You’ve prepared yourself for a night at the Erfurt Opera, you’ve bought your tickets and go forth to watch the production, secure in your knowledge of the libretto and looking forward to good acting, directing and singing.
Only something must be wrong, you realize, as the curtain goes up: You do not remember Verdi’s Un Ballo In Maschera taking place in the middle of a post nuclear holocaust wasteland, and you are almost certain that the libretto did not call for a Female Hitler (who manages to maintain Der Fuehrer's signature moustache in an estrogen-defying feat), Uncle Sam, or a chorus of naked elderly men and women wearing nothing but Mickey Mouse heads! Where is the King of Sweden? What happened to the costume ball? Did somebody switch your ticket when you weren’t looking?
Or, let’s say, you show up for your first “Norma” rehearsal and the ‘concept’ of the show is explained to you: the sets are geometric, the costumes look like Cirque Du Soleil rejects, and you are informed of the proliferation of a good number of naked people onstage—and you are one of them.
If any of these, or weirder, have ever happened to you, then you have my commiserations: You have encountered Eurotrash or Regietheater.
How can you tell what a Regietheater/Eurotrash production is? Well, let’s look at some of the properties that these productions usually exhibit:
- It is an European house, or it is a production staged by Famous European Stage Director #125.
- A specifically defined historical or fictitious event suddenly acquires a completely different, unrelated and ‘polemic’ subtext that wasn’t obvious to any of the Great Unwashed who studied the libretto but which did not escape The Great Director’s clever interpretation (the assassination of the King of Sweden in Un Ballo suddenly becomes a Marxist anti-capitalist critique of North America in the midst of the September Eleven terrorist attacks. What? Didn’t you notice? It’s obvious, for crying out loud!)
- Natalie Dessay is somehow involved (not 100% true all the time, but if she’s there your odds become considerably higher)
- Someone, somewhere, is walking around butt-naked for no discernible reason (other than maybe a desire to catch pneumonia, considering the temperature of most theaters).
- For some reason, a sexual act is simulated, usually Out Of Character (such as Scarpia’s use of prostitutes to perform fellatio on him during the recent Met Tosca— Scarpia is a rapist, not a sex addict, and rapists don’t pay their victims) and performed in the most shocking or ridiculous manner (that is, if your own spouse were to act that way you would be served with divorce papers after you laughed yourself silly).
- Something ‘symbolic’ is taking place onstage (or above it, below it, to the sides, etc) which serves as a means to tie the Great Director’s vision with what the libretto actually says, and it is usually as subtle as a firecracker in an oil field (as she sings Sempre Libera, Violetta climbs onto the giant clock that looms over the stage and attempts to push its hands backwards--- telling us that Sempre Libera is just the 19th century version of Cher’s If I Could Turn Back Time! )
- Something happens onstage that could have only been inspired by generous doses of Peyote (human-sized bumblebees are dancing the Charleston around a soprano during one of her challenging coloratura arias).
Semi-humorous lists aside (we wish we were making things up), we can say that Eurotrash / Regietheater is the practice of allowing a director an unprecedented level of freedom in devising the way a given opera is staged so that the composer's original, specific stage directions (as well as location, timeline, cast, plot) can be changed to suit whatever The Great Director’s vision is.
Tracking Regietheater’s roots, we find that a Wagner is at the heart of it. In this case, Wieland Wagner, grandson of the infamous misanthropic composer Richard Wagner (a man who was the exemplification of the Kant-Heidegger dynasty of thought).
After World War II, Wieland ran into several problems concerning his grandfather’s works onstage: during the apogee of the Third Reich they had been appropriated and adopted as the Reich’s ideological banners, with Wagner being named the composer whose musical ideas were the artistic expression of National Socialism ideology (this is no coincidence, as Quee Nelson demonstrates in her book “The Slightest Philosophy”: The chapter “The Same Walking as Dreaming” is dedicated to demonstrating the continuous and harmful effects of post-modern philosophy, starting with Kant and Heidegger and their insane philosophy’s hand in the birth of the Third Reich).
Wieland was the ideological pupil of Adolphe Appia, a famous theorist of stage lighting and set construction. Many of Appia’s approaches were revolutionary- including the preference of three-dimensional sets over flat painted ones. In Appia’s theory of artistic unity, Wieland found the answer by which he could sidestep the unfortunate political undertones that were attached to his grandfather’s works: instead of focusing on specifics, he would divest the production of all detail and instead emphasize a minimalistic approach in order to render it more symbolic and, in doing so, put the focus on the universal quality of the Wagnerian dramas – with a heavy dose of Carl Jung on the side.
