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Like Harry Kupfer’s Bayreuth production of Der Fliegende Holländer, where Senta is depicted as an emotionally isolated, withdrawn young woman who lives in the world of her own imagination.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. As a verification of what I’ve just said, lo and behold, here is a comment from composer Ned Rorem:
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!
[P.S.: If you like this article, you may also line my somewhat expanded, more academic version of it: Eurotrash Revisited: The Academic Version.]
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley
Read my book: From Baroque to Bop and Beyond
20 thoughts on “Regietheater, The Ruination of Opera”
wonderfully enlightening. We saw a production of Ariadne auf Naxos (obnoxious) (ViennaStaatsOper) where the phallic head of the blond hero arises above the mountainin the final scene.
Good article! However, many Socialists detest Regie. The World Socialist Web Site criticised the 2015 Salzburg Festival production of Fidelio for not respecting Beethoven and his librettists’ intentions : https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/11/07/beet-n07.html
Socialists may complain about a FIDELIO production because they see themselves as the oppressed Florestan when in fact most Socialists are the oppressor Don Pizarro. Socialists are the most despicable people on earth because they pretend to be friends of the underdog when in fact their ultimate goal is to enslave or kill workers. Read ANIMAL FARM, 1984, or just look at what is happening today in Venezuela.
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This website really has all the information and facts I needed concerning this subject and didn’t know who to ask.
Brilliant! I’ve always felt exactly what you’ve so masterfully managed to express here. In fact, I’m writing this comment from Bayreuth, feeling completely robbed and abused by the insane, sick production of Castorf’s Ring (it can no longer be called Wagner’s Ring, sadly).
I know…I follow mezzo Stephanie Houtzell on Twitter, and she’s constantly posting pics of herself as a Rhinemaiden. In one pic she looks like Debbie Harry of Blondie; in another, she and the other 2 Rhinemaidens look like street punks from New York. I’ve complained to her how offensive these things are, but she seems to love it. And that’s what I don’t understand…why the best singers just don’t walk out on these offensive productions. Sure, you can update the RING visually. Wotan doesn’t have to look like a one-eyed guy from a bike rally and Brunnhilde doesn’t have to wear a horned helmet; but for God’s sake, at least SUGGEST these things! Wieland Wagner was a genius director. These people nowadays are little children playing “I wish I were.”
Imagine having this shallow and staid a view of art that you allegedly “care” about. Nothing made sense until I read until the end and realized the author’s political views are just as reactionary as their aesthetic ones.
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What is “shallow” or “staid” about not wanting to see operas updated into an era or a situation in which they don’t belong? Art is timeless precisely because, as Jon Vickers said so many times, “It raises questions but it does not provide answers.” DIE MEISTERSINGER takes place in the days of the Meistersingers in Germany. It does not take place in the late 19th, late 20th or early 21st centuries. DON CARLO takes place during the reign of King Philip II in the 16th century. You are not permitted to update these stories, nor any others for that matter. You, as an audience member, are supposed to know the backstory and project these events and the inter-relationships of the characters onto people or events you know about, if applicable. That is what true art is. Regietheater is a bunch of little snotty psychotics playing “Look how weird and disgusting I can make this” or “Let’s play dress-up and pretend the Rhinemaidens are slutty New York whores.” You have NO RIGHT TO DO THAT, and the more quality singers walk out on these perverted productions, as Angela Gheorghiu has done many times, the less these perverted morons who call themselves directors will be hired to ruin great art. I don’t need or want to see the Queen of the Night as a blind, mole-like creature feeling her way along a wall as she sings “O zittre nicht” or Jemmy in “Guillaume Tell” standing with two toilet bowl seats on either side of her head as Tell prepares to shoot the arrow at her. This is not “thought-provoking”; it is perverted bullshit, and the fact that you accept it speaks volumes for what a shallow person you, and other Regietheater lovers, are. Yes, you can stage productions using minimal stage sets, imaginative lighting and sometimes fanciful costumes as long as the opera’s plot is not historical, but as soon as you go too far in the direction of metallic costumes, naked or half-naked people on stage (why? do you need to stoke your prurient interests in order to enjoy an “artistic” experience?) and gimmicky stage sets turning the characters into rats in a maze or some such nonsense, you should be – as I stated very clearly in my article – writing your OWN damn opera and leaving the classics alone. You have about as much right to pervert a classic opera as you do to make Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn gay lovers. If it isn’t there to begin with, go to your sandbox and play with your own bucket and pail. Leave Mozart’s, Verdi’s, Wagner’s etc. alone.
Silly. Really. Such hateful comments. There is enough museumlike opera out there for all of you … stop complaining if not everything is to YOUR liking …
No, I will NOT STOP COMPLAINING because idiocy and perversion are NOT OPERA. The classic operas are NOT YOURS TO RUIN AND DISTORT, and what in the name of God are you talking about? “Museumlike opera”? Old operas expound UNIVERSAL TRUTHS about art, and personal interrlationships, that you the viewer/listener are to interpret in your mind and apply to whatever you wish. And if what YOU relate them to are naked people, Nazis, insane asylums and giant rodents, it’s YOU who are hateful and want to pervert society and human relationships as a whole. If you don’t like the article, don’t read it. Start your own blog and push your insane garbage. Or, what I’ve been saying, WRITE YOUR OWN OPERAS to align with your insane visions of society and leave the classics alone. You simply do NOT have a right to ruin great art. What’s next for you people? A version of the “Mona Lisa” with all her junk hanging out? Same thing.
