera performance in 1976, they promptly added a $200,000 grant for a new television program called Live from the Met.1
On March 15, 1977, La Bohème, the first of the series Live from the Met, was simulcast on PBS.
Back then, Sirje Viise was a little child, and the live operas on TV had accompanied her since childhood and left on her a lasting impression that not only could singing and drama be seen in opera, but also hosts and hostesses, television commercials, and singers with sweaty faces taking interviews during intermissions.
Being raised in a musical family, Sirje aspired to have a career as opera singer, and to chase her dream, she moved to Germany, where, according to the statistics by Operabase, the most opera performances in the world are performed.
But it was in this opera country that Sirje started questioning the art form that she had been fascinated about: why does attractiveness play a more important role than experience and talent? Why do conservatories and academies keep recruiting new students when they know the market has been saturated for long? Why can white singers play black roles with blackened faces while black singers do not have an equal chance to play white roles? Why do church scenes repeat in opera? Why do composers often write male characters for women? Why are voices defined by Fach? Aren’t arias artificial? Aren’t plots absurd? What else can singers live up to besides following composers’ scores and directors’ instructions? What else can they expect besides being consumed at theatres?…
The deeper her thoughts went, the more skeptical Sirje felt about opera, which gradually drove her to the field of contemporary art. As she reflected, “I came from strictly classical art forms and thought that was what I would do…But in order to live in that world, you have to accept a lot of bullshit…I was not meant to be a classical opera singer who is happy with opera and stays with it forever. I was meant to pass through it. ”
For years, Sirje has been creating her own contemporary works both as a member of Berlin-based avant-garde vocal ensemble PHØNIX16 and as a soloist, and her biggest solo work until then, Dolls, – funded by Danish Arts Foundation and premiered at Theatre Får302 in Copenhagen in December 2017 – was an important moment of her career.
The word “dolls” is a collective name given by Sirje to opera singers, carrying the underlying meaning of “pretty appearance, but no brains”. And the project of Dolls, in the format of the telecast Live from the Met, consists of 23 Christmas- or winter-related operas (including Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker and Handel’s oratorio Messiah) which are put into a sequence of four categories based on four opera stereotypes for women, namely Goddess, Virgin, Mother and Whore. Sirje alone created all the sets, props and costumes, besides playing all the characters, and from the start, Dolls was conceived as something beyond opera conventions. As Sirje said, “There is a lot of energy being invested right now into preserving opera and keeping opera alive, which I think is misguided, because the way to keep opera alive is to let it continue to evolve. A major criticism that I have on the art form is that we are trying so hard to keep onto the way it should be, and the way that we think it should be is the way it was…I think we are failing to find the way to move forward.” In this sense, Dolls is not merely a showcase of Sirje’s singing, painting, dancing and acting skills, but a bold new experiment aiming to plough an alternative path for the old art to be renewed.
The plots of the Dolls shows, for instance, do not always stick to the librettos, and very often the endings are twisted: Pamina is an alien, gets pregnant and gives birth to a baby (The Magic Flute), Amahl dies shortly after he offers his crutch to the three kings (Amahl and the Night Visitors), Mimi turns into a bloodthirsty zombie and killed all her friends (La Bohème), etc. Political and social issues are source material. For example, in response to the wave of sexual harassment allegations and the #metoo movement, many green room interviews in Dolls touched on sex scandals. Sirje also openly mocked current American president Donald Trump, even if it may have offended audiences with different political views.
For theatre buffs, Dolls, in general, is a series of opera stories transformed into plays with the elements of improvisational theatre, devised theatre, Regie theatre, the theatre of the absurd, stand-up comedy, performance art, etc., incorporated. Yet for opera fans, especially for those who have a certain age, Dolls may remind them of Anna Russell’s vocal parody – both are one-woman shows and both poke fun at opera from a realistic angle, but what makes Dolls different is it actually “revives” the operas on a miniature stage with Barbie dolls representing the characters, and dramatically reconstructs – instead of analyzing – the stories. Moreover, what Dolls tries to lampoon is not limited to plotlines, but the opera industry as a whole, ranging from ageism to racism, from casting-couch to insufficient funding, from religiosity to political stance, etc. Therefore, the satire in Dolls, although it evokes giggles and guffaws, is not only meant for entertainment, but with the purpose to expose hypocrisy and provoke people into thinking about their perspective as they view art.
“I love it. I hate it.” — Sirje told her contradictory feeling about opera, and her Dolls is the very product of such love-hate relationship, where scathing sarcasm is, on the one hand, authentic touching operatic singing on the other hand. Every evening from December 1 to 23, 2017, Sirje staged a new opera episode, in which she played all the main characters and sang all the big numbers. The sheer beauty of the tone and her vocal agility tugged at everyone’s heartstrings, and it was always the singing part that drew applause from the audience. Whenever her singing began, Sirje, dressing up as Mother Maria, seemed to change instantly from a vehement opera detractor to a sacred devotee. Whether it was a high coloratura note or a bass line, it resonated to the same extent; whether it was sung in English, Italian, German, French, Russian or Czech language, there was the same emotional appeal. Perhaps, only after hearing Sirje’s live singing can one really understand her love of opera, which drove her from America to Germany and to the idea of Dolls.
In 1977, when La Bohème by the Met was live broadcast on TV, Sirje did never know that many years later she herself would realize the production at an experimental small theatre where most of the audiences are not opera-goers.
“I have never seen opera before. She helped make it not so complicated, so you got the idea,” a 26-year-old computer science student commented after a Dolls show, “Perhaps, if I had just seen this normal opera, maybe I would not have understood all of the details, but she – one person – made it very clear. Next time, when I experience my first opera, it has some help.”
For Sirje, such comments were favorable, though part of her aim was to lay bare all the “bullshits” of the opera universe hence destroy the highbrow part to save the art from its museumized existence.
As an audience, I was also glad to see she achieved “save-and-destroy”, and at the same time, generate such a backfire effect, which made both Dolls and opera unforgettable.
For Audiences, Artists, and Theatres
1. Fraser, C. Gerald. “First Live Telecast of a Met Opera Made Possible by $200,000 Grant.” The New York Times, 10 Dec. 1976, https://www.nytimes.com/1976/12/10/archives/first-live-telecast-of-a-met-opera-made-possible-by-200000-grant.html. Accessed 6 June 2018.
The article is fulfilled with support from Danish Arts Foundation and Theatre Får302.