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An Austrian production of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera”

The disappearance of the bourgeoisie has led to a crisis in the arts. How can we track down the defeated remnants of the philistine class, in order to disturb them with the proof of their irrelevance? Theatres, galleries, restaurants and public resorts all offer impeccable post-modern fare, addressed to non-judgemental people. Television has been dumbed down below the horizon of bourgeois awareness, and even the churches are rejecting family values and the marital virtues. Yet, without the bourgeoisie, the world of art is deprived of a target, condemned to repeat worn-out gestures of rebellion to an audience that long ago lost the capacity for outrage.

All is not lost, however. There is one last redoubt where the bourgeoisie can be corralled into a corner and spat upon, and that is the opera. Believers in family values and old-fashioned marriage are romantics at heart, who love to sit through those wonderful tales of intrigue, betrayal and reconciliation, in which man-woman love is exalted to a height that it can never reach in real life, and the whole presented through heart-stopping music and magical scenes that take us, for an enchanted three hours, into the world of dreams. Siegfried’s love for Brünnhilde, shot through with unconscious treachery, Butterfly’s innocent passion built on self-deception like an angel on a tomb, Grimes’s death-wish, rationalised as a longing for Ellen’s maternal love—these are dramatic ideas that could never be realised through words, but which are burned into our hearts by music. Is it surprising that our surviving bourgeoisie, surrounded as they are by a culture of flippancy and desecration, should be so drawn to opera? After a performance of Katya, Pelléas, La Traviata or Figaro, they stagger home amazed at those passions displayed on the stage, by creatures no more god-like than themselves! They will come from miles away to sit through their favourite fairy-tales, and drive home singing in the early hours. They will pay 200 dollars for a mediocre seat, in order to hear their chosen prima donna, and will learn by heart the arias which they are never satisfied to hear unless in the flesh. Take any performance of an operatic classic anywhere in the world, and you will find, sitting in close confinement, motionless and devout for the space of three hours, the assembled remnant of the bourgeoisie, innocent, expectant, and available for shock.


Düsseldorf Opera’s production of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser”

The temptation is irresistible. Hardly a producer now, confronted with a masterpiece that might otherwise delight and console such an audience, can control the desire to desecrate. The more exalted the music, the more demeaning the production. I have come across all of the following: Siegfried in schoolboy shorts cooking a sword on a mobile canteen; Mélisande holed up in welfare accommodation, with Pelléas sadistically tying her to the wall by her hair; Don Giovanni standing happily at ease at the end of the eponymous opera while unexplained demons enter the stage, sing a meaningless chorus and exit again; Rusalka in a wheelchair from which she stares at a football in a swimming pool, while addressing the moon; Tristan and Isolde on a ship divided by a brick wall, singing vaguely of a love that hardly concerns them since each is invisible to the other; Carmen trying in vain to be a centre of erotic attention while a near naked chorus copulates on stage; Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail set in a Berlin brothel; Verdi’s masked ball with the assembled cast squatting on toilets so as to void their bowels—not to speak of the routine Hitlerisation of any opera, from Fidelio to Tosca, that can be squeezed into Nazi uniform. Wagner is always mercilessly mutilated, lest those misguided bourgeois fall for his seductive political message; and as for Madama Butterfly, what an opportunity to get back at the Americans for that bomb dropped on Nagasaki!

The extraordinary thing is not that this mutilation occurs, but that it is paid for by the taxpayer. Opera productions are expensive, and the more facetious they are the higher the cost in the props that are needed to grab the attention of an audience lost in wonder as to the meaning of it all. The producers too are expensive. People like Peter Sellars, who have made a living out of the effort to astonish, are international stars. There is a frenzied competition among such avant-garde producers as to who can squeeze the greatest emotion—positive or negative, it hardly matters—from the reviewers. And it seems that, when it comes to claiming subsidies from city councils and arts bureaucracies, what matters is not what the critics say but how loudly they say it. An opera house, to claim the standing required for a state subsidy, must be ‘controversial’, given to ‘path-breaking’ and ‘challenging’ productions. The bureaucrats need to be persuaded that, without a subsidy, something very important to the future of the city or the nation will be jeopardised. And its importance is proved by the protests that are inspired by it.


