It began, actually, way back in the 1920s with the experimental Kroll Opera in Germany. Artists, painters, dancers and theater directors all came together with the intention of presenting opera in a way that was dramatically impactful and had less of a “stuffed opera costume” image. Both sets and costumes were lean and sparse; movement, or non-movement, of the artists conveyed a use of space that was interesting and creative. After the distraction of four monstrous dictators and a World War, the experiment resumed, mostly in Germany. Wieland Wagner presented stark stagings at Bayreuth and, a bit later, Rolf Leibermann presented more creative, almost realistic sets and costumes at the Hamburg Opera. The Berlin State Opera also launched its own brand of “new theater” with creative productions of Berg’s Lulu and Beethoven’s Fidelio.
But somewhere along the way, what began as a creative endeavor with real integrity morphed into shock-value productions. One of the first was a German production from around 1972 of Rossini’s Barber of Seville in which the protagonists entered and left Seville through the crotch of a huge, headless female torso. Those of us in America and England who saw the photos laughed at it as an example of gutter trash invading the opera house. We had no idea it was the trend of the future!
The real explosion came during the early 1980s. Some of the things these new directors, who called their productions “Regietheater” or director’s theater, did were interesting, but even within the same production there were elements that could only be described as gauche or insane. Like Harry Kupfer’s Bayreuth production of Der Fliegende Holländer, where Senta is depicted as an emotionally isolated, withdrawn young woman who lives in the world of her own imagination. Fixated on the idea and image of the Flying Dutchman, she eschews all contact with the world of reality and rejects the overtures of the young hunter, Erik. When the Dutchman arrives on the scene, Senta imagines that she is singing a duet with him—Kupfer shows us the “real” Dutchman looking on from the side of the stage while they perform. Later on, the chorus of sailors shows them all wearing white pancake makeup and eye masks, apparently (I guess…I never asked Kupfer and he didn’t bother to tell me) to show that they are phantoms. It all becomes so jumbled and confused that by the end of the opera, you as an onlooker almost feel like jumping off the parapet to your death along with Senta. And let’s not forget the “clown prince” of opera directors, Peter Sellars, who staged Le nozze di Figaro in a New York penthouse, with Susanna as the Count’s maid and Figaro as some sort of undefined servant guy. It made no sense, and was completely ridiculous, but that didn’t stop Sellars from being taken seriously.
Another influence on the development of Regietheater was American movies, particularly gangster films like the Godfather trilogy and Goodfellas. This led to such splendid examples of stupidity as England’s “Mafia Rigoletto” of the early ‘80s. But I also think that a major influence on the growing insanity of such staging was the film Aria, in which standard operatic scenes were played on the soundtrack against incongruous and often unrelated images onscreen: Elvis Presley in Las Vegas singing “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto (why?), and a young woman riding in a car in the rain, her mouth not even moving, while a soprano intoned “La vergine degl’angeli” from La Forza del Destino. What was the point of all this? Only novelty. It was different, even if it had absolutely nothing to do with the plot or the characters.
All of these things opened the doors—one would say they were kicked in and destroyed—by a bevy of stage directors whose primary function seems to be to exacerbate the brutal or grisly elements of an opera as well as tacking on as much unrelated nonsense as they possibly can. Before long, inserting Nazis or Nazi-looking characters into Wagner productions became so common that I doubt that there is anyone under the age of 40 who even knows what a real Wagner production is supposed to look like. One of the real gems I recall reading about was a production of Parsifal in which huge images of dead rabbits were projected onto a screen during the final scene, but there was also a Die Walküre set in an insane asylum with Wotan and Brünnhilde depicted as inmates in straight jackets. And it just got sillier and sillier as time went on—not just in Wagner, but in Mozart (the Zurich Die Zauberflöte with Papageno wearing a black suit covered in birdshit and stuck in a cage, and the Queen of the Night as a blind, mole-like creature feeling her way along a wall), Puccini and Verdi.
