A new act for the opera
Opera has become a joke in modern pop culture. From commercials to movies, it’s always considered funny to make a crack on opera and its singers. The tropes of sturdy blonde female singers wearing horned helmets and breastplates are all most people know about opera. However, most people have never experienced real opera. Besides Mozart’s aria “The Night Queen” and a few choirs by Wagner, most of the opera’s fine music is not appreciated.
Unfortunately, modern opera stages rarely feature traditional operas as they have been written and enjoyed for centuries. In the 21st century, it has become common practice in the United States to modernize or modify traditional operas. This practice, born in Germany in the 20th century, is called “RegietheaterOr, when specifically applied to opera, “Regieoper”. Its antithesis is “Werktreue”, the German term for works that closely adhere to the original intentions of their creators.
Regieoper elevates the director to an all-powerful position in the creation of a production, because it literally means “the director’s opera”. In Regieoper, the director assumes a preeminent role, using his own concept rather than established traditions. These ideas often deviate from the intentions of the composer or librettist. Director’s changes can include modernizing the story to reflect contemporary political controversies, and often infusing a production with brutality, blood and violence, either for shock value, dramatic effect, or just for fun. .
Regieoper’s origin can be traced back to Swiss architect and staging theorist Adolphe Appia, who advocated the use of the new electric stage lighting for dramatic effect instead of just lighting the performers. While such ideas hardly seem comparable to the modernization now associated with Regieoper, his books on stage production – particularly the works of Richard Wagner – encouraged Impressionist staging, which captured an integral spirit rather than realism and presentation of every detail.
At the 1951 Bayreuth Festival, Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson, took inspiration from Appia’s ideas to create minimalist productions of his grandfather’s operas. Although Adolf Aber of The Musical Times find with the Impressionist staging being confusing, vague, and so dark that the action was barely visible, Wieland continued to stage such productions throughout the 1950s and 1960s. This was the start of the modern Regieoper movement.
Regieoper productions cover the whole range. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro has been moved from a count’s Spanish mansion to a hotel in San Diego. Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto” was transferred from 16th-century Mantua to a 1960s Las Vegas casino. Mozart’s “Abduction of the Seraglio” traveled from 16th-century Turkey aboard the Paris Express in the years 1920 and even an episode of “Star Trek”, starring Captain James T. (Kirk) Belmonte!
Sometimes in postmodern productions the setting is not changed for just one new location and a new era. Instead, items and costumes from many cultures and periods are included. The result is a confusing mishmash that makes no historical sense, burying the plot in the clutter. For example, I saw a live production of “Giulio Cesare” by George Frideric Handel, conceived as a fictionalized version of Julius Caesar’s political and romantic alliance with Queen Cleopatra. It was a comedic potpourris of British redcoats, Bollywood dancing, 1920s flappers, Roman armor, WWII artillery, and enough blood to rival an R-rated film.
The opposite of Regieoper is Werktreue. Literally translated by “Loyalty to the original”, this term is applied to musical productions, often to opera, which consider fidelity to the intentions and notations of the creators as the main objective. Such productions give the director much less freedom and authority. Instead of adding personal interpretation and concepts to the production, the job of the director is to bring the libretto on stage as faithfully as possible, just as the conductor strives to faithfully honor the score. .
This approach does not mean that the director’s job is easier in a Werktreue production. In fact, a truly traditional production requires more work on the part of the director, who must conduct extensive research into the history of the work and its production to do justice to the writers’ vision. It is much easier to be motivated only by personal ideas and imagination.
Perhaps one of the reasons this approach has fallen out of favor and operas have long been parodied is because of their soap opera-type drama. Classical opera plots contain melodramatic subjects like unrequited love, indiscretion, infidelity, political intrigue, conspiracies, murder, and suicide. However, the original productions described these subjects delicately and not blatantly. Violence was implied, and amorous immorality occurred offstage.
Admittedly, the game was not melodramatic. Comedy was neither required nor expected of opera singers until the 20th century, before which singers did nothing but sing. Spectators usually went to admire impressive vocalizations, beautiful music, and beautiful sets and staging. During the 18th and 19th centuries, people simply went to the opera to see and be seen, paying little attention to the performance.
Most American opera companies have embraced the Regieoper trends because they need to sell tickets. Does this strategy work? By including potentially offensive content to attract younger crowds, they are likely alienating customers who have been coming for years, if not decades. It would seem more reasonable to cultivate a new audience of true opera lovers, those who are fortunate enough to learn to love operas as they were written.
There is also the question of whether young people will attend the opera with modern content added. Does it really make operas easier to tell or more appealing? Will those who need solutions for lust and violence really turn to opera? It seems unlikely; it is therefore futile for opera to try to compete with films in these areas. Instead, a new generation can learn to love opera for its own attributes.
Regieoper supporters argue that artists should be allowed to experiment with new ideas instead of doing the same thing season after season. Since most operas are two or three centuries old, some directors naturally feel that they need updating. Inventive staging, newly designed costumes, and other creative ideas make familiar works new and exciting.
However, all of this is possible in Werktreue productions. Rather than being rigid shots, traditional productions only provide guidelines. They still allow directors and designers to be creative in exploring stories; Furthermore, the preservation of the original intentions of the libretto pays homage to those whose work is presented.
Modernized productions not only distort classical operas, but also discourage the creation of new operas in classical form. Rather, creative artists can express themselves by writing their own new works.
If opera is to continue to survive, let’s hope that Werktreue’s productions will be reintroduced into the seasons of major opera companies. Old works still allow great creativity, but if that isn’t enough, let theater artists create new operas!
Tiffany Brannan is a 19-year-old opera singer, Hollywood History / Vintage Beauty Editor, travel writer, film blogger and ballet writer. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Film Production Code.