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How to save opera from rogue directors, by Lorin Maazel

The venerable maestro has published two diatribes on his Facebook Maestro page against the spread of radical Regieoper. As director of the Vienna Opera in the early 1980s, Maazel’s producers of choice were Hal Prince and Ken Russell. Here are his criticisms of current trends. And here below is his solution. It’s up to the audience, he says, to vote with its feet against irrelevant trends and directions.

He has illustrated the article, for some reason, with a picture of the Sydney Opera House. We wonder why.

sydney opera

Opera Staging Madness (Part Three)

by Lorin Maazel

What can be done to safeguard an endangered art form?

If it is believed that an opera audience can be cowed into tolerating any abuse of text and music for fear of seeming to be old-fashioned, conservative, recidivist (who wants to be thought of as not with it, not up to speed, uncool), the manipulators, axe-grinders and mafiosi, given a free hand, cheerfully assault the art form.

One of the challenges for an opera house General Manager is to sell out the house. The ultimate say-so rests with the audience. If their beloved world of opera is being degraded and ridiculed (not too long ago. a stage director who publicly derided the art form of opera, staged one, with the cast dressed as monkeys), what to do? Boo? Certainly not.
The singers and musicians do their best under trying circumstances and their work should be respected.

What then?

Follow the example of a gentleman who, after the First act of a Shakespeare play presented at an international festival
and directed by someone who proudly said he had never read one and engaged non-professionals to “act”, stood up and said in a ringing voce “George, let’s go”. All but thirty people left the theater.

You won’t get your money back but if the General Manger reads on Facebook often enough that the Opera House he/she is managing is losing its audience, he/she will soon change course.

Another suggested action is pre-emptive in nature:
if you read that a new production at your favorite opera house will be given of La Boheme set in a Nepalese fish market with the Sex Pistols in the orchestra pit conducted by Sarah Palin, don’t go.

- Lorin Maazel

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  1. Oleg Sherstiucoff says:

    Bravo !
    But I am confused – I mean really – indeed I am.

  2. Productions (as with new music) can take awhile to settle so perhaps better not to take too much heed of the audience reaction.
    The Patrice Chereau production of the Ring Cycle is now regarded as something of a landmark but wasn’t liked much at the first showing.
    For example, Sviatoslav Richter (who was by no means narrow-minded) described it as pretentious, and a hotchpotch of ideas.

  3. I was hoping for something with more substance Mr. Maazel, though his amateur status as a stage director makes his superficiality forgivable.

    He suggests that librettists be honored, but does not mention that many librettos are known for their superficiality, obvious errors and inconsistency. Libretto writing has never been a very honored, because texts are very subservient to music in almost all operas. By the 20th century, the librettist’s art had become so demeaned that it essentially ceased to exist as an art form. For all practical purposes, it became synonymous with mediocrity.

    Describing Regietheater as directors working out their psychological problems is ridiculous, and akin to the name-calling Mr. Maazel resorts to later: “the manipulators, axe-grinders and mafiosi, given a free hand, cheerfully assault the art form.” His argument that people accept Regietheater merely to appear informed is also surprisingly superficial.

    There has been a lot of bad Regietheater, but Mr. Maazel fails to mention there are also Regietheater stagings that have been very successful and popular with audiences. Last week I saw the premiere of “La Cenerentola” in Lucerne. It was a Regietheater production. Cinderella runs an ice cream wagon in a place something like an Italian-American community in Brooklyn. The action is centered around a ping-pong championship. This was all worked out in an ingenious and hilarious manner that delighted the audience. There were repeated ovations at the end in rhythmic applause.

    The problems of Regietheater are worth discussion, but not pseudo-intellectual remarks like Mr. Maazel’s. It’s fitting they were posted on Facebook.

    I’ll stick my neck out and mention that I have a 5000 word essay on my website that discusses the history and problems of writing music theater texts. I explain my theories of chamber music theater and provide a video to illustrate them. All can be found here – scroll down for the essay:

    • Halldor says:

      “By the 20th century, the librettist’s art had become so demeaned that it essentially ceased to exist as an art form. For all practical purposes, it became synonymous with mediocrity”

      And here was me thinking that the 20th century was the one in which Hofmannsthal, Cocteau, W H Auden, Colette, E M Forster, Stefan Zweig, Gertrude Stein, Bertholt Brecht, Russell Hoban and Thornton Wilder all wrote libretti…

      • It’s true that some of these authors wrote fantastic librettos. Auden’s for The Rake’s Progress might be even better than the opera itself – which is extremely rare. And I especially adore Collete’s libretto for L’enfant.

