How to Opera Germanly - (2006)
THE JOKE SHARED
I was given a rather lengthy joke titled "How to opera Germanly."
Perhaps you too?
It should be noted at the outset that the humor I cite herein has been
circulating in email messages for many years now. However, the joke has
more than a grain of truth behind it. With the thought that perhaps
someone has copyrighted the original message, passed around as if
anonymously written, I herein cite the joke parceled into quotes
embedded in a more serious critique of trends of modern opera stage
Having spent twenty plus years as an opera singer the world around,
witnessing first hand my own rehearsals as well as those of colleagues
when contract periods overlap in a particular theater, I think that
joking about the so-called "Euro-Trash" production style sometimes
demeans wonderful European opera staging. I have personally shared in
some insightful modern productions; that being said, not all modern
productions are insightful. Some American opera staging is also "trash."
Shall we term it "Ameri-trash?" Or that in Great Britain, "Brit-trash?"
Or shall we simply conclude that the "art" of staging opera is not a
consistent practice ending in art?
Among some of the directors with whom I have worked are admirable
artists, including Germans; equally among that same group there are some
less-than-admirable artists and one or two whom I am now convinced are
charlatans, including Germans. That "German" opera production has become
the butt of the joke is an unfortunate and small focus, for a number of
American, British and other European directors should also share
responsibility for such a poor appraisal and not be limited to Germans.
Perhaps therefore the better title for the joke should have been "How to
A SMALL ANECDOTE AS PREFACE
While mailing some musical scores at a Post I had often visited, a
postal employee who knew me asked about a certain production which she
had seen. She was shocked, saddened and left thinking that she was
better off staying home, listening to CDs and available DVDs of her
favorite operas. The production was one of those so adequately described
by the joke titled "How to Opera Germanly" -- a false ending, and absurd
setting, outrageous costumes and stage direction which inhibited the
vocal art of a talented cast of singers.
It was her "straw" breaking the
camel's back. That theater's artistic trajectory was towards an
aggressive post-modernity, and enjoyed the rave rubber stamp reviews
from one particular newspaper. However, the audience was dwindling, and
this postal employee was among those straying away from live
performances. Was she straying away of her own accord, or was she
RAIDING THE UNCONSCIOUS
Author George Orwell wrote about certain poetry, "Until Surrealism made
a deliberate raid on the unconscious, poetry that aimed at being
nonsense, apart from the meaningless refrains of songs, does not seem to
have been common."
[ 1 ]
Orwell's wonderful observation that twentieth century surrealism
deliberately raided the subconscious is apt. Now, this "raid" is a game
for those who would pretend to sincere intellectualism, all the while
practicing a rather simple game as reflected in the joke. Rather
production teams need only follow some simple and quite well prescribed
rules -- as set forth in the humor of "How to Opera Germanly" -- to
pretend to demonstrate a depth of scholarship, thought and creativity
which are often so lacking, the pretense to art and scholarship having
replaced the reality of art and scholarship.
Often "new" spoken text in libretti is begun with one of these "great
scholars and creators" by demanding improvisation by an assembled cast,
highlighting or pruning work done by others rather than arriving with
prepared new text. Then they call it their own; journalists and other
critics are unaware whose work they might be watching, and so credit the
director for good things not originating with a director. Rather, often
good elements in a production often appear in spite of a director.
Conversely, sometimes performers are faulted for that which should
properly be assigned to a director's inept but enforced choices.
I state this with first hand knowledge, though I shall generally avoid
naming names except in the positive.
STAGING IS NOT ONLY A DIRECTOR'S RESPONSIBILITY
The directors who often suppress individual performers' inclinations are
meant in the satire which says,
"The director is the most important personality involved in the
production. His vision must supersede the needs of the composer,
librettist, singers and especially the audience, those overfed fools who
want to be entertained and moved."
When one examines many theaters' placards and programs readied for the
public, singers are sometimes an afterthought or entirely absent from
the "team," while the director is often not only first, but sometimes
highlighted in larger typeface than even the composer or librettist of
an opera. There is missing here a most important reality about the
The joke says it has become de rigueur for a director to change the
time and place specified in an opera's libretto. In musical theater,
are productions normally set in a time and place other than
mentioned in the book? In film, are remakes of older movies being
set in other times and places? The producers and public do not
practice this "raid" of the unconscious. Rather, some adherence to
the book is almost always followed. A medieval story is still set in
medieval times. A story about the French crown is never set in
China. West Side Story has not been produced set in 18th
century Germany, nor On the Waterfront recreated in
the Mojave Desert. That some opera directors change the place and
time often evidences an inability to find anything new to say in the
time and place specified by a librettist and intended by a composer.
It is often a pretense at creativity, when it should be seen as
evidence of little creativity -- especially as the joke, "How to
Opera Germanly," makes it a rule of modern opera staging.
The trick is relatively easy, something some directors who play this
game wish us not to know. The joke encourages us to see just how
simple this "game" is. Here are the simple rules: change the locale
and period, and find a justification for your choice to announce to
your assembled cast. This passes as an act of genius; it is
not, the joke reminds us.
STAGE DIRECTION - AN EVER DYING ART
It is a fundamental fact of operatic life that in today's world, one
speaks of the stage director before the music and the stage
direction and stage design before the conductor and performers. In
some reviews, performers have even been ignored after many
paragraphs of description and opinion about the stage direction and
supposed dramaturgical reasoning behind it..
It is also a fundamental fact of operatic life that, as stage
directors come and go rather quickly, the newest replace their
elders' productions with their own as soon as possible irrespective
of value and art. Moreover, in the case where theaters are managed
by intendants who are also stage directors, these managers often
begin their reign by discarding well-regarded but "old" productions
already in a theater's repertoire in favor of their own "new"
productions or those of colleagues who they, as managers, select.
An opera by a great composer with a great libretto is repeated over
decades, even centuries. Can one name a stage production which has
stood such a test of time over even a fifty year span of time? No.
