Saturday, April 30, 2005
In one theatrical world, two sinister bronze statues, fifty feet tall, with flames shooting out of their heads, descend from the heights to hover above the singers, flanking a semi-transparent prismatic temple covered in hieroglyphs. Three albino boys with long white beards fly across the stage on a weird creature, part pterodactyl, part World War One biplane with some of the cloth panels missing and the wooden skeleton showing. Two singers descend on a magical elevator into the depths of the ocean while semi-visible figures fly fish-shaped kites. There are samurai, Indonesian shadow-puppets, polar-bear kites, many different species of bird-people, some on stilts, and people with detachable wings and heads.
In another theatrical world, two African Sufi mystics kneel side by side. They are both looking at a word, invisible to the audience, which has been scrawled in a wooden bowl filled with sand. The set consists of several large woven straw mats, a ladder carved from a tree trunk, stools, pots, blankets, and some percussion instruments. Neither man moves or speaks. This is the play’s turning point: the protagonist is deciding that in the future he will recite a prayer called “The Pearl of Perfection” eleven times rather than twelve.
The first production is Julie Taymor’s Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera. The second is Peter Brook’s Tierno Bokar. Brook used to bring his productions to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but Tierno Bokar is being staged in the gymnasium at Barnard College. I saw both productions last week, and both now belong to my personal pantheon of transcendent theatrical experiences.
One of the stories which could be told about the conjunction of these two productions would center on the economics of the arts. On one side are some big numbers. My tickets for The Magic Flute cost over two hundred dollars each (and were still almost impossible to get). Mounting the production clearly cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. Julie Taymor’s production of The Lion King has made over half a billion dollars for Disney and still packs them in after ten years; the Met must be hoping that this Magic Flute will have a similar run. Unlike some European opera houses, the Met has a wage cap, but some of the performers still make five thousand dollars a night. Meanwhile, although Peter Brook’s theatrical laboratory in Paris has significant state support, his audiences in New York find themselves sitting in bleachers, as if they had come to see the Barnard basketball team.
This is not, though, merely a story about inadequate funding for significant artists. Brook is a populist. The tickets to Tierno Bokar are inexpensive by design, and the audience includes many students and many members of the Harlem Arts Alliance, which is co-sponsoring the production with Columbia University. Brook wants theater to become a sacred ritual, and he wants that ritual to embrace everyone, not just the wealthy. Brook has always had an ascetic impulse, and when he founded his company he took them across Africa, where they lived like monks, performed for villagers who had no word for theater, and committed themselves to a long apprenticeship for a task that had not yet been defined.
This is also not just a story about cultural transfers across borders, even though it certainly is that, with one production in German and the other in French, and with both casts drawn from around the world. If I am right about the provenance of the names, The Magic Flute has Korean, Hungarian, American, Russian, and German singers, and Brook’s troupe comes from Mali, France, Britain, Japan, Burkina Faso, Belgium, and Rwanda, among other places.
This could also be a story about bad reviews of good directors. A Washington Times headline read “Julie Taymor smothers Magic Flute at Met.” Anthony Tommasini said in The New York Times, “"Ms. Taymor’s production is so packed with stage tricks, so peopled with puppets, kite-flyers, dancers and extras of sundry description, that the exceptionally fine musical performance given by the conductor James Levine and a strong cast was overwhelmed.” A profoundly cultured woman in the row in front of me muttered that this Magic Flute was “für kinder.” Most reviews were positive, but many expressed at least a little anxiety about the sumptuous staging and its links to The Lion King. One newspaper in Florida said, “Julie Taymor’s staging of The Magic Flute bears many of her Broadway signatures (yes, there are puppets), but lets Mozart be Mozart.” Thank God, these reviews said sotto voce, that Mozart was not dirtied or infected by his proximity to Elton John. Most of the reviews assumed that there was an inevitable power struggle between the images and the music, although one could just as easily argue that the images and the music collaborate in a struggle to retain the audience’s attention. In any case, the Queen of the Night’s high notes are in no danger from the puppets. Her voice is powerful, erotic, and extravagant in a way that makes everything else seem distant and pale. When critics worried about the images overpowering the music, I wonder if they weren’t more worried about the music overpowering the audience. As Wayne Koestenbaum argues in The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Gender, and the Mysteries of Desire, to listen to opera is to experience a strange vulnerability.
