Handel's Julius Caesar at the English National Opera

Opera is sick. Very sick. Once handsome and noble, its formerly elegant features have over recent years become ever more contorted and distorted beneath a toxic, suppurating excrescence commonly known as Regietheater. That some dispute the validity of the use of the word is in the context neither here nor there; it is universally recognised among those with involvement in opera as the term used for the bastardised so-called productions of the egomaniacs that currently rule the opera houses of Europe and beyond. Let me first make clear that it is not my intention here to recite, Leporello-like, a list of crimes committed against opera by the practitioners of Regietheater. It is already possible to do this in a number of places, not least several excellent articles by the American academic and critic Heather Mac Donald, most notably ‘The abduction of Opera’ (City Journal, Summer 2007, available on-line), which takes its impetus from a hideously brutal Berlin Komische Oper production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, but which serves generally as being representative of Mac Donald’s trenchant criticism of the genre. Neither will it be my purpose to name the major activists; such is the vanity and solipsistic view of life of most practitioners of Regietheater that they would probably take perverse pleasure in being identified as the destroyers of a once elevated and dignified art form. Indeed, I sense I can already hear from some quarters the foaming-mouthed howls of derision that greet the words ‘elevated’ and dignified’.

It is perhaps worth a reminder that for more than two thirds of the time it has been in existence, the producer or director was an unknown beast in the operatic jungle. Until near the close of the nineteenth century an opera production was in invariably in the hands of the stage designer, the librettist and the conductor (not infrequently also the composer). It was not unusual for all three to provide input, but what is particularly salient is that staging was generally undertaken by those intimately involved with the creation of the opera concerned. During the course of the nineteenth century such functions in Germany tended to become focused in the hands of the composer in the case of Weber and, particularly, of course, Wagner, while in Italy and France the highly formalized disposizione and the codification work of régisseurs respectively. It is thus hardly surprising that the malignant seeds that would ultimately grow triffid-like into Regietheater were first sown in Germany in the work of such as Adolphe Appia and Max Reinhardt, although it is worth casting a sideways glance at the English designer and director Edward Gordon Craig, in the first decade of the twentieth century one the first to espouse anti-realist staging and, interestingly, an innovator of the idea of replacing actors with puppets, today a cobweb-infested cliché employed in both the most recent DVD opera recordings sent to me for review.

While there appears to be no consensus of opinion accounting for the alarming rise of Regietheater, most commentators agree that it has its poisonous roots in the strong left-wing reaction to Nazism that arose after World War II, and was furthered by the violent student movement of the 1960s, ‘a manifestation of the triumph of adolescent culture’, as Mac Donald puts it. It is therefore no surprise to find that in the late 1960s one of the leading protagonists of Regietheater was responsible for leading a gang of student provocateurs in vulgar protests against opera productions they considered too traditional. Like most revolutions, this one had nothing valid to put in the place of what it had overthrown, only the wish for anarchy and the desire to replace beauty with nihilism and ugly, gross modernism. ‘To hell with beauty, it’s a kitsch notion’, in the words of one senior British director who is by no means one of the worst exponents of Regietheater.

Today we are left with an all-enveloping plague of Regietrash that has seriously been resisted to an extent only in the United States, since there it is well-heeled sponsors who call the tune, not state-funded administrators. This highly contagious disease is a phenomenon that exists in many forms, running the gamut from relatively innocent childishness – the equivalent of painting a moustache on the face of the Mona Lisa – to the depiction of the gratuitous obscenity, sex, blasphemy and violence so beloved of some producers, pornography that, to use the metaphor again, might be compared to defecating on the face of the Mona Lisa. All this is avowedly done under the pretext of producing cutting-edge productions that arrogantly assume that audiences need to be put in touch with the modern world when they enter the opera house. In fact there is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that is precisely what they do not want, even in the case of younger opera-goers. The Sunday Times recently conducted an interesting experiment in which five young people who had never attended an opera before were taken to the ENO’s Don Giovanni, a production of a work described by its producer in typical fashion as being ‘not just about the eighteenth century – it’s just as much about now’. Two of the most telling reactions to the performance came from young women, one of whom declared herself ‘disappointed by the modern production’, while another said she ‘was expecting something more traditional, more opulent and beautiful’.

