Why director-driven travesty beats bland traditionalism in opera any day.

Many might read the headline of this article and immediately let their eyes wander. If you’re a regular reader of any opera blog or magazine you’ll notice that many – indeed, most – commentators despise Regietheater. You’ll also discern from letters columns and blog comments that many readers share their sentiments. Regietheater is “one of the most depressing artistic developments of our time; it suggests a culture that cannot tolerate its own legacy of beauty and nobility,” says Heather Mac Donald in her virtuoso critique, The Abduction of Opera. Ouch.

What is Regietheater? The literal translation is “directors’ theatre”, but Regietheater is generally used in a negative sense to describe theatrical productions in which the director radically alters the original setting of the libretto or play and in doing so essentially restages the work, ignoring or suppressing elements of the original stage directions. 

Now, this in itself is not that controversial. Think about the last Shakespeare play you might have seen. Most theatre directors update as a matter of course. But in opera, these kinds of restagings have caused quite a stir. One of the most notorious productions in recent history was Calixto Bieito’s 2004 production of Abduction from the Seraglio. Instead of the 18th-century “country house of the Pasha, in Turkey” of the libretto, Bieito set the work in an Eastern European brothel. Real-life prostitutes paraded the stage and every opportunity was taken to depict sex, violence and realistic torture. Bieito’s production of Un Ballo in Maschera had a row of men sitting on toilets in the opening scene. So when people speak of Regietheater disparagingly, they generally refer to the use of gratuitous sex scenes, out-of-place costumes (spacesuits), ideas (rape), and props (dildos). 

Bieito’s work was distasteful, violent and popular. What is the alternative to Regietheater? “60-plus retirees like myself […] prefer our opera to be produced the way the composers intended,” reads a blog comment. This is impossibility. There is the unintentional whiff of Wagner, for instance, in every production that uses an opera pit to place the orchestra beneath the stage, for he was the first to widely advocate the “invisible” orchestra. If we really want to perform in the way the composers before Wagner intended, we might place the orchestra on the auditorium level (which is what I do in productions for Pinchgut Opera, to good effect, I think). But here begins the slippery slope of “authenticity.” Where does one stop? Regardless of how exact a reconstructionist performance might be, we must all – performer and audience member alike – contend with our modern sensibilities. 

Not all Regietheater of the controversial sort is necessary or good. A lot of it is garbage. But I get worried when operagoers profess that they prefer “traditional,” non-interventionist stagings. What are these exactly? Mac Donald proffers many trenchant observations about the state of American and European opera in her article, but, like many critics of the phenomenon, she is on her weakest ground when she offers alternatives. She closes her critique with a plea to allow operas simply “to speak for themselves.” How is this possible? Who calls the work into being? How does it speak for itself if not through the very medium of interpretation, whether “regie” or otherwise? Musicologist Richard Taruskin notes that “the idea of letting the music speak for itself implies hostility, contempt or at least mistrust of performers.” I get the feeling that Mac Donald would – like Brahms – eschew the opera house itself and contently sit at home and read the score.

Personally, I’ll take the worst Regietheater over a bland production or a recording any day. Like it or not, Regietheater mirrors our own culture, warts and all. The best theatre attempts to find contemporary meaning in works of the past; of necessity it mediates and negotiates different historical realities. At the end of the day we are all modern creatures who can’t forget Wagner and his opera pit. All present operatic productions carry with them the ghosts of the past. Try as we might, we cannot exorcise them. And even if we could, I think that would be an unconscionable denial of who we are.

Erin Helyard is the co-artistic director of Pinchgut Opera. This article appears in the June issue of Limelight.