        But I do not think these authors revived the art form, or changed the view of most authors that librettos were so secondary to the music that they were not worth the effort – a problem exacerbated by the loss of opera’s position in society in general. Wilder’s ambivalence might be taken as an example. He turned down requests from even Bernstein and Copland, and Our Town was adapted by J. D. McClatchy after Wilder was no longer around to stop it.

        The authors you mention are concentrated in the earlier part of the century. One could also consider all of the operas written later whose librettos were so weak because good authors wouldn’t write for the composers. I think composers from Berio to Ligetti to Adams suffered from this.

        All the same, your stellar list provides useful perspective.

        • @William I’d agree that the craft of libretto-writing took a nose-dive in the second half of the twentieth century – but I’d argue, slightly paradoxically, that this was due to librettos being taken too seriously rather than not seriously enough. Any creative partnership requires accommodation on both sides – but as you say, traditionally, the words have taken a secondary role in opera. With that constraint understood, craftsmen like Scribe and Metastasio were able to produce work that – by the standards demanded of it – was of a high and consistent quality, ideally suited to its purpose.

          The modern problem has, in my view, two roots. Firstly, in the modern era, new operas are not produced in sufficient quantity, or frequently enough for a librettist to learn and hone their craft ( though one field where that has to some extent been the case, has been in commercial music theatre). Secondly, “serious” composers (perhaps aware of the historic stigma attached to libretti; the conventional view – often deeply wrong, in my opinion – that many great operas have absurd plots or texts and are redeemed only by their music) have increasingly turned to “serious” writers (including many of those I’ve listed above). These writers, often unwittingly, have then tended to over-write; the composers have lacked either the dramatic sense or the confidence to insist on the compromises necessary.

          I’ve seen contemporary operas where lovers stand motionless and deliver lectures about the environment to each other, where everyday activities are discussed in lengthy and complex metaphors, where all the leading characters are abstract archetypes (“The General” “The Child” “The Traveller” etc), and where the librettist – a famous literary novelist – was billed above the hapless composer. Libretto writing requires an art that conceals art; it requires an instinctive sense of drama, and of the relationship of words to music, and above all, it requires a practical craftsmanship that isn’t always available to writers – even great writers – who are used to working on no-one’s terms but their own.

          • I agree. It’s nice to correspond with someone with an informed view. People overlook, for example, how perfectly suited Da Ponte’s librettos were to Mozart’s work, or what a fine job Boito did of adapting Othello and Falstaff for Verdi. (How odd that Boito’s libretto for his own opera, Mefistofele, seems to have major structural flaws.) Even the librettos written for Rossini’s perfectly complimented his concept of music and theater. Libretto writing is a very specialized art, and as you say, one that is essentially lost. I think this loss accounts more for the demise of opera than any compositional or social concerns. In many ways, Regietheater is merely a symptom of a dying art form.

            For 500 years Western culture has aspired to fully integrate words and music, but no one has ever succeeded. Even though the bel canto voice is one of the greatest achievments of the human mind, it often limits the intelligibility of words. It can also constrain some kinds of theatrical development. This in in turn can severly limit integral concepts of music theater, which pushes writers away from the genre.

            If we are to accommodate words and theater in equal proportion to music, it seems that our concepts of music theater will need to be reinvented from the ground up, including our methods of singing, our design of theaters, and our notational systems for music. It would also require massive changes in the way we educate singers and instrumentalists.

    • Gurnemanz says:

      “He suggests that librettists be honored, but does not mention that many librettos are known for their superficiality, obvious errors and inconsistency.”

      So is the average Hollywood film dialogue, but you don’t see calls to re-shoot “The Terminator” which would feature as a story of a modern-day pope sending a killer back in time to slay Martin Luther’s mother before she gives birth to him. (I hope I didn’t give any ideas to some nutty screenwriter/director wannabe).

  4. Bravo Maestro!

  5. In the US, a lot of people in the arts are of the belief that the government support many opera houses in Europe enjoy is an impediment to quality productions because there’s far less sense of responsibility toward the audience and current/potential donors who theoretically are paying for it all. If ticket sales and private donations are only a small fraction of your budget, you don’t need to worry about appealing to anybody except yourself. This is probably a gross oversimplification, but let’s not forget that for every article complaining about auteur directors and their terrible productions, there’s another article bemoaning “populism” and “corporatization” in the arts whereby organizations (gasp) actually try to appeal to a large audience.

