June 09, 2008

The Death of Opera

Terry Teachout?s column this weekend in the WJS on the New York City Opera and Gerard Mortier is worth noting, for in a mere 800 words he bring to the fore just about every serious problem facing not just the City Opera but performing arts in general in the 21st century. What sparked the column is G?rard Mortier?s decision to forego the entire ?08-?09 season so that the New York State theater can be thoroughly renovated, probably a necessary decision since the house?s acoustics are notoriously bad (the space was originally designed to muffle ballerinas? toe taps).

But there?s much more than this. If the subscribers and aficionados do return in a year (by no means a certainty), they?ll be greeted with five twentieth-century pieces on the program, including Olivier Messiaen’s 4 hour + St. Francis of Assisi and Phillip Glass?s minimalist marathon Einstein on the Beach, get ready for the show?s hit tune ?1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8?! I actually kind of like Glass?s stuff (even if he, well, keeps repeating himself over and over again) and Leos Janacek, another ?modernist? composer Mortier is highlighting, writes full-blooded dramatic music almost in the Puccini vein. More important than Mortier?s programming is his choice of stage directors. Although they haven?t yet been identified on the City Opera?s website, we can be sure that at some point during his reign Mortier will get dear old Hans Neuenfels to direct something, the man who in Mortier?s farewell year at the Salzburg Festspeil did a production of Strauss?s Die Fledermaus (the beloved Viennese operetta that Mortier publicly admits he despises) in which Eisenstein and Rosalinda?s children end up killing themselves, Prince Orlofsky is a coke addict, and, of course, at the end, the Nazis come on stage, since, as we all know, Viennese culture is reducible to Auschwitz etc. etc. etc.

Before going further, let me say that I instinctively turn up my nose at those who instinctively turn up their nose at ?modern? directors. A Zeffirelli production of La Boheme, in which multiple horses appear on stage and the supposedly starving artists are dressed in gaudy threads and wigs that would make Liberace blush, is no more ?real? or ?authentic? than more experimental interpretations. There?s also the case of the daring scandals that stood the test of time and became ?classics.? Take for instance, Wieland Wagner?s striking productions of Parsifal

, Tristan und Isolde, and the Ring at the Bayreuth Festival immediately after the war. The great master?s grandson, who had a background in painting and had read widely in philosophy, basically stripped the stage the 19th-century accoutrements that had become fixtures in the ossified, stilted productions overseen by Cosmia, Richard?s ?ber-devoted widow, and created a self-enclosed world for Wagner?s work to unfold in. (The book to read here is Frederic Spotts?s brilliant Bayreuth: The History of the Wagner Festival). The French musicologist Jean Jacques-Nattiez noted in his essay ?Fidelity to Wagner? (1992) that when Wieland first staged the Ring in 1951 he was generally denounced by the critics: ?What does the ?spirit of the age? have in common with the universal and eternal human ideas implicit in Wagner?s drama?? Then in 1976, after Patrice Ch?reau made his own scandal de th?ater with his Marxian-inspired interpretation, the critics called for a return of the erstwhile avant garde: ?We need a new Wieland Wagner to cleanse these Augean stables and guide us back to the imperishable values inherent in the Ring.? 

(N.B.: Wagner?s great grand daughter, Katharina, who just so happens to look like this, is following in Wieland?s footsteps, but so far the results are mixed: her works sadly seems to be more in the ?deconstructionist? line?)

Robert Wilson?s Noh-esque productions can be stunning and are certainly reminiscent of Wieland?s. And some other of the enfants terrible, like Richard Jones and the Alden brothers are capable of some probing work. I?d generally rather see this kind this kind of stuff than tame, ?respectiful? productions any day.

There?s also the status of the small opera theater. Something like the New York City Opera was designed as a kind of ?people?s opera? with lighter fare and cheaper prices in mind. The fact is, it?s now almost impossible to put on a opera with average ticket price under $75, and, more importantly, the audience for ?lighter fare? has basically vanished?they?re at the movies, netflixing, or surfing the web. Put simply, establishing an offbeat presence fills a niche in a way that a ?Volksoper? simply does not. (The former director of the City Opera, Paul Kellog, focused on flashy productions of baroque operas with lots of counter-tenors prancing about in chic costumes singing in falsetto ? all to the glee of one of opera?s largest clienteles?)     

This being said, what Mortier brought to Salzburg, and what he?ll undoubtedly bring to the City Opera, is something altogether different. Whatever sins Wieland, Wilson, and the Aldens commit in trying to ?make it new,? these directors approach a work with a genuine respect for the composer and desire to discover a new aspect of the opera. Mortier, on the other hand, has hired directors with the express intent on taking a piss on the work so that he can better express his contempt for his audience, whom he usually views as discreetly wearing brownshirts and armbands under their tuxedos. When J?rg Haider?s Freedom Party took power in Austria, proving for Mortier what he always knew about Austrian society, he resigned his post in protest and hired Neuenfels to give one last up yours to the people whose tax dollars funded his festival. 

In New York, Mortier thus faces two problems. First there?s inevitable inflation of shock value. In her excellent deconstruction of Regietheater for the City Journal, Heather Mac Donald mentions a production in Berlin?s Komische Oper in which Mozart?s Abduction from the Seraglio is recast to include filth, debauch, and even mutilation. Disgusting, yes, but then also pretty typical. Perhaps Mortier can really shock ?em with a production of The Marriage of Figaro in which Hitler comes out on stage dressed like a nun and with a hot poker up his derri?re ? but then this is but a variation on the ?tick off the bourgeoisie? clich? that?s become, well, rather bourgeois?been there, done that, already seen it at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, or at Yale.

There?s also the problem ofMortier?s assumption of the reactionary, authoritarian tendencies of his City Opera subscribers. Let?s just say that calling out the audience as a bunch of reactionaries and fascists won?t play too well in New York.

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