I’ve been tweeting about opera tonight, My experience of opera is a bit different from most people’s.
I used to work for an opera company. I started watching opera as a student, when it cost me almost nothing, and I went to work there, in the finance department, for a pittance of a salary, because I loved it. I got to see all the productions for free, and a lot of the rehearsals.
Set design, like everything else, goes through fashions. The fashion at the time was for the somewhat surreal, and impractical. In one production of “La boheme”, when poor Mimi was dying, very vocally, of tuberculosis, as Mimi always does, being at the same time both challenged of lung and the leading lady with the best sing-y bits, her heartbroken lover Rodolfo raced to her in a passion of grief, down a spiral staircase. He gained momentum as he went, and it was clear from the second curve that he wasn’t going to make it. By the time he hit the stage he was a blur. He shot straight past her into the wings, leaving cheetahs coughing up dust in his wake. (He was lucky. A couple of degrees to the left and he would have landed in the orchestra pit).
Rakes were all the rage then. A rake, in theatrical terms, is a stage that slopes down towards the audience. Theatres strove to out-rake each other in those days. In “Tosca” the eponymous heroine throws herself out of a window to her tragic death. Having the window at stage level is anticlimactic. Putting a sign saying “6th Floor” with a big arrow pointing at the window does not fool an audience. Raising the window so your leading lady runs up a ramp and throws herself out of it is dramatic.
Having a competitively raked stage with an additional ramp so steep that your leading lady runs on the spot for three seconds in front of the window then slides down the ramp backwards on her face is so funny that you sometimes have to take members of the orchestra outside and threaten them with a good slapping before they’ll stop laughing.