Regietheater for social justice?

What are we saying when we say that the integrity of works of art transcends humanitarian concerns?… Are we not saying that artists and art lovers are entitled to moral indifference–and worse, that the greater the artist the greater the entitlement?… Are we not debased and degraded, both as artists and as human beings, by such a commitment to abstract musical worth? And for a final thought, has that commitment nothing to do with the tremendous decline that the prestige of classical music–and of high art in general–has suffered in our time?
-Richard Taruskin, “Stalin Lives on in the Concert Hall, But Why?” collected in On Russian Music, page 280.

Taruskin’s immediate topic is music written for Stalin. But the point could apply to anything. Music is not inherently good, or always morally neutral. It cannot be completely divorced from the circumstances that produced it and the causes it has served and promoted. And to grant it absolution based on its greatness is to ignore its rhetorical power. Opera, laden with librettos, is filled with these issues right on the surface–issues of gender, of race, of power, of imperialism. They aren’t always as cataclysmic as Stalinism, but they often cut closer to our daily life. Yet opera doesn’t come to life until you put it on stage, and so it also has a unique tool at its disposal.

Any work of art is a product of its time, for better or worse. Opera in particular, due to the expense involved in its production, is often beholden to popular or powerful taste. And many operas have baggage, whatever its source. Read Susan McClary’s classic Carmen analysis from her book Feminine Endings and Taruskin’s essay on Prince Igor for an idea of the issues here.

But does every telling of Carmen, Madama Butterfly, or Prince Igor reinforce these narratives? I would argue that they can. Even if you’re a savvy modern person who thinks you know better, what you see onstage still can shape your view of the world, particularly when delivered in the seductive guise of great music. (And if you don’t think that a more than negligible percentage of operas have problems, some small, others big blackface-type problems, but problems, you may not be paying enough attention to what you are absorbing.) Music has power, and how long until excusal becomes agreement?

Taruskin is so damn quotable. He says in the Igor piece, linked to above, “[The implication is] that great music sanitizes everything it touches, including us. Is that so? Is music sanitary? Or is music persuasive, an engulfing force that lessens resistance to whatever words or images it carries to our minds and hearts?” He obviously thinks the latter, and I agree. I’m not saying that we should stop performing or seeing these works, but to be decent citizens we need to do so in a clear-headed way and talk about this stuff once in a while. And if opera wants to be anything more than a problematic curio cabinet, it has to be willing to confront the implications of its own texts.

That’s why I love it when an enterprising director decides to stage an opera in a way that takes the problem bits head-on and challenges them. This kind of revisionist Regietheater is loathed by traditionalists. “But we must respect the work! This dishonors the composer! It’s ugly!” But why we should respect something’s sexist or racist elements, and why does a 150-year old text that was never intended for such a long life deserve such sacred status at all? Revisionist productions are difficult to pull off and many misfire. But even the failures make you think about what you are seeing in a way a conventional production usually doesn’t. The next time you see a traditional production of that opera–and you probably will, they’re still the vast majority–you will be more aware.

Here is a mild example: Madama Butterfly. Puccini made a respectable-for-his-time attempt to learn about Japanese culture, but the opera is still filled with exoticized characters, cliché exotic music (just about everybody east of Bulgaria has an inordinate fondness for pentatonic scales, according to Opera), and a problematic woman victim figure. In his ENO/Met production, Anthony Minghella tried to present not another Westerner’s Orientalist image of Japan but, since we enjoy much closer connections with Japan than Puccini did, include more authentic Japanese design and steer away from some of the more cliched traditional images associated with this opera. Most importantly, actual Japanese performing arts were incorporated with a Bunraku puppet as Trouble. No one on the production team was Japanese, so issues of appropriation could still be fairly raised, but I think we can consider it an improvement in some areas at least.

I don’t think anyone seriously objected to this production. It was beautiful and left the story as we are used to seeing it. More radical rethinkings are harder to pull off and more likely to anger people. La Cieca at Parterre recently wrote a wonderful piece analyzing Calixto Bieito’s complex production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which sparked just such a discussion; it’s well worth reading.

