Thursday, June 4, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Saving opera from itself

Thought it was time to write about something other than the morbid subject matter we've been getting from Mitchell lately, so here's a link to a provocative Heather MacDonald piece on the cultural debasement of opera, or as she puts the question, "Can the Met stand firm against the trashy productions of trendy nihilists?"

The "Met" in question is the Metropolitan Opera, of course. And like it or not, that is the gold standard for opera in this country, and in much of the world. With such an exaulted position comes responsibilities, and expectations. And the question MacDonald asks, indeed the one all music lovers should be asking, is whether the Met, under second-year general manager Peter Gelb, will withstand the invasion of Regietheater, or "Director's Theater," that is becoming ever more prevalent in opera today.

This is not a new topic for us at this blog; we've discussed many times the seemingly insatiable urge some producers and directors have to put their own unique stamp on an established piece of art. Many (if not most) times this takes the form of political ideology that is being superimposed over the composer's original vision. Take these examples MacDonald cites:
The Spoleto Festival USA, for example, has presented the usual masturbating Don Giovanni; a recent Rossini Cenerentola (Cinderella) in Philadelphia featured a motorcycle and large TV screens projecting the characters’ supposed thoughts; City Opera mounted a Traviata in the 1990s that ended in an AIDS ward.
There's more, of course, as MacDonald details. What they all have in common though is this desire to send a message, to impose something on the audience whether they like it or not. Most times in a free market, the audience can send a message by coming disguised as empty seats. But, as MacDonald notes, "even when audiences stay away in droves—and 'sometimes in those productions you could shoot ducks in the auditorium and not hit anyone,' says [American baritone Sherrill] Milnes—the managerial commitment to Regietheater usually remains firm.'

This is not to say that all artists, or even most of them, go along with this rubbish. MacDonald cites comments from German soprano Diana Damrau on her performance in the Bavarian State Opera's Rigoletto, set (I kid you not) on the Planet of the Apes:
“I fulfilled my contract,” she says scornfully. “This was superficial rubbish. You try to prepare yourself for a production, you read secondary literature and mythology. Here, we had to watch Star Wars movies and different versions of The Planet of the Apes. . . . This was just . . . noise.”
There are others who fight against this trend, but as Pinchas Steinberg, chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony and former principal guest conductor of the Vienna State Opera, says, "You need courage to oppose it. . .People start to say: ‘You can’t work with this guy, he creates problems.’?” (Which, I wonder, may have something to do with those formers in Steinberg's titles.)

MacDonald's article goes into great detail to explain the forces and dynamics at work in this takeover of classic art, but I feel the need to provide one more long excerpt that says much not only about opera and art, but our own culture in general:
The defining characteristic of the sixties generation and its cultural progeny is solipsism. Convinced of their superior moral understanding, and commanding wealth never before available to average teenagers and young adults, the baby boomers decided that the world revolved around them. They forged an adolescent aesthetic—one that held that the wisdom of the past could not possibly live up to their own insights—and have never outgrown it. In an opera house, that outlook requires that works of the past be twisted to mirror our far more interesting selves back to ourselves. Michael Gielen, the most influential proponent of Regietheater and head of the Frankfurt Opera in the late seventies and eighties, declared that “what Handel wanted” in his operas was irrelevant; more important was “what interests us . . . what we want.”
And so here we are. By all means, check out MacDonald's article in full. In addition, check on our roundtable discussion of art and politics, which begins here. MacDonald has some scornful words for Peter Sellars, a favorite of the Minnesota Opera (which explains a lot), and by clicking here you can see some of what we've had to say on that subject. And Judith talked about the another production from the Berlin Opera which raised a few hackles , Mozart's Idemeneo, here.

Lest we end on such a pessimistic note however, MacDonald does point out encouraging signs at the end of her article. Gelb's groundbreaking innovations, such as broadcasting Madam Butterfly in Times Square, have brought energy to opera. The Met's opera moviecasts have proven a smash. By the end of the past season, the Met's remaining productions were all sold out. And as for the audience, as MacDonald notes, "young and middle-aged adults already appear to make up a surprisingly high percentage of patrons. They are coming to see not a twisted rewriting of the great works, but the thing itself, drawn to what opera promises: sublime musical beauty and human drama." The question she asks, and we ask, is what the future holds for the Met. To paraphrase a long-ago campaign motto of a forgotten presidential candidate, it takes courage - does the Met have it?

Originally published July 31, 2007

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