But don’t you think that every opera, at some point, reaches its end? I always found modern staging to be necessary to keep a genre alive which otherwise would follow Adorno’s prophecy of collapsing into itself because it bled dry. Of course one could write his own opera, but the reality is that ninety percent of the operas played (in Germany in 2016, at least), are by composers dead over a hundred years. And the aspect of faithfulness to the original can very much be reached over the meaning and not over words repeated so often that they become meaningless in the process. I understand the frustration with the shock value often put forward by unimaginative directors but the condemnation of all of Regietheater seems a bit harsh to me. There is much, after all, to be learned from these new interpretations! Even if it’s laboratory rats illuminating Lohegrins detachment from the truly mortal.
Theodor Adorno was an obnoxious jerk who thought he knew everything, yet when he came to the USA and was asked to produce a coherent philosophic theory, could not. He also looked down his nose at actors, singer, and audiences. I think you have not read my comments that some modern stagings (though very few) are interesting and valid. And no, “every opera, at some point” does not necessarily reach its end, and if it does it doesn’t need some neurotic, infantile and inappropriate staging to “keep the genre alive.” Your problem is that you ave apparently been brainwashed into thinking this is so. If you don’t like a work of art the way it was conceived, even if you tweak it a little (as Wieland Wagner did with his grandfather’s operas), you simply need to write your own opera to match your insane staging. The whole point is that each audience member should be intelligent enough to interpret the work in his or her own way by viewing what the dramatist and composer intended. And I don’t find ANYTHING to be “learned” from this Regietheater garbage, for that’s what it is, garbage. You want to write a lab rat opera? Go ahead. Do one on Chuck E. Cheese and leave Lohengrin alone. He/it doesn’t need a lab rat staging to make me “think” about his “detachment from the truly mortal.” Anyone with a brain can see that for him or herself, thank you very much.
I recall, at least 55 years ago, reading a review of WOZZECK in OPERA, in which it mentioned that at one point in the production the soldier goes behind a table and comes back out with a urine specimen for the doctor. At the time I couldn’t believe it and almost had the kind of laughing fit I had with a friend a few years earlier when we realized that a coming attractions preview really was called I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF. The urine specimen now seems so tame and inoffensive; If they did it today, it would probably come out of a visible nine-foot penis and then be used to drown Marie. I once read that Ludwig Suthaus never sang at Bayreuth again after one of the Wagner brothers told him that he wasn’t trying to realize the producers’ wishes, and Suthaus replied that this was true and that he was actually trying to realize their grandfather’s wishes. We need more Ludwigs I really wonder if the two or three people who found fault with Ms. Bayley’s article really love opera – I mean LOVE opera – to the point where the music makes their pulse beat faster, their breathing become almost labored, the music and/or performance bring tears to their eyes, etc. I doubt it. Their attendance is almost certainly their ‘happening’ for that evening, followed by another ‘happening’ two nights later, maybe at an art gallery or a rock concert, since public floggings are now outlawed (except, apparently, in opera houses, where directors can still flog a paying audience). Good work, Ms. Bayley. Write on!
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In my view, anyone who “deeply loves” Regietheater is psychotic and perverted, because that’s ALL Regietheater is for the most part.
Not sure if you include the UK as being part of Europe when you say that everyone in Europe likes Regietheater. We (the UK) are in Europe (though, unfortunately, not for long!), and we certainly don’t all like it – it’s never taken a strong hold here. We do have some wonderful, imaginative and inventive opera productions, though, which wouldn’t probably have happened if it hadn’t been for the potential opened up by regietheater in the past.
You use incredibly extreme examples to support your argument. Some Regietheater productions can throw fresh light on an opera, can challenge and provoke the viewer into thinking about it afresh, and can be visually stunning. Opera is music theatre don’t forget. It is not a concert, neither is it a museum piece. Opera will stagnate and die if directors and designers deliver the same interpretation over and over again.
I’v4e seen far too many “incredibly extreme examples” from the trashy Royal Opera House and other British productions on DVD – the “Erector set” “Les Troyens” and the “dirty Christians crucify everyone” production of “Norma” among them. And I don’t consider them visually stunning, just visually stupid and inappropriate.
YOU CAN’T REWRITE THE BLOODY OPERA PLOTS TO SUIT YOURSELVES!!! GET OVER IT! IF YOU WANT A GIANT ERECTOR SET HORSE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAMN STAGE, WRITE AN OPERA IN WHICH SOME DRUNKEN METALWORKERS MAKE AN ERECTOR SET HORSE!
Thank you for your kind attention.
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And well I should have. If anything, modern productions have gotten even weirder and further divorced from the reality of what the librettists and composers were trying to do since 2019.
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