I wrote the article below for possible submission to Opera Quarterly, which said that they were soliciting such pieces for publication, but when I tried to create an account in order to submit it online, I discovered that in order to do so you MUST be a Professor of Music connected to a major, recognized university. In short, they don’t care what anyone else thinks. Only Professors count because, clearly, only they know what they’re talking about.
But I felt that the article was so good that it deserved perpetuation online, thus you lucky readers can peruse it below. This is an updated and greatly expanded version of one of my earliest posts, Regietheatre: The Scourge of Opera, which has received numerous comments, about half of them supportive and half of them lambasting me for not accepting ridiculous and oftimes perverted productions as “thought-provoking” or “advancing the art of opera.” I sincerely hope that the article below clarifies and solidifies my feelings on this matter. I tried, in the earlier article, to make it clear that I am in no way opposed to real innovation in modern productions so long as the plotlines, and in many cases the timelines, of the original works are kept intact, but it was obvious to me from the negative comments that most Regietheatre supporters really don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. They are so brainwashed into thinking that any and every idiotic change is not only acceptable but, in many ways, “needed” in order to “advance” opera in our time that they can’t see how ridiculous and/or perverted most of it is.
In any event, here is the complete article, and I do hope that, even if you disagree with me, you will now see my position more clearly.
Regietheatre: The Scourge of Opera
Although one could argue that the pioneering work of such composers as Claudio Monteverdi, Christoph Willibald von Gluck, Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner set the tone for opera as drama, such geniuses were sporadic and had only a short-term effect on the development of operatic staging and direction. By the early 1920s, when such outstanding singing-actors as Feodor Chaliapin and Michael Bohnen began making an impact on international audiences, there was a real movement afoot to revive opera as a presentation of sung drama rather than merely costumed recitals by famous singers. The Kroll Opera in the years 1924-30 is justly famous for its many innovative productions, specifically during the last three years of this period when Otto Klemperer oversaw not only the productions of new operas such as Hindemith’s Neue vom Tage (1929) and Schoenberg’s Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene in 1930, but also in his revivals of more standard repertoire. These productions were considered far ahead of their time and were sharply criticized. During the last gasp of the Weimar Republic, these protests reached such a high pitch that Heinz Tietjen, then general administrator of the Prussian state theatres, realized that the Kroll was losing money and could no longer be funded along with the other two operating Berlin opera houses. The Kroll Opera was closed down on 3 July 1931.
I bring all this up by way of preface to this article to illustrate that innovative and imaginative, but not offensive, opera production has always been a bit of a tough sell, even in Germany where one might not expect it as in Italy, France and America where such a thing would be more understandable. Yet even in Arturo Toscanini’s La Scala Opera of the 1920s the fiery director was working to upgrade the state of opera in Italy as well. Several new operas, of which the two most famous were Boito’s Nerone (1924) and Puccini’s Turandot (1926) were scheduled alongside new and, for their time, different productions of more standard repertoire. The brilliant Swiss stage director and lighter Adolphe Appia (1862-1928) was even brought in to create an entirely new stage décor and movement for Wagner’s Siegfried.
Unfortunately a combination of events, circumstances and public tastes changed in the ensuing two decades to bring this sort of innovation not only to a halt but to virtually eradicate it. The most obvious obstructions to progress were the rise of Nazi and Fascist dictators in Europe, whose tastes were reactionary and who, by conquering nearly all of Western Europe, imposed their wills on operatic production as well as on developing musical tastes. More modern operas were as distasteful to them as were more modern concert and chamber works. The same aesthetic was pushed by the Communist dictator Stalin. But the real obstacle to innovation, realism, surrealism or just a more acceptably dramatic approach to opera was the segment of the public that patronized such an expensive and exotic form of theatre. When one reads of the “public” (meaning the wealthy opera patrons) outcry against such now-acknowledged major steps forward in operatic art as Pelléas et Mélisande, Salome and especially Elektra, one realizes just how much power they had to force things to remain status quo. At the end of the world premiere of Elektra, Richard Strauss reportedly turned to his audience after the last note of the opera had sounded and said, “Well, that was fun!” to which his shocked listeners just sat there, not even applauding. The great contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink, who Strauss went out of his way to hire as Klytaemnestra, told him afterwards that she considered the whole enterprise a waste of her time and that she had no intention of singing it again—which she didn’t. Although it is now considered a masterpiece, Elektra almost ruined Strauss’ career at the time. He responded to this by writing his most tonal and accessible opera, Der Rosenkavalier, as his next foray in the field, and thereafter never again retraced his steps back to his two early masterpieces.
