Opera is not a museum !

Much has been written about the historical background of Regietheater in opera, also in Opera Gazet. We can deal with historical explanations exhaustively as much as we like, but in the meantime we are stuck with it: Regietrash continues to drift through the sewers of European opera houses, and the handkerchief with eau-de-cologne can no longer compete with it.

Regietheater is an evil and malignant phenomenon that has managed to take hold without encountering any significant opposition. People will look in vain for intellectual justification. Regietrash is an expression of a so-called “modern sense of life”, a cherished gem in the cultural baggage of Today’s People; if you don’t surrender to it, you belong to a fossil generation that polishes its 78 rpm records every week and gawk at the signed photo of Magda Olivero hanging on the wall with a melancholy look on your face.

There is no well-drafted story with reasons why a libretto does not need to be respected. One gets no further than nonsensical one-liners. The fallacies with which Johnny Modern tries to justify the Entführung aus dem Serail placed in a brothel have long been known. In fact, there is a kind of top-50. Here are 10 of them.

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  1. Opera is not a museum!

A classic. Strictly speaking it is difficult to disagree with this cliché. Sure, opera is not a museum, just as a tour boat is not a museum. Many things are not museums! Except museums. What it means is: opera is a “living art form”, implying that art objects in a museum do not “live”, which is already a dubious assertion. Operas, for example from the 18th and 19th century, are an episodic art form that should not be tampered with. The Then and There is intrinsically of value for the Here and Now. Why should everything always have to be “updated”, with the well-known bizarre excesses as a result? By the way: “museum” comes from the Greek “Mouseĩon”, originally “place where the muses are venerated”, just like an Opera House.

  1. Opera is more than just beautiful pictures.

This is where we must appeal to the argumentation theory. Lovers of libretto opera are being attacked here on a claim they never made. No sane opera lover has ever claimed that “opera is nothing more than beautiful pictures”. The fact that Regietheater-adepts feel compelled to resort to these fallacies is due to their lack of real arguments. Moreover, they profile themselves as intellectually superior to the supposedly “beautiful pictures viewers”. Not that there is anything wrong with “beautiful pictures” in opera. The greatest opera director of all time, Franco Zeffirelli, has convincingly demonstrated this with his wonderful, breath-taking productions. So, yes, an opera is indeed much more than beautiful pictures. It is music. Singing.

One can perform opera even without staging, but one cannot do so without singers. We advise Regietheater adepts to focus more on listening instead of seeing. Additionally, no one asks for Florestan’s prison to look beautiful. It is supposed to look like a prison in the 18th Century and not like Guantanamo. Same goes for the refugee camp in Macbeth, needless to say that it is set at the Scottish Border in the 11th century, and not in Kurdistan in 2014. And furthermore, the castle of Count Almaviva is supposed to look beautiful. Even if the French Revolution was just ahead and the days of the Ancien Régime were numbered, the Almavivas certainly did not live in a garbage dump.

  1. A staging faithful to the libretto? Stupid frontal stage singing!

The set is a large building of grey concrete on a rotating stage. The set could basically be used for countless operas, but here we are supposed to see Aida: Bavarian State Opera 2009. This production by German director Christoph Nel, who is known to involve his wife, a psychologist, in his productions, made Barbara Frittoli flee from the premiere. She was replaced by the young and talented Kristin Lewis.

“Stupid frontal singing”

A psychologist on the production team must inevitably lead to great acting performances, one would think. But…. nada! Mrs Lewis and the late Salvatore Licitra stood next to the orchestra pit like pillars of salt. As if they were glued there. The rotating scenery left no room for any action whatsoever. Another example: Macbeth in Munich. The whole stage is full of bones and skulls. No room for any singer to move. The choir does sing but is mostly invisible, with a few extras serving as witches. Both productions are exemplary. Excellent frontal singing, but in a misplaced environment. Has anyone ever seen Franco Zeffirelli’s or Otto Schenk‘s human-oriented, detailed (personal) direction? There is good reason why people used to say about these productions: “es menschelt” [it is human]. Just to remember: the worst frontal vocals can be found in Regietheater productions.

  1. The way you want it… that cannot be done these days! That is ridiculous!

Is that true? The way we want it can no longer be done in 2020? Really, is “the way we want it” so ridiculous? The way we want it is quite simply: leave the masterpiece intact, leave the composer and librettist in peace. However preponderant the composer of an opera may be, it is almost always the work of two creative artists: the composer and the librettist (who sometimes coincide in one and the same person). Composer and librettist form an inseparable entity as do a composition and libretto. What we “traditionalists” find ridiculous is a La Bohème in a spaceship.

Ridiculous, childish and a slap in the face of Puccini and librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. And with that a slap in the face of the sincere opera lover.
  1. Opera should be understood by modern people by modern means.

