Friday, December 28, 2007

I'm in love with Heather MacDonald

It's the invasion of the auteur directors! (Actually, it's a scene from Calixto Bieito's production of Wozzeck.)

Who's Heather MacDonald? The author of "The Abduction of Opera," probably the most cogently argued brief on opera and the theatre I've read in many a moon. Go read it. In full. And discover how MacDonald savages, in an outpouring of closely reasoned argument, the rise of "Regietheater" (German for "director's theatre"), which on the Continent has led to a series of increasingly brutal and stupidly perverse opera productions (usually directed by Calixto Bieito or our own vapid export, Peter Sellars). MacDonald cites an Abduction from the Seraglio which featured fellatio, whipping, and the slicing off of a prostitute's nipples; a Fledermaus in which the cast collectively leaped into a giant pink vagina, a Rigoletto set on the Planet of the Apes, and a Magic Flute with a large penis as the flute.

Sound familiar? We're used by now to the same antics at the ART (indeed, Bieito's Carmen, at left, is a dead ringer for the ART's Don Juan Giovanni, at right) which has its own jones for Continental directors, and relentlessly insists that pop violations make classic texts more "relevant" to contemporary audiences.
As if! I'll leave it to Heather to mince such claims; I've made the arguments myself often enough. But here are a few of her better moments:

On the obvious parasitism of the auteur director: "Without Mozart or Verdi, the Regietheater director is nothing; he cannot even hope for third-rate avant-garde status."

On the endless parade of pop culture clichés (Bieito's A Masked Ball, left): "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.'"

On the culturally limiting nature of their intellectual stance: " If we refuse to take such values (of the original works) seriously, not only do we render the plots incomprehensible; we also cut ourselves off from a greater understanding of what human life has been and, by contrast, is now."

And finally, on Stephen Wadsworth, probably the greatest opera director working today, who pretty much represents the antidote to "Regietheater":

"Wadsworth unapologetically embraces one of the most toxic words in the operatic lexicon today: “curating.” The last thing a solipsistic director wants to be accused of is lovingly preserving and transmitting the works of the past. Wadsworth, however, accepts the charge. Those given responsibility for an opera production are akin to those given responsibility for great paintings, he believes. “It is not our job to repaint them. We should only be concerned with: Where to hang it? How to light it? In what context? How do we present it to the public in a way that the public can appreciate what it is, perhaps even contextualize it in terms of that painter’s body of work or some other trend or school or idea? The list of curatorial concerns and responsibilities is long. And I think that a lot of productions that we see simply fail to meet them.”"

We haven't seen Wadsworth in these parts since Xerxes at Boston Lyric and The Game of Love and Chance at the Huntington. Both were masterpieces, and among the high points of my theatre-going life. Does anyone at the ART, or the Huntington, or Opera Boston, or the Lyric, have the guts to invite Wadsworth back for a trifecta?


  1. I personally have seen little in the way of Regietheater Opera, though most of the productions mentioned in the Mac Donald article do seem to represent a “Worst-Hits” if you will of European Avant-garde directors. (The “Planet of the Apes” Rigoletto has managed to attract enough attention to even come to my ears through the disbelieving mouth of my traditionalist Opera loving Mother. “I can’t believe it Daniel- it’s preposterous. Have you heard about this?!”)
    And I completely agree that bad Post-Modernist takes on opera (or theatre) represent the worst kinds of excess... one need travel no further then ART to see the proof of that. However, as a trend, Regietheater can be viewed contextually as a response to years of traditionalist production where the direction amounted to little more then "Stand There And Sing" which resulted in lifeless productions filled with overstuffed scenery and long in the tooth sopranos singing the roles of characters the age of their grandchildren. It is individual productions and directors that deserve criticism for their failures- not Regietheater on the whole. To say otherwise is blatant stereotyping and the worst, most dishonest type of criticism.