Most stage directions were reinterpreted or discarded as, Wieland said, they were already illustrated in the score (of course, we would have asked him ‘then why bother with a costly fully-staged production? Just put the whole thing on as a concert version and we’ll close our eyes, since it is all illustrated in the score?’ We imagine Wieland would not have liked this question.)
Unfortunately, this is where one of our stereotypical villains first makes his entrance: Say hello to monsieur Jacques Derrida, the father of Deconstruction. Derrida first published Of Grammatology in 1967, and the seeds were planted.
Incidentally, Monsieur Derrida admitted to be indebted to none other than Heidegger, without whom (he said) he would never have said a single world.
So what is Deconstruction, and why is it important in the field of Eurotrash? J. Hillis Miller, a deconstructionist himself, put it best: “Deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself. Its apparently-solid ground is no rock, but thin air.” ("Stevens’ Rock and Criticism as Cure," Georgia Review 30,1976)
Essentially, the whole point of Deconstructionism is that any text has more than one interpretation; that the text itself links these interpretations inextricably and that the incompatibility of these interpretations is irreducible. Sounds absurd? No more absurd than the fact that Derrida, who created the movement, was completely unable to express a definition of it: "I have no simple and formalisable response to this question. All my essays are attempts to have it out with this formidable question."
The only attempts Derrida ever made towards defining his philosophy occurred only in negative statements: He says, for example, that deconstruction is not an analysis, a critique, or a method, without saying that it has nothing in common with an analysis, a critique, or a method. This is as effective as saying, when attempting to describe an automobile: “It is neither the moon, a centipede nor a pregnant milkmaid.”
By refusing to define deconstruction, Derrida allowed himself the con man’s way out: he could include anything under the realm of deconstruction, and thus allow for the possibility for the deconstruction of everything.
To say that post-modernist philosophy aims towards the destruction not of all standards but of the mind itself is not an exaggeration: Derrida and his anti-intellectual philosophy are perfect examples of the nature of the beast. When deconstruction swelled as a movement, Wieland’s adaptations of Grandpa Wagner were seen in a new light: they were the ideal tools for post-modernists such as the disciples of Derrida, a perfect means to represent their non-standards.
Skip to 1976: nine years after Derrida’s first publication, Patrice Chéreau is tapped to produce the centenary Bayreuth production of Wagner’s Ring. Chéreau, applying the postmodernist (and Derrida’s) approach towards meaning, took the story of the twilight of the gods and created an anti-capitalist and Marxist sub-text (that is another thing that postmodernism has: capitalism is always en vogue as a target of a reinterpretation of anything ever said or written), so the Rhinemaiden became three ragged prostitutes doing business before a hydro-electric dam, the gods are (of course) industrialists, and Siegfried used an industrial steam-hammer to forge his sword.
Since then, the operatic world—specially in Europe and particularly in Germany—has undergone a strange and harmful madness. Because of postmodernist approaches to the libretto and the score, they are no longer considered to be useful guides from which to derive meaning but rather they’ve been supplanted by some obscure crystal ball into which the Great Director glances, sees what he wants, and from which he extracts a deconstruction of the original material which, when examined, has very little to do with the context of what either composer or librettist wrote down: one gets the impression that the Great Director would get rid of the pesky inconvenience of these two personages if only the singers and orchestra didn’t have to sing and play what they wrote.
Over the years we have seen productions that suffer from terrible dissociations of context: We have seen a Contes De Hoffman which takes place in a sanatorium with fly-away walls and elderly extras who apparently take delight in rolling on and off the stage (Natalie Dessay was cast as Olympia in that particular production, is anyone surprised?), We have seen eggs singing, enormous fetuses a la Space Odyssey 2001 suspended from the ceiling during Sigmund and Sieglinde’s passionate exchange (how subtle and foreshadowing!), A Sonnambula that was essentially a meta-mockery of opera, and more nudity, lewdness and vulgarity than you could ever find in the whole of Las Vegas.
