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Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Opera in crisis?

Every now and then, art forms are considered as undergoing a crisis. Those who make that diagnosis are usually critics for the media or from an academic background. In 2015, Detlef Brandenburg, editor of the German Die Deutsche Bühne, published twelves statements about the current state of affairs of the art form of opera, with focus on the German scene, with its opera houses and opera sections at multi-section theatres.  

Detlef Brandenburg
Brandenburg argued that many new operas are being composed and staged; however, hardly any are taken up again at other opera houses after their premiere productions. Thus, these operas do not become known to a wider opera audience, and the composers do not get a chance to develop their work further to gain experience for future compositions. 

Conventional, canonical opera has attracted its audience because of very specific characteristics. These include a very emotion-laden plot, and, most importantly, beautiful music and singing. Many tunes, melodies or arias from canonical operas have become well-known because of their beauty. For some reason, contemporary composers seem to be developing a different understanding of musical beauty, which has not yet caught on widely, or they go against the canonical concept of beauty, or they are not trained or capable of creating beautiful sounds. I have not yet found a convincing argument in this context, but I find hardly any of contemporary opera music or singing beautiful. I am therefore not surprised that opera houses do not often revive new operas, and I admire the courage of artistic managers to invite new work to be created in their houses if they can predict that the result will not sound beautiful.

Brandenburg refers to potentially problematic assumptions that audiences tend to be conservative, and actually happy with an apparently never-changing status quo of conservative productions of a conservative repertoire. Artistic managers therefore hesitate to introduce too much by way innovation, both in terms of innovative productions of the core repertoire and introduction of new work. 

As far as innovative productions are concerned, they can be refreshing and interesting, but they are very rare. The reason that many productions of the Regietheater, director’s theatre, however, may be problematic is that they just do not make any sense in relation to the music and the libretto. Directorial concepts then come across, at best, as inconsequential and as such they do not distract much from the music. I remember an interview with conductor Peter Schneider where he talked about a production of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. In one of the scenes in which the three Norns weave the rope of Destiny, the music is fairly dramatic. However, the scene had been directed with the Norns sitting down doing some knitting. Schneider showed some despair in his comment that it is simply impossible to conduct the dramatic music of this scene as “knitting music”. 

At worst, unfortunate directorial choices or concepts are downright annoying, constituting obstacles to the enjoyment of the performance, and to the achievements of the musicians. As with theatre, there is no objection to innovation in principle. If it works well, it can be great, as with Thomas Ostermeier’s 2005 production of Hedda Gabler, that I still consider as the best example of a very successful contemporary approach to a canonical play text. I have not yet encountered an opera production quite reaching the consistency of narrative of that Ostermeier production. I have commented extensively on that production, and have posted that comment separately for reference.

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