Munich Boris Two very erudite, sophisticated South American opera lover friends of mine have recently defended to me the work of Calixto Bieito, a Spanish director who not only brings opera into the present but frequently uses graphic images of sex and violence. The immediate subject was a Boris Godunov, described to me, in which allegedly Boris could have been Joseph Stalin at his cruelest. This despite the fact that Mussorgsky’s music and the text describe a Czar of almost infinite kindness, consumed by guilt for his means of coming to the throne. The description I read of this Boris, which I have not seen, reminded me of a Rusalka I attended in which the Waterman raped Rusalka’s sisters, tried to rape her, and in which the guests at the second-act party tore carcasses apart with their teeth, soaking their clothes in blood. A few years ago at the Komische Oper’sAbduction from the Seraglio, the same Bieito, not content with making Selim Pasha’s harem awash in prostitutes, has Constanze shoot herself at the comedy’s ending. It’s easy to say that this is just regietheatre direction, a kind of radical European approach to opera production by stage directors that is centered in Germany. But it can be found in more and more countries and is even suggested in some productions in what is thought of internationally as the ultra conservative United States.

TheBoris I read about could be justified, I suppose, because it carried out in modern terms how the director views the plot and the characters. If nothing specifically contradicts the words that are being sung, and the opera’s narrative is respected, shouldn’t directors follow their own vision? And if it might make the opera appeal more to the generation raised on violent films, television and video games, isn’t this enough reason? What is left out of this equation is the music the characters are singing. Does the music describe this violence? And what if the violence becomes an end in itself, more memorable than anything else in the production?

We want the young generation in the opera houses of the world. But are we looking for Violetta and Mimi to cough up blood and die gasping for breath (in the former case after the high B flat) as tubercular victims would have died in their time, or have Carmen bleed out her arterial blood when Jose stabs her?

Opera should never be a cool, emotionless art form that appeals only to the intellect. Its appeal has always been emotional and those who don’t like it often dislike it because it blatantly wears its heart on its sleeve. As a person who has been going to opera for seventy years and been involved professionally in the art form for almost a half century, I don’t think we create a new, young, involved audience by extreme or random violence. Opera is a musical art form, performed by artists who have extraordinarily well trained and very elegant instruments. If a composer composes an opera in 2014 that deals with violent sex, degradation, and all the base elements that one can imagine, as is the case with Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, for instance, and the music carries out the words, the stage should portray this. But in my opinion the score governs what is put onstage.

In many theaters today directors are more powerful than any singer or conductor. Whatever directors want, they get, and if they decide to turn any opera character into what they see this character might be in 2014, they do. I think the music and what the artists sing often fight against this. The Waterman in other words never sings a single word that suggests that he wants to have sex with Rusalka, much less rape her. Nor, as in one production I attended recently, should the “giocoso” (translated as comic) disappear from Don Giovanni, leaving the central character a totally evil, unattractive villain with none of the comic moments in both music and libretto realized.

The music and the words that inspired the opera’s music have to be heeded; rape, pulsing arteries, and graphic deaths might pull in some people for the scandal, but opera lives because the music details the emotions of the characters in addition to being memorable in itself. And opera thrives on great artists living these emotions in their singing.  Is the drama important? Yes, but it should carry out the spirit of the music and the words.

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  1. Carlo says

    Young people today can see as much violence and pornography as they want with a click of a mouse on their computers.

    Directors who add gratuitous violence and sex to opera productions think they are appealing to young people, but most young people laugh at these feeble attempts by old men to be “relevant.”

    And the opera companies that permit this are not attracting the new audiences that they claim to want.

  2. says

    Europeans have the opportunity to see opera so much more often than Americans that they like to see novel productions for the sake of variety. Some Reigietheater is ridiculous, but its categorical rejection by Americans is also a measure of their parochialism and the poverty of their opera landscape. When people have little chance to see opera, they want to see a traditional production. So put Zerlina in a Dirndle and have her milk the cow…

    Another aspect of Regietheater is that it is an attempt to revive a dying art form. When we become old our past becomes more and more of our life and our future plans correspondingly smaller. In the same way, when cultures are in the process of dying they become curatorial. The past glories of opera are maintained with a fervor motivated exactly by its lack of a future. The main body of the literature is a century and a half old, and getting older all the time. We premiere a lot of new operas, but they almost never enter the main repertoire. The reality of death stares us in the face, but we refuse to acknowledge it. Opera is wonderful, so its hard to blame its fans for their false hopes.

    And even more, we become like the old man in tennis shoes defiantly refusing to go into that good night. We claim a vital embrace of life exactly because we are facing death. Our ironic challenge of fate is watched with ironic sadness by the young. Put some video in the production, build an elaborate Ring Machine alla Cirque du Soleil, demand that the sopranos be hot babes, take the plots from CNN. And then like the Met, fall in the gutter wheezing from over- exertion.

    Art that is alive doesn’t have to consider strategies for its future. It needs no Regietheater updates. It needs no Viagra. It can’t stop its fertility. Like viral teenagers in the backseat of a car, it risks formulating the future even when it’s not trying too.

    It is thus healthy that opera, wonderful as it is, is dying. The health of humanity is that its cultures continue to evolve. When they don’t, they die. So can we live up to the challenge of creating new forms of music theater more relevant to our time in their themes, modes of expression, styles, and economics? Will this happen in our opera houses, or are they so cumbersome and ossified that the future will happen elsewhere? In addition to their mains stages, Europeans houses almost always have smaller venues to explore new forms of music theater. Not one of America’s established houses has a smaller venue. Thoughts welcome. Or are we too dead to have any…

    • Carlo says

      Ah, yes, paint over the old masters in the art museums. We need new forms of art, not that dying art form.

