In a 2019 article, Lynn René Bayley castigated modern opera for its “bastardization” of its sacred origins. She declared that the post-modernist operatic aesthetic relies too much on brazen sexuality and enigmatic “shock-value,” with such dependencies producing nothing but “gutter trash” performances that are poisoning the artform’s contemporary credibility.
After having expressed her disgust at Hans Neuenfels’ laboratory-themed take on Wagner’s “last romantic opera,” “Lohengrin,” she revealed her stalwart position: “Write your own damn opera and leave the classics alone.” Bayley explains that reconceptualizing an opera until it has “no relationship to reality” ought to be strictly forbidden.
While “imaginatively resistant” in demeanor, Bayley does bring up an important aspect of modern opera practice that relates to Regietheater (Director’s Theater) and its operatic offshoot Regieoper (Director’s Opera). It’s certainly valid to state that classics of any artistic discipline deserve to be treated with the deference they have earned when being subjected to contemporary reinvention: but what happens when this is taken too far and instead of a tactful preservation, you’re left with nothing more than a three-dimensional museum to be looked at and nothing more? In response to a commenter, Bayley noted that operas enclosed within them immortal teachings and that they were “NOT YOURS TO RUIN AND DISTORT.”
Who is “yours?”
While correct[ish], I am left unsatisfied by this approach. What does “ruin and distort” even look like? By looking at what Regietheater is, and what it attempts to achieve, an answer can be found. How could updating opera possibly induce such palpable angst?
Artistic License in Regietheater
Analogous to the concept of “artistic license,” Regietheater and its operatic offshoots describes the process by which a director reinterprets a composer’s original work through creative experimentation. They alter pre-ordained locations and time-periods, add secondary plot points, mix period costuming with modern variants, and accentuate sensuous overtones, all with the intention of exposing the opera’s deeper meaning. Such a modernist lineage started more than 90 years ago with German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s valiant attempts at creating a dialogic, performer/audience-blended experience called Lehrstücke—”Learning Play”—where the fixed barriers of theatrical traditionalism were scrapped for a collaborative and fourth-wall-breaking alternative.
As the 1960s dawned this was taken further with the rise of Germany’s proto-Regieoper artistic blossoming. This was the rise of movements such as Aktionskunst, Prozesskunst, and Absurdes Theater—”Performance Art,” ‘”Process Art,” and “Absurd Theater”—which expanded the initiatives of Wagner’s grandson Wieland Wagner in the 1950s to reimagine operatic theater. This was the movement away from unscrupulous grandeur to tactfully symbolic minimalism. While many argue that opera has now become nothing more than a free-wheeling circus where lunatic directors have the power to draw out delusional meta-narratives, “thick descriptions,” and hypertextualities from sacred stories which required nothing more than a director to follow premade guidelines, I push back against this ethos and say it is these critics who need to reevaluate their clearly prefabricated mechanisms for viewing art.
This way, the “director” becomes an opera’s “post-composer,” in that the reception of the work can be shaped by the director’s choices. An opera cannot become without a director!
Take, for example, the 1966 MET debut of Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” where the acclaimed director Franco Zeffirelli completely over-complicated Barber’s self-sufficient scoring and plot, subsequently leaving Barber’s reputation in shambles for years to come. Cleopatra, played by the internationally beloved Leontyne Price, was trapped in a metal pyramid and had to sing the heroic main aria without being visible, and the critics were left unsure of what actually went wrong.
But on the flip side, the famous 2005 Salzburg production of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” produced by German director Willy Decker, with its stark backgrounds, minimalist decor, modern dress, and metaphorical imaging, represents the paragon of operatic innovation and the best of what Regieoper has to offer. Funnily enough, one Amazon reviewer pointedly revealed the reason why some Regietheater are loved and why some are utterly reviled is: the seditious hand of societal musealization of opera:
“The supposed ‘American opera fans’ have killed the art form they claim to love… by putting that art form on a pedestal, edifying it, dehumanizing it, and keeping it stale. At the sign of even a single 21st century dress on a singer, these fans will be as sounding brass, wailing blasphemy behind the curtain.”
As mentioned earlier, the main attribute of Regietheater is its usage of exaggerated sensuality and symbolic “shockism” in an effort to cause audiences to ask the question “why?”, transforming opera from the rehashing of conventional narratives and typical, monodirectional storytelling into a pathway towards a better understanding of life itself.