Or perhaps only one or two. Productions, wonderful or horrible, are quickly discarded. Stage
direction is always sold as "new," much like the marketing of
business touting something as always "new and improved." Sometimes
the new and novel is an improvement, and sometimes it is not. One
only need think of other arenas of life, such as the products which
one consumes, or those fads which come and go. Novel is not always a
synonym for better; it can be as easily an antonym.
[ 2 ]
Often, new productions last a season or two, when truly ghastly
production forces even the most loyal press turn against the "new"
-- with justification aplenty. I have seen productions be scrapped
after a first few tragic performances, when even in a single season,
additional repetitions are cancelled, to be replaced by something
extant in that theater's repertoire. Some of those stage directors
are those who style themselves as the true "enfants terribles"
[ 3 ]
of the opera community.
For further discussion: How much of a company's budget goes to
building a set and costumes which are sometimes to quickly
discarded? Who bears the responsibility when limited funds for opera
are wasted on an especially foolish and quickly discarded
THE STAGE DESIGN TEAM
The joke moves on from the stage director to the set designer:
"The second most important personality is the set designer."
Often the list of "creators" moves down from stage director,
immediately to set designer, and thence to costume designer, make-up
designer, lighting designer and so forth. Sometimes the conductor
for the production is given mention last but rarely first, though
opera is first and foremost a musical art. That opera has become
first a stage concern, and secondarily a musical concern is a sad
commentary. In a New York Times review of the Metropolitan
Opera's lavish Turandot, John Rockwell titled his review,
"Exit, Humming the Set." Grand opera might highlight Aida's
triumphal parade of characters, but it is the music which must
always come first. We needn't forget Wagner's suggestion to look a
while at the set, but then close one's eyes to concentrate on the
music, which remains in my thoughts a fine counterpoint to the
savage little tantrum thrown by a German director who wanted the
audience to notice "only him."
An obvious truth is that when the stage director's production is
scrapped by the next and newest stage director, the set is also
scrapped. Throw-away art, one might call it in terms of aesthetics.
Planned obsolescence was the business term, at one time. An
investment which loses money, said from the the fiscal management
It should be noted that the corollary to this is that the costume
designer is often deemed the third most important personality.
[ 4 ]
also tries to stand as an equal art form to the composer's,
librettist's and performers', though naturally any set designer,
costume designer or make-up designer is subservient to the stage
In case it is not yet obvious, I speak of some directors, some set
designers, and so forth. There are "precious jewelry" and there are
"costume jewelry" working in art, and sometimes critics and
management often cannot tell the difference until the audience has
What is certain is that a concert performance of an opera remains an
opera; the sets and costumes are secondary to the music and text. A
singer-less showing of a stage decor and associated costumes is
merely an exhibition, and usually not very convincing.
"Comedy is 'verboten,' except when unintentional."
The number of times many stage directors actually evidence a light
touch or the ability to direct comedy is minimal. Given that there
are wonderful comedies and comic touches in more serious works, the
"alienation effect" handed to directors by Brecht and his disciples
has proven itself silly. Art must not always serve politics; perhaps
we might expect politics to sometimes serve art? Often the
pretentious and pretend intellectual depth of the stage director
stands in the way of the light handed, the beautiful, the elegant.
SUBVERSION AS ORTHODOXY
Awaiting a performance of a lesser-known
twentieth-century opera, I had an
instructive conversation with a variety of opera goers. Sometimes
listening to an audience is a learning experience. Ignoring them is
There were German, English, Mexican and French opera
fans seated around me;
the pre-show conversation was delightful, filled with anticipation.
One Mexican businessman had traveled from Spain to Germany
specifically to hear this lesser known work under a master
conductor's baton. The German seated to my left was reading through
some printed material from the theater, and began chuckling rather
uproariously. In answering our question about what he found so
funny, he said that some anonymous dramaturge had written about
"forty years of subversive stage direction." How is that funny, we
wanted to know?
His answer tells the wisdom of an average patron; they know more
than stage directors often admit. This opera patron knew
instinctively that "forty years of subversion" was no longer
subversion. It was a reigning orthodoxy. Moreover it proved
itself an orthodoxy which resents being questioned.
Overly serious modern stage direction wants to take lighter works
and interpret them in some deep and "subversive" way. This is silly.
And it is easy, as Orwell's instructive comment teaches. Finding
"art" is a game now a century old, given the historical perspective
of surrealism's beginnings.
Sometimes the lightest hand speaks the greatest true subversion, as
did Mozart's Figaro subvert with melody and comedy the "droit
de seigneur" of his Count. I have seen a performance of Hochzeit
des Figaros in which the stage direction managed quite adeptly
to squeeze the humor from even such a work. Contrarily, I have also
seen a performance of the same production wherein the original cast
had been decimated by colds and flu, such that last minute
substitutions for almost all the leading singers were made, with no
chance to learn the "new" staging. Watching so many professionals
rely on one another to find their way through the necessary stage
business was an utter joy. And, it had the odd feature that no one
individual was responsible for the "Regie."
OPERA AS THEATER
"Great acting is hyper-intensity, with much rolling and the
ground, groping the wall and sitting on a bare floor."
I am convinced that many stage directors who "opera Germanly" know
little of acting, of the process of their players, or even care. (It
is fair to also say that some singers have little interest in
acting, alas.) The rolling around on stage by performers whose
bodies indicate that they should know better is often
unintentionally funny, as mentioned in this rule. Some kinds of
hyper-intensity are in fact faux emotion, at best, often drilled
into an unwilling performer. In another situation, all physical
gestures were stripped from the characters except for a timed
wandering about on the stage, all the while the set "acted." In yet
another instance, a colleague confided in me that certain movements
were directed because the director "couldn't think of what else to
Moreover, I have personally seen assistants repair gaffes made by a
"name" stage director, and even provide quiet and "subversive"
leadership to a production when the stage director either arrived
unprepared, or lost his way in the rehearsal process. Yet the "star"
director receives whatever adulation comes from the press, when in
fact such credit is often due to names less well known and even
Opera is not merely theater with music. The score dictates the tempo
at which a libretto's lines are delivered, and even enforces a line
reading and, to a certain, extent, the subtext. One cannot ignore
the music, as some stage directors -- especially those with little
musical skill themselves -- try to do. The music enforces the
production, quite clearly said. The stage direction can never
enforce the music. I and many of my colleagues have heard unmusical
stage directors actually ask, "Is this section necessary?" Or,
"Can't we just stop the music here?"
