Regietheater and the health of opera

[Posted 11:44 AM by James Panero]

All this past year I’ve been hearing rumors about, and anticipating, Heather Mac Donald’s essay on the state of opera, which she was preparing for City Journal. What would Peter Gelb do to the Metropolitan? Would the appointment of Gérard Mortier spell the end of City Opera?

Mac Donald’s article is now out in City Journal’s summer issue. Check it out. Here Heather looks at the rise of Regietheater, or "director’s theater," where opera directors attempt to ’sex up’ classic work. Consider some of these examples:

Gérard Mortier, City Opera’s incoming general manager and the current head of the Paris Opera, staged a Fledermaus at the Salzburg Festival that dragooned Johann Strauss’s delightful confection into service as a cocaine-, violence-, and sex-drenched left-wing “critique” of contemporary Austrian politics. An American tenor working in Germany remembers another Fledermaus with a large pink vagina in the center of the stage into which the singers dived. The innocent sea captain’s daughter, Senta, in the Vienna State Opera’s Flying Dutchman has posters of Che and Martin Luther King in her bedroom instead of a picture of the mysterious Dutchman, and burns herself to death with gasoline rather than jumping into the sea to meet her phantom beloved. Don Giovanni is almost invariably an offensive slob who masturbates and stuffs himself with junk food and drugs, surrounded by equally repellent psychotics, perverts, and sluts. (Operagoers can thank American director Peter Sellars for this tired convention.) Handel’s Romans and nobles come accessorized with machine guns, sunglasses, and video cameras, while jerking like rappers to delicate Baroque melodies.
I owe it to Brooke Allen for alerting me to this amusing headline in the Onion: "Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended." The Euro-trashing of culture is nothing new, and undoubtedly under Mortier, City Opera will now be just one addiitional outlet for Regietheater.

The greater question will be what now happens to the Met. Mac Donald gives the history of how the Metroplolitan Opera (under the direction of Joe Volpe and the conductor James Levine) had traditionally avoided the trappings of Regietheater:

The Met’s role as the guardian of opera integrity emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. As the abuse of composers’ intentions became more flagrant in Germany and then the rest of Europe, general manager Joseph Volpe deliberately separated the Met from the trend. “There was a conscious effort to avoid” Regietheater, says Joe Clark, the Met’s peerless technical manager. “The idea was to get the best possible director with the best musical sense. We weren’t always looking for traditional and realistic settings, but rather a realization that was musical and would show something appropriate to the opera.” Robert Wilson’s minimalist Lohengrin met that criterion as much as Zeffirelli’s opulent Turandot. Conductor James Levine, the most important music director in the Met’s history, is equally committed to fidelity to the music. “It is inspiring to work with a man who wants to put [an opera] on stage as the composer meant it,” Levine said recently, praising director Jack O’Brien’s staging of Puccini’s Il Trittico.
Mac Donald comes down with a generally optimistic appraisal of Gelb’s performance thus far (more optimistic than what I thought after seeing one of Gelb’s first initiatives, "Gallery Met," which Mac Donald also considers "one unequivocal aesthetic stumble." For more, see my Peter Gelb watch.)

Mac Donald concludes:

Gelb should remember that he is the guardian of a tradition that generations have built. That tradition approaches the magnificent works of the past with love and humility, recognizing our debt to them. The Met will remain a vital New York and world institution for another century if it allows those works to speak for themselves.
Looks like we’ll have to wait until the fat lady sings for the final assessment.