Another example is Schlingensief’s interpretation of “Parsifal” during the 2004 Bayreuth Festival. Choosing to frontline Wagner’s interest in Tibetan Buddhism and Schopenhauerian existentialism, every element had one goal in mind: transcendent deliverance. From eclectic costuming, complex set-designs, and arcane rituals to rotating stages and surrealist projections, Wagner’s opera was rendered a sonic, auto-biographical philosophy, where the universality of art was posited as the prime directive. In a follow-up lecture, it was explained that by repositioning “Parsifal” as a “universally relevant, integrative, healing work,” claims of theological heterodoxy could be officially dispelled, along with the pernicious claims of “elitist or racist art.” By grasping the spiritually-minded interpretation, the opera’s provocativeness becomes not provocative but profound! In Wagner’s autobiography “My Life (Mein Leben),” he reveals how he understood the continuum of life: that everyone’s past life was intrinsically part of their present and the passage of life is a recursive circle, a Lazy Susan of birth, life, death, and regeneration.
So if Regieoper is a directorial reimagining, then there must be an opposite. That’s where Werktreue comes in. It is German for “true work” and represents a director’s attachment to the original work’s elements via a commitment to portraying its’ meaning without fanciful interpretation. Supporters say that the director should not impose on the work, the 20th century German director Gustaf Gründgens being the originator of the concept. He advocated that the director was less of a contributing member and more a compositional realizer.
In an interview with a student of Gründgens, the late German director Imo Moszkowicz explained the term: while 100 percent accuracy could never be reached,“we [directors] are…advocates of the authors…not the accusers.” This helps dislodge the cancerous counterargument that Werktreue is simply a director’s unmitigated, loyalist attachment to a fake past. So rather than “the musical analogue of religious fundamentalism,” Werktreue is a director’s attempt at providing the audience with the clearest path towards allegorical understanding possible, while allowing the opera to do the explaining. Knowing this, the goals of Werktreue and Regieoper become not so different, and all that fluctuates between them are the methods used to realize the compositional meaning.
To expect an opera, at least contemporaneously, to neatly display its plot in an easily digestible manner without overtly enigmatic symbology and convoluted artistic choices is to likewise expect innovation to remain entrained by simplicity, no matter if that simplicity is helpful or not. Society’s preference for operatic traditionalism is atavism—a return to an ancestral trait—of the worst kind. Throughout music’s development, there has been aesthetic line-pushing and compositional experimentation, all of which could be considered part of the Regie lineage. Stravinsky’s 1913 “Rite of Spring,” while being a programmatic ballet, represented an incredibly jarring transition away from the refined elegance of traditional balletic theater, while its rhythmic angularities and laborious sonorities ushered in a reformation of the concept of aesthetic “beauty.” In short, if it wasn’t for rule-breaking and line-pushing, the very fabric of classical music wouldn’t exist in its present form. Knowing this, how has society come to the conclusion that innovation must present in a certain manner, lest it be called “depressing” or “destructive” by the watchdogs and self-appointed gatekeepers of culture? My theory is that as tastes expanded throughout the centuries, many became entrained by them and began to prefer genres in one manner or another. This consequently began breeding animosity among observers as their beloved genres started changing right before their eyes.
Returning to Regieoper, a poignant example comes to mind. In 2006, the American director Francesca Zambello chose to redress Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” in national dress, reformatting the Norse opera into a biopolitical docufilm about the role of women in American history, creating an “American Ring.” This was justified by Zambello by saying that American history was just as unsightly and ethically irresponsible as the Gods, therefore a line can be drawn from their hubris to ours. In a press statement, she said, ‘The great themes of the “Ring”—nature, power and corruption—resound through America’s past… [therefore] it is especially fitting to undertake an American “Ring” in Washington, D.C., where the concept of global power is a feature of daily life.’
By nature of the attempt, her venture was admonished by critics and audiences alike. However, one detraction stands most indicative of why this production failed: “The program notes will tell you what the portraits [singers] themselves cannot.” Again, Werktreue comes back into the mix as the adventurism was not enough to accurately display the opera’s original meaning alongside its contemporary variant. Despite Zambello’s best intentions, her mission to translate the plight of the American forgotten didn’t accurately read to the audience. It became yet another point for the argument against Regieoper and fuel for its detracters. If the audience is not brought along and put squarely parallel to the directorial vision, no matter how enriched with symbology the operatic staging may be, then it means nothing and ends up being a “provocative” carnival not worth its weight in lead. In order for exploratory methods of operatic production to successfully engender thoughtful discussion, what is being discussed must be understood first. The story of the corrupting influences of power is a universal story and it had the potential to work in the American context, but its moment was taken when the interpretation got in the way of the opera.
