In a recent conversation with a respected colleague about the problems that the operatic culture faces in our times, we came to the question that none of us want to ask: “What if the theaters all closed down? What if the government sponsorship of opera were cancelled? ” Would our greatest fears be realized? Would opera disappear forever? I personally have had this fear! My first instinct has always been to try to educate politicians about the importance of opera and why it needs to continue to be funded. Whenever I get a chance to do an interview, which is somewhat frequent these days, I make a point of saying that culture is not a luxury but a necessity to our well-being as developing human beings. I often will point to direct connections between reduced cultural funding in the United States to the rise of teenage delinquency and ultimately of crime in adulthood. I believe that cultural education is fundamental to brain development and ultimately the capacity of a person to become a positive influence on society.
That said, I find myself thinking suddenly radically about the state of operatic affairs in the world. What if state sponsorship is actually the problem? I am beginning to believe we underestimate the public appetite for innovative, entertaining and moving theatrical experiences. What person would not rejoice in a performance of Katharina Thalbach’s magical treatment of Rossini’s Barbiere, or Christoph Loy’s Fanciulla or Stefan Herheim’s Xerxes? What if those productions were not at state sponsored theaters ( Berlin Deutsche Oper, Stockholm Royal Opera and Berlin Komische Oper respectively)? Would these geniuses be silenced? I think not! For every genius production by these stellar figures, there must be 50 or 100 productions in the operatic world that prove noxious to human senses by their lack of imagination and respect for the theatrical experience.
We artists have the tendency to fear censorship at all costs and thereby support artistic freedom regardless of its quality. We must realize that we do not have the luxury of defecating on the stage ad nauseum (alla Calixto Bieto) and expect the tax-paying public to sponsor it. That is not an opinion. It is a fact, as was proven when theater goers in Hannover boycotted Bieto’s Butterfly by canceling their season tickets. Bieto is not without talent, but it is one thing to use one’s talent for the benefit of expanding the boundaries of what we thought of a piece (as Herheim does so well with Xerxes) and another to either work out one’s personal psychoses at the expense of the work or for sheer shock value. There are those who prefer shock over real theatrical evolution and will pretend that shock theater is the same as innovation. Some of them are my friends. And I have no qualms in disagreeing with them.
I am writing this while my students are preparing to sing their last performance of Resan till Reims, a Swedish language rendering of Viaggo a Reims in the form of a reality show about a Trip to some non-specific place. I sang one production of this opera and saw Abbado’s production in Vienna and found both experiences boring despite the great music and the amazing voices on stage. Boring because the story itself was limited to its time, being tied to the coronation of Charles the 10th of France in Reims. Rossini himself never expected the opera to be produced beyond that specific connection. This brilliant production by Sweden’s great secret, the boundless imagination of Märit Bergvall, not only kept the audience in stitches all night, but it enhanced the experience of this magnificent music in a way I never fully appreciated before. It gave the music a context we can all relate to—A true updating with panache that gave the piece a greater vibrancy that everyone, regardless of age responded to with unison rhythmic applause in a standing ovation, both nights I went. I would be there tonight if I did not have to be on a plane writing this.
I believe artists like Märit Bergvall will continue to expand our minds about the relevance of classic operas in our times. I don’t believe that would necessarily be the case with the likes of Bieto and the hosts of pseudo-regisseurs that unfortunately inhabit so many of our houses relegating the greatest theatrical music ever written to the role of background noise. It is sheer arrogance every time some unpersuasive director claims that the audience is incapable of understanding! I have seen too many instances where this poor excuse proves just as unpersuasive as the failures it seeks to explain. Why shouldn’t politicians target cultural institutions as irrelevant when they take a position of intellectual superiority to explain failed productions? At the first production I experienced in Germany (a Bohème in Köln) I realized how fundamental opera is to the German psyche. I had never experienced such a concentrated audience at any opera house like that. It was as if they were experiencing something sacred to them. People of all classes and status were hurrying from their jobs to attend the performance on that Thursday night. I was enchanted! Now expect these same people in a time of uncertain economical future to support something that routinely offends them and to add salt to their wounds, they are told they are not intellectual enough to understand. It is not that the masses prefer some cheesy spectacle at the Friedrichstadt Palast (a kind of Las Vegas production house in Berlin), it is rather it makes sense for what it is and Opera is continually failing to either define itself or produce convincing results.
Better Cheese than Feces!