WHOSE FOCUS IS IT?
"The audience's attention must be on anything except the person
who is singing. A solo aria, outmoded even in the last century,
must be accompanied by extraneous characters expressing their
angst in trivial ways near, on or about the person singing the
This comes about from a stage director's lack of trust in the music
or in performers. A great aria performed by a great singer needs
little adornment. This truth is well known to those whose aim is to
adorn anything and everything, stamping their name onto a production
for the singular purpose of being ever more noticed. Such directors
serve themselves, long before they serve the music, much less the
audience. Like P. T. Barnum, many stage directors are more
interested in their work being noticed than in telling a story well,
creating a mood effectively or highlighting an insightful and
emotional moment, which is the aria.
"Storytelling is anathema to the modern director, like realistic
photographic painting is to the abstract painter. Don t tell the
story, comment on it! Even better, undermine it!"
I have been rather a fortunate fellow in working with
some world-class directors. In one case, the opening
remarks for a first rehearsal were concise beyond normal
expectation. "Shall we tell this story beautifully?" We went on to
do so. Often a Konzeptionsgespräch can linger for hours, if
not in one instance days, and humorously such speeches follow the
rules of this joke -- "How to Opera Germanly." One
such discussion in my own experience went on for three days, before
we began rehearsing. One conjures such adjectives as "boring" in
directors pick a period and place other than one in which the
librettist placed his work, and move to take positive character
traits to negate them while taking negative characteristics and turn
meanings on their head. As Orwell suggests, this is a simple trick.
As the joke says, it is at this point almost predictable.
Another development of a sort in modern opera staging
is the appearance of onstage video, as some character wanders around
with camera while close-ups of something displayed in real time on
monitors placed at the proscenium or perhaps in the set itself,
often not focusing on the singer singing, but mere images in mimicry
of music video, another genre and one not attuned to opera and other
classical music. One notes that in popular music video, performers
often receive greater attention than they do in modern opera stage
"When singing high notes, the singer must be crumpled over,
lying down or facing the back of the stage."
I was asked by an supposedly eminent stage director and
his own theater to begin an aria, lying face down on the floor of
the stage. Early on in my career I was convinced by ardent yet
unaware adherents of the supposed artistic truths behind "How to
Opera Germanly" that this would please the director and perhaps
critics as well. I was urged by the director's assistance to be
enthusiastic about this lunacy. It was a foolish judgment on my
part. Of course it made this famous aria all the more difficult, but
the director in question aimed to showcase his wife while minimizing
those around her.
That same stage director, in a fit of pique during one rehearsal,
attempted to turn over a table in anger. The table slid away from
him and landed upright. He pursued this uncooperative and inanimate
object, failing four times to turn it over, making him ever
increasingly furious and increasingly ineffectual, while ever more
angry. This same director said that he was more interested that "his
work" was seen on stage than the composer's or librettist's. As to
super-titles, his instructive retort was quite predictable as well;
he didn't care what the audience understood about the opera in
This stage director is deceased. Doe his creative art lives on? In a
few picture books, now out of print. Only for a few years longer in
one theater in particular, as his various productions were
consistently stripped from theaters as new stage directors come
along and new Intendants motivate new productions. Composer's music
and librettist's libretto will remain for generations to come, while
the self-importance of the stage director fades like the dandelion's
puff ball and is blown quickly away.
Opera staging and stage design is a regularly discarded art form.
Throw away art, on which is often lavished significant amounts of a
OPERA REMAINS A MUSICAL ART
"The music must stop once in a while for intense, obscure
A favorite recollection of mine is of yet another deservingly
anonymous stage director saying of Wagner, can't we just stop there
and wait? Music drives the timing of opera, the line readings of its
players and demands of the stage directors that they adhere to its
demands. Sometimes this is a hilarious conundrum to stage directors
who themselves cannot read a score, and do not understand the
demands of the music. To stop the music is to stop the opera. For
some stage directors this seems quite right, and serves their
"creative éclat." Such as it is. The audience knows the difference.
Many of my colleagues have told of stage directors who come to
rehearsals with a very clear idea about a set design and a
"conception," but who were either not able to read or barely read
music, or read the libretto in an original language. Rehearsals
begin with their conception, and all is meant to fit to it. Alas,
the joke explains that their conception's criteria are predictable.
OPERA IS NOT ABOUT SEXUAL ACTS
"Sexual scenes must be charm-less and aggressive. Rolling on the
floor a must here."
In a lavish and obviously expensive production, a final scene was
filled with the cast, chorus, extras of all kinds and many scenic
elements. Cluttered on stage together, the stage director had
decided to show his modern "with it" and "up to date" side with some
extras hired specifically to be nude on stage. They were placed in
front where the audience wouldn't miss this display. Alas, after
several productions, audience members with whom I spoke had not
noticed, there being far too much confusing action which overwhelmed
a little gratuitous nudity.
Sex on stage, for many stage directors, seems to be as lacking in
insight as other dramatic elements. In Tosca, an elegant
Scarpia can be far more seductive than any brutish reading of the
character. Alas, I have seen stage directors impose a brute ugliness
on this character which betrays Puccini's score and Illica's and
"Unmotivated homosexual behavior must be introduced a few times
during the evening."
