As Peter Brook’s pared down Magic Flute charms New York, that juggernaut of a musical, Spider-Man, Julie Taymor’s ex-project, rolls on, charming few. The contrast got Los Angeles Times’ Mark Swed thinking:
Brook’s return to opera has been mainly to downscale and refashion classics — such as “Carmen,” Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” and now his “Flute” — into intimate drama. Taymor, though, has taken the opposite route.
She absorbed Asian influences early and made theater in churches and other small spaces in New York for little money with devoted colleagues. As she became better known, she found ways to bring her masks, her sense of ritual, her love of mythology brilliantly into the mainstream. Her first major opera production — Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” in 1993 starring Jessye Norman, with Seiji Ozawa conducting in Japan — was one of the great modern opera stagings.
But the big time began taking its toll. Her Broadway success with “Lion King” raised her ambition. Hollywood called, and her film career has been uneven but also full of flashes of brilliance. “Across the Universe,” her Vietnam War-era film set to Beatles songs, demonstrates a director with a marvelous feel for combining pop culture, music and myth, just what was supposed to happen in “Spider-Man.”
I wish Taymor had visited the “Merce Fair,” where she would have seen an example of an artist who managed to avoid the need for narrative over a long career. At this daylong event — which included performances by Cunningham’s company, films, discussion and concerts — children played with a helium-filled Mylar pillows Andy Warhol had made for a dance and learned the discipline of Cunningham technique. How free this felt, and what a relief after an evening in the Foxwoods’ heavily controlled environment.
In one of the films that was shown, Cunningham notes how difficult it can be to make dancers on the stage seem real. “What is real?” he is asked. “It’s when they get beyond the perfect stage,” Cunningham answers.
The most common complaint about Taymor’s “Spider-Man” was that no one could figure out what was going on. But in many theater traditions around the world (including ours), theater need not be a narrative art. It’s what you don’t understand that can have the greatest resonance. In Brook’s “Flute, for instance, getting beyond the perfect could be nothing more than a wink or a walk across stage. Sharing the room with Mozart’s music, these gestures produced waves of ineffable meaning. And all that surely came about from slow, careful, quiet, private and, above all, focused work.
By spending buckets of money, relying on complex special effects, choosing a popular-culture subject, Taymor all but invited huge amounts of damning publicity and controversy. There could be no escaping producers breathing down her neck or premature reviews.
Putting on extended previews, with the tickets sold at premium prices, meant the inevitable blogosphere explosion of ill-formed opinions. The critics had no choice but to come early. The understandable tendency was not to try to support any sense of an unrealized vision but to pounce and trounce.
Theater is a fragile medium. What doesn’t first work can if the spark is there and if attitudes can be changed. Taymor may have pulled it off adapting “The Lion King” to the Broadway stage, but “Spider-Man” disastrously collided with Broadway’s corporate culture.
“Broadway is not a jungle,” Brook notes in “Empty Space,” “it is a machine.”
Photo: from left Brook’s Magic Flute, Taymor’s Spider-Man