By Venita Lok
Introduction: Recently both Yannick Nézet-Séquin, the music director at the New York Met and tenor Jonas Kaufmann have commented on the state of opera and especially its direction “in our times.” Both seem to suggest that opera direction must move with the times which seem to accept the “Regie- Theatre” or (‘director driven theatre’) so popular now especially in Europe. In this article, member Venita Lok has taken a clear and very direct approach to discussing this phenomenon. She begins by stating that there is a clear distinction between new works versus new (or Regie-theatre) productions.
First: an analysis of ‘poor sales at the Met’
1. Poor box office sales at the Met.
No question attendance has declined at the Met, and most elsewhere too, due to a multitude of factors, not least COVID! (The recent unforeseen system issues! also dampened box office sales.) But let’s look at the seat capacity at some major houses:
Bayerische Staatsoper – 2101
Staatsoper Berlin – 1400
Wiener Staatsoper – 1709
Opera Garnier – 1979
Opera Bastille – 2745
Royal Opera House – 2256
La Scala – 2030
Teatro San Carlo – 1444
The Met – 3800 (Despite its size, the Met has excellent acoustics)
Lyric Opera of Chicago 3,563
The Met claims that previous seat sales average 73% which equates to 2,774 seats, which are more than 100% of the above quoted opera houses. Even at the recent reduction to 61% or 2,318 it is still more than full capacity than all except the Bastille. Or course this is a crude perspective but nonetheless revealing. And opera is not even a core culture of Americans. Unlike Europe, the Met (and many opera houses in the US) relies heavily on private endowment rather than government funding. If a government, like that of Germany, could allocate a hefty budget for operas without impinging on the support for necessary social services in these difficult times and fiscal challenges, kudos to them.
2. Nézet-Séguin’s comment that we need new operas that reflect our times and realities.
New operas : Indisputably new works are necessary as part of the evolution to complement existing repertoire. They do attract attention at least at the premieres, e.g. recently The Hours at the Met is a success. The question is if their popularity is sustainable over decades or centuries, comparable to those selected works of Verdi, Mozart, Wagner etc. The Met has introduced and programmed many new works. e.g. Marnie (2018), The Exterminating Angel (2017), Dead Man Walking (2000), Ghosts of Versailles (1983, 1994), Nixon in China (1987), even my favourite Satyagraha (2008), and Akhnaten (2019) etc. just to name the few that came to mind – all of which were superbly produced and performed. The Met spares no expense in their productions targeted at durability over decades, hoping to make it economically viable in the long run. Therefore, new works must be chosen very carefully to ensure some measure of longevity, public appeal and aesthetics, though not without taking some risks as part of the cost of artistic responsibility. The Met has recently announced a number of strategies to combat declining attendance, among which are new works to stimulate waning interest in familiar operas.*
The other question is is “reflect our times and realities” the sine qua non for new works? Honestly, our times are full of violence, conflict, aggression, sexual perversion, deceitfulness, greed, and much ugliness as publicized by the media. That perhaps is reality, but which are best not further promulgated graphically on stage where the audience is seeking a few hours of escape or consolation that the world is after all not that bad; that there is love, compassion, loyalty, truthfulness, beauty and all the virtues that human beings need to aspire to, which are invariably portrayed in those operatic war horses of the past two centuries. I always believe that art should have a didactic and an aesthetic purpose e.g. to inspire people to embrace and practise those immutable qualities which are timeless, not time sensitive, though very much contrary to the polarized sentiments, opinions and practices of current times.