More than merely unmotivated homosexual behavior, all sorts of
unmotivated behaviors have become the stock and trade of the "How to
Opera Germanly" stage directors. What the libretto might say in
words is false, and what the composer might say in melody and
orchestra colors is also false. One remarkable comment was made at a
Konzeptionsgespräch which lingers with me to this day. Wagner's
last sixty measures of Parsifal were called the "worst music
of his entire oeuvre." Likely the comment was made to create a stir
in a press conference; it did not, for it was ignored. Had that been
the true estimation of this silly man, one wonders why he accepted a
contract to stage this "worst music."
As to homosexuality, most opera ignores the subject, and those few
which deal with the subject deal with far more with other issues
than merely sex roles among men. In Britten's Death in Venice,
as in Thomas Mann's book, there are far broader themes with which to
be dealt than who wants to engage in sex with whom. Both Mann,
Britten and Britten's librettist saw the story's focus as on beauty
and death, nor merely the sex act itself. To pervert their work
towards a mere reading about sex is to ignore the artistic insights
into human nature that these truly creative artists placed into
their work. Such directorial loss of focus denigrates the authors
and composers, in favor of the "important" re-creative stance of a
Even heterosexual behavior is dealt with in delicate ways, mostly
confined to the social norms or a light-handed peek behind the
bedroom doors, as one might see in the first act of Der
Rosenkavalier. Overt sexual behavior is not served by the
operatic stage, and opera is not merely a musicalization of Masters
and Johnson. To make it so ignores the far more effective and
popular entertainment media, like film and television, where
portrayals of sexual acts is more accurate than seeing a overly
large soprano and equally overly tenor grope one another awkwardly.
As to opera staging, one colleague recently commented that much of
it is merely "public psychotherapy" for these certain stage
directors, as they work through their own neuroses.
OPERA IS OPERA, NOT OPERA STAGING
"Happy endings are intellectually bankrupt. Play the opposite.
Insert a sudden murder if at all possible."
Turn things on their head is a part of "How to Opera Germanly." This
tendency to subvert the occasional happy ending is one sided. Which
clever stage director has managed to make a tragic operatic climax
happy? How about Canio's murders of Silvio and then Nedda being a
joke played on the crowd? Instead of "the comedy is ended," why not
"the tragedy is ended?" Perhaps Siegfried could rise from his bier,
or Brunnhilde decide to keep the ring for herself? How about
Klingsor coming back and regaining the spear? Perhaps the Carmelite
nuns could just go into a brothel? Perhaps the Count could rape
Susanna? That would be a real joke.
To wish to subvert an ending of an opera -- subversion being the
reigning orthodoxy -- why not subvert the tragedy regularly? A
real joke of recent years was Peter Grimes remaining in the village
to marry Ellen Orford; happily ever after for this dark tragedy? An
easy joke, predicted by "How to Opera Germanly" before that
production was even conceived. Social criticism. Deconstruction.
Subversion. These are the key words, and all must be placed in
service to them, as that "raid" on the unconscious.
The lingo seems highly academic, clever, deep and philosophical. It
is meant to confuse, and its purpose is to elevate the stage
director over the composer, librettist, cast and conductor, and even
But the key editorial element to be underlined here is the
accusation of intellectual bankruptcy. The twentieth century spawned
many "investigations" into the nature, meaning, materials and forums
for art. Opera as one of the arts was a target of the simple-minded
tricks of surrealism. Just as Marcel Duchamp's hanging of a ceramic
urinal on a gallery wall was trumpeted as an intellectual
breakthrough in art, so other kinds of "urinals" have been hung on
opera's walls, with the great hope of stage directors that they gain
notoriety by such tricks.
[ 5 ]
"Avoid entertaining the audience at all costs. If they boo, you
I have seen audiences vocally overwhelm curtain calls with cat calls
[ 6 ]
for those slang sometimes call the "penguins" (for
white ties and black coats) -- those who no
longer present themselves in the evening dress or even suits which
at one time created the slang for their appearance. To be truly
artistic is to show contempt for the audience. Therefore t-shirts,
dungarees and running shoes became acceptable wear for an opening
night's applause Ordnung. Oddly, the loudest and angriest
responses by audiences sometimes resulted in word of mouth spreading
quickly among an opera-going public, and ticket sales slumped
wildly. The "penguins" assure themselves that this is because the
audience is stupid, voting with their feet. The "marketplace" of
human ideas turns this intellectual trick on its own head, as empty
opera theaters mean there is no interest in the great intellect and
artistic achievements as a director might "opera Germanly."
"The stage director must avoid any idea that is not his own,
though that idea will surely be on this list already."
I truncate the remainder of a basically repetitious joke. But this
last quote speaks volumes. "How to Opera Germanly" manages with a
gentle humor to touch on the truths of the least worthy modern
operatic stage direction. I have seen firsthand a dreadful but very
"intellectual and artistic" production canceled within three days of
its opening night.
THE TRUTH OF OPERA STAGING
The truth of all stage directing for opera is the same -- for the
best directors and the worst. Theaters produce new productions of
the same operatic repertoire, rooted firmly on the works of a very
few men, without whom opera would be an almost insignificant
entertainment. These names are Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and
Strauss, Handel and Britten. Strike their names from a ten-year span
of seasons, and perhaps the singular works -- Carmen, I Pagliacci,
Cavalleria rusticana and precious few more -- and the opera
audiences would drift away. The best of stage direction lasts for a
time in a theater, but all opera productions are supplanted by new
productions. Are the new productions always better than those which
they supplanted? Of course not. That being the case, the truth is
that often worse stage direction follows better, the better being
While musical theater of the sort being done on Broadway, the West
End and on tour all across the states and Europe replicates
effective productions and effective staging, opera theaters throw
them away. This is poor business sense, and certainly a waste of
finite fiscal resources. A production worthy of Munich should also
be worthy of Berlin, and a production worthy of New York should also
be worthy of San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles. The culture of
"How to Opera Germanly" opera stage directors has been sullied by
glib and faux intellectual posturing, poisoned by the culture of
ugliness, and informed on by simple humor now being spread around
the Internet. That the humor so adequately mirrors the reality of
much opera producing is a indication of how inane and simple-minded
the "raid on the unconscious" has become, as George Orwell taught.