When allegory, heavy-handed metaphor and rampant symbolism hijack the staging so much that the actions that take place (and the environment in which they take place) are so absurdly bizarre that they could pass as a Dadaist’s secret fantasy, then you’ve gone too far. The audience is not incapable of understanding and, in fact, applying these ridiculous postmodernist approaches is a double insult: You’re essentially telling the audience that it is too stupid to understand the actions and meaning of the opera without your Magnanimous Intervention, and you are saying the composer/librettist team was too much of a boob-troop to make the opus understandable.
An example is Emma Dante’s most recent crime, a ‘radical re-imagining’ of the opera Carmen. To the opening she has added the cheap effect of a hearse, and whose undertaker waits for Carmen at the beginning of the opera and takes her away at the end (postmodernist subtlety at its finest). Every character will have a doppelganger accompany them around the stage -- a priest for Micaela (a metaphor for her desire to get married, explains Dante), and Escamillo (Erwin Schrott) under his cape will hide a third arm as a metaphor for his bullfighting and his swordmanship. And five gypsy girls will always follow Carmen, silently, just like five veiled old women will never leave the stage, as silent witnesses of the action, a symbol of inescapable Fate. Escamillo’s bullfighting costumes are inspired by Michael Jackson’s wardrobe. The point of all this? Nobody really knows, except perhaps to chastize Bizet for not writing any allegorical characters into an opera that was never meant to be a symbolist’s paradise in the first place.
Many operas can be tastefully updated: Fidelio, for example, can be transported forward in time to the dictatorship of Franco in Spain without losing a great deal in the process, although it does provide some incongruence due to the appearance of Don Fernando at the end, the savior minister of the King (this being Franco’s regime, he was the de facto regent starting in 1947 and therefore Don Fernando would have been sent by Franco himself- this incongruence could be seen as defeating the whole argument of the opera because Florestán and Leonora are being freed from the tyrant Pizarro only by the superior force of the greater tyrant Francisco Franco).
Nevertheless, these difficulties must be confronted by many opera updates: any updating of Rigoletto proves troublesome because of the explicit mention of titles of nobility and the plot resting on the power relations between an aristocratic class system that does not exist in our current society as an adequate parallel. Likewise, updates of Nozze di Figaro run into similar predicaments because the power that the Count of Almaviva exerts over his wife, Susanna and Figaro also has no parallel in modern Western countries.
At their best, when done with taste and sagacity, these updates can be a breath of fresh air. Most of the time they end up a mixed bag of brilliant moments and awkward ones (when anachronisms and incongruence appear), and sometimes they do not work at all.
While updates can still follow the score and libretto as guides for establishing parallels in the updated settings, Regietheater seeks to create a whole new subtext that was not present before and use it as the main focus of staging and interpretation.
Because postmodernists lack standards (since their eternal loop on the ‘meaning of meaning’ leaves them impotent to actually perform a judgment of values,) these Great Directors of the Regietheater world resort to all sorts of macabre and depraved effects in order to drive their ‘Concept’ across. Journalist Heather Mac Donald wrote in her article “The Abduction of Opera,” explaining to what lengths one of these Great Directors (the culprit’s name is Calixto Bieito, don’t forget it!) proceeded to mutilate Mozart’s famous rescue opera, Abduction from the Seraglio:
“Mozart's lighthearted opera The Abduction from the Seraglio does not call for a prostitute's nipples to be sliced off and presented to the lead soprano. Nor does it include masturbation, urination as foreplay, or forced oral sex. Europe's new breed of opera directors, however, know better than Mozart what an opera should contain. So not only does the Abduction at Berlin's Komische Oper feature the aforementioned activities; it also replaces Mozart's graceful ending with a Quentin Tarantino--esque bloodbath and the promise of future perversion.”
Nudity, vulgarity, needless violence and perversion are Regietheater’s best friends. Only a postmodernist mind that could be capable of conceiving of any of them as central exponents of a serious and worthy intellectual proposition. Let us not be fooled here: Underneath the posturing of intellectualism, these promoters of Regietheater and ‘avant-garde’ productions are little more than savages who delight in seeing any proposition of structure or coherence consumed by flames. The champions of this ‘art form’ are posturing, false intellectuals who hide behind a murky and undefined concept of metropolitanism by which anything is proper onstage, as long as you can create a flimsy argument to rationalize it.
These faux intellectuals accuse those who dislike these shenanigans of being ‘provincial.’ There is nothing provincial in attacking Regietheater, but those who fight against it must know the reasons for which they must decry it, mere emotional appeal will not work, but rather one must take these people on what they pretend are their terms- no concept within the universe of Regietheater will remain standing when ruthless critical judgment is applied. They make great show of their circular intellectualism and esoteric arguments questioning the validity of esoteric arguments, but a postmodernist is no more an intellectual than a cow is a barn.
