OPINION: Classic Tales For Modern Times

Friday, February 01, 2013

I’ve heard it many times in my life and I’m sure you have too. Previous generations are great at reciting their contempt when a new version of a song is heard on the radio or a masterpiece of cinema or performing art is updated with modern storylines.

Disappointment from patrons has been voiced towards performances at DRTCC of adaptations of musicals and stories. While general audiences related, traditionalists disapproved of the modernised and pop culture filled reimagining of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado.

Mozart fans ensured their historical knowledge was known in opposition to the story of Lorenzo du Ponte depicted in Mozart and ME by local favourite Damian Whiteley.

And a few frowned upon the sexual innuendos and contemporary comical routines when Dubbo Theatre Company presented The Venetian Twins in 2011. (When word travelled – ticket sales sky-rocketed!)

While strong opinions are expected, particularly when re-working well known stories, fresh audiences and first-time attendees are often attracted to modern day examples. However there are far more exceptional examples than there are failures.

There have been countless instances through history of updating and improving, of borrowing and plagiarising. Andrew Lloyd Webber, Quentin Tarantino, Michael Bublé and Tim Burton have all made illustrious careers from providing their own angle on already well known and popular artistic creations.

A glaringly prime example is that of the stories of William Shakespeare. They have been studied, updated and modernised since they were penned they are possibly amongst the most performed plays of all time. Yet with every re-telling the original text becomes further and further removed, instead focusing the plotlines and imagery through modern angles to appeal to contemporary audiences.

Riverside Productions’ 2010 theatre performance of Shakespeare’s R&J took many attendees by surprise. While the synopsis promised an “inventive re-imagining of a classic”, the injection of an all male cast in a modern college setting provided an angle rarely previously considered.

This is where art plays its most important role. Every civilisation has made attempts to improve on the successes of the previous. Culture always builds on the past.

During my father’s well documented maiden voyage to the popular opera Don Giovanni, it had occurred to me the storyline might be quite hard to follow given the only word of Italian either of us understands is “Ferrari”.

However, to appeal to modern and even beginner audiences the dialogue and song words had been changed to English. This in itself is no easy task, “...a time-honoured practice” says The New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini.

“A translation of an opera libretto must fit exactly the rhythm, bounce and flow of the existing melodic lines, which the composer matched to the words of the original language. Libretto translators are forced to play fast and loose with the meaning of the original text to render an equivalent in performable English.”

While the general story rarely deviates from its traditional course, straying from the meaning of the original lines are necessary to “mimic” the original text so it fits more perfectly with the melodies.

I agree it is a worthwhile cause to provide modern adaptations or versions of classic stories, however my mind often wonders what translators of 2113 will be translating. Will they bother with Mozart’s original 1787 story or will they prefer to revise the 2012 translation, deviating further again from the original text?

Another popular creation regularly performed are comedy revues. This is where current affairs are retold through comedic means, accentuating and exaggerating on the whimsical qualities of popular culture figures to create an entertaining storyline. 

Sydney Theatre Company’s The Wharf Revue do this with regular hilarity and are often commended for their accurate observations of our most loved and hated political figures.

However, with a production like this much of the creative process involves taking quotes from speeches and public appearances and matching them to themes from television shows and movies. Ironically, the basis for these sarcastic performances has been unwittingly established by the public figures themselves. The creative process simply involves piecing it together in comical fashion, rewriting the words to a few popular songs and making a date of it.

They are simply doing what many acclaimed creative minds have done for hundreds of years. They are taking their influences and adding their artistic angle to ‘create’ a new piece of art.

Selected portions of the stories may even be left ‘open’ to allow presenters to insert local or regional references, making the script even more relevant and specific to a time and place and adding a unique experience each time the performance is staged.

The key is finding the point between plagiarism and improving on the past.

Dutch composer Louis Andriessen defines "There are two sorts of stealing - taking something and doing nothing with it, or going to work on what you've stolen. The first is plagiarism."

Andrew Lloyd Webber achieved a mixed-response from other creative artists when he penned the über-popular musical version of The Phantom Of The Opera. Many accused Lloyd Webber of plagiarism as he used influences from other composers and writers in his musical.

However, what he did was no different to the creative process used initially themselves by the artists he ‘plagiarised’.  He took a melody or a lyric and mashed it together along with a horror story by French writer Gaston Leroux and a few creative images and words, and transformed it into a far happier (in pop culture definitions) love story.

Despite my love of the original story and the 1925 Carl Lamelle silent movie, the world is certainly better-off for having Lloyd Webber’s now classic interpretation. If you are one of the minority yet to see this musical on stage, you may just get the chance to form your own opinion now the amateur right have been released for the first time.

Re-creation is another aspect of art. The work of icons such as Michael Jackson, Freddie Mercury and the king of staged tributes, Elvis, will continue to entertain audiences despite their inoccupation of this world. Entire nostalgia concert experiences have been toured, recently the most notable being Queen’s 1985 concert at Wembley, adjusted for an obviously smaller venue and filled with patrons who, for one night, can feel like they were there.

This instance involves more of bringing the past to the present, instead accentuating characteristics rather than attempting to modernise them.

I quite enjoy hearing a modern version of popular songs from days gone by. It not only pays tribute to the influences through which the modern creative artists and therefore popular culture have been... well, influenced... but it also allows a modern generation the opportunity to enjoy similar experiences their parents and grandparents enjoyed. To hear the words of songwriters who have long since passed on and to see the plays once enjoyed in theatres which have since been torn down.

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