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‘Half a million’ read Maazel’s attack on Regieoper

Here’s the maestro’s latest message on his Facebook page:




THE FALLOUT – Opera Staging Madness

I’m told some half a million people have read my comments carrying the title ‘Opera Staging Madness.’

Many people are grateful for the voice given their frustrations and disaffection. Most revealing are the comments I have received from singers who have borne the brunt of the excesses of stage directors.

Singers devote their lives to an art form that to a great degree depends for its very survival on that devotion. Much too often, they are ‘directed’ by stage directors who are insensitive to an important element in the Gesamtkunstwerk called opera, the music, are ignorant of the historical frame of the plot and disrespect the genius of both librettist and composer. Second-guessing Da Ponte or Verdi can only lead to a futile flailing about.

General Managers must seek to reinforce the art form of which they are caretakers by engaging those who believe in it. Every art form, to survive, must be refreshed by innovative, truly inventive approaches. One need not desecrate it in the process.

So many readers feel disenfranchised by the inept and inappropriate staging. They are happy to hear that the audience does have the last say. The abused casts would so welcome the singers’ true voice being heard .

So…don’t be reticent.
If you feel seeing Desdemona urinate doesn’t help you better to comprehend the subtleties of her spirit, speak up on YouTube, walk out (quietly), tell your friends. If you find seeing Don Jose’ playing a video game as he blow-torches Carmen doesn’t give you a deeper insight into his mindset, speak out on Twitter, walk out (quietly), tell your friends.

Good luck.

Opera needs your help…and soon!

-Lorin Maazel

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  1. Amen!

  2. David Foulger says:

    If people stopped booking for opera performances with directors who play havoc with the plot, then opera managements would soon change. Most book to see the stars, the singers, and have to put up with what the stage director imposes. But I am fed up with having to sit through operas in expensive seats with my eyes shut, and no longer book if I have disliked that directors work in the past. OK I miss some fine singing, but I would rather listen to the broadcast.

    • Random Person says:

      “If people stopped booking for opera performances with directors who play havoc with the plot, then opera managements would soon change. Most book to see the stars, the singers, and have to put up with what the stage director imposes.”

      Indeed. A lot of people book to see Mr Springsteen, or Mr Robert Willians, or Messrs Jagger and Richards, purveyors of riffs to the gentry. The critical difference is that Mr Springsteen and his sort can do precisely what they want on stage, because the financial transaction is that tickets are bought, and shows are staged. Mr Springsteen might play songs best know as rollicking electric anthems as mournful acoustic folk numbers, or might play obscure outtakes only known from bootlegs, or might invite heavy metal guitarists onstage to tear through a few numbers. Some people in the audience might walk out, some people might decide that they need to see every show on a tour to catch all the variations: all of that’s strictly a matter between the Boss, his audience and his bank manager. No individual purchases enough tickets to demand anything.

      None of that’s true for European opera. The gate receipts pay only a tiny fraction of the costs, and a substantial majority of the funding comes from government bodies, sometimes arms’ length, sometimes rather less distant. Those funding bodies have an agenda, and as they are paying the bills, that agenda can be enforced. If opera as an artform doesn’t like that, it can decline the subsidy: I wonder how well that would work out? But government funding bodies have a tendency, especially in Germany, to approve of a certain sort of academic art with some fairly predictable tropes. The price opera pays for not being able to raise enough money at the gate is that the government, having paid not just the pipers but also most of the rest of the cast, gets to call the tune.

  3. James Brinton says:

    I’m with Maazel.
    The Nazi Tannhäuser is only the latest in a long line of productions that have done more harm than good to the form. I still remember that hideous Ring staged a generation ago as a metaphor of battle between capitalism and socialism, with Wotan as evil oligarch and the Rhine constipated by a hydroelectric dam.
    While some experimental stagings are useful, it often seems that their motto is often “the more tasteless the better.” If the idea is to attract an audience, why mount productions that leave watchers vowing never to return?
    Contrary to what certain central-European managers and directors think, it is possible to present remarkable stagings that respect the form. For example, the Met’s La Bohème and Turandot, both staged by Zeffirelli capitalized the G in grand opera. And 2011′s Enchanted Island showed that it’s possible to mix the latest stagecraft with baroque idiom and form to produce something joyful to watch and respectful of music centuries old.
    I have the sneaking suspicion that if Desdemona is urinating, or Don Jose is flaming Carmen, it’s due to a stunning lack of taste and creativity, or an active desire to degrade opera in favor of something “modern.”
    I suppose that the barbarians riding through Rome, burning temples and knocking the noses off statues, also felt they were clearing a path to some kind of future.
    Personally, I’d rather man the walls beside Maestro Maazel.