But when a director succeeds, not only is the audience transformed but history itself. This was the case for the seminal 1963 DEFA film adaptation of Wagner’s tale about a girl’s devotion to dreams, “The Flying Dutchman.” Produced by Joachim Herz, the story was reformed to epitomize the mindset of 1960s East Germany and its refutation of “bourgeois narrowness.”
Heralded as one of the “finest cinematic adaptations of an opera ever produced,” Herz’s approach was to develop visuals from the music, not to the music: a subtle but powerful articulative methodology. In a pre-premiere talk, he revealed that Wagner’s chromatically-saturated scoring was a natural development of the scene and was not to be considered the main event. “The music and song emerge from the specific situation, as I believe it must.” He went on to explain how the film displayed Senta’s descent into infatuated dreamscapes without indulgences and infused every single moment with a musical reason to be there: “Basically everybody here has to be a music film expert.” Along with foregrounding music as narrative, he used audio effects and other editorial techniques to further develop the opera’s intentionally confusing demeanor. Here, “Director’s Theater” is intellectually used and functionally adapted to exemplify neither the juvenile Werktreue—the Gründgensian belief that a director’s role is to distance their vision from the work—nor the liberated Regieoper position that interpretational agency somehow trumps a composer’s dictates. Instead, Herz took the scholarly middle ground: “The musical form is not a constraint, but rather the foundation upon which you can build in finding scenic solutions.” Such a position I completely agree with, as in the age of post-everything, one must still use some sort of base for artistic liberation. That base should not be considered a prison or a detracting agent towards innovation, however! A form, at the end of the day, is just a form and gains its body from what’s inside.
There is no full consensus on what operatic performances should look like nor are there concrete inclinations toward who could possibly be right or wrong. But like Gründgens indicated, the main goal should always be to convey the opera’s intentions so that the audience can be invited into the fold. Indubitably, operatic performance will always have a level of enigma to it, as the genre itself is about heightened human emotions and aggrandized situational turmoil, and as such audiences will always have to work in some way to forge a personal comprehension of its plot. But a dilemma arises when audiences begin to expect a particular experience, whether that be through transparent plots—as advocated for by Bayley—which operate from a position of unadorned factuality, or curtailed innovation where the hand of ingenuity is exercised only to a point. Who am I to say whether either preference is better suited or not to the new status of operatic experience: but what I will state is that endlessly chiding Regieoper and more conceptual, or “non-literal'” productions for their failures to preserve the operatic tradition is naive and problematic to the vast lineage of dramatic theatre line-pushers. As opera theaters continue to search for fresh perspectives on well-worn repertoire and postulate on how plots and scoring could better exemplify their creators, the requirements of the spectator are also changing and becoming more demanding.
Unlike Bayley’s sentiments, I’d encourage you to make up your own mind! Art historian Michael Miller’s comment in 2014 regarding the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts’s 2014 Summer opera programming reads less as the sagacious insights of a seasoned professional and more of one who refuses to broaden their mind: “This meeting of scholarship and art is what keeps opera young and vital. This is what we need, not Regieoper!” This commonly held position—that practitioners of Regieoper are somehow less ‘intellectual’ than those who remain faithful to historicism and that only through scholastic dedication can opera survive—is a wildly naive philosophy to hold. Cultivating operatic acumen requires more than chronological knowledge, investigative research, or even documentational expertise, but rather a psychological connection to the composer’s way of life and to generate that Regieoper is best-suited. Within every score are the auditory echoes of a person and their ideological view of the world around them. Therefore, when viewing opera, to be presented simply the plot isn’t enough. A director must tap into personhood.
A question remains: who cares if an opera is modernized beyond recognition? As Hippocrates humorously said so long ago, “Ars longa, vita brevis”—Art is long, life is short. Both traditionalism and experimentalism have the same end goal: to get the audience “in the know” and to help them empathize with the operatic story. Once the composer is no longer able to mortally participate, their memory and intricate life story lives on in their work. It is therefore the job of directors of every artistic discipline to remain loyal to presenting the human experience of the creator, not just the story they created. First life, then plot I say!