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What has gone wrong in our beloved opera? by Lorin Maazel

The great conductor has published a two-part reflection on his Facebook Maestro page on the troubles of the opera industry, followed by a recommended solution. Here are the first two parts.


Opera Staging Madness (Part One)

by Lorin Maazel
A great number of opera lovers are becoming increasingly alienated from an art form that has nourished the spirits and minds generations of people…¬†opera: the ultimate fusion of song and sound, of word and fancy, a visceral corporal soul language second to none in breadth and depth of thought and emotion.

At the risk of stating the obvious, of postulating the pedestrian, may I approach the subject of the staging and musical interpretation of an opera applying logic and common sense?

An opera is a Gesamtkunstwerk, i.e. a ” total art work; an artistic creation, that synthesizes the elements of music, drama, spectacle, dance, language, social mores, dress, body language ” and all other aspects at any given moment of the recounted story as it is set to music.

The librettist tells the story, sets it in a time period, in a cultural and social context. The composer finds the appropriate sounds, turn of phrase, thematic material to project his/her interpretation of the emotions engendered by the story. The stage director’s task to flesh out in a convincing manner the essential thrust of the story
as interpreted by the composer. The conductor’s task is to bring to life the implications of the music in a meaningful and vibrant way.

The roles of both stage director and conductor are essentially custodial, bringing into play only those actions which heighten and make clearer the intentions of librettist and composer, actions which at every turn must respect and honor the librettist and the composer. To do otherwise is to pervert and despoil the work of masters. The egos of stage director and conductor (and his/her psychological problems) are never ever to come into play.

An opera stage is not a psychiatrist’s couch.
la scala


Opera Staging Madness (Part Two)

In Part One of my comment regarding the Philistinism of some present day opera staging concepts,

I wrote: ‘The roles of both stage director and conductor are essentially custodial.’ ‘Custodial’ challenges, does not restrict, the fantasy of Stage and Music Director.

Two examples: the first, Giorgio Strehler’s 1980 production at La Scala of Verdi’s Falstaff…end of Scene Four when a gigantic laundry basket, presumably containing Falstaff hiding and suffocating inside, is dumped over a restraining barrier into the river Thames.

In a whimsical stroke of staging genius, Giorgio had a huge wave wash over the stage three seconds after the laundry basket “hit” the river! (Never mind that at least one performance, the water flowed over the raked stage into the orchestra pit!). Sheer staging heaven, this! No need to turn Shakespear’s jocund reveler Falstaff into a retired sumo wrestler at a Caracas brothel.

The second example: Keita Asari’s now legendary staging in 1986 at La Scala of Madame Butterfly. About an hour before the opera began, a Japanese country-style house could be seen being ‘constructed” authentically block by block, rock garden and all. At precisely 7pm, the lights dimmed, the conductor (me at the time) walked out, bowed and gave the down beat.

The audience has been imperceptibly drawn into the timelessness of an ancient culture. Cio-Cio San’s suicide was staged with a delicacy that brought tears to my eyes at every performance: no disembowelment, simply a gentle poke of her fan, which seemed to release a vermilion carpet that slowly unravelled over twenty feet of stage….her life’s blood.

Now THAT’S staging genius.

No need to desecrate the refinement of a tender soul in a fragile ancient culture and given soul-life by Puccini by casting Butterfly as a hash-slinger in a San Diego diner.


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  1. One of the characters was beheaded in a staging of one of my pieces, although neither my music or stage directions had a beheading! It was dramatic and the thud of the falling cabbage into a basket was quite effective, though. And the audience got over the re-growing of the character’s head as it turned out to have been nothing but a bad dream :-)

    (this isn’t as inappropriate as it sounds, it was set in revolutionary France!)

  2. harold braun says:

    Couldn’t agree more!

  3. Charles says:

    Bah. I’m sure this same screed has been written dozens of times by different authors over the past 400 years.
    This is just your typical old-guy-ranting-about-the-good-old-days stuff.