    • Well, here in Europe a lot of people, me included, think that the lack of government funding for opera in the US is an impediment to opera as such. And be assured that at any government funded European opera house, a decline of ticket sales is a serious problem for the management as well and will cause appropriate reactions by those responsible for the funding.

      • I’m not saying it wouldn’t be nice if government agencies in the US supported the arts to a greater degree, especially in dire situations. But there is a funding model here that, while challenging, works relatively well. Ticket sales are usually more than 1/3 of your income. How often is that the case in European institutions? If my organization got twice as much money from the government as it does now, that would be pretty great. But 60% or more of our budget? I dunno if that’s a healthy way to fund the arts. And Europe and the US are both pretty susceptible to government bureaucrats coming in and saying “time for huge cuts to this budget.” In the US, that could mean losing half of a $50,000 grant. Generally not losing 2/3 of your entire budget.

        • Neither am I saying that the European (or, in my case, German) model is perfect. And yes, there is the constant threat of budget retrenchment especially in times of financial crisis. However, I suppose you won’t tell me that economic crises don’t affect (private) funding of American inttitutions, just take the Lehman shock.

          Some advantages of the German model in my view (I suppose it’s more or less similar in many other European countries):
          - It provides for regular quality opera (and concert, theatre etc.) performances throughout the whole country, even in smaller cities such as Würzburg, Koblenz or Kiel (none of these cities has more than 150k inhabitants).
          - It provides for ticket prices accessible to lower middle class and working class audiences, too.
          - It is untrue that there is no dependence on ticket sales. Roughly spoken, every government supported institution must aim at an average ticket sales volume of above 80%. In case of a decline, the responsible politicians tend to react quickly. However, this model allows for one or two experiemntal/contemporary productions per year (with a usually much lower sales volume) to be compensated by a sold out Aida or Traviata series.
          - The companies here might be dependent on goverment support. This, however, is usually relatively constant. On the other hand, many people here (me included) believe that American companies are too dependent on a realtively small number of big donors with a homogeneous, conservative taste. So there is little room for innovation, not only regarding staging but also concerning contemporary works.

          • Cordelia says:

            To follow up Simon’s statement, please read this link:

            If you don’t read German, I’ve translated the most important points for you:
            “A study conducted by the arts consultancy “actori” into the effects of financing structure on the programming of 15 internationally leading opera houses revealed that what is artistically on offer is more diverse and more innovative the bigger the part of the budget financed from public funds.”

            “Houses receiving a higher share of public funds bring to the stage significantly more unknown works, a higher number of productions and tend to put on more new productions. In contrast, the necessity to be economically successful hinders diversity and innovation in artistic programming.”

            Sorry for the rushed and bumpy translation. Possibly Simon and I have read the same article about this study. The article also highlights that US houses and especially German houses cater for very different catchment areas, which for the latter e.g. prohibits the use of the stagione system as well as reducing the number of shows, as there are fewer patrons, who are used to and demand a greater diversity of productions.

  6. Novagerio says:

    Take a look at the presumptuous eurotrash crap by “geniuses” like the Calixto Bieitos, Sebastian Baumgartens, Burkhard Kosminskis ed consortis and tell me honestly what is so bloody innovative about all that. The two last – in case you wonder, have become (in)famous through the old formula “Succès de scandale”, creating the notoriously scandalous Tannhäuser productions in Bayreuth and Düsseldorf. Since most people might already be familiar with the news about those productions, not to mention the consequences following the Düsseldorf scandal a month ago, it’s about time the audiences (since an authority like Lorin Maazel apparently will fight a lost battle!) tell those artistic directors that enough is enough. You simply can’t throw away money on expensive trash that has the sole purpose of causing not only scandals and riots but also nauseas, faintings and walk-offs in the auditorium – all for the sake of creating just one thing: a scandal that guarantees full houses; that’s profitting by artistic betrayal, not to be confused by innovation.

  7. Jim Turzer says:

    Rigoletto in Las Vegas? NO, I’ll stay home.

  8. Constantine Kitsopoulos says:

    I remember hearing a story about old Tony Stivanello from years ago. He had rented sets and costumes to a regional opera company and was standing backstage next to the stage manager during the dress rehearsal. On the stage there was chaos going on and no one could figure out where to stand, when to move, etc. Stivanello turned to the stage manager and said, “You know what the problem is around here?” to which the stage manager replied, “No maestro, what?” Stivanello replied, “Nobody knows the f***ing opera.” And therein lies part of the problem with many performances both on the stage and in the pit.

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