But if you think that audiences and critics would complain and throw rotten vegetables at the stage, you are sadly mistaken! These people take this crap seriously. They acquire Doctorates in Psychology to write articles pontificating on these productions’ greatness. Critics sit around, rubbing their hands on their chins, trying to “unlock” the mysteries that these “genius” directors have thrown up there on stage. I kid you not! A perfect example was Hans Neuenfels’ 2011 Bayreuth Lohengrin designed as a giant laboratory rat experiment. HONEST TO GOD! I’M NOT MAKING THIS UP!!! Here, look for yourself:
So what would you call this kind of production? The product of genius? Well, yes, folks, that’s exactly what Europeans are saying about it. Herewith are two such nutcases’ evaluations of this insanity. First, the opinion of a 40-year-old trauma surgeon from Denmark (italics mine):
“We are inside a white laboratory. The people are rats. The protagonists seem to be super-rats. Or perhaps not all of them. Lohengrin, who struggles in vain to enter the lab during the vorspiel, and Telramund, whose narration is accompanied by a projection of ‘wahrheit’ may have be placed in the lab as part of the experiment to see what reactions they provoke. Or maybe not. Because nothing is entirely clear in this challenging production. The lab technicians seem to be always in control, entering and exiting the laboratory manipulating with the rats. Black-white, action-reaction, the people are rats and they are followers. And they choose to follow Lohengrin, gradually changing their rat-like appearance into human shape. And who should Elsa follow? Brought in by the rats, covered in arrows, she takes shape according to her surroundings – rats, swan, Lohengrin. Love is not an ingredient in this experiment.
“A tilted wagon, a dead horse, rats escaping with gold bars and money: Ortrud and Telramund are caught by the rats when trying to escape. But why exactly Telramud becomes a rat after his failed attempt to kill Lohengrin is less clear to me. And who is this Schützer von Braband? An embryon capping his umbilical cord? As a reaction to the experiment, perhaps?” (from http://mostlyopera.blogspot.com/2012/05/bayreuth-lohengrin-rat-experiment.html)
Lady, get a grip on yourself. As Mr. Natural said to Flakey Foont in the old R. Crumb cartoons, when Flakey would ask him, his voice shaking with fear and angst, “Mr. Natural, what does it all mean?” Mr. Natural answered, “It don’t mean shee-it.” And that’s what this production is all about. It’s shit. Rat shit.
Ah, but here is an even more profound analysis of this same production by the ever-so-clever Nila Parly, Ph.D. at http://www.wagneropera.net/DVD/Lohengrin/DVD-Lohengrin-Neuenfels-Parly.htm:
“The mad genius – Heinrich – is standing with an apple in either hand. The apple has, due to Genesis, become the Western mind’s most fundamental symbol of divine insight into the conditions of life, the symbol of the Christian civilization’s sinful yearning to know ‘the truth.’ But the apple also plays an important part in Norse mythology, where the apples of Freia provide the gods with eternal life. The apple is here, too, connected to ‘the truth,’ the truth which only immortal gods are able to perceive.
“During the performance we are confronted with three ‘truths,’ displayed in animated cartoons (each is presented twice). The first ‘truth,’ stemming from the fantasy of Heinrich the scientist, is the ‘Old Norse truth.’ It is shown for the first time during the overture and reveals itself, through repetition, as the truth which the adherents of Telramund and Ortrud propose as the explanation of the miserable condition of the realm.
“The second ‘truth,’ the ‘Christian truth,’ is displayed for the first time in connection with the fencing match between Lohengrin and Telramund in Act One and repeated during the overture to Act Two. This ‘truth’ is how the adherents of Elsa and Lohengrin explain the German misery. [Ah, yes, let us never forget “the German misery.”]
“The third ‘truth’ expressed in a cartoon is the result of Heinrich’s reckless genetic experiment, and contradicts his own positive conclusion. As he rejoices, textually and musically, in his belief in the successful outcome of his engineering, we see a film showing the result to be disastrous and self-destructive.
“The whole chorus, at times dressed in impressively well-designed laboratory rat costumes with long rubber toes and tails, was almost impossible to take one’s eyes off. [Well, Jeezis Christmas, lady, they’re GIANT RATS! How on earth could you NOT keep your eyes on them??] Only when one of the chorus members during the wedding scene happened to step on another chorus member’s tail, so that the tip of the tail came off and was left lying around on the stage, did my focus shift from the chorus to the tail.”