  4. “The egos of stage director and conductor (and his/her psychological problems) are never ever to come into play.”

    This is absolutely hilarious for Maazel to say. His ego is completely out of control and it shows when he’s in the pit.

    His recent Don Carlo at the Met was the most self-centered, self-indulgent performance I’ve ever heard. It was almost like a parody of a completely self-absorbed maestro. He was just short of yelling to the audience, “Look how brilliant I am!!!”

    • Michael Hurshell says:

      @ david: What exactly was so self centered about his conducting, may I ask? And what exactly is your qualification for making such a statement?

    • Gurnemanz says:

      How about adressing some of Maestro Maazel’s arguments instead of this botched attempt at character assassination?

  5. Halldor says:

    In short: expensive, old-fashioned and unimaginative conductor prefers expensive, old-fashioned and unimaginative productions.

    • Michael Hurshell says:

      @ Halldor: What constitutes an “unimaginative” production, by your standars? And: what exactly is your own involvement in the theater?

  6. Novagerio says:

    “self-centered, self-indulgent, self-absorbed, expensive, old-fashioned and unimaginative conductor prefers expensive, old-fashioned and unimaginative productions.” – That about a man who has conducted 5000 operatic performances for more than half a century…. Envy, resentment or just sheer ignorance?

  7. Emil Archambault says:

    Let’s bring back Zeffirelli! How many times can you do the same thing over and over again?

    Why has directing taken the backseat to music? Opera is the gesamtkunstwerk; no element is inferior to the others. Treating stagings as mere “tasks” and not as “art” is demeaning to both theatre and opera.

    • Mike Schachter says:

      Unfortunately it has not taken the backseat nearly enough. Opera can exist with little or no staging, but not I think without the music. Too often the director knows and cares nothing about the music, and seems to be proud of the fact. Ignorance is so cool.

      • “Opera can exist with little or no staging” – opera in concert version has always been the second best option.

        I rest my case: There are indeed ignorant stage directors who neither understand nor care for score and libretto. But this doesn’t mean directing as such should take the backseat. There are many intelligent stage directors doing great work which only ignorants dare to call Eurotrash.

        • David Gifford says:

          Absolutely. There is much great work being done by stage directors worldwide. People can take their choice: opera in concert form; opera staged by a director known to them (in which case they have a good idea of what they are likely to get); or opera by a director unknown to them (and we’ve all experienced that – sometimes with lamentable results, at other times inspired.)
          Maestro Maazel’s pessimism is misplaced, I think. So what if a few productions fail to do the music drama justice? That’s life, and what is the alternative… always play safe? Endlessly repeat what is known to work? I certainly don’t want that.
          In my experience – largely London and the southern counties of England, and Wales – opera staging is healthy and exciting. Of the last four productions I’ve seen – Don Carlo and La Donna del Lago at the Royal Opera, and Lulu and Lohengrin at Welsh National Opera – Lohengrin and Don Carlo had a wonderful narrative directness, whereas Lulu was more fantastical and expressionistic. But all were sensitive to the music, and coherent and imaginative realisations of it. Only the Rossini was a poor, often crass, directorial interpretation. So… a 75% success rate. Nothing to worry about Maestro Maazel!

  8. When you guys will be as good as his pinky in his left hand, maybe then you’ll have the right to talk about “self-whatever”.! What a shame…

    • Emil Archambault says:

      …And how do you justify the existence of music critics?

      When you go to a restaurant, can you say “this is bad food”, or do you have to prove the chef that you can cook better food first?

  9. One can agree or disagree with Maazel’s view of productions, but as a conductor he has been extremely successful, holding positions in Berlin, Munich, Paris, Vienna, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and New York plus a few others. He has also been able, without an agent or manager, for over 50 years to demand and get the highest fees paid anywhere in the world. Not everyone likes his style but I guess he must be seen to have something to offer !