    • Theodore McGuiver says:

      …George Bernard Shaw interprets the Ring in Marxian terms as an allegory of the collapse of capitalism from its internal contradictions…

      The Perfect Wagnerite by George Bernard Shaw.

      So Patrice Chéreau wasn’t the only one.

      • James Brinton says:

        True. But Shaw was literate and far better informed.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        All these, and many other interpretations are valid because they are contained in the substance of the work. But that doesn’t mean that a director has to deliver his particular interpretation to the audience like a pie in the face.

        Wagner set the Ring in a distant mythical time and place because he wanted it to be a more general, universal, timeless comment on the mechanisms of power, hubris, betrayal etc. In his time, they pictured that mythical past in a way which for us now looks very un-mythical and un-timeless but rather like very dated 19th century kitsch. That imagery is also linked to the nationalist mythology of the time which again makes it very dated and linked to that particular period in time, silly and stuffy rather than anything mythical and universal.

        So we can not stage the Ring in that way anymore. And I think we all get that. If the music and the plot itself weren’t universal and timeless, we wouldn’t even bother with these operas at all anymore. The challenge for the director is to find a way to bring them on the stage and “update” them in a way which doesn’t reduce the universal message to a narrow contemporary commentary, just like staging them in a “traditional” way would reduce them to a piece of outdated kitsch.

        The idea of “Regietheater” as such is not bad at all, it’s supposedly a step forward from the kind of opera direction, or lack of direction, in which the singers just stand around and sets which are just elaborate frames in which the singers can just stand around. Good active directing can enhance the music and its meaning, it can offer interpretations and elaborate on the plot, but what a lot of those directors do now is not even bother to develop a nuanced concept from the substance of the opera. Most of the Regietheater I have seen is the opposite of what it could be – far from inventive, far from subtle, it just recycles the same now very tired pseudo-relevant forceful modernization of the subject matter and shoves it in your face.

  4. Do most of these celebrity directors even know anything about opera, let alone classical music?

    I don’t think so– it’s a prestige gig for them at best. They think they’re just so creative now that it’s their right to barge in on real creativity.

  5. He sounds like a old man on a rant. What exactly is he talking about? We can all agree with this statement:
    “General Managers must seek to reinforce the art form of which they are caretakers by engaging those who believe in it. Every art form, to survive, must be refreshed by innovative, truly inventive approaches. One need not desecrate it in the process.”
    But Is he talking about innovators like Wieland Wagner, Patrice Chereau, or more recent directors? Without samples of what he thinks are good and bad, he gives the impression that he hates all but traditional productions.

  6. Hey Maestro don’t forget to tell that rapscallion Wolfgang that his new piece has too many notes! “Caretakers”?!? is opera really so decrepit and senile that it needs to be eased onto its death bed without loud noises or controversy?

    Clearly there are still enough good stagings going on that people are attending. And in some ways its nice to see that art elicits strong opinions rather than simple contentment and boredom. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and smear more fake elephant dung onto Tosca’s dress. Sorry, that was a joke. It’s real elephant dung. Fake excrement is so 1983. Also, it really interferes with the acoustic and we wouldn’t want that now, would we?

  7. Gerhard says:

    Whether some staging is “Regietheater” or not has little to do with the question if there has been an change in the social or historic setting of the plot. IMHO it all depends on whether there is sufficient respect and understanding for the opera as a MUSICAL art form above everything else. “Prima la musica, poi le parole” may be a hard concept to swallow for directors who have little personal musical background, but it is nevertheless the basis of the whole art.