Here, then, is the classic and, it seems, never-ending battle between populist taste and true art, and for the most part it is populist taste that wins. Even when, during the 1950s, we had a mini-Renaissance of innovative opera productions, both in Germany where Wieland Wagner was creating masterfully stark mis-en-scenes for his grandfather’s operas and even in Italy where such neglected masterpieces as Cherubini’s Gli Abencerragi (with Cerquetti) and Medea (with Callas), Spontini’s Fernando Cortez (with Tebaldi in 1951) and La Vestale (with Callas in 1954, a famous production attended by Toscanini), Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride and even Boito’s Nerone were being revived, the audiences were less interested in the works than the Stars. For them, then as now, opera is not and never will be sung drama. It is musical entertainment, a showcase for Great Voices to sail through the music and belt out their beloved high notes on which they live or die. Nor did it matter that such great postwar singing actors as Callas, Gabriel Bacquier, Tito Gobbi, Jerome Hines, Thomas Stewart and Jon Vickers were trying their best to create viable theatre on the opera stages of the world. If they got the acting with the Great Voices they wanted to hear, fine, but they were just as happy to see performances with such musical philistines as Franco Corelli as long as they got the Tunes, the Great Voices and the High Notes—and they still are. Vickers once famously said that “Opera is art. If I want to be entertained, I’ll go to a dinner theatre to see Brigadoon,” but ironically most of his audience thought otherwise. In fact, they’d have been just as happy with Vickers singing Brigadoon as long as his high notes were in good operating order.
In a sense, then, something like Regietheater or, as it is referred to by that large segment of the populace who detest it as Eurotrash, almost had to develop as a reaction to what former Houston Opera general director David Gockley referred to as “brown-and-serve opera.” But something snapped inside the heads of operatic stage directors between the 1950s and the late 1970s, when this form of operatic presentation started to flower, and although there is no straight-line progression that one can point to as a timeline of its development, it is the purpose of this article to try to more clearly define that which seems indefinable: the underlying reason and purpose of these ghastly productions that now proliferate in opera houses around the world like psychotic nightmares.
My earlier paragraphs should make it clear that I am not opposed to all truly innovative productions, even today. I have a few in my DVD collection that I prize highly, such as Rolf Liebermann’s 1960s productions of Zar und Zimmermann, Der Freischütz and Wozzeck, which seem tame today but were quite innovative in their time, as well as such more modern ones as Robert Lepage’s “Las Vegas” Rake’s Progress, Dmitri Cherniakov’s Wozzeck, Pierre Audi’s Iphigénie en Tauride, Luca Roncini’s Moise et Pharaon (a.k.a. Mosé in Egitto) and Philippe Béziat’s crazy but extremely funny production of Rossini’s La pietra del paragone, but except for latter, which is experimental to the hilt but somehow works to enhance Rossini’s wacky sense of humor, most Regietheater enthusiasts would deem these very conservative productions. I can take occasionally extreme “gag” settings in comic operas, but far too many of the dramatic works nowadays are taken to ridiculous extremes. The most popular and frequent distortions presented onstage nowadays seem to be the following:
- Settings completely out of the timeline the opera is supposed to take place in. This is particularly damaging to any opera that is tied to a specific era and/or real historical figures, of which there are many, and even some operas that appear to be malleable in this respect often suffer when older customs (such as the droigt de seigneur practice in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro) are part of the plot structure.
