The Magic Flute starts with a montage of faces, audience members waiting for the curtain to rise.  The close-ups encompass all ages, races, and genders, and I expected to hear “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” instead of Mozart’s overture.  Bergman returns the camera to one cherubic, red-headed poppet, but the others whip by like the faces of people waiting on platform as the subway pulls away.  Bergman doesn’t shoot the faces directly, but from a slight side-view, as if the camera were in the aisles.

My senior year of high school, I volunteered as an usher for the Denver Center Theatre Company.  My duties, once every three weeks, usually a weekend matinee, were to guide ticketholders to their correct seat.  I memorized the layout of the two theaters:  the Stage, a traditional semi-circle, and the Space, with 360° seating arrangement.

In the tiny usher dressing room, we were to put on red polyester vests over our white shirts (the rest of the uniform:  black pants, black shoes).  The vests were stored in a wooden box, and the other ushers – housewives, doyennes, other high school students; retirees — and I fought over the few vests sized for human beings.

But here’s the thing:  I’m not a fan of live theater.  I volunteered to fulfill the community service requirement for National Honor Society.  Volunteers also received a season’s subscription, but I never attended a single show.  Instead, I gave the tickets to my parents, who watched some and passed the others onto their friends.  I saw only glimpses and fragments of the shows, standing by entrance, waiting to lead latecomers into the back row ‘you-should-have-been-on-time’ seats.

Books and films, at least, have the appearance of permanence, but live theater is an inherently fungible art.  Its qualities fluctuate, dependent on the so many people:  playwright, stagehands, actors, director.  I wonder, sometimes, if I derive can pleasure reading the script than seeing the script performed:  a perverse form of auteur theory.  The printed page will always the same text, the film will replay in the exact way it did before.

I’m not, however, entirely immune to live performances.  I recently saw a performance of Madama Butterfly (the most frequently performed opera  in the United States) in Wilmington and, despite being seated behind a support column that obstructed half my view, I held my breath during the climactic note of “Un Bel Di Vedremo.”  But,, if anything, this emphasizes the ephemeral quality of theater:  you can only experience a chord progression, a particular phrasing once.  The next day, the timbre shifts, the tone changes ever-so-slightly.  There is no final product; each performance is a revision.  After its 1904 debut, Puccini reworked Madama Butterfly four more times.

After Fanny & Alexander, Bergman announced his retirement from film; he would henceforth concentrate on the theater.

I wonder how Bergman would have staged Madama Butterfly.  A stage saturated in crimson — costumes, backdrops, lights.  Instead of a steamer, a Norwegian icebreaker.  Pinkerton as God:  Lover, Savior, Disappointer.  The auteur who abandons His creations and is too cowardly to revisit them.

Advertisements