Another attack the Regiespecters use to defend their master’s works is the appeal against Puritanism. Their use of nudity and sexuality, they claim, is a celebration of the beauty of the human body. There is nothing wrong in using the naked body in productions, and it is you who should be ashamed to find anything wrong with it.
Yet, if there is nothing wrong with onstage nudity, why are only a select number from within each cast deigned to be naked at one time or another? And why does this nudity come, as it always does, at a moment that seems all too specifically engineered to cause shock, dread or horror?
The truth of their sham is that there is nothing ennobling in their use of the nude body. Their appeals to innocence are tarnished by the fact that they used nudity as nothing more than a gut-level shock-value. Scarpia’s prostitutes flashed their breasts at the audience, not in celebration of their beautiful bodies but as a brazen and infantile slap at the public on behalf of Great Director Luc Bondy.
Cherubino’s simulated masturbation to the tune of Non so piu, the aforementioned depravities in Seraglio and the pervasive nihilism of similar antics do not state “Behold, here is man in his greatness, with his body as his manifestation on earth, celebrate and admire it!” but they rather seem to say “Behold, you are a depraved and monstrous creature, here you lie naked like the beast you deserve to be!” It cannot be any other way: Postmodernism is a philosophical movement that hates the mind of man and its achievements above everything else, and therefore will hate man for being man. Whether consciously or not, these premises cannot help but concretize themselves in the horrendous actions that these Great Directors thrust upon the audience.
It is fitting that Great Directors are fascinated with prostitutes, because they are not unalike: when it comes down to it, anyone can have sex- but very few can actually make love. It is easy to appeal to the carnal and instinctive, but creating something of great significance requires a level of mental and emotional integration that a postmodernist mind simply cannot conceive. Hence, the prostitute is the perfect symbol for them, whereas their opposite would be the Romantic Ideal. It is inescapable to compare the nude creations of the Renaissance masters with the abominations of the Regietheater: The great masters sought to express internal and external perfection in their nudes—true celebrations of what it means to be truly human, whilst the postmodernist artist wants the human subject to be depraved both within and without and, in the fashion of true monsters, revel in its sight.
The greatest singers of our age have managed to move audiences to all manners of emotions without the removal of a single item of clothing or the use of any gimmick. Shirley Verret’s early Dalilah, for example, is the quintessential seducer- she exudes beauty, passion, danger and eroticism whilst remaining completely clothed. Natalie Dessay, Queen of Regietheater and onstage histrionics, could sing Lucia’s Il Dolce Suono stripped to her unmentionables (and in her case, indiscernibles) whilst swinging to and fro on a hobby-horse and not a single member of the audience would experience a single transcendental moment compared to what Callas achieved (even with a flawed instrument) in the role.
So let us be provincial, if that is the way they wish to call us (I prefer the term principled), but we have to call a spade a spade: Regietheater is nothing more than a grotesque gimmickry, pornography masquerading as the celebration of the body, anti-intellectualism passed off as deep thought. It must end, and it must end now so that true and talented directors can take over and truly perform innovative and fresh approaches with these works of art, without resorting to the horrible postmodernist tool set.
John Riley at Counterpoint put it best:
“Why not just trust the audience to know that this is a fictionalized portrayal of historical events that, as far as modern parallels are concerned, fits where it touches? This may of course lead to productions where the hero of A Masked Ball is an 18th-century Swedish monarch who is assassinated, or Henry V has a sword rather than a submachine-gun that he, for some reason, fails to employ against his enemies, but if that’s the case, we’ll just have to put up with it.”
As singers who hold our art as a great standard, it is our obligation (if we hold Honesty to be a virtue at all) to put a stop to the atrocities perpetrated by these Great Men, and if possible to end the Age Of The Director once and for all in favor of the Age Of Opera, simply put.
We are the instruments of the opera- through us, the orchestra and the set and house crew the will of the composer is manifest into a complete multi-sensorial work of art, and we add our own individual and unique interpretations when we truly sing and act at our highest potential.
What, then, should be our call to pride when we allow men and women of such low caliber to use us to cheapen and debase that which we love most?
What statement are you letting someone else make with your body?
It is finally time to start taking out the trash.