Less is More: An Exploraion of the Aesthetic Power of Minimalism
Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs & Lows sheet — in short, to see themselves as La Traviata experts.
The Met: Live in HD production of La Traviata takes a distinct and unusual position on sets and costumes. Whereas other productions have offered period settings of the opera, Willy Decker and his designer, Wolfgang Gussmann, chose a different approach. As students have seen, this La Traviata is mostly white, black and red, with a variety of circular forms conveying themes of time and its inevitable return. Violetta is mostly dressed in red. Circular set pieces and a huge clock dominate the stage. The many features of the set identified in the Performance Activity The Three Cs not only carry symbolic value, but may also concentrate an audience’s attention on the familiarity of the human drama, as opposed to the strangeness and fascination of faraway, long-ago tastes.
Students may enjoy comparing other, more traditional productions to the one they’ve just seen. A number of versions are available on DVD, or in excerpts at youtube.com.
How do the elaborate costumes and sets of other productions compare to the sleek designs seen at the Met?
How do Violetta’s traditional costumes compare to her red dress and shoes in the HD transmission?
The character of Dr. Grenvil is present throughout the opera in the current Met production, but not in other versions. Do students think this is a good idea? Why? What might it mean to have him on stage, sometimes lurking in the background?
Is one version or the other more successful in inviting emotional involvement?
Which production seems a more natural setting for Verdi’s music? Why?
Are any of the productions more interesting to watch, overall? Why?
There are, of course, no correct answers to these questions. Any response is valid, especially to the extent that the critic can cite specific characteristics of the works to support his or her opinion.
Willy Decker’s production has been called minimalist—a design approach summarized in an aphorism often attributed to the early 20th-century German architect Mies van der Rohe: “Less is more.” Minimalists believe a work of art can be stripped down to its essential elements, and that such art is both more beautiful and more effective than a more elaborate style.
A fun way to explore minimalism is by trying it out. Students can choose a favorite film or TV show, then imagine how they might restage the same story in a minimalist style.
What would the sets look like?
How would costumes be designed?
Would contemporary styles be a part of the design, or might they convey too much information about the time and place of the production?
What aspects of the original might be lost in such a stripped-down version? Might there be gains in terms of the audience’s experience?
For instance, what might Harry Potter’s story look like without all the visuals? Would it be possible to communicate the relationships of Harry, Hermione, and Ron? The danger posed by Voldemort? How could the house of Gryffindor be distinguished from Slytherin?
Could the TV show Friends be produced without the coffee shop? The Office without an actual office? How might SpongeBob SquarePants be presented without all the trappings of his world under the sea?
Ambitious students might enjoy executing their minimalist concepts by mounting scenes from their reinterpretations for the rest of the class to see.