- Settings of operas based on legends, Greek drama or other plots based in antiquity in such things as insane asyla, cocktail lounges, mousetraps, ersatz outer space settings, 19th-century libraries, or worst of all, some sort of updated Nowhere world with the characters dressed in business suits or tuxedos.
- A lot of nudity, cross-dressing, or perversions of religious symbols. Although I am not a believer in any form of Judao-Christian religion myself, I find these insulting and revolting, Such productions say much more about the psychosis of the director’s own mindset than they do about the work in question. You can also add to this list the presence of superfluous and childish objects to the stage set, such as Antonio Fogliani’s production of Guillaume Tell in which, for no rational reason, folding chairs are rushed onstage or removed at whim and Jemmy’s head is framed by two toilet seats hanging from the wall against which he stands waiting for William Tell to shoot the arrow.
- Overloaded choruses and extras on stage, all of whom are in motion most of the time. This also applies to productions where the singers themselves are forced to be moving at all times: dancing walking, strutting, waving their arms in the air, etc. Arm-waving in particular seems to be the new substitute for dramatic stage acting.
There are, of course, any number of other deviations and perversions added to modern productions, such as a recent Covent Garden version of Berlioz’ Les Troyens in which the Trojan Horse was represented by some gigantic Erector-set monstrosity that looks as if it were built by a mad scientist, or the earlier Metropolitan Opera production of Benvenuto Cellini in which a silent figure representing Berlioz wanders the stage throughout the performance, distracting the viewers. All of this is a far cry from, say, Britten’s Death in Venice, which I saw at the Metropolitan during its first run in 1974, where director Colin Graham made extremely imaginative and logical use of lighting effects, images projected on a background screen, and the voice of Apollo (sung by a countertenor) piped in from above rather than being a “real” onstage voice.
Yet this is exactly where the deviance occurs. What Britten and Graham created for Death in Venice works for that opera; it clearly would not work for a production of, say, Rigoletto or other standard stage works, yet these same principles are being transferred to operas where they clearly don’t belong. Moreover, although I can think of some innovative staging for Rigoletto myself, a radical update of the story wouldn’t work for many logical reasons, among them the fact that the Duke of Mantua’s actions are an extension and perversion of the droigt du seigneur tradition that no longer exists, the fact that you no longer have wandering assassins-for-hire roaming back alleys as Sparafucile did, or that not having Sparafucile and Maddalena inhabit a hut with thin walls that can be heard through or a crack in the wall that can be seen through damages the plot at that point. Too many modern directors take liberties that distort, damage or eliminate crucial plot devices which, far from illuminating the drama, actually make it obscure or even ludicrous.
One other influence that many people seem to forget is the 1988 film Aria, in which ten different directors “re-imagined” settings for ten famous operatic scenes and arias. None of them made sense, not even the use of an Elvis Presley imitator in Las Vegas singing “La donna è mobile,” not least because, in his real life, Presley was a very religious and moral person who would never think of using women the way the Duke of Mantua did. One of the very worst of these re-imaginings was that of Jean-Luc Godard, who set a scene from Lully’s Armide as the story of French maids “desperately trying to seduce burly bodybuilders lifting weights at the gym”. Innovative and thought-provoking it may indeed have been, but the analogy doesn’t work in the context of the legend. But Godard didn’t care, and neither did the audiences for the film, and I am convinced that the movie’s success is one of the things that has led us to our current mess.
Somewhere along the line, then, we moved from real theatrical innovation to what I claim is mostly a projection of the directors’ psychoses and bad dreams. Seeing Wotan and Brünnhilde, for instance, as inmates in an insane asylum, with the latter feeling her way along a wall as she sings “Ho-yo-to-ho,” serves no purpose and does not illuminate Wagner’s music drama. Having Simon Boccanegra dressed as a woman and singing from inside a large wooden box has absolutely nothing to do with the character, his motives, or the dramatic situation. Seeing Papageno sing his opening aria standing in a huge bird cage, wearing a dark suit covered in bird poop, has nothing to do with the character or the plot. To use a popular colloquial phrase, these are giant Nothingburgers. More often than not, if you couldn’t hear the music to go along with them, you couldn’t possibly tell what the opera is supposed to be from the images.
