I recently recommended the Heather Mac Donald article, “The Abduction of Opera” which appeared in City Journal. I continue to recommend this unusually astute evaluation of some of the directorial excesses afflicting the operatic world today, but would like to comment more specifically, and include a few reservations.
My commentaries on some of the productions I’ve seen appear to concentrate on much milder fare than the productions perpetrated in Europe today. I haven’t been to the continent in over a year and have apparently missed all the fun. Things are exponentially ratcheting up, it seems, and the goofy irrelevancies I’ve blogged about appear to be giving way, at least in some quarters, to the truly offensive. Calixto Bieito, for instance, is singled out as a particularly egrigious offender in the Mac Donald article.
Among the best points Mac Donald makes involve at least two essential theses:
1. The style and rhetoric of the standard operatic repertory reflects its time without compromising this repertory’s potential timelessness, and the imposition of a so-called contemporary frame of reference creates an unintended, illegitimate, irrevelant, and solipsistic adolescent vandalism of some of the greatest works in Western culture.
2. (We can assume opera to be an extravagant medium) But it is also a subtle medium, deeply concerned with beauty; beauty in the standard, non-deconstructionist meaning of the word. The best line in Mac Donald’s article?
“Regietheatre directors undoubtedly think of themselves as sophisticated when they unmask courtly decorum as just a cover for fornication. The demystifiers’ awareness of desire is so crude that they cannot hear that the barely perceptible darkening of a voice or the constricted suffusion of breath into a note can be a thousand times more erotic than a frenzy of pelvic thrusting.”
That passage could only have been written by somebody who loves and understands opera.
I’m personally less interested in the angle of the article speculating on the Metropolitan Opera’s future direction. Time will tell. Now for my reservations:
Mac Donald comments:
“But while subsidies may be a necessary condition for Regietheater, they are not a sufficient one. European opera has been subsidized to varying degrees throughout its centuries-long history without generating the musical abuse that is now so common. And Regietheater productions are creeping into the U.S., where opera relies overwhelmingly on private support.” and a little later in the same paragraph, (concerning the departure of a Regie oriented manager) “…The Market provided the necessary corrective in San Francisco,…”
I am definitely not trying to promote my own political philosophies, and I respect those whose views are not consonant with mine, please understand that I am attempting to apply some logic here. Also, I am reading a “subtext” into Mac Donald’s article which I freely admit may be misplaced.
1. I believe subsidies, public or private, are an absolute good. Only people who don’t care about high culture want to submit opera to the unfettered selfishness and superficiality of the marketplace. And artists, including directors, need to have artistic freedom. Opera cannot pay for itself; it’s too expensive. It needs help. We all pay for a heck of a lot of things the government does that we don’t agree with. Hey taxpayer! Do I want to take your money and give it to the opera establishment? You bet I do. And I understand that you have the right to take my money and use it for something I don’t care about. That’s the way it goes, and anyone who thinks the government is going to retreat, in any event, from its bloated role in our lives is deceiving himself. So let’s do some good with the dough that we are gonna have to cough up anyway. What’s different about public arts funding, which will in even the best possible case be a pittance? Ultimately, the Libertarian ideal or the (unrestrained) free market model will reduce us all to a state of nature, each man for himself. Oops! I misspoke. Each corporation for itself. But, especially in America, corporations and foundations are essential arbiters of our cultural life. But I’m definitely not going against a somewhat constrained free market. We ought to have some nuance in our cultural politics. We need to be responsible public custodians, and promote an environment that creates the necessary preconditions for great things. And this means taking the bad with the good, up to a point. Only children expect things to be all one way, or all the other; Good versus evil, like Harry Potter and Voldemort.
I worry about the potential, in both Europe and America, for corporate and (mostly in Europe) governmental mandarins to exploit the situation created by these nauseating productions for purposes contrary to the long-term health of culture. A civilized society has a collective responsibility toward its culture, which is most obviously expressed financially. The production decisions should be in the hands of opera professionals, and if these professionals are inadequate, one wants them replaced, for sure, but in a manner consonant with the retention of professional and interpretive freedom. The audience suffers, the way it is, but things could get worse in a hurry if reactionaries and bottom-liners hold the reins. By the way, Germany continues to have the most vibrant operatic culture in the world. How many really new works do we have in America? I don’t believe Menotti, Heggie, Bolcom, or Tan Dun are really giving us, or have given us, something really new and substantial. Where is the American Lulu? And who is the Met really serving by giving us La Boheme every year, in attractive but conventional settings? The situation is more complex than can be solved by eliminating the badness of idiots like Bieito, that’s for sure.
2. Remember the Robert Mapplethorpe shenanigans? The politicians who despise and fear art and artists seized on a publicly funded exhibit they didn’t like, in order to attempt (with at least some success) to conjure up rage against culture in the artistically ignorant population (which means almost the entirety of the population). This is dangerous, and as bad as the productions Mac Donald refers to undoubtedly are, I’d rather have that shambles than the meddling of the moneybags. This is hard for an American to hear, perhaps, but underwriters (in some limited cases, especially including the arts) should not have carte blanche to dictate the contents of the art they fund. Art cannot work that way.
3. This stuff is a fad. It’ll reach its acme, and then recede.
By the way, I just remembered that I have read a book by Heather Mac Donald, called “The Burden of Bad Ideas”. Like her article, it’s excellent. That doesn’t mean I don’t harbor a few similar reservations, however!