Another ambitious example is Martin Kušej’s production of Rusalka (pictured at the top of this post). The story is familiar: a beautiful, fragile, innocent spirit has to gives up her voice (!), family, and entire world to get a man. The Prince is only a little bothered by her muteness, but her place is still stolen by the conniving, worldly Foreign Princess (virgin/whore dichotomy, anyone?). She returns a disgraced outcast. You see the problems? (Danish feminists even decapitated a Little Mermaid statue once.)

Kušej reinvented all of this. In a take on the Natascha Kampusch case, Rusalka and her sisters were imprisoned in her father’s (the Water Goblin’s) basement, but once Rusalka escaped–at great cost–she was too damaged to survive the outside world. Instead of a beautiful, otherworldly, sacrificing nymph, we had a real woman who had been beaten into that fragile condition. Her otherwordliness was no longer romantic, her treatment by her oppressor, by the Prince, and even by Jezibaba incredibly cruel. There is an implicit critique of a society that finds such stories so beautiful without wondering why.

Not everything has to be a guilt trip, but just because the music is great doesn’t mean we can pledge blind allegiance–in fact, we should be particularly careful around the greatest music. Revisionist productions often seem depressing, but I think they can actually be the most inspiring of all, because they give voice to people who had been silenced.

Rusalka photo copyright Bayerische Staatsoper
Butterfly photo copyright Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

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  1. I couldn't agree more! What you write puts me in mind of Walter Benjamin's Theses on the Philosophy of History, where he writes (in the seventh thesis):

    To historians who wish to relive an era, Fustel de Coulanges recommends that they blot out everything they know about the later course of history. There is no better way of characterising the method with which historical materialism has broken. … Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.

  2. Brilliant post! "If opera wants to be anything more than a problematic curio cabinet, it has to be willing to confront the implications of its own texts" deserves to be widely quoted. I'll be citing Dr. Berry's bit of Walter Benjamin, too. I agree that if the 'problematic bits' are smoothed over we suffer incredible loss, through not engaging fully with the music, the drama, ourselves, our world. Not to be flippant, but methinks you could write an article on exciting revisionism such as Kusej's with a title along the lines of "Can the Subaltern Sing?"

  3. Anthony Minghella's wife Carolyn Choa is a dancer who designed the dance sequences and directed the production after his demise. She comes from a distinguished Eurasian family that gorews back to the mid 19th century. There were many "Butterfly" marriages then but certainly not all prostitution arrangements. So perhaps Minghella goes further dealing with the East West better than most though he really doesn't deal with as much as he might.

  4. [Blogger problems, so I'll have to divide the msg into three, bear with me] McClary, yes, and not only her Carmen book but just about anything she wrote is excellent, including the entire groundbreaking Feminine Endings. New Musicology is full of treasures, and it’s worth reminding that feminists and women started the shebang. (though many of them praise Adorno for the early politization, so there you go – a mixed dorm)

  5. I agree with much of what you say, but why stop at Regie: excellent, innovative direction of any kind will reinvent the work and expand its meaning and – because we’re hungry for that – give us new social justice ammunition. I look forward to the day when we’ll divide stage direction into good and bad, innovative and repetitive, meaningful and not [etc] rather than Regie vs traditionalism. Just like in the rest of the theatre world.

  6. The only thing I’d disagree with is, as you know, relying on Taruskin for anything. The same Taruskin who publicly denounced John Adams’ Achille Lauro opera as “dangerous” to perform after 9/11. Beyond the pale stuff. And a perfect example of how *not* to read politics in music and especially what *not* to do about perceived politics of a work (call for its removal from the repertoire). [end]

  7. "I look forward to the day when we’ll divide stage direction into good and bad, innovative and repetitive, meaningful and not [etc] rather than Regie vs traditionalism. Just like in the rest of the theatre world."

    Totally agree. That said, it does require the recognition of opera as theatre and indeed the idea that opera is about more than luxurious prettiness. I suspect much of the traditionalist position boils down to "leave me alone to luxuriate in this expensive entertainment with my rich friends and do not, repeat DO NOT, attempt to challenge my privileged conservatism". When that's added to the logistics of the international singing star and rep system it's no surprise that much of the time GMs play it safe, however boring that is.

  8. And maybe the ways of funding affect the esthetics. Maybe relatively stable component of public funding of the opera arts allows more room for creative reinventions. If the opera house is run like a business (as is in the US and in part in Canada), there will be fewer shows that do brave stuff. This is no new insight, the problem exists in publishing for a long time… I'm sure elsewhere too.

