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 direction.
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 Opera Modernly."
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 pushed?
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 "director's vision."
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 production?
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 viewpoint.
It should be noted that the corollary to this is that the costume designer is often deemed the third most important personality. [ 4 ] Make-up 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 director's "conception."
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 wandered off.
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. Why?
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 not.
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 do."
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 unknown.
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 aria."
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 such circumstances.
Such "creative" 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 direction.
"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 Intendant in 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 question.
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 theater's budget.
OPERA REMAINS A MUSICAL ART
"The music must stop once in a while for intense, obscure miming."
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 Giacosa's libretto.
"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 stage director.
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 the audience.
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 have succeeded."
I have seen audiences vocally overwhelm curtain calls with cat calls and boos [ 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 discarded.
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 discard-able.
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 terrible.
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 centuries.
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.
It has 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 www.george-orwell.org .
[ 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 Aug 2010.
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.
The Playbill 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 discarded.
[ 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."
The resulting 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 terrible.
[ 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 non-musical considerations.
[ 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''), renown 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 2011.
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.