      As for me, I go to the METropolitan museum of opera so see the old masters in (mostly) traditional productions.

    • Brian Bailey says

      Since you appear to categorically reject the proposition that Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner and other past masters (or, as the Left loves to put it, DWEMs, Dead White European Males) and their eternal songs of love, death, and human existence can have any relevance in the 21st century, what is the point of discussion? Even more frightening what an indictment of contemporary culture and mores that we have apparently become zombies, indifferent to the messages of the greatest creators in history. Opera is not dying, but too many people are dead inside. Yet I reject your assessment. As Speight says, people go to hear Traviata and Tristan, not because they are clothed in the latest Regie Konzept (sometimes more about the director than the composer) but because the works speak to them on the deepest level of existence. String quartets in helicopters and other circus acts are no substitute for genuine creativity.

    • says

      In fact, this Bieito production of Boris, WHICH I HAVE SEEN (it’s on Blu-Ray, so it’s not like you have to travel halfway across the world) includes one of the tenderest and most gently sympathetic interpretations of the role of Boris imaginable. And — here’s the amazing part — Bieito has coaxed this beautiful and detailed portrayal from the 36 year old Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk, not only in his first Boris ever, but in fact, the first real star role he had done in any major theater.

      In this production, Boris is a modern ruler of an unstable state who (we are led to believe) is forced to make hard, ugly choices out of fear of chaos. In fact the very sweetness of his nature, his basic benevolence, turns out to be a sort of Achilles’ heel as he is manipulated by Shuisky and the unscrupulous, power-hungry boyars. His dramatic arc is set against a backdrop of really hideous violence (e.g., a little girl blowing the Holy Fool’s brains out with a revolver) to demonstrate just how difficult the task of ruling really is.

      This is all right there on the stage if you bother to look at it.

    • Keri Davies says

      Mozart said nothing of the sort. There’s a theatrical entertainment by Salieri called “Prima la musica e poi le parole” but I think the expression is older than that. In any case it represents only half of the question with “Prima le parole dopo la musica” the balancing counter statement. The point is discussed at length in Richard Strauss’ “Capriccio” and properly left unresolved.

    • Neil McGowan says

      “Prima la musica, dopo le parole”. Mozart said this. Can we add,”And thirdly the director”?

      Of course you can. You can say whatever nonsense you like. Stay home with your hiss-pop recordings of grandi voci from bygone eras. Theatre isn’t for you.

      • Brian Bailey says

        You are wrong. Mozart said that in opera, the words must be the obedient daughter of the music. If that isn’t prima la musica, I don’t know what it. And I would bet that were he around today he would assert that in opera, the production, must likewise be the obedient daughter of the music. And the greatest directors have always taken that as their starting point.

  3. David Hall-Sundqust says

    I was an interpreter (Opera Singer) of some of the greatest lyric tenor roles out there, (over 50) from “Almaviva” to “Hoffmann” and “Werther”. I was lucky not to have to do some bastardized version of BOHEME, COZI, ABDUCTION, ONEGIN, and the like…..but I witnessed enough of it being dropped on the faithful Opera goer in Europe an the United Sates. When this happens with a brand new piece…ok…. but leave my masterpieces alone or I just might do something drastic. I have performed in Chicago,, New York, Vienna, San Francisco, Santa Fe,, Paris, among others . I performed only one time at the MET and that was for the Opera Guild on the Mezzanine with Maestro Ignace Strasfogel. And shortly thereafter we went to Strasbourg, France.

      • Brian Bailey says

        I am tempted to say GIS as it is one of the most famous quotations from any of Mozart’s letters; but
        Letter to his father Leopold” October 13, 1781
        He wrote to his father (13 October 1781):

        I would say that in an opera the poetry must be altogether the obedient daughter of the music. Why are Italian comic operas popular everywhere – in spite of the miserable libretti? … Because the music reigns supreme, and when one listens to it all else is forgotten. An opera is sure of success when the plot is well worked out, the words written solely for the music and not shoved in here and there to suit some miserable rhyme … The best thing of all is when a good composer, who understands the stage and is talented enough to make sound suggestions, meets an able poet, that true phoenix; in that case, no fears need be entertained as to the applause – even of the ignorant.

        Now I know the reason for your online sobriquet. Cieca indeed.

    • Theodore McGuiver says

      @David – It doesn’t generally happen with new works as their story can be told normally and without recourse to ‘regietheater’ makeovers.

  4. Stephanie Rogers says

    Hear, hear! I absolutely agree with you. Nothing annoys me more than the action on stage contradicting the music and/or the libretto. Next in line, is messing with the translation by omission or addition to enable the director’s concept. Ptui! Thank you!

  5. says

    By failing to Include creative stage directors in the world-wide effort to renew opera, American opera has continued its slide to irrelevance. An.entire generation of innovators have created a whole new audience in Europe; an audience younger, larger and more engaged in opera. The older generation of innovators (some were Americans like Robert Wilson and Peter Sellers) have now given way to the next and opera continues to grow in Europe. Opera, now available on broadcast media and the internet, has never been more visible, available or exciting. To bad most Americans can’t join in.

    • Brian Bailey says

      Care to provide some statistics to back up your assertion? Opera houses in Italy are in dire straits. Audiences are dwindling to the point that RAI almost never televises opera except on tape delay in the wee small hours. Opera in Italy is, if anything, less popular than it is in the States.

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