Here's the easy proof. Name a famous opera production from 1950
still being seen today? 1970? Ten years ago? There are
some of course; not many. As fast as the financial resources of
opera theaters around the world are expended to the service of "How
to Opera Germanly" is almost as fast as these productions are
discarded, supplanted by other productions. The irony is that
today's opera Intendants and stage directors are guilty of
destroying the best of the past, and their work of the moment will
be destroyed in like manner by the next generation of Intendants and
stage directors. Such art is at best, transitory and often eminently
Moreover when an opera production reaches budgetary numbers as
recently reported for one -- in the millions of dollars -- one basic
question which cannot be avoided is the financial health of all
companies wishing to present such expensive productions. Is opera
about opera production first? Can it sustain such expenses in the
foreseeable future? Some companies have resorted to deficit spending
to fund inherently throw-away work and then wonder why they face
massive debt in the following seasons.
The opera world needs to heed this insight, and return to simply
telling the story, as the eminent film director and opera stage
director Werner Herzog said to us at the beginning of a most
instructive rehearsal period. Those who tell an operatic story well,
their work needs to be preserved and shared between theaters, if
only to make for effective use of investment in the culture of opera
worldwide. Those who tell an operatic story stupidly and
ineffectively need to be removed from the culture, for they
contribute so little to it.
HOW TO TRULY OPERA GERMANLY
How to truly opera Germanly? Follow a good example. Here's one:
Wagner wrote his own libretti as well as his own scores; that is how
to opera Germanly. Would that there were yet more new Wagners --
except that some of his music was deemed "the worst" according to
one internationally known charlatan who still practices his
eminently short-lived craft today. Wagner's art, which some demean
as the "worst," lives on and on because this art is first and
foremost music and text, without which Regietheater would
have been impossible. As a trend it is perforce dying. One
world-renown German conductor calls it "boring," and a famous German
stage director notes that Regietheater is "laughed at"
throughout the world. Even by German theater folk. Of course.
[ 7 ]
Opera's stage direction has taken center stage by force, but it will
never hold that position long, for inherent in it are the "seeds of
its own destruction" to use a dialectical term accurately. One sees
that with each "new" production which replaces an older production.
The best are discarded as often and as quickly as the worst, to make
way for the new.
Were we to follow the logic of this argument about the musical side
of opera, one should quickly discard Bizet's Carmen, Wagner's
Ring, Verdi's La Traviata and Puccini's
La Boheme. Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos should be set
aside. Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci should be ignored. That is
what it would be to "Opera Germanly," were one to model choice of
composers and librettists as one chooses stage directors and
designers. Out with the old, in with the new.
Shock and scandal as the norm are no longer subversion, no longer
surprise, no longer socially relevant. They are merely a sad and now
well eroded art orthodoxy, as a "mere" opera aficionado so clearly
observed. That is why "How To Opera Germanly" so accurately
captures the "enfant terrible" who is no longer anything more than
Each and every modern production -- even the ones with merit and
audience appeal -- is destined to be replaced by a system which does
not consistently nurture the best, the truest in operatic stage
direction and design. Rather, the cycle is to discard all. Therefore
of the so-called Euro-trash and its counterparts outside of Europe,
the mere passing of time will remedy this. Without question.
What will remain? The music and libretti of the great and abiding
works, to be rediscovered again and again. What will be added? New
music and libretti yet to be discovered.
Alas for operatic direction and design, even the best but certainly
at its worst. Though it pretends to mightily, it cannot compete with
such value and worth as composers and authors have shown us across
Some models for how to successfully opera Germanly?
Handel with Nicola Francesco Haym and Nicolò Minato; Gluck with Pietro Metastasio; Mozart with Christoph Friedrich Bretzner, Lorenzo
Da Ponte and Emanuel Schikaneder; Beethoven with Georg
Friedrich Treitschke; Hans Werner Henze with Hans-Ulrich
Treichel; Richard Strauss with Hugo von Hofmannsthal; Johann
Strauss II with Camillo Walzel; Pfizner with Ilse von Stach and Wanda
von Debschitz-Kunowski; Hindemith with Franz Blei and August Stamm;
Carl Maria von Weber with Helmina von Chézy;Weill and Bertolt
Brecht; and of course some composers such as Hindemith, Humperdinck, Lortzing, and Wagner
[ 8 ], all
of whom wrote or edited their libretti as well as composing the scores.
been my joy to have performed some number of these artists' works, words
and music, and of course to staging which has never had the long
life of the other arts of the opera theater.
The remaining and comparative question: how many
seminal pieces of Regietheater and earlier opera direction remain
extant in the repertoire? Precious few. It is an ever dying art, and
sometimes critics find "new" examples of it still born.
[ 1 ]
"Nonsense Poetry," by George Orwell, may be read in its entirety at
[ 2 ] From James Levine, conductor and
music director of the Metropolitan Opera, as reprinted in New York
Magazine, "The crisis of how to enact opera onstage visually has
some alarming facets. I’m referring to productions the composer and
librettist would denounce. I’m speaking of a production that uses a
piece instead of presents the piece. People will say, 'Oh, Jimmy—he’s so
fanatic.' But a lot of people are willfully rearranging what happens
onstage in order to make some original point, which has nothing to do
with the way the composer and librettist imagined it. I’m not talking
about anything as simple-minded as whether the period was changed. I’ve
been to performances where the period was changed and it was very good.
But there are so many contemporary productions that just destroy the
piece, for nothing. In Europe especially, the reaction to a performance
is often, 'Well, wasn’t that interesting . . . ?' I’m tempted to say,
'Okay, the next time I come to your theater, whatever the opera is that
we’re doing, I will have the wind players play the string part and the
string players play the wind part — and it’ll be very interesting'."