    So if you are a director, and your opera staging starts with the notion that the story told by the musical score is of no real importance, because it stems from a libretto of rather doubtful literary and intellectual quality, which makes it your task as a director to change as much of the plot as possible in order to turn it into relevant and meaningful art, you have already found an entrance into the realm of “Regietheater”. If you then further believe that your directing is the only true artistic reason for the whole production, and it is on the other hand your holy duty to come up with something that nobody else has done in this piece before (a hard one, because these days obviously not only the good and sensible ideas have been used far more than once), you are already on firm grounds in this world. So you will probably find applause and support among the people who really matter, which are the theater directors, the dramaturgs (if you work in central Europe), and the brilliant opera reviewers who try to be always at the cutting edge (and seriously, only these reviewers matter, of course). By consequence you will most likely be offered more possibilities to stage operas elsewhere. But if you want to boost your success further with the people that matter, you should consider your audience as well. It goes without saying that these are just a bunch of mindless philistines with no understanding of artistic creativity at all. So the biggest danger for your reputation is that they might actually LIKE your staging. This would equal instant social death in the circles that matter, and has to be avoided at all cost. Luckily this can be achieved quite easily, and if you consistently take care to make sure the audience hates your productions, you have reached the summit of “Regietheater”.

    Of course, there are other and better ways to approach opera, and thanks and kudos to Mr. Maazel for lending his prominent voice to all who are sick and tired with some of the prevailing attitudes in today’s opera staging.

    • harold braun says:

      Thanks not only to Maestro Maazel,but also to Gerhard for giving so many of us a voice;musicians and singers who have been trained and devote their lives to meet the standards of these masterworks,and who are treated like a pile of filth by musical ignoramuses who openly state their disrespect for and boast themselves to know nothing about not only the opera they are supposed to “direct”,but often about classical music in general.We,for fear of being sacked,often cannot speak out our feelings and humilation.

  8. Random Person says:

    So what is that Maazel wants? Does he think there is an audience for opera sufficiently dedicated that it wants to watch what amount to the same production, year after year, with only the singers changing, D’Oyly Carte style? Does he want to replace one auteur (the director) with another (the conductor) and hope that matters improve? Does he want an opera commissar, or Lord Chamberlain, or the Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur to check productions for degenerate influences? What?

    Because without a manifesto, it boils down to “there should be more productions like the ones I like, and fewer like the ones I don’t”, which is hardly useful. Aside from anything else, a glance around any opera house or symphony hall shows that in twenty to thirty years’ time, the whole classical music industry will be playing to virtually empty houses, so the tastes of old men are hardly the issue.

  9. operalvr says:

    There is a story about Sir Thomas Beecham conducting a performance of Aida, with elephants. One of them shat while onstage. Beecham kept going, saying to the principal players in front of him: “Good critic!” – whether Beecham referred to the musical or production aspect of the show, or both, I do not know. Neither whether the story is true or not. So non e vero, e ben trovato…:-)

    • A horse that shat, not an elephant. Beecham said: What an artist…… (pause)….. And what a critic!

    • James Brinton says:

      Back when there was an Opera Company of Boston, overseen by Sarah Caldwell, this actually happened.
      She mounted a production of Aida, borrowed a baby elephant for the Triumphal March scene and the elephant did what elephants do. The rest of the participants marched around the do, there was a brief break for clean-up and the show went on. As I recall, the elephant got good reviews.

  10. American musician in New York says:

    A great modern production: Madama Butterfly at the MET.

    A terrible modern production: Tosca at the MET.

    So yes, opera productions can be modernized, but the director must understand the music.

  11. Nicholas Oppenheim says:

    Re: the Beecham story, I always understood it was the donkey in L’Elisir d’Amore charged with dragging on stage Dulcamara’s waggon which misbehaved on stage and Beecham was heard to say to his orchestra ‘You see gentlemen not only an artist but a critic too.’

  12. Theodore McGuiver says:

    I’m sure you all know the following list, but here it is again, just in case there’s someone who’s missed it:

    How To Opera Germanly

    We were able to trace the origin of this delicious bit back to a 2002 Opera-L posting, but its original author — “an American singer-director who prefers to remain anonymous for the sake of possible future employment” — still remains a mystery. We’ve added to the original list several contributions made by various members of the Google Groups Wagner newsgroup (items 27, 28, and 29 as well as elaborations of items 17, 18, and 22) that seemed appropriate.