Tierno Bokar fared worse with the critics than Taymor’s Magic Flute did. Although reviews in England and France ranged from enthusiastic to ecstatic, American reviewers found the play’s message of tolerance platitudinous; many singled out the aphorism, “There are three truths: your truth, my truth, and the truth.” They disliked the narrator, and they disliked having to look up at the super-titles to understand the dialogue. But the biggest complaint of the reviewers was that the play bored them. A reviewer in the Washington Post said, “The narrative does not so much flow over rapids as settle in deep pools. Often, alas, the stagnation proves all-consuming.” A Newsday reviewer said that the style of acting “deprives the show of tension. The production doesn’t propel; it ruminates.” And even Margo Jefferson, in a largely sympathetic review for The New York Times, said, “The challenge faced by this production is how to convey the world of the spirit and the world of action. At some moments I felt both. More often I did not. The spirit weakened and the history faltered. I could have been turning the pages of a venerable book whose text and pictures were too faint to be clearly seen.”
The reviewers are saying this about a play in which a fair number of things happen. There is some excellent comedy at the beginning, as even the most negative reviews admitted: some boys discover that the shit of white people is brown, a student trained in Koranic recitation excels in a French classroom, a young man learns about the idiosyncrasies of French colonial administrators, and a group of devout Sufis visit the big city. A Sufi missionary converts people all over Africa, discovers a new, youthful spiritual leader, and dies. Two families argue over who owns a silver teapot. The district commander’s cooks persuade him to intervene on behalf of one family against the other, and the entire French administration ends up persecuting all of those who recite the “Pearl” prayer eleven instead of twelve times. The ensuing events include a long journey, a conversion, the torture and deportation of one mystic by the authorities, and another mystic’s expulsion from his community and his lingering death. For ninety minutes, that is a fair amount of action. But each event is enfolded in narrative and silent reflection.
The critics’ complaints of boredom sound very familiar. Many American reviewers have similar objections to the films of Antonioni and Wenders: not enough action. And it is certainly true that these directors, like Brook, have idiosyncratic notions of what constitutes action. As Hitchcock demonstrated in Rope, even when the characters are doing something exciting, a long camera take has the power to make us anxious. We have been conditioned to expect frequent cuts.
I am tempted to congratulate myself for responding to Tierno Bokar when so many other better-educated people did not (although I would then have to reproach myself for getting fidgety while listening to Wagner). But our responses to Peter Brook’s work may in part be just a question of temperament or physiology. Perhaps some of us just have a better ability to adjust our time-sense, to slow ourselves down, like those frogs that can be frozen in the mud all winter and then thaw out in the spring and begin to hop around again. Perhaps responding to L’Avventura requires some sort of neurological problem, the antithesis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Perhaps, in other words, some of us need periods of glacial, incremental, barely perceptible change. Or perhaps all of us feel this need, but some of us fear it and resist it, as if there is a risk that we might not be able to accelerate back to our usual velocity afterward. The protagonist of Tierno Bokar, after all, does not get along well with modernity. When he visits a city for the first time and sees a motion picture, he feels no impulse to repeat either experience. Sotigui Kouyaté, the actor from Burkina Faso who plays him, is lean, alert, and preternaturally calm even when he is suffering. He has a gift for being still that at times seemed almost like an indictment, an accusation directed at me.
Taymor’s Magic Flute is in some ways the opposite of Tierno Bokar. If Brook’s staging is clean, minimal, and precise, Taymor’s is eclectic and lavish, continually overflowing with ideas. She believes, with Blake, that “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”
Despite their differences, both of these productions do lead to the palace (or hut) of wisdom, whether through excess or through simplification. Both move toward an esoteric knowledge (Masonic, Sufi) that remains invisible and remote. And both keep reminding us insistently that the theater is a collection of fictions, an imitation or deformation of something that is elsewhere. Neither production wants to be anything like cinema, with its tendency to reproduce the way things actually look to us. Both Taymor’s Magic Flute and Tierno Bokar are, in their antithetical ways, pure theater.
Thanks for this post, Matt. I’d been wondering about “Tierno Bokar” myself--considering going, trying to figure out how to balance the rather tepid review against the enthusiasm of a student who went as part of her directing class. She, like you, figured out a way to love it. And, interestingly, perhaps, she told me a few weeks earlier that she had loved the (eminently lovable, I’m sure, but) hardly challenging “La Cage Aux Folles.” I love spectacle and I’m sure I’d have loved “The Magic Flute,” but my own modest budget leads me to even greater admiration for Brook’s project.
You are very welcome, Anne. I agree that the prices of opera tickets are excessive. Do conductors, for example, need to make over a million dollars a year (not counting recording royalties)? For that reason, I don’t go very often to the Met. I do have a friend who buys standing room tickets and usually gets to sit for at least the second half.
Instead of going to the opera, I am buying opera DVDs. The sound may be inferior, but you can learn a lot about an opera by watching and listening to the same aria multiple times.