    What really bothers me about this article is the thought and the idea that classical works should be "Curated" and not reinterpreted. Every generation and culture will view a great play or opera through a different lens, and it is the universality of a work of art that is it’s greatest strength and the ability to be interpreted in many different ways. To suggest then that a director shouldn't bring their "opinions on contemporary class or sexual relations" to the table on a production is thus patently ridiculous. I would love to see a discussion between Gelb and any of the new directors who he has been wooing for the Met if the "Mac Donald Rules" were to be set in force. It's safe to say that few of them would have any interest in working there under such conditions, and that it would have the same type of effect as neo-classicism had on drama - an inhibiting one limiting creativity. I particularly find it laughable that she singles Bartlett Sher out for praise as "Appropriately" presenting opera in traditional fashion (Wait, what am I saying! Lesbians in The Barber of Seville! How Shocking and Inappropriate!) When a tour through his back catalog of productions would show her that he has anything but the track record of a traditionalist in his theatre work, whether it be casting multiple actors to play Pericles at BAM, presenting Cymbeline in a pastiche setting featuring cowboys and Renaissance courtiers for TFNA or having the walls disappear around the Berger family reflecting their failing fortunes in an otherwise realistic production of Awake and Sing at Lincoln Center.

    In the end, Mac Donald doesn't really trust playwrights or composers and fears that a director (or company) who views the work out of her narrow white-walled view will permanently "Subvert" a great work of art and thus pervert it for all time. She should perhaps look to the history of how Shakespeare has been presented for clues as to the veracity of such a supposition - the Elizabethans performed the plays with all male casts in period clothing while Kean and the actor-managers adapted, bowdlerized and rearranged the plays to fit their star turns, occasionally rewriting the scripts to give Lear and Cordelia a reprieve from death. Herbert Beerbohm Tree made the plays into spectacles filled with towering scenery and live rabbits, and the 20th century saw everything from minimalist productions to the opulence of the RSC. Hamlet alone has survived Musicalization, Joe Papp, Harold Bloom, Heiner Mueller's Hamletmachine with Robert Wilson and most recently a full frontal assault by the Wooster Group. Perhaps most dread of all it has survived the very act of becoming a cliché and being parodied. Shakespeare, I'll note, despite these "Intrusions" is still alive and well. In turn, Opera has survived the trends and fashions of the centuries and will continue to do so. I dare say it will even survive the sanctimonious prattlings of those like Mac Donald who would "Protect" us from the horrors of the avant-garde.

  2. I think you're misreading MacDonald on several counts, Dan. First, I don't believe she is concerned that the excesses of Regietheater will permanently subvert or destroy the masterpieces it molests. You're quite right that Shakespeare and Mozart can easily shrug off Peter Sellars and Robert Wilson. The question is - can we? I have to say that I'm repeatedly told by people that they're tired of "stuffy old traditional productions of Shakespeare" - until I ask them to name one. I personally can't think of one; can you? I haven't seen Shakespeare in Elizabethan dress, I don't think, in over two decades; in fact, I'm not really sure what a "traditional" production of Shakespeare even means at this point. At one time - this is over fifty years ago - it probably meant a production in tights, constrained by Victorian prudery. Needless to say, outside of a few benighted high schools, such productions no longer exist. (And there are precious few 'stand there and sing' opera productions around, either.) In short, it seems that defenders of "Regietheater" are always setting up a straw man of "tradition" to rebel against - a straw man which in fact fell decades ago.

    You also mistakenly extend, I think, MacDonald's critique of current "Regietheater" - i.e., "the manifestation of the triumph of adolescent culture" - to a demand that the director be stripped of all creative input. At times, when she's ranting about Calixto Bieito, for instance, she may seem to be saying that - but I think the overall arc of the piece argues for informed, sensitive, responsible directorial interpretation. I don't really see this is as being different from an argument for any kind of artistic structure - and isn't criticism, ultimately, about artistic structure? And what exactly is so wrong with the idea of "curating" a text? We curate dances, and music, and literature - why not theatre?

    MacDonald is also on firm ground, I think, in her analysis of the Regietheater movement as in the end being rooted in solipsism. Why, really, should we turn past masterpieces into simplistic mirrors of our own values and conflicts? I'm afraid that's behind many of the arguments for Regietheater, and it's not a very appealing stance over the long haul. What's most depressing about these efforts to "revolutionize" the classics is that they always wind up revolutionizing them the same way - indeed, theater practice at the ART is far more homogenous than it is anywhere else in town. Why is that, exactly? Because "Regietheater" is in no way anarchic or truly free (and it's certainly not progressive) - it is, instead, the expression of an ideology shared by a relatively small circle of arts mandarins who are addicted to shock tactics. Perhaps you're not tired of them yet, but I certainly am. And so is MacDonald.