Levine's analogy is also Stravinsky's, as one learns below. But
first one may review another statement about "willfully
rearranging what happens onstage...."
One reads: "The Don Giovanni that opened the
Aix-en-Provence festival had sexual excess as a principal theme,
a deranged Don and a weak cast. The critics gave it a serious
pummeling. Bacquier, in his blog, comments that 'I am not
especially known to be squeamish or prudish,' but continued 'in
past centuries there was the opera house where we gave opera,
and theaters where they gave pornographic performances. Why not?
We knew where we were going and what we would find.' He then
denounced the production specifically: 'No staging, no
direction of actors, just pornographic exercises that betray the
work... How can directors, musicians, conductors, musicians and
singers endorse such nonsense? ... The dictatorship of directors
is that of pornographers who flaunt their neuroses as if they
were one of the fine arts.' He concluded, 'I have worked
with wonderful directors and many bad ones, but I always
preferred to betray the director than the work. Too bad that my
younger colleagues do not do that'!" In "Gabriel Bacquier Speaks
Out on Tcherniakov's Giovanni," by Frank Cadenhead, Playbill, 17
Others have stated similar positions to me which I have heard
throughout my career, that stage directors are working through
their own personal neuroses in place of presenting a composer's
and librettist's work.
article summarized other critics' views: "Marie-Aude Roux,
a critic of the newspaper 'Le Monde' accused the director of
'deconstructing the myths and models of Don Giovanni to the
point that the music is sometimes inappropriate. Should he
openly destroy the organic link that unites the drama by
interposing a disturbing narrative with panels dropping down
as in silent films?' She concludes that 'Tcherniakov
relegates the music of the Mozart opera to a secondary level.'
Another critic, Gilles Mascassar of the magazine "'Telerama'
notes that the single set and large table is the same theatrical
device he uses in Onegin. 'But what works for Tchaikovsky and
Pushkin is a fiasco for Mozart and Da Ponte. Tcherniakov turns
the libretto upside down, multiplying unnecessary
inconsistencies and fantasies. The result is a work completely
ruined..' Mascassar concludes by noting that a director 'is not
the owner of the work but only a tenant, accountable for the
words and notes as written. To a conductor who insisted on
changing the score Stravinsky replied superbly: 'Here, my
friend, you are not at your house'.' "
This last perspective is important, and echoes Levine above and
Stravinsky just above, that some of this era's "enfants
terribles" act as if the work of a Mozart or da Ponte is merely
an excuse to exhibit their brilliance. The simple fact -- and
the theme of this commentary -- is that such "enfants" could
show themselves and their views of opera in a more lasting way,
by actually writing successful libretti and composing successful
scores. But such exercises are essentially beyond the abilities
of the modern crop of avant garde stage directors who end up
being merely the temporary tenants of the words and music,
which will long outlast the throwaway productions, destined in
advance for the dust bin.
This is doubly true, as one surveys extant productions and finds
them being discarded, sometimes at only a first year, but
certainly shortly thereafter. And because many intendants are in
fact stage directors with other stage directors in their circle
of friends, "new" productions of an earlier regime are marked
for destruction, period.
A personal view which has come over years says that much about
this "new" -- ever sought and so easily discarded -- stage
direction and "vision" of the stage director is less about art,
and more about money. Friends hire friends, as people with like
habits and goals seek those who would bolster their own chase
after money. The official avant garde class is in fact a
loose-knit group seeking less to change the direction of art
than a class looking to direct art in order to pocket the
change.... Else many more stage avant garde productions would be
remaining for many decades in the repertoire of theaters, as
have come "classic" designs.
There was a time recently when in the world of politics and
social commentary, opinion writers rued the "throwaway" culture.
But indeed this is what much of the avant garde in opera
direction has bred. Scandals to funded and then to quickly be
[ 3 ]
"Enfant terrible" -- A personal
anecdote: An internationally famous stage director and Intendant now
retired once commented about a stage director and now professor in an
important university that this individual began his career as a true
"enfant terrible," becoming in his later adult years "merely terrible."
Thought naming names might be amusing, it is also indiscreet and
so I chose not to do this.
The joke continued further, "The leading performers faces must be
painted as a white mask to ensure no individuality or variety of
expressions, as opera singers can't act anyway. They just want to pose
and make pretty sounds." The joke is older now, and the urge for
white facial makeup has been replaced by other "new"
orthodoxies. As to "opera singers can't act," this opinion is often heard, that singers
cannot contribute to the stage director's conception because they want
to sing "pretty." One case had a stage director insisting that the
performers' face be striped with black, dark blue and deep red, and
then, though this had been said in advance to him, he was surprised that
no facial expressions -- a part of his design -- could be seen from the
theater with the lighting he himself had chosen. When technical truths
and known limitations are ignored by a willful stage director, it is
merely power which is at interpersonal play, not art.
The joke continued, "The chorus must be bald, sexless, faceless and in
trench coats." In fact, based on the culture of ugliness, a modern
aesthetic theory without much sense, often attractive stage personas are
"uglified," as is the stage director's supposed vision. In one moment of
undiplomatic ease, I asked a stage director who pressed forward this
theory of ugliness if his work was in fact "ugly."
intellectual confusion was delightful to behold. Many stage directors
want to be seen as intellectually and artistically forward thinking, and
yet simple questions often confound them. In case, an intellect was
arguing that Tristan and Isolde actually were neither in love nor
bewitched with the story's potion; rather they were working out their
own neuroses. When asked where this was to be found in the libretto or
music, an equally frustrating moment ensued, as the director was unable
to refer to anything in Wagner's text or score to support his
"ready-made" idea. [See below.]
As to beauty and ugliness, the joke says, "Any suggestion of the beauty
and mystery of nature must be avoided at all costs! The set must be
trivial, contemporary and decrepit! Don t forget the fluorescent lights!
(Klieg lights also acceptable.)" The tricks of surrealism and
deconstruction take whatever is there in the score and libretto as
false, or a mere excuse to say something else. This is intellectual
laziness at best and artistic cowardice at worst.