The opportunities for these young women to see a ‘more opulent and beautiful’ Don Giovanni, or indeed any other opera, will be few and far between, for today a whole generation has grown up with precious little opportunity to experience opera in a form faithful to the intentions of its composer and librettist. And thereby lies the unforgivable crime of Regietheater, which had it remained a niche experimental form of staging opera might have had a valid place in contemporary society. Instead it has become an insidious paradigm. 

How have we allowed this to come about? How has one of mankind’s most glorious achievements fallen into the hands of this freakish band of directors that seeks only to demean the form in its own narcissistic, solipsistic image?  How have we come to be beholden to such as one of the most outré of this ill-begotten breed who can trenchantly assert that he is ‘faithful to Mozart’, a claim that carries as much validity as would Richard Dawkins declaring he is faithful to God? It is my firm conviction that no part of the operatic world, from administrators, to conductors, to singers, critics and audiences can escape censure.

For many years the administrators and intendants of major European opera houses have naively courted the celebrities and enfants terrible of theatre and cinema, many of whom have no knowledge of and no interest in opera, in the belief that their names on the production sheet will provide cachet, or better still a succès de scandale that will fill the opera house. Sadly and reprehensibly, they have far too often been proved correct, especially in Germany. Many such administrators are all too ready to defend their infatuation with Regietheater. Typical is the article ‘In defence of Regietheater’ (published in the on-line arts magazine Limelight), an attack on Mac Donald by the director of an Australian opera company, in which he says he will take the worst Regietheater production over a bland production. This is also a common theme among certain critics, but in no case known to me has anyone troubled to explain what constitutes a ‘bland’ or ‘boring’ production. Doubtless one set in period that respects the aims of the composer and librettist.  Little better than such administrators are conductors, once the top dogs of the opera house, who have either cravenly abdicated their important role in contributing input to the staging, or, like many critics, simply become ‘fellow travellers’. Particularly open to derision are conductors in the field of early music who insist on the correct use of period instruments, while at the same time conducting Handel operas set in the sewers of Berlin or suchlike. One conductor/harpsichordist who has directed more than his fair share of such productions – his most recent effort at the time of writing has an Amy Winehouse look-a-like playing Cherubini’s Medea – makes no secret for his preference for playing original keyboard instruments rather than the modern copies. It seems he is unable to see the paradox. The role of singers calls for more sympathy, since it is well established that many are opposed to and embarrassed by the excesses of Regitheater. Yet the days of a Jon Vickers are long gone and such is the dictatorial hegemony of directors that many singers are too fearful for their future to oppose what they often know to be a banal traducement of the work in which they have been hired to appear.

If the position of singers warrants a degree of understanding, there can be no excuses made for some of my fellow critics, whose role in this story is particularly shameful. In general terms such critics can be divided into two categories: those whose love and understanding of opera is as superficial as the practitioners of Regietheater; and the glib and trendy followers of cult fashion who spend their lives being fearful of being left behind and looking outmoded, and whose preposterous endorsement of the worst excesses of Regietheater leave them open to ridicule. Such critics, frequently young writers learning on the job, see only the emperor’s new cloths when they enter the opera house. So today’s opera-goer, who should be able to rely on the views of well-informed critics, is instead too frequently left at the mercy of the camp followers of Regietrash, people who have the temerity to write about opera while being largely ignorant of its rich history and background. One greets with derision such reviews as that of a recent DVD of La Boheme that was described as a “period” production, the clear implication being that in today’s operatic world that it is an oddity.

With the connivance of an unruly mob of administrators, conductors and critics, the staging of opera has thus arrived at the lowest point in its long history, an art form without integrity, without beauty, without grace, without dignity, without significance. The message of Hector Berlioz, who himself suffered from gross philistinism, demands to be heeded:  “You musicians, you poets, prose-writers, actors, pianists, conductors, whether of third or second or even first rank, you do not have the right to meddle with a Shakespeare or a Beethoven, in order to bestow on them the blessings of your knowledge and taste.”