I believe that new opera, written by living composers is indeed alive and well. Sometimes new interpretations of old operas can work, too.
While in Berlin I saw a performance of “Orfeo” (by Gluck for those who are not operafiles) in which the Orfeo was a rock guitarist and Euridice was his drug addled girlfriend. He had to go to the drug lord’s den to find her. This was in German without subtitles. I cringed to think I was going to have to sit through this weird evening but, after the first ten minutes, I was enthralled. The Orfeo (a countertenor) was superb. Every note was expressive. The rest of the cast was the same. The set was not overwhelming and the orchestra/conductor was scrupulously respectful of the music. I came away just delighted that I had been there.
I understand that new interpretations can sometimes work and that the current crop of opera directors have been given a great deal of leeway to do whatever they want (thanks a lot to Robert Wilson) with any work. I think, though, that with no restraints at all, the practice of “trashing” a production in order to make it “relevant” has gone too far and that no one wants to say “STOP!” lest they seem pedestrian, fussy, or ultra-conservative. This, I think, has made the audiences feel blackmailed, since it is frequently so that they will boo a production team, but that distaste is totally ignored by those in charge of hiring. Quite some time ago, I saw Lohengrin at the Met with Deborah Voigt (while she was still heavy), and Ben Hepner done by Robert Wilson. The singing was great but the production was hideous. At the end, when Wilson came on stage, the whole place erupted into loud boos and hisses, more than I have ever witnessed in any production ever anywhere. Nonetheless, Mr. Wilson continues unabated to do his thing all over the world. In the program notes he stated: “I do not have to pay attention to the music or the lib retto, because I am there to put my own stamp on the work.” His stamp is to make the costumes look like something from Star Trek, the movements look like vampires stalking their next victim, and the overall point of view in each production, no matter what it is or where, the same. I am under the impression that Peter Sellars can be guilty of this kind of excess as well, but I haven’t seen his work so I only know about it, not of it, and that would make a difference to my evaluation, so right here I won’t say.
Clearly, people somewhere must like “Euro-trash” or whatever it’s called. I assume it is a small group who, like Wilson, either don’t know or don’t care about the music or the libretto. They must also be the people who give a lot of money or hold powerful positions within opera companies. It most certainly is not the audiences that are calling the shots.
There are no “opera police” but I can’t help but wonder if Callas really would have been OK with being the queen of a hive of bumblebees, or if Placido would really feel comfortable as a space alien or vampire.
I believe that everyone can learn to appreciate opera in whatever way the opera was done the first time by whomever created it. I don’t think people need the old operas to be “refreshed” or “re-done” just to bring people into the houses. I think that people will come when they are educated to do so and that is something that has been systematically stopped in most educational institutions for nearly three generations now. I learned about classical music in public school and it changed my life. If I were in the same schools now, I wonder if I would have the same kind of music education. I also believe that people cannot discriminate good from bad without musical education or life experience in a musical family with sophisticated tastes. How many people have either now?
The “operaization” of American musical theater is another topic, but one not so far away in principle. If you are going to do classic musicals, it seems that they deserve to be kept going without changing them just because they can be changed. I agree that sometimes the changes are fine, particularly if they leave the music alone. However, when the changes make the opera unrecognizable, and make you laugh where there isn’t anything funny going on, and make you cringe because what is being done is so far away from what the lyrics and music are communicating, and make you fall asleep because it is so unbearably dull, then things have gone too far. At that point, especially if the composer is no longer alive, there should be someone who can come along and say “OK. That’s it. You have killed this piece and now you must go someplace to do re-hab!”
I think it takes a great deal more skill and creativity to make something old new again without tampering with its basic ingredients. It’s like baking a chocolate cake. Most people who bake would say that you can make a good one with simple ingredients. It doesn’t mean that people won’t keep trying to come up with new, exciting recipes for chocolate cake but finding a new way to do something which has been done so many times by so many people takes a lot of creativity and motivation. And making a final product that is absolutely delicious can be harder than it appears. Still, people do it successfully every day.
I know, I know, silly wishful thinking about all this, but I can’t help myself.