Sometimes I really do think that these people with their Advanced Edumacation, sitting around in their palatial estates hammering out this crapola on their keyboards, need to have their heads examined as much as the psychotics who mount these idiotic productions.
My one-word review of this Lohengrin production? CHEESY. There ya go.
But those with advanced degrees aren’t just the ones who like these productions, they’re often the perpetrators. Like Peter Sellars, a raving lunatic who even looks insane, and thinks his childish daydreams are valid. What’s his full-time position? Why, Professor at UCLA where he teaches Art as Social Action and Art as Moral Action. Say what?? There’s no doubt about it, the world is doomed because drooling dolts like this are not only in charge but reshaping the arts to suit their own personal psychoses.
Now, mind you, I don’t dislike all modern productions. Sometimes, when the opera is silly and comic enough, a little modern-day levity can work wonders to hold your attention. A good example is the 2007 Théâtre du Châtelet production of Rossini’s La Pietra del Paragone, in which the director used several “optical illusions” using blue screens and projected images on the performers to enhance the laugh quotient. One of my favorites is the scene in which Clarice (Sonia Prina, a simply astounding singer) is shown in the kitchen of the wealthy Count Asdrubale, popping in and out of the trash bin. Another is the scene in which Clarice, disguised as her long-lost “brother,” an African explorer, arrives in a Dr. Seuss-like cardboard jeep and sings an aria of almost impossible technical difficulty, assertively nodding her head to the audience at the end of each roulade-filled phrase. It’s a laugh riot. Also effective was the 2007 Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress set in Las Vegas of the 1950s. You can do this with comedies, particularly those that really don’t need a fixed locale or date.
But please note what I just said. Many, many operas do have a fixed locale and/or date. You can’t update things like Guillaume Tell, Don Carlo, Die Meistersinger, Falstaff, Rigoletto, Don Giovanni (what sense would updating make since we don’t have masked balls nowadays, and everyone could tell Giovanni from Leporello using spectral imaging?), Contes d’Hoffmann or Simon Boccanegra, but damn it, they do it anyway—and ruin our enjoyment in the process. I’m not going to the opera to wonder what psychotic nightmare was going through the head of the director when they decided to do this weird nonsense. I don’t need to see Les Troyens with a giant Trojan horse that looks like an Erector set or a Guillaume Tell in which plastic chairs come and go onstage almost as frequently as the chorus and Jemmy stands between two toilet seats while Tell shoots the apple off his head. I’m not into psychoanalyzing the director. I just want him or her (yes, Virginia, there are women who do this nonsense, too!) fired and possibly committed to an asylum. As Heather Mac Donald put it in a famous critique of Regietheater from 2007, “The Abduction from the Seraglio does not call for a prostitute’s nipples to be sliced off and presented to the lead soprano. Nor does it include masturbation, urination as foreplay, or forced oral sex. Europe’s new breed of opera directors, however, know better than Mozart what an opera should contain. So not only does the Abduction at Berlin’s Komische Oper feature the aforementioned activities; it also replaces Mozart’s graceful ending with a Quentin Tarantino–esque bloodbath and the promise of future perversion.” (http://www.city-journal.org/html/abduction-opera-13034.html)
The bottom line is that, for the most part, no director has any right to stage an opera in a way foreign or counter to the historical setting and/or the specific set descriptions of the composer or librettist. You want to mount some nightmare production with Nazis, mutilated women (I purposely avoided discussing all the female mutilation imagery in opera productions nowadays), insane people, giant rats, bloody bunnies etc.? Fine. Write your own damn opera and leave the classics alone. You have no right to change what someone else already staged to such a degree that your production has no relationship to reality.
If you want to see truly effective theater, watch the scene from Boito’s Mefistofele, set on a bare stage, in which soprano Magda Olivero and bass Jerome Hines create unforgettable images (watch here)—and sing unforgettably as well to create full characters. I have a perfect occupation for these Regietheater directors once we ban them completely from the opera house: put them in charge of publicity images for Socialist Parties around the world. Socialists are insane and destructive anyway and live in their own world of unreality, and so are these directors. It’s a perfect fit!
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley
Read my book: From Baroque to Bop and Beyond