    Following (with some minor editing by us), the delicious bit sans further comment.

    1) The director is the most important personality involved in the production. His vision must supersede the requirements of the composer and librettist, the needs of singers, and especially the desire of the audience, those overfed fools who want to be entertained and moved.

    2) The second most important personality is the set designer.

    3) Comedy is verboten except when unintentional. Wit is for TV-watching idiots.

    4) Great acting is hyperintensity with much rolling about on the ground, groping of walls, and sitting on a bare floor.

    5) The audience’s attention must be directed to 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.

    6) Storytelling is always anathema to the modern director just as realistic, “photographic” painting is to the abstract painter. Don’t tell the story. COMMENT on it! Even better, UNDERMINE it!

    7) When singing high notes, the singer must be crumpled over, lying down, or facing the back of the stage.

    8) The music must stop once in a while for intense, obscure miming.

    9) Sexual scenes must be charmless and aggressive. Rolling on the floor a must here.

    10) Unmotivated homosexual behavior must be introduced into the staging of the opera at least a few times no matter that it has no relevance to the opera.

    11) Happy endings are intellectually bankrupt. Play the opposite. Insert a sudden murder or rape somewhere if at all possible no matter that it has no place in the opera.

    12) Avoid entertaining the audience at all costs. If they boo, your vision has succeeded artistically.

    13) Rehearse the performance until it’s dead. Very important.

    14) 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.)

    15) The audience must not know when to applaud or when the scene/act ends.

    16) Historical atrocities such as the Holocaust or the AIDS epidemic must be incorporated and exploited as much as possible. Also, the lifestyle of the audience must be mocked.

    17) Colors are merely decorative. Black, white and gray only! If you must have color, let it be garish eye-watering primaries in huge blocks, Toytown style. And with vast coarse flowery prints for the costumes — and something bolder for the women. (Under the trench coats, of course. See article 18.)

    18) The chorus must be bald, sexless, faceless and in trench coats. The ideal is a line-up of devitalized Uncle Festers. For a court audience or other aristos (axiomatically boorish sneering decadents, especially if the music implies otherwise) tail-coats are permissible, as are crowns, provided they are jagged card circlets.

    19) If the audience is bored it’s proof positive that this is art.

    20) Props are items of junk piled in a corner of the set. They must be overused pointlessly, then dropped on the floor, loudly. Best done when the music is soft so as to call attention to it. Be careful to keep dangerous objects at the lip of the stage so the blindfolded dancers can kick them into the pit.

    21) All asides must be sung next to the person who is not supposed to hear them.

    22) 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. This is already a fundamental Brechtian technique to conceal a) the limited range endemic to actors being ideologically sound, and b) the stereotypical nature of agitprop material. Less obvious if delivered by a stereotype where it can then be called stylization, and hailed as genius.

    23) Preparation is important for the director. Try to read the libretto in advance to make sure it doesn’t interfere with your staging ideas. Not much harm in listening to the CD once, though that’s not really your job.

    24) Make the conductor feel useful though he’s really nothing but a literal-minded hack.

    25) The stage director must avoid any idea that is not his own. (This instruction is largely pointless as that idea is surely implied in this list already.)

    26) A costume must serve at least two of the following criteria: a) make the singer look unattractive, b) obscure his vision, c) make hearing the orchestra difficult, d) impede movement, or e) contradict the period in which the opera is set (that last hardly worth mentioning).

    27) Every once in a while, try to compensate for generating trash at the taxpayer’s expense by producing an “opera for children.” Nothing difficult here. Just have The Magic Flute performed around midafternoon by mediocre singers in an inappropriate setting, in a translocated staging, and by altering the story which you’ve determined is anything but suitable for children.

    28) Hire your singers in the largest size possible, making every love scene look like a parody. Act surprised when no-one likes it, and afterwards declare in front of the press that contemporary audiences just don’t connect with opera anymore, and that, further, more modernizing productions are needed.

    29) Include references to Nazis or Nazi atrocities, directly or by way of suggestion or metaphor. This is de rigueur no matter how non sequitur.