Given that so many
stage directors believe themselves the equal or better to librettists
generally as well as to some composer, I search the new operatic works
for evidence of libretti by these "peers." There is no evidence that
these stage directors actually can write a libretto, much less compose a
score. Yet they deem themselves equals to their betters, often
attempting to revise the libretto to make it better, up-to-date
and trendy. The proof is in
the pudding, and their is precious little pudding from Euro-Trash stage
directors and their decades of "conceptualizing."
And so their youth fades, and
the enfant terrible becomes merely
[ 4 ] This is not applicable when the director is
also the designer, of course. Instances of designers directing include
the admirable Franco Zefferelli, who has continued to create spectacles
within the sense of the libretto's intent, locale and period.
Designer/directors often become enamored of the design so much as to
lose track of the original story line, and invent only to serve their
visual designs, in a case of music taking the proverbial "back seat" to
[ 5 ]
Britannica says "...a stroke of genius led him to
a discovery of great importance in contemporary art, the so-called
ready-made." It was in 1913 that he presented the "Bicycle Wheel," which
was actually an ordinary bicycle wheel. Britannica opines, "With
the ready-mades, contemporary art became in itself a mixture of creation
and criticism." As art became its own criticism, and as deconstruction
became a further addition to the game of artistic posturing, many people
became adept at talking of themselves as artists. Presenting one's very
own "ready-made" made one an artist. This had the obvious effect of
making everyone who wished to call themselves an artist and intellectual
into an artist and intellectual. It also dissolved cultural standards by
which one might truly judge the truly productive artist from the
charlatan. Selling "snake oil" became and intellectual peer with the
serious author, composer and artist. Ergo, the perceptive remark by
Orwell, who apparently knew snake oil when it was being sold to him.
[ 6 ]
A corollary in the joke is repetitious, but accurate. "If the
audience is bored, this is art." I have heard this opinion expressed
almost verbatim at the end of a "loud" opening night. One director was
forthright enough to mirror P. T. Barnum, and suggest that his aim was
to create a "scandal." That is how one gets additional press, and press
is public relations. Heather Mac Donald, in her article for City
Journal, "The Abduction of Opera," writes, "The dirty little secret
of Regietheater is this: its practitioners know that no one will bother
to show up for their drearily conventional political cant unless they
ride parasitically on the backs of geniuses." While this
may seem like a harsh judgment, one observes that few stage
directors attempt to write a libretto or compose a score of
their own. Therefore the term, parasite, has some validity.
[ 7 ] From
The Guardian, Thursday July
20, 2006: "Thielemann is an opponent of so-called regietheater -
director's theatre - the notion that the core of a production is the
director's rethinking of the piece (a Wall Street Ring, a War on Terror
Ring, a Global Warming Ring). 'It is very interesting that in the word
regietheater there is no mention of music,' he says pointedly.
'Obviously it is not necessary. There is too much happening on stage and
it is so interesting that you forget there was an aria, or you say, 'Oh
my God, she is singing!' Unlike many recent Rings - not least the
Bayreuth production it replaces - this one will have no overt political
content. 'We want to keep politics out of it. It is so boring, so
predictable. We know the Ring is about power, we know that; water is
wet. We don't need to point it out. We can trust the public and the
intelligence of people a little bit more. It can be not too clear
sometimes. It's like poetry: there are some moments where you can smell
it but when you try to describe it, it's kaput. It's too subtle.'" Thielemann went on to say of Bayreuth, even with its flirtations with
avant-garde staging, "the only star [Wagner] here is dead."
From Germany's own Tagesspiegel, September 11, 2007, in an
article title "German Regietheater Laughed At Across the Whole World" (
''Deutsches Regietheater wird in der ganzen Welt verlacht''),
director Peter Stein mused that today's actors "worry that they will be
smeared with feces or will have to 'wank off' for a half an hour on the
apron of the stage." Lest this seem like an exaggeration, I was
approached by a director who wanted a singer who would defecate onstage
in full view of the audience; of course, I not only refused the offer
but additionally suggested he was in severe need of counseling. By the
way, that director was an American from the Bay Area of
California. Unsurprisingly he was angry that he was refused.
One finds a continuation of complaint from major
names in today's musical world. One reads: "The pianist
András Schiff has written: 'What does the director do? He
thinks he has to assert himself—he understands nothing about the
music, he can hardly read music (yes, I know, there are notable
exceptions)—and rages that much more wildly onstage. He changes
everything about the piece: the plot, the setting, the time
period, and moreover regales us with sex, violence and a surfeit
of tastelessness.' Gelb told me that he isn’t interested in
novelty for its own sake, and chooses only directors who respect
the narrative integrity of a work. But he was soon engulfed in
controversy over a new production of “Tosca,” which opened the
2009 season. The updated version brought the Swiss director Luc
Bondy to the Met for the first time, replacing Franco
Zeffirelli’s sumptuous re-creation of Rome’s Church of
Sant’Andrea Della Valle with a dark, stripped-down set in a
production that featured prostitutes and simulated sex acts
onstage." In "A Fight at the Opera," by James B. Stewart,
New Yorker, 23 March 2015.
Similarly one finds this sentiment: "The gloves are off,
the chips are down; my patience has run out. So I have to
scream loud and clear that the great majority of modern opera
production is dreadful, and its clichés and pretensions are
driving established audiences away, without bringing new ones
in. At a time when money is so scarce and companies need to take
every penny they can from the box office, this is nothing short
of suicidal. The Arts Council is shortly to publish a report
on opera (and dance). If it recommends draconian measures or the
chop for certain companies, then they will only have their poor
artistic judgment and arrogance to blame." In "Sex and violence
won’t save opera," by Rupert Christiansen, Opera Critic,
Telegraph UK, 10 October 2013.
