Stage Opera
By Montague Gammon III

Once upon a time, and not too long ago, there was a wealthy fellow who wanted to impress his friends. To show them a good time. Certainly to show off his wealth.

Thus begins the “back story” of Richard Strauss’ 1912-1916 opera Ariadne auf Naxos.

Since the rich guy was apparently an opera producer, he decided to put on a special show. Or two. Or even three, if you count the fireworks display.

First there would be a comedy, an old fashioned Commedia dell’Arte show with lots of slapstick and masks and a Harlequin … the ancestor of Punch and Judy puppet shows, and not incidentally of TV sitcoms, with their “silly plots and familiar situations that get repeated over and over again, and we always laugh at them.” (To quote Sam Helfrich, Stage Director for the upcoming Virginia Opera production of Ariadne)

Then there would be an opera premiere – a second show, brand new, that was a little classier, on a classical, mythological theme.

And finally that fireworks display. A really big show!

But … according to Helfrich, this wealthy patron sends word through a spokesperson that he is worried that the opera will prove boring, and also, secondarily, that he wants the fireworks to be on time. (Dinner apparently ran late.)

The patron’s solution: combine the two stage shows. Get the energy up and the playing time down. Do both funny play and serious opera at once.

Though “we learn very little about [the patron’s] character,” Helfrich says, “His interest is not in art but in making his friends happy.”

Being that the patron/producer is the guy with the big bucks, his insistence on the apparently impossible task of mingling comic play with tragic opera must be obeyed.

This makes Ariadne auf Naxos “an interesting commentary on opera in America today…. All of the artists are working at the whim of this person who has a lot of money,” Helfrich says.

“Even now an artist works at the whim of the wealthy,” he says, continuing to explain that this juncture of arts and economics provided his “motivation to make the piece contemporary.”

It starts in the green room of an opera house – that’s the common area where actors wait during shows and rehearsals until it’s time for them to go on stage.

Zerbinetta, described on the VOA website as a “saucy flirt,” is the leading light of the comedy troupe. Thrown together with her and her company of comedians in Act 1 – formally known as the Prologue – are a Composer (thunderstruck that he must cut and adapt his beloved opera), a Diva (who is set to sing the lead of lovelorn Ariadne in the planned opera), and a host of other opera professionals. Together they must figure out how to bend their artistry to the will of their financial backer.

The VOA will perform Act 1 in English, Act 2 in the original German. Helfrich says, “In my opinion the first act is about the politics of art and music making, and the second is the work of art.”

Act 2 is “The Opera.” Ariadne, abandoned on the island of Naxos by her ex-lover, Theseus, waits willingly for death. Instead she gets a band of merry travelers – Zerbinetta and her troupe. Zerbinetta does her best to cheer up the determinedly inconsolable Ariadne, who simply doesn’t want to hear about it.

After a bit more comedy and romance, and plenty of “show stopping,” gloriously beautiful singing, the opera introduces the ever popular deus ex machina – the mythological god who arrives to wrap up loose ends.

Ariadne thinks it’s Death come to claim her, but he’s really the pleasure god Bacchus, fleeing the angry sorceress Circe.

In true sit com/romantic comedy fashion Ariadne falls for Bacchus, never realizing his true identity, says Helfrich.

Bacchus goes along with her misapprehension for the sake of a conquest, but the mistaken identity is almost mutual. Helrich explains that Bacchus really does not know who Ariadne is at all.

So off go the two new lovers-to-be, still essentially clueless about each other, leaving the rest of the performers on stage to search for their own romantic, or prosaic, resolutions.

“The patron gives [the performers] an impossible task and they do it anyway,” Helfrich points out, making Strauss’ opera “a very positive commentary on the life of the artist.”

Ariadne auf Naxos “asks a lot of questions,” says Helfrich, about “the patronage system,” on which he believes opera still relies, about the relation of high art to popular culture, and even about the continued viability of operatic art in contemporary society.

It “does not propose answers,” he says, but he implies that the progress of Ariadne auf Naxos parallels that same set of discussions.

Opera or broad comedy, high art or pop entertainment, is the “debate” of the Prologue.

“All of those debates go away when the audience is asked to just sit and listen to some extraordinary music. The point is proven through the music,” Helfrich maintains.

(He promises “a Huge Wagnerian love duet which reinforces the idea of music as an emotional experience,” as well as that series of “show stopping” arias.)

In a sense, the fireworks that the patron promised are metaphorical – musical.

As the character called The Composer says, “Music is the most sacred of the arts.”

Ariadne auf Naxos
Richard Strauss
Feb. 7, 9 & 11
Virginia Opera Association
Harrison Opera House
160 E. Virginia Beach Blvd.
Norfolk, Virginia 23510
Other performances in Richmond and Fairfax.