A little production company I was a part of in Berlin produced 5 successful shows in a row, but in a town with three major opera houses there is not a lot of subventions left for alternative opera. Our reviews were unfailingly positive and the work was very innovative. I am still very proud of our production of Verdi’s Macbeth and our first production, Don Giovanni, without funds. Another such venture is beginning in Berlin in which some of my developing students are taking part. That spirit of “creating something” because there is a need is what makes me believe that the collapse of the entrenched Operatic Machine would herald a new period of innovation. Little opera companies sprout up because developing singers need experience and they are shut out of an exclusive system without any kind of oversight, whether relative to the art’s future or to racism, gender prejudice or lookism. The failure of the International Opera Machine cannot be rectified by the great work of a very small number of brilliant stage directors. There is a lack of training for opera conductors, who, if they had been trained would have been the advocates against the excesses of unmusical and unimaginative directors.
State-sponsored Opera for all its positives has one powerful Achilles’ heel. It is too comfortable to be artistic. An Intendant in the German system (who is usually the Stage Director as well) does not feel enough responsibility to the people who pay for his/her job. Consequently, they rule their theaters like personal fiefdoms. When a new Intendant comes in, he usually brings his own ensemble with him, a level of obvious nepotism that should not happen. This leaves singers in particular in a bind. After a few seasons of great work at a theater, with no certainty of another position, singers are often told they simply do not have a job the following year because a new administration is coming. How is that responsible?
The orchestra in Trier protested in the streets to keep their General Music Director, the excellent Victor Puhl, against the whims of the incoming intendant who was resolved to sack the very effective conductor, quite probably because he had some friend in mind for the job. The orchestra was successful in fighting for their leader and his contract has been extended for two more years. Such little revolutions against the norm give us hope–when an orchestra would take their job so seriously that they would indeed fight for someone who brought them the possibility of growth and improvement. Bravi!
The revolution needs to be more systematic! If theaters were not funded by the government, they would have to learn to become truly artistic. Another colleague made the suggestion that the government should pay the salaries of the ensembles, but the production budget should come from ticket sells. In that sense, the theater has to be responsible to its audiences, striking a balance between challenging their limits, educating them and entertaining them. Great productions often come when funds are short, because a theater is constrained to use imagination and innovation to put something credible on stage. That was the case with the Metropolitan Opera in the 90s. Low budget yielded magnificent productions. The house was never more consistently full than during that period when belts had to be tightened. The period of “my production was great but the audience doesn’t get it” must end!
As an audience member I don’t mind occasionally not liking a production, but I like to feel that the producers attempted to take me on a journey that begins with a clear understanding of what is at stake artistically and that well thought-out choices are made, not convenient modern symbolism that work in one scene with the rest abandoned or shock value where imagination fails! It has become unacceptable to call crap by its name: “crap!” If anything is good, nothing is good!
Music and probably most art forms over the last 100 years took the road to be “modern” instead of encouraging the artist’s true voice. New ideas come not by a desire to be modern but by being a true witness of one’s own time! Insisting that one uses modern compositional techniques is just as bad as tying him/her down to absolute functional tonality. Regie Theater imposes the same type of dogma and tyranny! Let directors find their true voices instead of forcing them down the only road that is accepted! When shock is all that’s left, we’re left with stage defecation (simulated or otherwise) gratuitous violence without dramatic impact, blood and gore instead of honest poignant story-telling! It’s boring, it’s anti-art, it’s not entertaining and not worth the tax-payers’ contribution!
In such a case, LET IT FALL! Let the opera machine collapse to cinders! From its ashes will visionaries rise like a swarm of fiery phoenixes to breath life into a new period of serious art that seeks to understand the undiscovered regions of the human psyche instead of poisoning it; mature artists that seek to challenge their audiences instead of offending them. The two are not the same! People would pay for that! And theaters would have to be convincing! Not conservative! CREATIVE!
Those that want stage defecation can pay for it too! But it would not have to be force fed to the masses under the ruse and guise of necessary art experience!
To my students, I will stay this: I am not advocating being an outsider for being an outsider’s sake. I believe that it is better to try to change things from the inside. And perhaps my thesis is a cry out from the gut to those who inhabit this Opera world we all share. But there is a point in which those who run our field in large part are not interested in change for the betterment of the field. The goal is not to be an outsider but to be willing to be an outsider if it serves the art better. We will walk and fret our way upon the stage, like the poor players we are, hopefully not full of sound and fury but having some lasting significance during our time on the scene. Above all, after we have spent our hour, we will have gone. But hopefully the art will remain! Hence the Art matters more than we individual artists and if we are committed to it we should be willing to fight for it when necessary! Our fear of being on the outside is preventing us from finding a true place of belonging!