And this, I argue, is the difference between real innovation—Appia’s Die Walküre production, the 1920s Kroll Opera and 1950s Bayreuth productions, Liebermann, and even Herbert von Karajan’s imaginative and interesting 1987 Salzburg Don Giovanni—and Regietheater. One side is trying things that enhance what the composer and librettist created. The other is primarily concerned with perversion, overcrowding of the stage space, and psychological shock values, none of which enhances the theatrical experience. In my view, and that of millions of other operagoers, Regietheater does not “make you think” about what the opera is about. On the contrary, it is largely a mockery of the original creators’ vision, designed to make you denigrate what you are seeing as some sort of sick, unenlightened distortion of reality, and this serves no useful purpose. I believe that if you took a real poll of every audience member of every Regietheater production, you would find that the majority hate what they see.
But then, we must put at least part of the blame on the majority of audiences who still want none but the older, tonal operas sung by Great Voices with Lots of High Notes. When you consider the surprisingly large number of great, modern, dramatic operas (and I define “great” by the quality of the music as well as the quality of the libretto) that are either completely ignored or rarely staged, going all the way back to Cherubini and Spontini but also including Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, Szymanowski’s Krol Roger, Schoeck’s Penthesilea, Orff’s Gisei – Der Opfer, Martin’s Le Vin Herbé, Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, the charming one-act operas of Ravel (when was the last time you saw a production of L’Enfant des Sortiléges?) or Martinů’s Ariane, all of which could clearly withstand good, imaginative modern staging, it’s small wonder that modern directors choose to pervert older classics. They’re all that “sells” to the staid, reactionary opera audiences. This is, then, not just a two-pronged but a multi-pronged dilemma, one that an imaginative opera company director could easily remedy. I’ve been told over and over again by staid, hardcore operagoers that no audiences would attend such productions, but I counter that they don’t really know this since no one has tried it.
We must also factor in that many opera lovers have no interest in instrumental music, and the few that do confine their interest to concertos and symphonies. I’ve yet to meet more than one opera lover who has an interest in chamber music. In addition, most opera lovers cannot read music and, in fact, many hold this up as a badge of honor. They say they’re proud to not read music because it interferes with their “appreciation” of sung drama. This means that most of them can’t tell if a performance is properly sung and/or conducted; but not knowing music means that they can’t tell the difference between good modern operas and poor ones, and the general directors of opera houses know this. That is why, when they do program anything different or innovative, they either go with what they think will be accessible enough to appeal to their musically ignorant audience (meaning music that is simpler in construction but not necessarily good) or whatever modern composer has the most power publicity and belongs to a powerful agency. This way, they can claim to be giving their audiences non-traditional operas but decry that the house is empty when they are performed—which they often are. This is also the reason why opera audiences get so much third-rate Handel, Rossini and Donizetti, or 18th-century pastiches like The Enchanted Island. It pleases the base, sells tickets and still allows Regietheater garbage to ruin the production anyway while putting fannies in the seats.
In the meantime, to all of you Regietheater directors who use the sick and perverted devices described above, do us all a big favor. Write you own operas and apply those techniques to them. Let’s see how well your ideas fly once they’re no longer tied to established works by name composers.
If the reader would like to know what real operatic drama is, I would refer him or her to a YouTube video of Magda Olivero, Giuseppe Campora and Jerome Hines performing a scene from Boito’s Mefistofele in 1976. There you have only the three artists on a bare stage, but their movements, acting and the dramatic interpretation of the words create all the drama you need. Not one Regietheater director can equal this, let alone top it.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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