Parsifal with the flower maidens at the Royal Opera House
Parsifal with the flower maidens at the Royal Opera House

Last week, I went to Parsifal at the Royal Opera House. The singing was sublime. The same could not be said for the staging. Although there were some clever elements, especially in the use of lighting, most of the director’s choices left my friends and me scratching our heads. The chorus morphed from nurses to suited businessmen, and at the end of the first act a few acquired caps and guns. Kundry’s, Amfortas’s, and Klingsor’s backstories were presented onstage with gruesome detail. The flower maidens began as war widows and turned into prostitutes. Kundry survived the end of the opera and wandered off with Amfortas. I won’t describe the Grail because anyone going to see the production might enjoy the surprise, but after the initial shock of its big reveal, I found my attempts to decipher its significance fruitless. Needless to say, these are not what Wagner had in mind for Parsifal. But does that matter?

According to Wikipedia, “Regietheater (German for director’s theater or producer’s theater) is a term that refers to the modern (mainly post-World War II) practice of allowing a director (or producer) freedom in devising the way a given opera (or play) is staged so that the creator’s original, specific intentions or stage directions (where supplied) can be changed, together with major elements of geographical location, chronological situation, casting and plot. Typically such changes may be made to point a particular political point or modern parallels which may be remote from traditional interpretations.” That definition would technically include many opera productions (including any where the setting of the opera is changed), but colloquially, the term is often used to refer to especially crazy “concept” productions. (These often come from Europe. In fact, some detractors use “Regietheater” and “Eurotrash” as synonyms.)

These productions cause a lot of controversy in the opera world. Many traditionalists are outraged by Regietheater and loudly protest in internet forums against these supposed crimes against opera. Some appeal to the director’s intentions; others simply argue that more traditional productions tend to be more aesthetically appealing. Of course, Regietheater also has its supporters, who claim that traditional productions are boring and stilted and that fresh directorial visions lend new relevance and power to old operas. I take a middle position. I find some Regietheater tasteless and nonsensical, especially if it seems to actively detract from or work against the opera itself. I think traditional productions are important: not every production should be traditional, but it’s nice to occasionally be able to see a Tosca that’s set in June 1800 as written. That said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with updating operas or emphasizing particular themes, and Regietheater can be fabulously compelling when done well.

Not quite Mount Rushmore... the Ring cycle in Bayreuth
Not quite Mount Rushmore… the Ring cycle in Bayreuth

In the category of Regietheater gone wrong, we have this past summer’s Ring cycle at Bayreuth. Castorf’s deliberately incoherent production featured crocodiles during the love duet, a machine gun as Nothung, and a pseudo-Mount Rushmore. James Jorden has done more thorough analysis of the production than anyone else I’ve come across here, here, here, here, and here, and the series is definitely worth reading for a fascinating exploration of a staging that seems to resist any attempts to understand it. JJ is fairly sympathetic to Castorf’s production and tries to play the part of the ideal audience member by doing everything in his power to accept and comprehend what’s happening on stage in front of him. Although I was not (un)fortunate enough to catch the production, I don’t think I would be quite as kind. I don’t demand that Ring cycle stagings be what Wagner intended, but I do like my opera to have a consistent intellectual basis and a strong focus on Personenregie (that is, making the characters and acting believable) rather than a mish-mash of partially developed directorial ideas.

Willy Decker's minimalist staging of La Traviata
Willy Decker’s minimalist staging of La Traviata

Of course, sometimes I’m on the other side of the debate. Last year, I saw the Met’s revival/import of Willy Decker’s staging of La Traviata. His visually striking production includes a minimalist white stage with a curved back wall, a chorus of suited men, a giant clock, and Violetta in the “short red dress of oppression” (credit for that phrase goes to Likely Impossibilities). As I waited at the stage door after the performance, many of the other (older) opera fans waiting with me complained about the Decker production and expressed nostalgia for Zeffirelli’s production (which I also saw live, three years earlier). The latter was true-to-period with fabulously luxurious sets and costumes; it was a production that made opera-goers feel like they had gotten their money’s worth because they could see it onstage. It was also quite dull. All the gold and lush fabrics swallowed the singers both visually and acoustically, and I was left remembering the sets than the drama. Decker’s production, on the other hand, put the focus entirely on the characters because of the starkness of the backdrop. He inserted a few key symbols too, but they were directly drawn from themes inherent in the opera (death, time, etc.) and were philosophically coherent. (In fact, I wrote an essay about the philosophy behind them.) I fiercely defended the new production against its detractors.

Of course, there’s a whole world of crazy opera productions out there: a rat-infested Lohengrin, an X-rated Entführung aus dem Seraila Nazi-themed Tannhäuser that was cancelled right away… the list goes on and on. Some definitely work well, some definitely don’t, and many are somewhere in between. Have you seen any particularly good or particularly dreadful Regietheater productions? What do you think of the practice of updating operas in general?

4 thoughts on “Regietheater”

  1. Ilana,

    What I find vandalistic is the whole culture of Eurotrash Regietheater; Regietheater stagings that so distort the concept and vision of the opera’s creator as made manifest in the score (music, text, and stage directions) that, were it not for the hijacked music and text of the opera’s creator, it’s *literally* unrecognizable as the opera creator’s work of the same name.