Peter Sellars

What should be our response to this on-going assault on one of the world’s greatest art-forms? One argument that I frequently hear goes like this. Operas are expensive to put on; to charge the full price to the audience would be to price the art-form out of the market. Subsidies are therefore necessary. And subsidies are obtainable only if those who provide them can be persuaded that they are not funding old-fashioned bourgeois audiences, since such audiences have had their share of life and are soon for the chop in any case. Controversial productions are therefore necessary, since the alternative is no productions at all.

There is a measure of truth in that argument. The bourgeois audience is necessary to inspire the modern producer, since otherwise he has no one to offend. But the offence is necessary otherwise the bureaucrats will think that they are subsidising the bourgeoisie, which God forbid. The problem is that the argument is based on a false premise. Opera productions do not in fact need subsidising. For it is not productions that are expensive, but producers. They are expensive because, like Richard Jones, Peter Sellars and Pierre Audi, they have a deep psychological need to draw attention to themselves, at whatever cost to the music. This means outlandish props, lighting effects, strange gestures imposed on the singers in opposition to the natural movements inspired by the music.

I am the more persuaded of my view in this matter by small scale honest performances of the kind that come our way in rural England, or which used to be put on by the great Lorin Maazel at Castleton in Virginia. Every summer we in rural Wiltshire are visited by a small group called Opera à la Carte, under the leadership of Nicholas Heath, who brings classics from the repertoire, from Don Giovanni to Madama Butterfly, performing them on improvised stages in tents or drawing rooms, accompanying the singers with a chamber ensemble, and allowing the magic of the story to spill out over the audience, with only costumes and few unpretentious props to create the scene. At Castleton Maazel enjoyed a small theatre, and later a larger one built to his specification, together with an orchestra put together from the young musicians whom he mentored so generously. But again nothing was spoiled by over-production, the music was allowed to speak for itself, and costumes and a few stage effects were enough to create the atmosphere.

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“Don Giovanni,” at the Castleton Festival

What modern producers seem to forget is that audiences are gifted with the faculty of imagination. This faculty is not extinguished by being bourgeois. Indeed, it is one of the faculties that an ordinary decent bourgeois has to exercise continuously, if only in order to respond forgivingly to the contempt of which he is the target. The obvious truth, that opera stimulates the imagination by presenting a drama as sung rather than spoken, seems to escape the attention of the new school of producers, perhaps because so many of them spend their apprenticeship in the spoken theatre. Perhaps they do not fully understand that serious music, by existing and moving in a space of its own, automatically transports us to an imaginary world. Put singers in costumes that distance them from the audience and, even without stage sets and props, they will move in a world of their own. The music itself will tell them where to turn, and with what expression on their faces. Add a prop or two and all the meaning that the composer intended is there in the room, and only the quality of the performance will affect whether the audience can grasp it.

And here is where I think the greatest disservice has been done to opera by the new style of production. In the past a production was designed to present an opera; now it is designed to interpret it, to attach a meaning to it, whether or not it is a meaning that the work can easily bear. The work is seen as a vehicle for the ideas of the producer, rather than a drama whose meaning lies in itself. Instead of allowing the music to speak the producer stands in front of it, so to say, moralizing at the assembled bourgeoisie, saying that this or that feature of the text or the music must be pinned to some allegorical or symbolic meaning, and that in any event the whole thing has to be made into a relevant commentary on the psychic traumas of the day—otherwise how can we take it seriously? In short the magic of opera, its capacity to create an enchanted world of its own, must be neutralised by an interpretation that brings it down to earth, that pins it into some sordid corner, as Peter Sellars did with Pelléas et Melisande, so that the imaginary world intended by the composer is blotted out by a screen of the producer’s usually half baked and in any case self-aggrandizing ideas.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of the Future Symphony Institute.

