The Non-Idiot’s Guide to Opera (English version)

 Heather Mac Donald,

One of the most impressive manifestos against the so-called Regietheater is “The Abduction of Opera” (2007). The author, Heather Mac Donald, is an “influential institute thinker” and describes herself as a “secular conservative”. In the aforementioned article she controversially (DNO would say “indecently”) derides “trashy productions by trendy nihilists”. She dares to suggest that Die Entführung aus dem Serail would do just fine without cutting off a prostitute’s nipples. Nor is it necessary to provide masturbation and urinary or oral sex with a KV number.

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The Regietheater, Mac Donald observes, assumes that a director’s interpretation is just as important as the composer’s intention, if not more important. By an inexplicable coincidence, many contemporary directors have discovered excessive sex, violence and “politics” in operas ranging from the early Baroque to late Romanticism. A depressing development in a culture that apparently does not tolerate its own aesthetic heritage.

The damage inflicted on Mozart, Handel, Verdi e tutti quanti also has its effect on the so intensely sought-after “new audience” that has never attended an opera that has not been ruined, and therefore does not know any better.

Merrily dying in La Traviata.

Mac Donald also denounces the hypocrisy of, for example, director Bieito (but not just him) for claiming “I think I am very loyal to Mozart”. As for so many directors of the Regietheater, happy endings are a no-no for Bieito, as are all values that are contrary to his own clichéd world view. The New York critic Alex Ross observed “a shocking intellectual laziness in the idea that the past must be problematized and that works from the past must be ‘saved’ from their ideological presuppositions”. “If you look at the miserable mess the world is in,” Ross said at a time when people had never heard of the coronavirus, “you could assume that it is our ideological presuppositions that are inherently flawed, and that we can draw very useful moral lessons from the past”.

There have been singers, said Mac Donald, who have walked out of productions, but most of the time it’s a question of grin and bear it and make the best of it.  Diana Damrau was in Munich in the infamous “Rigoletto on the Planet of the Apes” (audience brought bananas) and at the time coolly declared: “I stuck to my contract, but what a superficial mess!”

The insidious mechanism of the Regietheater is to hitch a ride on the composer’s genius. If Bieito is so concerned about the abuses in the contemporary sex trade, let him “write his own damn opera”, says Mac Donald. But if he can’t hitch a free ride on the backs of Mozart or Verdi, the director of the Regietheater is absolutely nothing.

The cartel of Regietheater directors is demonstrably deaf to the dramatic demands of the music in which it exhibits its artifice. In Don Giovanni, Bieito hears the “nihilism of the modern world”. According to Mac Donald, with such blatant nonsense, he forfeits the right to even purchase a Mozart CD.

Moreover, when directors take operas out of their historical context, they close a precious window that offers a view of the past. Operas about nobility, virtue, the duties of rulers and subjects, mirror a world one that whet our inquisitive appetites. If we are denied this possibility, and given a load of balderdash in return, then our access to a better understanding of what life used to be like is also blocked.

The last thing a solipsistic “modern” director wants to be accused of is lovingly conveying works from the past. Stephen Wadsworth, Head of the Opera Department of The Juilliard School and Staff Director of the Metropolitan, has expressed the task of an opera director in an appealing way: “Whoever is given responsibility for an opera production has in fact the same tasks as the person responsible for exhibiting important paintings. It is certainly not our job to repaint them. We only have to deal with questions such as ‘where should we hang the paintings?’, ‘how do we expose them?’, ‘what is the optimal context?’, ‘how do we present them to the public in a way that the public can appreciate?’ and ‘how can we possibly contextualize the works in terms of that painter’s oeuvre?’ ”

Simon Boccanegra, an opera from 1857. The vintage car already has its alarm lights on.

If you’re not familiar with Heather Mac Donald’s extremely interesting article, you can read it HERE.

So, the next question is: is everything so bad in the opera world now? As a matter of fact, it is. We have fantastic orchestras, singers and conductors all over the world, but most of the performances are crushed, ruined and mutilated by all the blatherskites out there. Anyone who has attended, in a single lifetime, a Macbeth by Andrea Breth, a Bohème by Pierre Audi, a Salome by Peter Konwitschny and, most atrocious of all, the Madama Butterfly by Robert Wilson, bears an eternal scar on their soul.

But there are hopeful signs, in the sense that are skilful directors out there with a thorough  understanding of opera and without the unbearable burden of a heavy backpack with regurgitated ego-hairballs surrounded by polluted air.

The King of directors is dead, Franco Zeffirelli. “Long live the king” is premature, because The Successor is not yet found. But with some perseverance, one can find some fine directors if you are prepared to follow unknown paths. These routes do not lead to Amsterdam, Frankfurt or Brussels. Finally, we don’t want to deprive you of a little anecdote. When, in October 2015, visitors to The Amsterdam Music Theatre were treated by director Àlex Ollé to nuns wearing gas masks in Ollé’s version of Il Trovatore, there was only one topic of conversation during the pause: the fantastic Madama Butterfly by director Laurence Dale, which was performed on 8 and 10 October in Carré, a stone’s throw away.

Carmen calls that she’s a bit late and does a #metoo

Laurence Dale is one of the directors to whom we will be paying attention at Opera Gazet in the coming weeks. But there are more: Pier Luigi Pizzi, Hugo de Ana, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, David McVicar, Ruggero Raimondi… And Otto Schenk is still alive too!

There are more things in heaven and earth, Sophia,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Olivier Keegel

Heather Mac Donald, The Abduction of Opera, in “City Journal”, a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank.
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Olivier Keegel


Chief Editor since 2019. Does not need much more than Verdi, Bellini and Donizetti. Wishes to resuscitate Tito Schipa and Fritz Wunderlich. Certified unmasker of directors' humbug.

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marina Boagno
1 year ago

I totally agree, both with Oliver and with Mrs. MacDonald. I just feel the need to add that staging operas as the autohos conceiverd and wrote them does in no way mean they share all the moral or social values which existed at the time the opera was written. For instance, no one, I think, believe it is fair for Renato planniung to kill his supposedly unfaithful wife, or fot Count de Luna to burn Azucena’s mother. But THOSE are the stories, and a work of art cannot be changed just because one self-proclaimed Genius says if should have been… Read more »