  9. "And maybe the ways of funding affect the esthetics"

    For sure! Every time I feel critical of the Met (often!) I remind myself that Peter Gelb has to keep a bunch of rich, old New Yorkers happy. To some extent Alexander Neef has the same problem here in Toronto. There was definitely a minor spate of "I've been a Friend of Canadian Opera for the last 150 years but I am cancelling my subscription forthwith" reactions to Tim Albery's "Aida" this year. OTOH COC does have a few major donors who have come out vocally in favour of innovation. That said I don't anticipate "Death of Klinghoeffer" on the Met stage any time soon. (Wed id get an aria from it at the Four Seasons Centre at the lunchtime concert that John Adams introduced a few weeks ago).

  10. Thanks for all the comments! Def, I agree that this is something that should be part of *all* productions as much as possible, but hardly any traditional directors put that kind of basic mental effort into their work (exception for McVicar), so it's in Regie-land where most of the interesting stuff happens. And I think the shock involved in a radical revision can have real use, not just for grabbing headlines. Subtlety can fly right over an audience's head sometimes.

    Also, Taruskin has had some over the top bloviating moments, but guy has done a *lot* of important work.

    Doundou, I think it is a good thing that non-Western people were a part of the production, but it's worth noting that Choa is not of Japanese ancestry (she's from Hong Kong), particularly due to Orientalism's habit of lumping all non-European cultures together.

    And I think structural funding issues are the major reason why this kind of thing has been largely developed in Germany, the land of major public arts funding. I think many more German audience members are open to experimental productions than Americans (can't speak for Canadians), but they have a lot more experience with them.

    I have been to two post-show discussions in Germany after Bieito productions (Armida in Berlin and Fidelio in Munich). The public was definitely not all in favor at either but I remember Klaus Bachler in Munich saying something to the effect of, "yeah it's not easy and I'm sorry if you don't like it, but that's art. And Fidelio beginning with ironing for the 1000th time because that's what we do is not art, no matter how good the musicianship is." (I paraphrase. But he definitely mentioned ironing, musicianship as not enough, and apologized to someone without sounding very sorry at all.) I can't imagine an American intendant, always needing to please rich old donors, ever saying something like that. There was no equivocating.

    Lucy, I love the title!!! The epigram can be Prof. Berry's wonderfully apt Benjamin quote.

  11. I didn't say Carolyn Choa was Japanese. I know her family well. Don't say I lump all Asians together. I am Eurasian myself, so I probably know more about the subject than you do.

  12. I didn't accuse you of anything and didn't mean to imply to do so either. I just wanted to make the point that it was still a group of non-Japanese people putting a lot of images of traditional Japanese culture on a stage that was not in Japan, and while it all looked very nice to my uneducated eye, such a project can still present issues of cultural appropriation.

  13. If a stage like the Bavarian state opera from millions euro makes only effects, then that is very sad. The money paid by the people is to be offered there around culture for the people.

  14. I have nothing against a revisionist retelling of The Little Mermaid or the Rusalka legend, but grafting one on to an already existing opera – where it will necessarily make nonsense of the libretto and the music – is, at best, a cheap, squalid way of doing it.

    It's not illegal to write new works of musical theatre. You want to write a realistic stage musical about a woman imprisoned in her father's basement, go right ahead. But Dvorak's opera is not such a work and attempts to twist it into one are bound to come across as ludicrous, forced, and painfully naff. (And I'm writing about what sounds to me like an atypically MILD example of regietheatre perversion; I know there are far worse out there.) We have The Wizard of Oz, and we have Wicked. An attempt to stage the former with the sensibility of the latter would have been excrutiatingly bad and an insult to the intelligence of everyone involved. And yes, I'm aware I'm talking about the single work of Western culture we probably have least reason to be purist about. What applies to The Wizard of Oz also applies, a fortiori, to anything else.

    All very well to make people think about the meaning of what they're watching: that's what the program notes are for; that's what a blog like yours is for. Getting a director to draw a moustache on the opera does NOT make audiences think – except perhaps such smug thoughts as "Weren't they misogynistic back in the poor old misguided 19th Century! (I'm gald I'm not like that!)" You can't examine your own reaction to a 19th- or 18th-Century when the director won't allow you to have one in the first place, by denying you the chance of experiencing the work itself.