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5 replies to this post
  1. “The work is seen as a vehicle for the ideas of the producer, rather than a drama whose meaning lies in itself. Instead of allowing the music to speak the producer stands in front of it….”

    This essay reminded me of Richard Weaver’s chapter ‘Egotism in Work and Art’ in his Ideas Have Consequences. An epigraph for the chapter, a quote from Hawthorne, says, “All persons chronically diseased are egotists, whether the disease be of the mind or the body; whether it be sin, sorrow, or merely the more tolerable calamity of some endless pain, or mischief among the cords of moral life. Such individuals are made acutely conscious of self, by the torture in which it dwells. Self, therefore, grows to be so prominent an object with them that they cannot but present it to the face of every casual passer-by.”


    Thank you, Roger, for yet another of your brilliantly insightful pieces. I have witnessed too many of the sort of operatic performances you have skewered here, one of them at the invitation of the editor of this publication. To be fair, he didn’t know exactly what kind of production he was getting us into. Steve had invited each of us as conference participants assembling for a weekend discussion of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” We were attending the world premier of this particular staging. All of us had all dutifully watched videos of various productions, such as Cecilia Bartolli’s lush performance in a beautiful rendition of the opera. Imagine our surprise when the opening curtain rose on singers in black leather lingerie pole dancing in a kind of S & M nightclub, where Don Giovanni was a sleazy club owner in a gold lamé shirt opened to his waist. Donna Elvira made her entrance as a dominatrix wearing a black leather bustier, over-the-knee boots, and carrying a whip. As we glanced back at Steve with quizzical looks, the poor fellow wanted to crawl under his seat. As the story played through, It was hard to see any moral contrast between the characters and no one cared much about any of them. When the furies chased Don Giovanni out of his club, he ended up on a meat hook, perhaps a reference to the staging in Chicago. This was altogether too much for the octogenarian woman in the group, who at the end of the performance needed the ministrations of oxygen to recover. It was a near thing.

  3. My 90 year old Dad loves opera. So,, the first opera I’ve seen is the Fathom Events “Live from the Met” on the big screen in High Def. The opera was Carmen. Wow, wow! I was so shocked at the moral and emotional degradation of the leading man, the soldier in love with Carmen. My comment is if all the stories are so powerful, why “interpret,” the story will shock on its own merits.

  4. I entirely share, dear Professor, your disgust for this kind of productions. At the root of the issue there is the producer’s narcissism, I think, but it finds fertile soil and incitement in the sociological situation described in the article, and even more in that furious need for desecration that you describe in several comments and lectures of yours; in that postmodern “loveless culture, which is afraid of beauty because it is disturbed by love”. I think that every music lover should stay away from this kind of performances, like Katie Mitchell’s recent “Lucia di Lammormoor” at the Covent Garden: let those performances be attended only by people addicted to pornography, “ the pornography of sex or the pornography of death and violence”. This will discourage those monstrosities and encourage the kind of performances that you recommended.
    But, let them go, now, and…
    My congratulations, Sir Roger!
    Antonio Ienco (Italy)

  5. An insightful article very well written, and relevant today, sadly. Opera may be losing its brightest, most talented young, hopeful performers because it has left its original intent of telling the original composer’s story in beautiful music, sublime scenery and classical minded costumes. Opera perhaps does better in old world Europe where it is more likely to adhere to the romantic notion most people have in their heads as to what it should be. I know someone who would rather be on stage in a glorious ballgown and wig of curls performing rather than in a spiked short wig, gaudy make up, silver skin tight body suit and black combat boots – but that is the new norm these days in college opera productions. She’s leaving what was once an excellent opera prospect for a degree in science. A loss for opera and those who love to hear her sing, but a hopefully a brighter future for her! Conservative Americans with idealistic old fashioned notions are a minority and not embraced with tolerance in the arts. Opera may be turning into a circus freak show before they are done “modernizing” it. Too bad! ~ Mother of a young Opera Singer leaving for a career in science/geology . . .

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