Archive for June, 2010

Regietheater, I rebuke you with the blood of Ludwig

June 23, 2010

Speaking of Regietheater let me share with you, dear readers, this recent act of faith against the infidels of Regietheater and an interesting insider’s comment:     

In a recent interview Carl St. Clair,     

Carl St. Clair


a Californian conductor, explained that his premature cancellation of his contract with Komische Oper in Berlin was due to what he experienced as  the “darkest side of Regietheater”. Mr. St. Clair felt that Beethoven’s “Fidelio” was “desecrated” under the director Benedikt von Peter.     

Benedikt von Peter - director


In the discussion that followed  the  interview with Mr. St. Clair,  Emilio Pons,  an opera singer familiar with the German and American operatic stage and behind-the-curtain affairs aptly explained:     

Emilio Pons - tenor


I am a US- and Russia trained, Mexican born, Germany-based professional opera singer with a modest yet international career.
I want to begin by stating for the record that I am not a fan of Regietheater either, but neither am I a fan of boring, “traditional” stagings which contribute nothing to furthering the public’s awareness and exposure to the genre, and which, much to my chagrin, abound in the United States.
I too am glad that someone finally had the integrity to fight to uphold his own artistic principles. But I firmly believe that American audiences should be careful before making such blank statements as those stated in all of the comments above.
First of all, American and European sensibilities when it comes to opera are substantially different, mainly because of the European’s (and particularly the German’s) considerably greater acquaintance with opera. Americans know –and as a whole appreciate– a much narrower range of repertoire (which is heavy on Puccini and Verdi, with some Händel and Mozart added to the equation, as well as the occasional French opera, and a handful of Slavic titles that are considered a rarity in that country).
The average German’s “consumption” simply cannot be paralleled in the United States due to the sheer number of theaters and performances per capita that exist in Germany. The US has absolutely no theaters with a regular “Fest” ensemble of soloist; they all work under a “stagione” scheme (with the exception of the Met, which nowadays nonetheless only works with singers who are hired as guests, no mater how regularly they may appear there). Therefore, there is no rotation of operas within a single theater in the US (again, with the exception of the Met) the way it works in every single theater in Germany.
Your average German town has a thriving cultural life. Where is the “Opera Theater of Evansville, IN”? or of “Little Rock, AR”? Yet these cities have a population equivalent to that of Heidelberg or Essen, respectively, which host a B and an A theater, again, respectively, both of which present dozens -if not over a hundred in Essen’s case- of opera performances per year of a myriad of titles and enjoy solid national and international reputations.
Furthermore, Germans understand the crucial role that culture should play in a country’s development. I have sung not only repertoire staples such as Mozart’s “Zauberflöte” but even rarities such as Martinu’s “Drei Wünsche” to sold out audiences on a random Monday night. And I, for one, as one of hundreds of Fest singers scattered across the German theater system, have over two hundred performances within a few years, something which only world-class stars in the US can claim to have done given the extremely limited number of performances that, by contrast, exist in the US.
The latter, one should note, is in turn the result of the fact that the US government spends trillions of dollars on its military but comparatively speaking, invests “peanuts” on the education of its people. The German government heavily subsidizes its theaters; US opera companies depend grossly on donors and sponsors. It is no surprise that as a result of the current financial crisis, many opera companies had to shut down in the US.
In short, in terms of attendance and acquaintance with the genre, the only thing that compares to German’s opera consumption is the American’s consumption of blockbuster films.
Contrary to some of you may believe — and even have the audacity to claim — Benedikt von Peter is anything but a “one-off” “Enfant terrible.” As assistant to internationally acclaimed Christof Loy, Benedikt von Peter had plenty of time to learn and develop his skills as a stage director –and trust me, his staging technique is impeccable and his work ethic unbeatable. And as a stage director in his own right, he already has a well established international career, and many of his productions (including, for example, his “Dialogues des Carmelites” in Basel, Switzerland) have been highly acclaimed.
I have worked with Mr. von Peter and I can assure you that the way he works with the singers is magnificent. He is very precise and very articulate, and he is a professional, clever and creative artist. I loved working with him during Tchaikovsky’s “Onegin” (in which I sang Lensky) even though, having begun my career at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, I disagreed with his aesthetic take on it. Still, you can rest assured that he knew exactly what he was doing.
American “opera fans”, particularly of the type that take opera as an excuse to wear a tuxedo and celebrate a personal occasion preluded by a fancy dinner and expect to be “entertained” at the opera, really should make the effort of traveling to the old continent to learn from the way in which opera is made, lived, perceived and consumed in Europe, before voicing their misinformed opinions.