Yet more opinion of the same sort: "With the connivance of
an unruly mob of administrators, conductors and critics, the
staging of opera has thus arrived at the lowest point in its
long history, an art form without integrity, without beauty,
without grace, without dignity, without significance. The
message of Hector Berlioz, who himself suffered from gross
philistinism, demands to be heeded: 'You musicians, you poets,
prose-writers, actors, pianists, conductors, whether of third or
second or even first rank, you do not have the right to
meddle with a Shakespeare or a Beethoven, in order to bestow on
them the blessings of your knowledge and taste'." In "Regietheater-the
Death of Opera?", by Brian Robbins, Early Music World, n. d..
Especially clear in the New Yorker article is
this statement: "Worse, from the orchestra’s point of
view, the set compromised the music." As it happens,
"how to opera Germanly" is in fact not about Germany per se, but
about the perception which centers on the word, Regietheater. I
prefer Wagner's notions of "music drama" and that complete
collaboration of all the arts to bring opera to the stage. This
requires the stage director to step back from, as Schiff says
above, asserting himself above other elements. Levine is clear
too: "...there are so many contemporary productions that just destroy the
piece, for nothing."
Should one think this mere reactionary hyperbole? It is foolish
to conclude this. One reads: "In May 2010, Carl St. Clair,
the music director of the Komische Oper Berlin, abruptly
resigned, as the company, known for its extreme Regietheater
productions, was presenting a particularly disgraceful version
of Beethoven's “Fidelio.” St. Clair, who had been with the
company for three years, and had been faithfully involved in
previous Regietheater productions, had finally had enough. He
told a reporter for the “Orange County Register” that the
production was an abuse of Beethoven, adding, 'It just got to
the point where I felt shameful – I felt that I didn't stand up
in a way – or I felt powerless to stand up for Beethoven.' St.
Clair was reacting to the arbitrary and often nihilistic changes
to opera which characterize Regietheater, in which it is the
vision of the director which takes priority over that of the
composer and librettist. The alleged justification for this
is that non-contemporary operas are out-of-touch with the
post-modern Zeitgeist, and must therefore be made “more
relevant,” so a modern audience can relate to what is occurring
on stage. Instead of being guided by the Classical operatic
traditions which developed over several hundred years, and were
the creative products of artists who took their inspiration from
ideas which were essential to the advance of civilization,
opera, especially in Germany, has become a staging ground for
increasingly bizarre, infantile fantasies, of self-obsessed
nihilists, whose fame depends on their ability to shock an
audience. One might ask that, if such 'directors' are so
creative, why not write their own operas? Instead, they
desecrate the classics, putting their own pornographic fantasies
on the stage, while using Mozart's or Verdi's music, to attract
an audience. There have been reports in the European press
that some of these directors do little or no study of the piece
they are presenting, and rely on the musical directors and
musicians to produce the music – while they concoct actions on
stage which divert the audience away from the music, and the
ideas, of the composers. " In "Will Regietheater Egoists Destroy
the Classics?" by Harley Schlanger, Schiller Institute, November
I would answer by saying that the "classics" will far outlive
the Zeitgeist theater advocates of an age, this one included.
St. Clair makes a good point. When more of today's devotees of
Regietheater commit themselves to being librettists and
composers, one may see what talents they possess beyond playing
with the simplistic rules of surrealism's found objects game and
odd juxtapositions declared to be evidence of deep thought. But
one only need inquire from an ardent proponent of Regietheater
what the word actually means and how it differs from the word
Regie, one finds webs of syllogism in which definitions circle
to mean themselves. This is the philosophic depth of how one
would "opera Germanly." It means whatever the user of the terms
says it means. This has been quite a good game. Given conductors
resigning their posts, critics beginning to complain loudly and
audiences choosing to stay home with some beloved DVD
performance, the game seems slowly to be coming to an end.
It has been coming to an end for some time now, as an obituary
for Boulez recalls his radical early stance. One reads:
"...an enfant terrible given to making public suggestions such
as 'the most elegant way of solving the opera problem would
be to blow up the opera houses'." In "Pierre Boulez,
conductor of bracing clarity, dies at 90," by Tim Page,
Washington Post, 6 January 2016." That obituary goes on to
recall ""...when the composer Arnold Schoenberg died in 1951,
Mr. Boulez published a withering obituary dismissing most of the
older man’s later work."
Such radical notions as blowing up opera houses, or dismissing a
now-recognized giant of the 2nd Viennese School pile onto other
voices from directors and producers that opera libretti no
longer mean what they say, and a newcomer's "conception: trumps
the work of historically still valid librettists and composers.
Oddly, the radical is often throw away, as a disposable thing,
while the operas live on, impervious to the radicals.
Opera will survive, because Regietheater worst excesses will be
replaced as the next crop of intendants takes their places. It
is a throwaway art, discarded even by its own next generation of
decision-makers. Subversive? Of what? Orthodox? Without
question. Abiding? Mostly not.
[ 8 ]
It is somewhat instructive to note that Wagner too
worried about what today seems that same old concern. One reads:
"To name in one word what on German soil has shewn, and goes on
proving itself least worthy of the fame of our great victories
of to-day, we have only to point to this Theatre, whose tendence
avows itself aloud and brazen the betrayer of German honour.
Whoso should link himself to this tendence in any shape or form,
must needs fall victim to a misconstruction that would assign
him to a sphere of our publicity of the most questionable
nature, whence to rise to the pure sphere of Art would be about
as difficult and fatiguing as to arrive from Opera at what we
have termed the Ideal Drama. Certain it is, however, that if
Art has fallen solely through the artists,—according to
Schiller's saying, here not exactly accurate,—it can be raised
again by the artists alone, and not by those who have
dishonoured it with their favour. But to help forward from
without, as well, that restoration of Art by the artists, would
be the fitting national expiation for the national sin of our
present German Theatre." In "The Destiny of Opera," by Richard
Wagner, 1871, translated by William Ashton Ellis and found in
"Richard Wagner's Prose Works," 1896.