(The following notes appeared in the program for the 2009 Berkeley production.)
Anyone who has ever had to face down a blank page or canvas knows that the Muse doesn’t always come when summoned. She can be capricious and uncooperative, especially if the artist is distracted by something that displaces and frustrates her. In The Tales of Hoffmann, it’s love — or our poet-hero’s romantic notion of it — that’s blocking, or at least corrupting, his creative genius.
One of the things I most appreciate about Scott’s adaption is his careful restoration of the role of the Muse, from a perhaps cute and incomplete afterthought in so many versions, to her proper position as the force that drives the entire opera. The three tales of romantic folly that comprise the bulk of the opera are the result of the Muse’s desperate fight for Hoffmann’s soul.
E. T. A. Hoffmann’s work is rife with stories of, and digressions on, the peculiar sensitivity of the artist’s soul. He populates his stories with eccentric characters, many of them musicians, poets, or other artists, and often provides a poet-protagonist who is the only one who “truly understands” beauty, art, or the soul of the other artists — yet for all this understanding, he is also gullible, and vulnerable to forces which would take advantage of his sensitivity. Hoffmann’s writing on this theme is so florid at times that it borders of self-parody. But this is the Hoffmann that Jules Barbier used to create the fictional Hoffmann who inhabits the stories in the opera, and for whom the act of creation is vital to the very soul. Hence the Muse’s concern.
To give credit where it’s due, it was Scott himself who suggested I look into “steampunk” as a possible aesthetic for this production. I’d never heard of it, but did some quick research (thank you, Internet search engines!), and saw immediately the application for The Tales of Hoffmann, and how well this milieu can serve the themes of this opera. I admit to having been a little wary of any aesthetic with “punk” in its name, as I had, in my ignorance, associated that term with a negative, dystopian worldview and with attitudes of either unfocused aggression or complete loss of will. What I discovered instead was a softer, delightful, even playful subculture with a reverence for a particular period of the past (spanning the beginnings of the industrial revolution through the Victorian period), but which doesn’t take itself too seriously. “Steampunk” is an intersection of technology and romance; it’s a world of Victorian sci-fi and fantasy, along the lines of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and even “The Wild, Wild West”. In this alternate Victorian universe, certain technologies advanced faster than in historical reality, making possible such things as deep water submarines, fast trains, flying machines, even robots and computers — all without the use of electricity, which is still new and not widely trusted. Rather, everything is powered by springs, clockworks, and good old, reliable steam!
The story of Olympia came immediately to mind as the most natural fit; she’s a marvel of technology — an automaton envisioned by E. T. A. Hoffmann long before electricity was generally available. In the original story, she is made entirely of springs, gears, and other mechanical parts, but functions so cleverly that the hero of the story is convinced she’s a real girl, and falls in love with her. (In our version, you could say it’s a “steamy” romance!) The historical Hoffmann was genuinely concerned with this possibility; he is said to have had an irrational fear of mistaking a robot for a human being, and wrote of what a horror it would be to watch someone dancing with a robot without realizing it. Like the science fiction writers who would follow him, he understood that, while we are capable of creating amazing technologies, we’re not always so good at controlling them or containing their effects.
One theme that steampunk does have in common with other punk subcultures is an underlying mistrust of the established order and a resistance to “selling out”. This theme plays out in the relationship between Hoffmann and his Muse, particularly where Stella is concerned, and to some degree in the Antonia story, in which Dr. Miracle tempts Antonia to her ultimate destruction with visions of thunderous applause and tributes from thousands of admirers. By the time we get to Venice for the Giulietta story, the sell-out is complete: love, sex, music, and every aspect of a person’s soul, as inseparable as a shadow, is just a matter of heartless commerce.
So those are the stakes for Hoffmann should the Muse fail to win him back to himself.
Full steam ahead!
— Phil Lowery