  13. “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones” John Cage

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      “It’s great to try out new ideas. But not every new idea is automatically a great idea.”
      Michael Schaffer

      • Actually I think the fear is the point here – I see a lot of fear in this thread, and not many ideas.

        • Gerhard says:

          I, on the other hand, see very little fear but a lot of annoyance.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          Like I said, not every good idea is automatically a good idea, and automatically rejecting any criticism of bad new ideas as “fear of new ideas” itself is a very, very old idea. It’s one of those old ideas one should be “frightened” by because it is automated and uncritical knee-jerk thinking. Just dropping an old quote by John Cage isn’t exactly contributing any bold new ideas that people might be “frightened” by either.

          Funny, I just looked at your blog and saw the interesting post about that “Moses in Egypt” in NY in which you seem to lament exactly the same phenomenon – that there are far too few real directors out there these days. BTW, the pictures and description of that production do look and sound very interesting, and while I obviously can not judge it from those few bits of information, it does look to me like the director came up with some actual new and coherent ideas rather than just doing the typical Regietheater thing. Which in this case could also have been to simply set the story in a concentration camp, make the pharaoh an SS officer blablabla. Make it really probing and provocative blablabla. Instead, it seems that the director and his costume designer have made an effort to create something really new, developed out of the context of the material. You write: “The effect was supported by Jessica Jahn’s costumes, which themselves riffed on history and memory to make the ancient new.” Which is exactly what I wrote above about how I think mythological subjects like The Ring should be approached.

          • Thanks for taking the time to read my blog, Michael, and for the nice comments.

            I decided to weigh in here because of exactly what you pointed out. I do indeed lament the lack of stage auteurs in opera, in America at least. At the end of the blog post you read, I mention a knee-jerk tendency to label any kind of adventurous staging as ‘Eurotrash’, which is something that seems to run deep here in New York among some influential operagoers, and which I believe has stifled the possibility of developing good, adventurous stage directors. And Maazel’s stance epitomizes this tendency, and reinforces that vicious circle.

            I actually really like Regietheater. When I lived in Berlin, I saw phenomenal productions of Tannhäuser at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden and of Don Carlos at Deutsche Oper that were far richer and more multi-dimensional than the productions I see here in New York. Plus, they bore no resemblance to what’s being maligned on this thread. The theater in Germany was astonishingly good, too – Marthaler’s production of Tales of the Vienna Woods at the Volksbühne was a revelation, and I saw a fantastic Sorrows of Young Werther in a warehouse in Frankfurt. Not all Regietheater I saw was as good – Johann Kresnik’s Masked Ball in Erfurt was imbalanced – and its controversial use of a Nazi salute an unnecessary distraction – and a Calixto Bieito production at Komische Oper was a dispiriting dud. But, really, nothing to get hot under the collar about, and the exceptions rather than the rule.

            I recently heard an interview on OK Radio with Heiner Goebbels (#59, in which he gives an eloquent and very lucid account of his approach to working on the stage – he’d just directed an awe-inspiring production of Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2 for the Ruhtriennale, of which he was also artistic director – but also said something that really surprised me. Which was that the critical response to his Ruhrtriennale programming was not very positive, and he had the sense that the Ruhr audiences had felt threatened (or, shall we say, fearful?).

            I, on the other hand, felt utterly at home there. The week I spent at the Ruhrtriennale was hands down the best experience I’ve ever had at a festival. One night, Robert Wilson was reading John Cage. Both text and staging were confrontational, and the first half did require a bit of stamina and negotiation. But the second half bloomed nicely – our heads had been ventilated. I ended up entranced by this rare meeting of the minds of two artistic giants of New York. One audience member didn’t get that far – twenty minutes in he stormed out, yelling at the stage as he did. Those around him politely made way, and let him let off his steam. But you just can’t help feeling that he sold himself and those around him short. He just couldn’t be bothered to put in the kind of imaginative work that theater and opera on that level demands of its audiences.

            And that’s the problem I have with Maazel’s intolerance. There are certainly bad opera productions out there trying out new ideas. But no way is the Regietheater I’ve seen as bad as he makes out. But if it really must be this kind of confrontation of old ideas with new ones, I’m throwing in my lot with the new.

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