3. Jonas Kaufmann’s recent criticism on Regietheater
The term Regietheater by itself is neutral, a movement intended to give directors greater freedom in exercising their creativity in the interpretation of an opera, working as partners with their music colleagues – i.e. in the true spirit of Gesamtkunstwerk where all the elements work in unison to deliver the composer’s work holistically. There have been ingenious reinterpretations under the auspices of Regietheater over the decades, but in time, especially more recently, many such attempts, whether because of the directors’ lack of understanding of the works or indifference, have so distorted the original operas that their dramatic and musical significance are lost in the rubble of such reinterpretations. In addition, some of the productions are downright offensive, vulgar, grotesque endorsed under the banner of “modernization”, with many of the stage sets and direction being out of sync with the lyrics and drama. Portrayal of sex, in various permutations! has become an indispensable feature; nudity, violence and bloodshed no less. Singers are forced to go half naked, feign sex intercourse, perform unreasonable acrobatic feats while singing an aria. In a recent production of Così fan tutte, I find it difficult to correlate Mozart’s music with Don Alfonso romping in his underwear on a mattress which looks like something discarded on the curb side. Then, Ferrando and Guglielmo toyed with an oversized rubber penis, and humping their sweethearts on the floor. This is just one example of what gives Regietheater a bad name, unfortunately. And this is the kind of Regietheater of which Kaufmann is specifically critical, and I applaud him for speaking up for himself and for all those who dare not speak. But having said that obviously there are among the audience regional differences in their predilection for the types of production treatment that appeal to them. My comments primarily reflect my own personal observation and judgement but may be shared by other opera lovers.
Regietheater vs Modern Productions
There is a tendency to associate Regietheater with modern stage design and direction. In fact, Regietheater defies time and space, and could be set in any specific or spectrum of time. Much can be said for those “modernized”, not necessarily modern, productions that brought freshness and new meaning to existing works, while preserving dramatic integrity, decency, and self-respect for the singers. But they are few and far between and seem to be getting even far fewer.
Why are new/modern productions necessary, what triggered this increasingly feverish pursuit for modern productions? To add freshness to the dated staging? To stimulate the audience’s interest and box office robustness ….？ All these are valid considerations. But a key driver is – COST. A lot of the props for recent modern productions look like things salvaged from secondhand stores or dug up from the singers’ own wardrobe, or even just a bare stage! Running shoes are cheaper than period designer shoes, and bare feet cost nothing. Chairs can be cheaply obtained anywhere, a blown-up balloon castle (as in the Così production I mentioned) definitely costs next to nothing compared to a wooden one. Such executions are hastily conceived and cheaply developed though justified under the banner of “modern”. It is in vogue to declare that “traditional” staging is antiquated and modern is progressive!
Given the Met’s traditional high standards for authenticity and aesthetic excellence, the costs for their productions are usually astronomical, but the initial costs are generally depreciated over decades of deployment. Dipping into their endowment fund to maintain such high standards is only viable if replenishment is foreseeable. Modern sets, however, offer them a potential opportunity to cut costs, but also allow them to make a political statement of being with the times!
That said, I feel sorry for the younger generations who may/will never have the privilege of seeing grand operas as presented in their golden era. To this day, my daughter remains thankful for having seen at the Met, Turandot, Carmen and Der Rosenkavalier, then only 18, in all their glory over one weekend, after which she begged for more. Sadly, the demise of these productions may not be too far down the road as modernization at significantly reduced costs will necessitate operas to be presented e.g. in slums, run down gas stations or even an empty stage ..… your imagination is the limit. But that seems to be a reality and it is politically correct!
5. A Final Thought.
Increasingly I am seeing a trend of blurring of lines between “classic” and “modern”. New works labelled as operas could even be called musicals or vice versa. Modern music compositions could be appreciated like popular music or film scores (why not, if composed by Dmitri Shostakovich, Erich Korngold or Philip Glass!!), thus democratizing what have been considered the domain of the elite. A parallel is the replacement of the catholic liturgy in Latin by the vernacular – “so that people can recognize themselves and their realities”!!! Perhaps in time we will see an amalgamation of the two-genre generating healthier attendance and box office receipts, and thus blending the elite with the plebeians!
*For the 2023 New Year Concert at the Musikvererein, Franz Welzer-Möst had programmed some unknown pieces (14?) by Joseph Lanner and Strauss father and son. There could be many hidden operatic gems of composers of the past centuries just waiting to be discovered.