    I’m NOT arguing for the prohibition of such stagings. There’s room for pretty much everything in art, even Eurotrash. What I am arguing for is a prohibition of such stagings under today’s fraudulent practice of promoting and billing such stagings as a staging of the opera of the same name by the opera’s original creator. By no stretch of aesthetic or philosophic reason and logic are such stagings ever anything of the sort.

    If one is an opera director with a compulsion to stage one’s “own take” of an opera by another, one should by all means go ahead and do so if one can get the financing (and the permission of the original creator of the opera if he/she is still alive). But one may NOT go ahead and do so by fraudulently promoting and billing that staging as a staging of the opera of the same name by the opera’s original creator. One must unambiguously promote and bill the resulting new opera as a new work *based* on the opera of the same name by the opera’s original creator and using that original creator’s music and text. Once honestly promoted and billed in that way one is perfectly free to do whatever it is one feels compelled to do vis-à-vis the staging and good luck to you.

    Do you see the difference?

  2. Margaret,

    I understand where you’re coming from, but I think the distinction you want to make is impossible. As soon as a writer or composer puts a text “out there”, s/he is inviting appropriation; it’s simply how art works. Even the original stagings of these operas were no doubt not exactly what the composer intended (because there was a separate stage director, or because s/he couldn’t get the desired cast, or because of budget limitations, or for a million other possible reasons). The moment you, as a director, put a work on stage, you are offering an outside perspective. That perspective may be as simple as, “I think audiences should experience this as a classic work in its original setting” or as crazy as “I think this work, despite predating WWII, can offer a radical commentary on it”. Both are still an individual director’s take on the original, rather than the original itself.

    In opera, as in theatre and film, naming is more a convenient shorthand than true/false advertising. Certainly some adaptations are intentionally re-named to show their distance from the original (e.g., this past year’s Figaro! (90210)), but using the original title does not imply a commitment to traditionality. Enough information about productions gets shared pre-premiere that those wary of non-traditional productions can avoid them with ease regardless. (Also, on the whole, the original name is the most accurate regardless of crazy production ideas–if I go to Don Giovanni, I expect Mozart’s music and Da Ponte’s lyrics, but I don’t have preconceptions about what I’ll see on the stage. The music is at the heart of an opera’s identity. I suppose I would have concerns if the music was being substantially changed without warning, but that rarely happens even in the craziest Regietheater. It is sometimes ignored in favor of unrelated or contrasting stage action–which I think is a mistake, as music can work well with a wide variety of stagings if directors are only sensitive to it–but it is not usually changed.)

    Sorry for the rambling response!


  3. Ilana,

    The problem I am having with your post is that you neglect to address how to
    handle the dichotomy of a new concept, interesting-to-the-director-type
    staging with lots of things going on while that music you so badly require
    of Mozart/Da Ponte is in the background being obfuscated by the goings-on

    How does one who, like you, loves the music and wishes for it not to change,
    concentrate on it and hear it without distractions and disruptions?
    No one I have ever read yet has bothered to address this important issue to
    my satisfaction, save perhaps, closing my eyes — maybe because they cannot?

  4. I’ve given this a fair bit of thought before responding. Firstly I should say that I’ve been around singing and opera for a while now. I’m 78 years old . Basically my sense of humour remains intact. My first love is the piano but I was hooked on the human voice at the age of 13 when I was exposed to Jussi Bjorling. (Just as an aside, he still remains king).. I saw my first real opera (traditional)performance when I was 16 – (Rigoletto – 1951, The Old Carl Rosa Touring company. Charles Craig, an unknown at that time was The Duke).

    Anyway, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. My interests have also ebbed and flowed but opera and the human voice still fascinates me and always will.

    Now I very much respect all the above comments. In fact I had to read them three times before I fully understood them. My advice after a lifetime of precision writing; keep it simple.

    Going back to the original article “What do you think of the practice of updating operas in general?”
    Answer: (purely personal of course) “Not much.”

    Reason: Whether it’s Wagner, Verdi, or whoever, they were men of the theatre. They knew what they wanted and for clever-dick directors to do otherwise is, in my humble opinion, wrong. F’r instance, ‘Parsifal’ is set in Arthurian times. That is just as valid today as it was when Wagner penned it. Who are these directors who think that they know better.? By all means improved lighting, scenery etc,,is a bonus but please, remain true to the period. There has to be a limit.

    I recently watched ‘Eugene Onegin’ on DVD. The singing was masterly, the sets were awful. The production was dismal. The artists do not deserve this. They do their best in the face of such dire productions.

    I’ve also watched ‘Carmen’ with Roberto Alagna and Beatrice Uria-Monzon. The sets? there were none. In spite of this, Carmen (Uria-Monzon) sizzled. Don Jose was plainly out of his comfort zone. The director was Calixto Bieito. Need I say more? Bizet meant ‘Carmen’ to be a spectacle, not a drab, back street affair.

    Overall, opera is supposed to entertain, not to depress. For goodness’ sake, the price of tickets is enough to make you blink more that once whether it’s in the provinces or at the main opera houses.
    Is it so wrong to give the paying public good value for money or do we continue to pander to directors who haven’t given it a thought?.

    Oh well, that’s enough. What do I know, anyway?


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