All the World’s a Stage
by Sophie Horrocks
Director Bartlett Sher’s sumptuous production of Le Comte Ory sets the action on a stage within a stage. Watch closely, and you’ll see the machinery—and the frazzled stage manager!—of a 19th-century theater. Rather than aiming to portray operatic realism, this staging choice blurs the boundaries between onstage and offstage. Such a device is a perfect showcase for the larger-than-life character of the Count Ory, and for the acts of disguise, manipulation, and playacting in which the count, countess, and Isolier each participate as the story unfolds. Yet this directorial choice also references a long theatrical tradition that invites the spectator to peek behind the scenes.
“Metatheatre” is theatrical style that draws attention to the fact that spectators are watching a performance (rather than trying to be so realistic that the spectator forgets that they’re watching a play). As a theatrical choice, metatheatre has ancient roots: It has been employed in music drama since ancient Greece. Yet this age-old convention continued to shape operatic culture in 1820s Paris, where operatic performance both whisked audiences away to distant lands and time periods (such as the medieval Crusades) and offered a tantalizing glimpse of the real operatic world laying beyond these performances. For instance, the Académie Royale de Musique changed scenes in full view of the audience until 1829, meaning that spectators of Le Comte Ory were used to observing and commenting on the same stage machinery that is portrayed in Sher’s production. Composers and librettists also frequently invoked metatheatrical devices to involve the audience in their operatic works—or in order to make fun of the opera industry itself. Operatic conventions that could be heard around the time of Rossini’s compositions included the aside, where singers break address the audience directly (a device used in the moralizing final chorus of Mozart’s Don Giovanni), the portrayal of characters who are themselves singers (like Rosina in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia), trouser roles and other roles that relied on dressing as different genders (for example the character of Isolier), and plays, ballets, or even operas that take place within the action of the opera itself.
Rather than spoiling the operatic illusion, the long-lasting appeal of these metatheatrical conventions lies in the way in which they weave an intimate relationship between performer and spectator. While metatheatrical moments are deliberately crafted into an operatic piece, they invite the impression that audiences are being let in on secrets of the artistic world. In 19th-century Paris, this prompted a fascination with performance culture, which sowed the seeds for a celebrity culture that we still recognize today: Spectators who marveled at the vocal exploits of singers in the opera house were anxious to read and speculate about their backstage habits, diets, fashions, and private lives in contemporary newspapers and short stories—or to buy perfume bottles, hats, and fans endorsed by their favorite performers. Beginning in the 1830s, Académie director Louis Véron capitalized on this fervor by allowing certain subscribers access backstage—a tradition that continues in many opera houses today. Moreover, beyond the thrill of peeking behind the curtain, metatheatrical conventions allow us to reflect on important questions about everyday life. Disguise and performance—like those used by Ory in Rossini’s opera—draw attention to the roles which each of us play (or would like to play) in everyday life.
Sophie Horrocks is a doctoral student in musicology at Durham University (England). She previously worked in the Baylis education team at English National Opera.