Mozart’s lighthearted opera The Abduction from the Seraglio does not call for a prostitute’s nipples to be sliced off and presented to the lead soprano. Nor does it include masturbation, urination as foreplay, or forced oral sex. Europe’s new breed of opera directors, however, know better than Mozart what an opera should contain. So not only does the Abduction at Berlin’s Komische Oper feature the aforementioned activities; it also replaces Mozart’s graceful ending with a Quentin Tarantino–esque bloodbath and the promise of future perversion.
Welcome to Regietheater (German for “director’s theater”), the style of opera direction now prevalent in Europe. Regietheater embodies the belief that a director’s interpretation of an opera is as important as what the composer intended, if not more so. By an odd coincidence, many cutting-edge directors working in Europe today just happen to discover the identical lode of sex, violence, and opportunity for hackneyed political “critique” in operas ranging from the early Baroque era to that of late Romanticism.
Until now, New York’s Metropolitan Opera has stood resolutely against Regietheater decadence. In fact, its greatest gift to the world at the present moment is to mount productiebos – whether sleekly abstract or richly realistic – that allow the beauty of some of the most powerful music ever written to shine forth.
The question now is whether that musical gift will continue. [...]
The reign of Regietheater in Europe 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. Singers, orchestra members, and conductors know how shameful the most self-indulgent opera productions are, and yet they are powerless to stop them. Buoyed with government subsidies, and maintained by an informal alliance of government-appointed arts bureaucrats and critics, the phenomenon thrives, even when audiences stay away in disgust.
The injury that Regietheater does to Mozart, Handel, and other benefactors of humanity is heartbreaking enough. But it also hurts the public, by denying new audiences the unimpeded experience of an art form of unparalleled sublimity. [...]
Other Regietheater directors may not yet have achieved the sheer volume of gratuitous perversion and bloodletting that Bieito managed to cram into his Abduction—but their aesthetic obeys the same impulse. Gérard Mortier [a Flemish homosexual who was created a baron by the king of Belgium], [NY] City Opera’s incoming general manager and the current head of the Paris Opera, staged a Fledermaus at the Salzburg Festival that dragooned Johann Strauss’s delightful confection into service as a cocaine-, violence-, and sex-drenched left-wing “critique” of contemporary Austrian politics. An American tenor working in Germany remembers another Fledermaus with a large pink vagina in the center of the stage into which the singers dived. [...]
The current transgressive style of opera production is better understood as a manifestation of the triumph of adolescent culture, which began with the violent student movement of the 1960s. [...] In Paris in the late 1960s, City Opera manager-in-waiting Gérard Mortier led a group of student provocateurs who loudly disrupted opera productions that they considered too traditional. [...]
Occasionally, Regietheater proponents admit to their aspirations to shock. More often, however, they package themselves as the saviors of art. Gérard Mortier says that in updating operas, he seeks to “transform a work dated in a certain era so it communicates something fresh today.” He has it exactly backward. There is nothing less “fresh” than the tired rock-video iconography, the consumer detritus of beer cans and burgers, or the anti-imperialist, anti-sexist messages that Regietheater directors graft on to operas to make them “relevant.” What is actually “fresh” about a Mozart opera, besides its terrible beauty, is that it comes from a world that no longer exists. And it is, above all, the music that bodies forth that difference. The Baroque and Classical styles in particular convey an entire mode of being, one that values grace and artifice over supposed authenticity and untrammeled self-expression. [...] Regietheater promoters imply that following a composer’s intentions in staging a work is easy; genius lies in modernizing it. Mortier has even coyly suggested that his updating project gives him an affinity with Mozart. “You couldn’t name one great composer – not that I want to compare myself to them – who did not have to fight,” he says.