Thursday, October 16, 2014

Those EuroStagings: Opera at Will

by Laurenz Lütteken

This post originally appeared, in German, in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 24 September 2014, in print and digital formats, under the title “Oper der Beliebigkeiten.” We are grateful to Professor Lütteken and the NZZ for permission to publish this adaptation in English, by DKH after a translation by Katja Herges. 

Sad but true: the new opera season promises few encounters with new works, but rather “new readings,” “unusual perspectives,” or “radical re-interpretations.” So far we are spared the Liebestod  in C minor, harps only, and the Falstaff fugue for marimba and vuvuzela. But what is very much at issue, at least for the moment, is the ongoing destabilization of production values, whose borders, after just over a generation, have largely eroded away.

Of the many Rheingold productions to be viewed today on Gerrman-speaking stages, you can wander from the oil fields of California (Bayreuth) to environmental catastrophe and piles of rubbish (Nürnberg) to multimedia video, clowning, and haunted houses (Mannheim). Figaro plays in a large cellar room in Augsburg (adorned with signs that say “Bully-Free Zone,” “No Means No,” “No Sexual Harassment in the Workplace”); Carmen, in the time of global migration through Hannover, Barbiere at a Mafia godfather’s in Osnabrück, Manon at the airport in Graz. It is tantalizing, grotesque, endless. And the scores are at risk of similar treatment. Already in Zurich there is a Fidelio with a rearranged sequence of numbers; shortly, in Berlin, there will be an Ariadne with a female chamberlain.

Instructions for Use

Experiments of this kind, whose roots date back to the 1970s, belong to the brazen quotidian life of the modern stage. So they are no longer experiments, but rather simple convention and confection. Nevertheless, the published justifications in the program books go on and on in their largely unchallenged attempt to claim meaning and necessity for their particular approach. They no longer seek to offer a path to understanding the work, but rather instructions for use—why the junkie Tristan injects himself with the love potion, why Lulu shows pornographic movies in an eccentric sex club. Accordingly, for the last while, media attention has tended toward weighty interpretation of these increasingly wild stagings. You're grateful to get past matters of Otello's musical embodiment and on to the tenor's biographical note.

The printed program, indeed, has become a coloring-book of indulgent self-expression, claiming a cornucopia of associations with film, image, and text. And inevitably this passes to the next generation. The Trossingen Conservatory recently announced, in all seriousness, that it would transfer Mozart’s Figaro to the “world of fashion shows” with a countertenor as Cherubino—and a barrel organ.

All this is disconcerting, at the very least—for one thing, because of its arbitrariness: Rigoletto on the Planet of the Apes, Rinaldo at a hotel bar, the Magic Flute in a dementia ward. All this has happened already; and the situations are not only interchangeable but inevitably miss the dramatic point. You would think the notion of staging a piece in the general conditions of its date of origin to be harmless enough. Hardly. Since at least Calixto Bieito's productions (2001ff.), nudity, bloodlust, and body fluids of every sort have, apparently permanently, established themselves in the vocabulary of the music theater. And that is disconcerting, too, since the correctives are held to be non-viable.

If, then, the media response is particularly cruel, it is merely because the piece "doesn’t play" in Duisburg-Ruhr, in Syria, or on the moon. And if no paradigm or model can be identifed, then the production is “on target,” as Thomas Bernhard would say, or “without alternative,” as political buzz-speak has it.

Lulu / Basel 2009

In the arts, arguments of “lack of alternative” must be viewed with alarm. The widespread claim that you cannot do an opera “that way” anymore is not only teleological flim-flam, but also unfair. In opera houses, an unchallenged canon reigns, more concrete even than it was fifty years ago. There are thus no valid reasons for avoiding all-new operas. But it is more than dubious to “modernize” the old works with ever-new imagery, precisely because it just tends to solidify the canon anyway. Furthermore, the term “modernity” as used in this context—to mean “disturbing,” “provocative,” and “disconcerting”—is so rusty that we can confidently relegate it to past history.

Historical responsibility

Treating texts of the past historically is neither indispensable nor—as often argued—old-fashioned and philological (even if musicology seldom argues that particular point). But what is the purpose of a critical edition of Don Giovanni if the setting talks about sex and crime of pop stars without further ado (like in Linz)? Texts, scores of the past, require a particular sensibility. It is only if we succeed in tracing the present in the past (instead of merely imposing the present on the past) that a work of art, a staged piece of music, can prove its value.

The autonomy of the theater is held to trump such sensibilities. But there must be strict limits. The  twentieth century is so rich in cases of  text abuses that it is not simply frivolous, but arrogant, to ignore the warnings. The 1928 Leningrad performance of Fidelio was interrupted because the liberation by a class enemy, a minister of the king, was deemed inadequate for a revolutionary society; in 1943 the banner of the SS Panzer division Wiking was marched through the Bayreuth festival grounds during Meistersinger (as staged by Wieland Wagner), thus turning the production into a Nazi festival. Even if nobody explicitly claims such ideas as “director’s theatre,” there is no fundamental difference between these and the Forza del destino in Guantánamo or Tannhäuser in the bio-gas plant. Historical texts are sensitive structures, which should not achieve autonomy at their own expense, in particular after the experiences of the last hundred years. Of course it's possible to stage tales of Californian oil fields or about Guantánamo. But why not do it with new texts and music?


An old hermeneutic principle insists on generalizability. An interpretation is justified if it can claim meaning through the reading of the text and thereby open itself to a third person. But this is the polar opposite of a wide-ranging plenitude of associations which are, themselves, continuously in need of explanation in order to be considered as “communicable.” So abandoning the principle of generalizability not only compromises the dignity and autonomy of texts, it also reduces the spectator to a distant figure in an ever-more fantastic landscape, and thus ultimately threatens the very business that it pretends to support. If in the past singers “embodied” their roles—a challenge that can hardly be overestimated in case of a Tristan, a Scarpia, or a Wozzeck—nowadays the flood of scenic extravaganza so overshadows the development of the musical argument that the overall performance is wounded and too often fails. The consequence is already apparent: note the increasing number of operas in concert. While these violate the very essence of the opera, they nevertheless liberate musicians and the audience from an increasingly heavy burden of picture worlds coming from out of the blue. 


The merits of these practices are argued, from time to time, in episodes that revolve around such concepts as “faithful readings of texts” and “director’s theater.” Yet it’s not about “faithfulness” but rather about respect for the text, particularly in view of 20th-century experience. Objections to the dogma according to which the interpreter is above the interpreted are all too rare—and are merely swept nowadays into the ethically doubtful aesthetic offered up by the lawyers of  “stage direction.” Opera of course occurs in the moment: that was a commonplace even before the boom of the dreaded word “performative.” But that doesn’t commit opera to alleged sensation: rather to the connection of vicinity and distance, of respect, historical depth, and presence. Maybe there is hope for a countercurrent to Opera at Will. But at the beginning of this new season, I don't see much room for optimism.

Laurenz Lütteken is Professor and Chair of Musicology at the University of Zurich (web biography HERE). After his 1991 dissertation on Guillaume Dufay he was appointed acting director of the Institute for Musicology at the University of Heidelberg in 1995, then full professor at the University of Marburg in 1996, moving in 2001 to Zurich.

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