“Modern people”, the scourge of opera. Today’s People! They go to an opera… for the sole purpose of going to an opera. They imagine themselves in the intellectual vanguard and uncritically imitate the humbug of the Regietrash directors. Allergic to any knowledge of singers, voices, opera and performance tradition, they use a despicable jargon in which qualitatively irrelevant empty phrases like ” actual” (“has lost nothing of its actuality!“), “urgent ” and “disorientating ” play the leading role, not to mention “the new jacket” in which operas are dressed, so that courtesan Violetta can be turned into a vulgar street whore. Today’s People, a deplorable species…


  1.  So boring!

So boring! So old-fashioned! So dusty! Such expressions are statements often used by the Regietheater adepts to denigrate traditional productions. In the end, all these qualifications are nothing more than subjective opinions. Everyone is, of course, entitled to his or her opinion, but there is never any argument to start a factual discussion. Instead, the emphasis is on a pejorative and aggressive way of silencing others. In Franco Zeffirelli’s famous Turandot staging at the Met, there is usually loud applause for the open scene change when the golden imperial palace appears in the middle of act II. The same goes for Otto Schenk’s and Jürgen Rose’s Rosenkavalier in Munich when the curtain for the second act was opened – that applause remains, even though these productions are decades old. This is a clear indication that traditional productions are generally not regarded as ‘boring’ by the public at all.

  1. Regietheater attracts young people; without youth the opera is doomed.
    Yes, perhaps opera without young people in the opera hall is doomed. But the Regietheater is certainly not the solution to attract young people. Young people and children, as après-opera surveys show time and again, love the magic, the splendour, and the opulence. How else could one explain the success of Harry Potter, of Disney films and all those musicals? Zauberflöte, Hänsel und Gretel, Les Contes d’Hoffmann but also Idomeneo, Aida, and Flying Dutchman have the potential to meet the wishes of a young audience. However, these wishes can only be fulfilled if the works are performed in keeping with the libretto. Imagine a child who has carefully prepared himself for his first Magic Flute. There are all sorts of fantasy images in his head, but all too often they are brutally disturbed by some terrible Regietheater director. Do you really believe that this child will become a future opera fanatic? Moreover, there is an equally important question: how do you hold on to the older audience in times of Regietrash? You certainly cannot afford to lose this target group.
  1. Wagner said it himself: “KINDER MACHT NEUES!”

Yes, Wagner said: “Kinder macht Neues” (or “Kinder schafft Neues“). This quote has absolutely nothing to do with Regietheater. It is a quote from a letter to Liszt, in which Wagner denounced Berlioz for continuously tinkering with his Benvenuto Cellini. Wagner meant: “Children make new compositions”. He certainly did not mean: “Kinder schafft Regietheater”. Wagner did not say: let the Rheintöchter become prostitutes or let Castorf work in my Festspielhaus. He did not say let Venus drive a caravan and let Tannhäuser eat at McDonald’s.

As we know, Wagner, who grew up in the romantic tradition of Beethoven, Weber and Heinrich Marschner, created a new type of opera, the Musikdrama, revolutionizing not only the formal structures of opera, but shifting harmonic rules with the Tristan Chord. “Kinder, Papa Wagner hat Neues gemacht!” Wagner cared a lot about the sets, costumes and stage machinery for the performances of his works – he was very frustrated about the technical limits of his time, and, for instance, was very upset about the disappointing dragon in the staging of the Siegfried World Premiere. Wagner was indeed the champion of the Performance Faithful to the Libretto.

  1. Verdi himself has moved Ballo in Maschera from Sweden to Boston: why should a director not move this opera to the Russian mafia milieu?

Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi. A Latin phrase, literally “What is permissible for Jupiter may not be permissible for a bull”. Needless to say, Jupiter stands for Verdi, and the role of bull is ideally suited to the “Modern, Ground-breaking Director”. But seriously: Sad enough, Verdi’s expressions were always limited by the interference of censorship. How would Rigoletto have looked, if the Jester would have been at the French Court and not, as we know him, in Mantova? Macbeth, Don Carlo(s), La Forza and Simon Boccanegra have been thoroughly revised by Verdi. The relocation of Ballo from Sweden to Boston was part of a careful creative process. Verdi knew exactly where a work was supposed to take place. In any case, the Russian mafia has nothing to do with Ballo, just as the Planet of the Apes has nothing to do with Rigoletto. Do not let the Bull become Jupiter!

10. You traditionalists prefer to leave your brains in the wardrobe.
First, the term “traditionalist” is impure and false. There is nothing “traditional” about the appreciation of an uncontaminated work of art. Are those who prefer the original Mona Lisa to a Mona Lisa wearing sunglasses “traditionalists” ? Leaving your thinking behind in the wardrobe of course refers to the mantra of Today’s People that opera “should make you think”.

A pseudo-intellectual requirement that has taken the place of enjoying an opera. An opera can move you, seize you, but at the end of the day it is just an evening out. And there is nothing wrong with that at all. Never let yourself be denied the right to enjoy music, singing and beautiful costumes.

Marco Ziegler & Olivier Keegel
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Ad Middendorp
Ad Middendorp
7 months ago

Hear! Hear, an excellent lecture in good taste!