  10. Novagerio says:

    Well said Stella!!

  11. Gurnemanz says:

    Maestro Maazel, in addition to criticizing what he calls radical staging, has offered examples of what he sees is genius creative staging that stays faithful to the libretto and the story of the work, which those quick to dismiss him as an “old geezer” conveniently ignore.

    Hans Sachs’ final monologue is as appropriate and up-to-date as ever!

  12. Michael Hurshell says:

    My own opinion of maestro Maazel was formed when he was in Wien running the Staatsoper, and I was studying at the Hochschule. I thought at the time: “what other jet set conductor, who has his choice of world class symphony orchestras, can lead such nuanced opera performances of Wagner, Berg, Puccini, Verdi etc. ?” And I couldn’t think of anyone. I also immensely enjoyed his Wiener Philharmoniker concerts, incl. Bruckner, Mahler, R.Strauss, etc. etc. Those who don’t like the way his conducting LOOKS should concentrate on what they are HEARING. Such rubati and transitions don’t get played by the orchestras on their own, even the Wieners, Berliners etc. Hut ab, Herr Maazel.

  13. Scott Rose says:

    I have learned not to often express my belief that in order to direct an opera, an aspiring director should be able to read its score fluently. Why that is a controversial idea, I really don’t understand. The musical score is part of the opera’s language. How can one intelligently direct a stage work without being fluent in its language?

  14. The varing degrees of intelligence and idiocy do abound!
    As a dear friend and visual artst would remind us all: “The Masses are Asses!”
    to which I add Opinions are like assholes – everyone has one! Even me, thank goodness!

    (However, I do tend more in favour of: Michael Hurshell, Novagerio, Simon & Stella!
    Emil can go suck eggs…)

    Interesting how the MOST IMPORTANT element of OPERA has been avoided… SINGERS!
    The ‘original musicians’… For without singers there would be no opera!
    HAIL to the Great Singers!
    (not the ones chosen for their looks over their vocal talents…)

    • Well said EDG, couldn’t agree more with you!!! The direction should HELP singers, not put them in extreem difficulty with very often such stupid and unjustified movements that just take attention of beautiful singing and singers that are telling the stories with their voices and singing … Emil, have you ever heard the famous saying “You can’t do it , review it”?

  15. @ Emil

    are you implying that Maestro Maazel can be compared to “bad food” in a restaurant?
    I hope you’ll find better arguments..
    Mahler was criticized, so were Heifetz, Rostropovich, Callas, Kleiber, etc..
    Do we always have to wait for geniuses to pass, or we can actually learn some humbleness along with history?

  16. Unsolicited advice is rarely appreciated.
    As for the substance of LM’s remarks, he certainly has a valid point there, but seems to be exaggerating the problem. Majority of “updated” stagings are mediocre at best, but then so are majority of “literal” ones as well. There are talented and inspired examples of both kinds and they are the minority, but that is natural and will always remain that way. Just like there will always be more mediocre operas than great ones. There is nothing unusual about that.

  17. Mary Elizabeth Williams says:

    I don’t have a music degree but I can read, and when Angelotti says “Here is the key, at the feet of the Madonna” when he is clearly holding doormat, I lose patience. By halfway through the first act of the Met’s current Tosca I was counting places where the staging contradicted the subtitles. DOES NOT COMPUTE! I saw this opera in HDTV but I had already purchased a ticket to a Bryn Terfel performance later in the season. I went, but when Bryn left, so did I, and I haven’t been back. At least in a movie theater you can go our for popcorn when the producer perpetrates an inanity.
    I do not consider myself a curmudgeon. For one thing I’m the wrong sex. I loved the Met’s new production of Traviata, which I felt had insights I never before registered. And La Damnation de Faust is colossal. But the new Rigoletto is a one-off; when you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it, you don’t need to see it again. And the best thing about opera is the opportunity to continually deepen your appreciation of a sublime work of art.

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