Sounds and Fury, a culture blog which I read with some regularity, linked to an article in the City Journal by one Heather Mac Donald. In it, she decries the Regietheater, or director's theatre, phenomenon that supposedly pervades operatic culture in Europe.
In a more recent post, AC Douglas at Sounds and Fury mentions that much of the negative reaction he received about linking to the article had to do with the fact that Heather Mac Donald is a conservative.
Anyone who has read anything I've posted here over the past couple of years would know that I am not what one would call a political conservative. Indeed, my views are nearer to the socialist straw man many conservatives enjoy setting fire to than I would care to admit.
But does it matter to Ms. Mac Donald's report on the state of opera that she's a conservative? No, and indeed, who cares what her political views are? She's talking about opera, for crying out loud!
Nevertheless, it seems to me that she exaggerates how many of these kinds of productions exist in Europe, using "Europe" as a kind of bogey man, relying on American attitudes towards Europe instead of really examining what kinds of productions are taking place beyond the ones that we hear about over here, such as the Berlin Idomeneo of last year.
And I really got a chuckle out of her comment about "Chéreau’s injection of anticapitalist, environmental politics into the story" of Wagner's Ring, referring to the famous (or infamous) Beyreuth Centenary production directed by Patrice Chéreau.
I know this production is held up as a model of european Regietheater and the horrors that entails. It shouldn't be.
If Ms. Mac Donald had done just a bit more research, she would have discovered that George Bernard Shaw, in The Perfect Wagnerite, had injected the Ring with "anticapitalist politics" before the turn of the 19th Century.
Indeed, he makes a rather strong case for reading the Ring the way Chéreau does. Wagner wrote the Ring poem around the time he was active as a liberal revolutionary, "liberal" meaning whatever you'd like it to here.
Many of Wagner's writings at the time of the Ring's composition as a poem are political, and indeed, the Ring itself, with its talk of contracts and laws, has something to it that one could, in a flight of fancy, construe as an overtly political dimension.
Maybe I'm just nuts, but I think it's safe to say that the Ring is a political work, as well as many other glorious and profound things, and that it is political in a way many other operas are not. If Ms. Mac Donald wants to fault Chéreau for something, it should be for a lack of imagination, or borrowing from Shaw without crediting him.
Using this as a pretext for a theory, how about, instead of hating Regietheatre tout court, one take these opera productions on a case by case basis?
So the recent Berlin Idomeneo production, with the decapitated Poseidon, Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha, could be making a political statement, I suppose, in the same way putting a bag of dog poo on your high school principal's porch and setting fire to it is, but question this begs is whether or not Idomeneo was missing this particular political dimension in the first place? Does it make sense to include these severed heads? Knowing the work, it doesn't seem so, just from judging from the internal incoherence of the four "gods" chosen, perhaps by lot, by the bored director.
I think the question "Does it make sense?" is the central one. The funny thing about art, at least to me, is that it's very difficult to predict how something as complex as a fully-staged opera production will come off, aesthetically speaking.
This is important, because I've seen productions at the Canadian Opera Company that one would call "conservative", like Carmen, that were lifeless and, given the costs associated with producing opera, a waste of money. If nothing else, it could have been well sung and entertaining.
Do I really have to fear Regietheater when productions like that Carmen are so much more pervasive? Or that most Bohèmes I have seen over the years appear to share the same drab Paris apartment set, you know, the one with the full moon shining through the cracked window?
Honestly, can anyone tell me the last time they saw an incredibly powerful, insightful performance of Tosca?
In other words, what about all the mediocre productions out there that don't even court controversy?
Does it make sense to champion this kind of status quo, where truth and beauty are phoned in just to fill seats?
Equally, what sense did it make to set Salome in a drug dealer's mansion, as the COC did a decade ago, where John the Baptist was, I suppose, an unfortunate Jehovah's Witness who went door knocking on the wrong day?
At least the Ring is allegorical - how do you set Salome outside of its historical context when the historical circumstances of one character's role is everything? It made no sense to me.
Sometimes we can move things around, sometimes, not so much.
If this sounds like a lazy approach to judging a work, it is, but it's also makes room for the new, and indeed, appears to be what we all do anyway when someone, like Wagner, comes along out of the blue and sets the world on fire. We judge the new on its own terms as much as we do in relation to what has come before it.
So coming back to Mac Donald's essay, I think her biggest problem isn't that she's a conservative, but that she doesn't devote enough time to the serious problem of lazy, uninspired stock opera productions here in North America and Europe.
Sometimes the greatest dangers are right here, in our own backyard!