Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Totality of Richard Bradshaw

There are many reasons to admire the late Richard Bradshaw, who led the Canadian Opera Company for almost two decades, until his shocking and untimely death in August: he was a great conductor; he was a caring and visionary leader of the people who worked for his company; he was a charismatic and reassuring spokesperson for the arts; he was a shrewd and far-seeing business person; he was a seemingly tireless worker; and he was ambitious in a way that might have seemed almost un-Canadian, had it not been that he so clearly believed in the specific potential of his adopted country. And it is surely true, as I’m sure countless people have now remarked, that the Four Seasons Centre, the elegant, pragmatic and beautifully effective opera house that was largely the result of his determined work, is a fine memorial to the man.

However, the aspect of his work that I think I admire the most, perhaps because it is somewhat unexpected in one who was known chiefly as a conductor before taking over the COC, is his intense interest in the whole of the art of opera. In particular, I am thinking of Bradshaw’s lively interest in improving the theatrical direction and design of the COC’s operas. Bradshaw took some great risks with some of the directors he hired; but the risks were well calculated, and if they did not invariably work out well, more often than not they produced thrilling work. It was Bradshaw, for example, who offered Robert Lepage his first opportunity to direct opera, resulting in a brilliant double-bill of Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Bradshaw also invited Atom Egoyan and Francois Girard, best known as film directors, to work for the company.

The importance of these decisions to the advancement of the art of opera in Canada cannot be overstated. Before Bradshaw, far too many Canadian operatic productions had used the “park and bark” approach, in which the singers simply stand down front and sing straight out. The scenery and any action in such a view are a decidedly distant secondary concern, or a sort of largely superfluous background ornament, to the real attraction: the singer and the orchestra. In this traditional view, a few feeble gestures as to the setting along with some pretty costumes and some hierarchical lighting (follow spots on the leads, dimmer lights on the chorus) are sufficient to the task at hand. Any deeper concern with the mise en scène might be likely to distract, and is therefore to be suspected, if not deplored. Naturally, this attitude (I can’t bring myself to call it an “aesthetic”) is a product of the rather limited practices of stage-craft in the era in which opera came to maturity. Painted backdrops into which the performer could not possibly be integrated, and precious gas-light or lime-light instruments that needed to be always focused on the principal performers, were the norm in the nineteenth century. And when any closer concern with these factors did intrude, it had to do with making the setting “realistic” from an antiquarian perspective. But essentially, all such efforts were deliberately kept deeply subordinate to the main attractions: singer and orchestra.

To be sure, the singer and the orchestra are immensely important, and I am far from arguing that the hierarchy should be reversed. Rather, what I AM arguing, and what Bradshaw was implementing, was an approach to opera that takes the entire art form very seriously, and assumes that all the elements will be carefully integrated to create a single unified art form, with no hierarchy apparent within it. In this, of course, Richard Bradshaw was realizing the wishes expressed more than a century before by another Richard, Wagner, who in a famous 1849 essay, “The Art-Work of the Future” had argued for the “Gesamtkunstwerk,” the total art-work which would integrate music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts and stage-craft into a single work. Now, it is true that Wagner’s ideas of what might go into this total art-work were rather circumscribed by what he saw in his own time ⎯ the scenery, for example, would be based on the middle-brow illusionist paintings of the sort that illustrated literary fantasies in his day, a shortcoming it would take the less literal imagination and good taste of Adolphe Appia to overcome ⎯ but the idea was a powerful one, and compellingly argued.

At any rate, it is not as though the gesamtkunstwerk is a marginal or radical idea anymore: Wagner’s essay is one that virtually every student of opera would be required to read at some point. However, for all that everyone agrees in theory that such an approach to opera is a good thing, there are far too few people in charge who are like Bradshaw in their determination to go beyond lip-service and to see that their actual productions truly approach the ideal for which Wagner argued. The reason for this probably has to do with the opera business, which, because of the business of marketing the box office --- in which star singers are traditionally the main attraction, star conductors the next, and star directors and star designers are still widely considered something of an oxymoron --- remains deeply addicted to old-fashioned hierarchies. Indeed, the problem is great enough that, while all regular opera-goers would testify to the great thrill of seeing a production in which every aspect of the art form is fully realized, there are few who have become more than middling critics of direction, design or choreography, even as they make the most highly-informed and exacting criticisms of leading singers in specific roles.

Thus, while this is one of the most important aspects of Richard Bradshaw’s legacy, it is also one of the most vulnerable. I only hope that the search committee who faces the daunting task of replacing Richard Bradshaw as General Director appreciates the totality of the great artist and leader he was, and accordingly recognizes the commensurate importance of Bradshaw’s concern with realizing his chosen art form in all of its totality.

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