The Stuttgart Ring – All things German

June 20, 2010


The video recording of the “Ring of the  Nibelung”, Wagner’s four operas, produced by the Stuttgart Opera, was recorded for the DVD release between 2002 and 2003. It was the third DVD-recorded Ring. The legendary production of the Bayreuth Festival with Pierre Boulez as conductor and Patrice Chéreau as stage director in 1976 created a very humanized Ring marking the hundredth anniversary of the first Ring première. The Boulez/Chéreau  production was set in a world already shaped by the industrial revolution with business suits replacing the mythical attire. It is considered to be most influential and, according to many, unsurpassed production of the Ring. The New York Metropolitan Opera DVD, under the conductorship of James Levine in 1990, brought the drama of these four operas into the context of fantasy-world characters maybe inspired by Star Wars. Although musically acclaimed for having a great cast of singers the Met’s Ring is not mind-provoking in a way that makes the connection with contemporary human issues transparent.

The Stuttgart Ring relates the plot back to human and contemporary elements. It is also provocative for its lack of hesitation to openly include graphic sexual content and powerful eroticism. The stage and costume designs are reduced to an understatement with an exclamation mark. 

The voices of those who find themselves offended by the Stuttgart Ring’s dramatization are loud and can be heard at the forums of layman as well as among the official critique. Yet, many agree that the orchestra and singing are remarkable. It is interesting to see how Wagner’s operas continue to polarize those who claim to be fascinated by his musical genius.

Although each of the individual operas of the Stuttgart Ring production have been directed by a different director and different singers appear in each in the roles of the recurring characters, there is a common ground for all four of them.

The Ring saga is about the world of human beings, how they established the order in which they enslave each other in a hypnotic dream in search of happiness through gaining power over one another.

The Stuttgart Ring is a good illustration of what in the North American operatic criticism is often referred to in a horrified voice as Regietheater. There is another term that more or less means the same: “Eurotrash”. This unsavory word found its niche territory in opera review discourse, a still lively enclave of permissible hate-speech. It is fascinating to see how the rigidity of expectation leads to a feeling of  betrayal. The words used to articulate this betrayal alas seldom fall short of vulgarity. All this because the production team of an opera took a creative liberty into their hands.  

In an interview by Per-Erik Skramstad and Mostly Opera  with Peter Konwitschny, the director of the “Twilight of the Gods” of the Stuttgart Ring, Mr. Konwitschny said:

The theatre is not a museum. The essence of a theatrical performance cannot consist of just showing the presumed intents of the author as they were displayed at the original première or, rather could have been displayed at the original première. The purpose of a theatrical performance primarily consists in having a dialogue with the audience about essential themes in society as well as in the lives of the individual.

The intention of the Stuttgart Ring is directed towards exploring the depths of human experience and has no concern for selling itself to anyone. Pleasing the senses or the expectations of those who consider art as a commodity and who would like to see  “value for their money” has not been a part of the consideration in this production. Those who get offended without realizing their own shortsightedness disqualify themselves on the grounds of snobbery, acknowledging thereby that for them appearance is paramount to substance.

There seems to be something genuinely German in the dramatization of this Ring. A parallel can be drawn in the timeline of these operas and the developing trends which affected Germany. It was around the Sixties that the rejuvenating energy of survival, which carried out the rebirth of West Germany after the devastating ruin of  WWII, started to wear out while the economy continued to outgrow the limits of the territorial boundaries. The Stuttgart Ring comes into existence at an interesting historical moment for Germany, the moment of repose, where yesterday’s contenders, the Soviet Union and America, voluntarily reduced themselves to a trophy and a con-man in thin disguise respectively… 

Stay tuned for a review of each of the Stuttgart Ring  operas appearing here soon.