Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Regie Rant

September 21, 2009

Karita Mattila in Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2009

As the Fall opera season gets underway, it’s time for the usual soon-to-be-extinct media outlets to devote precious space to an art form in the throws of death much longer than they have been. Thus we have the New York Times casting its eyes towards San Francisco and the Metropolitan Opera with two pieces on their respective opening productions. Never an outlet to find two different stories when one will do the job, the NY Times is ready to wallow in everyone’s favorite sport – regie-bating. You know the tune, general directors from opera companies across the land stand to declare how concerned they are about Regietheater, the non-traditional approach to staging standard repertory that can play fast and loose with popular assumptions. These directors, like Mr. Gelb and Mr. Gockley go on to avow their stand against this tide in their audiences’ interest. In the NY Times piece on the SF Opera opener, Verdi's Il Trovatore, general director David Gockley defends his less-than-inspired artistic direction of the company to date by saying “The research that I have access to says that it’s the core works, the great central works of the operatic tradition, that attract and inspire the new audience. You might have heard, ‘Well, new works or edgy productions are what get the young people in.’ Well, it’s not true.” Yes, everyone knows how much young people love the tried and true over the novel, new, and now. Maybe Gockly just needs to improve his access to research.

Meanwhile back at the Met, the season has opened with a new Luc Bondy-directed Tosca and the bitching and booing is already underway. Last week, Matthew Gurewitsch penned a little compare and contrast preview between the Met’s Peter Gelb and the new general director of the Munich Opera, Nikolaus Bachler, both of whom will oversee the debut of the same new Bondy-directed production in their storied houses this season. After letting Bondy cluck about some of the Met’s recent new productions like Bartlett Sher’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Gurewitsch turns to criticisms Mr. Gelb made in Berlin last year of “directors who set out to provoke and bewilder.” Gurewitsch continues, “In Berlin Mr. Gelb blamed state subsidies, which let theaters get away with ever more aberrant shows that audiences do not want, and the perversity of powerful critics who poison the well for anything else. Opera needs to go mainstream, Mr. Gelb insisted, or it will die.”

So let me get this straight. Gelb and Gockley are concerned about the negative influence of directors who take too many liberties with beloved operas, which they then force on unapproving audiences. And yet, both general directors have hired many of the very same stage directors who have worked over the last two or three decades to create this very situation to begin with including Luc Bondy, Patrice Chereau, Graham Vick, Willy Decker and others. So who’s zoomin’ who? Someone is not being forthright, and I suspect the truth is that both men realize that they can’t keep offering up the same garbage their houses have in the past if they intend to stay alive. However, they must continue to court the most conservative and least aesthetically aware patrons in order to do so in the short run.

Meanwhile, some short-sighted audience members will continue to boo the often thought provoking and insightful work of the Regietheater folks while secretly praying that Regietheater is a temporary phase that will pass. However, that seems doubtful. Considering that this approach is heading into its fourth decade, I’m not sure exactly what the more base group of opera goers thinks is going to happen. The booing may be routine, but the change in audience taste is already apparent. And who cares what audiences like on the whole anyway? Since when does popular opinion create great art. That certainly isn’t the case in movies, television, or publishing, so why all of the sudden for classical music must new productions be loved by the majority of the audience to prove its artistic worth? Sure there are economic considerations, but opera got by for over three centuries without a capitalist bourgeois popularity contest to justify its existence, so why must it be a primary consideration now? Yes, state subsidies in Europe provide for opera programming that may not be as popular as the lowest common denominator fare that fills American houses. But that is a good thing. And if you think two plus decades of Regietheater have made European opera audiences older or less generous than their American counterparts, you'd be wrong there too. In the end, must we all shop at Wal-Mart to be acceptable?


Gockley's claims mean that at the next season-announcement press conference, I'll be 1) asking to see the research 2) telling him I'll follow up in five years to see if his strategy is working.

Actually I think I might just email the company now and ask about that research.
Good idea. This is what differentiates you, Lisa, a real journalist, from me, a dilettante.

Go get 'em!
Maybe new and edgy brings in *some* young audience members, but not enough to sustain a major endeavour like a major-city opera company. When I lived in San Francisco I went to many new and edgy performance events, but they were in small out-of-the-way places and many were a pay-what-you-can type of thing, which I don't think would sustain opera.
People will always boo what shifts them from their comfort zone. They don't want to change. Gelb did a perfect job by taking Luc Bondy who is not REALLY Regietheater. He's often considered "moderately conservative" (c.f. his Idomeneo). He's always extremely meticulous in analyzing the libretto, there is NEVER anything cheap or a stretchy [lack of] logic in his staging creations. And you never escape the feeling that there was really a good deal of intellectualizing and creativity behind every tableau of his show (provided you make the least effort to understand his work).

I'm an older, educated, former opera singer, and I adore the bits of Regie I can find on the Youtube. So wonderful! You make such a good point about other art forms not being embraced by the masses. Thanks for the insight.
An extremely LONG follow-up to last September's comment.

- There was no season-announcement press conference. SFOpera just sent email.

- I recently used the feedback@sfopera.com address that was in the summer season programs to ask some questions. No one responded.

- I'm going to send Gockley a letter.
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