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Will Regietheater Egoists Destroy the Classics?

By Harley Schlanger

November 2011

“Musical Drama” by Wolfgang Mozart
Libretto by Giambattista Varesco

Production of the Tiroler Landestheater
Innsbruck, Austria
Producer: Peer Boysen
Performances in November, and on December 3 and 11, 2011

Photo by Rupert Larl of Tiroler Landestheater
Left to right: Benito Marcelino (Nettuno), Irina Taboridze (Elettra).

21 November 2011 (Innsbruck) – In his first mature composition of an opera, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart took a classical story that occurred at the end of the tragedy of the Trojan War, that of “Idomeneo, King of Crete,” and produced a work of art that is stunningly evocative, and powerfully beautiful.  When performed as Mozart intended, the brilliance of his composition elevates the story, offering to members of the audience an opportunity to experience an increase in their own capacity to love mankind, and to become fighters for justice, as they had seen occur on the stage with two of the protagonists of the piece, Ilia and Idamante.

In the performance I saw in Innsbruck at the Tiroler Landestheater (TLT) on November 12, the elements of such a performance were there: the singers were excellent, the chorus of the TLT was both vibrant and nuanced, and the Symphony Orchestra of Tirol, under the direction of Christoph Altstaedt, was superb, bringing out the contrapuntal developments and delicate phrasing in the music, which Mozart used to highlight the dramatic tension of the story, while sustaining the seamless flow between recitative, choruses and arias.

Unfortunately, the production as a whole was destroyed by the egotistical absurdities introduced by the director, Peer Boysen, who, in the currently vogue manner of “Regietheater,” decided that the opera should be steered by his vision – whatever that was – rather than by that of Mozart.  The result was that what could have been a delightful and uplifting evening was ruined; but, even worse, given that no one in the audience reacted against the crime committed by Boysen, this trend could be bringing on the death of classical culture.

And were that to occur, it would be a tragedy of greater magnitude to the future of mankind, than what occurred leading up to, and in the aftermath, of the Trojan War.

The Real Idomeneo

I will leave it to the readers to discover “Idomeneo” for themselves.  There are, however, several points to be made, in order to see the real travesty presented by Boysen in Innsbruck.

Mozart's opera is about the art of statecraft, following a tragic event, the Trojan War, which nearly destroyed civilization.  Idomeneo was a general in that war, fighting on the side of the Greeks.  When the drama opens, he is shipwrecked by a storm on his return from Troy, and is first believed to have perished.

The other three leads are members of a younger, post-war generation, yet one mightily affected by that tragedy of war.  Ilia, who we meet first, is the daughter of King Priam of Troy, who was killed in the war, along with the rest of her family, except for her.  She was captured by Idomeneo, and sent to Crete as a slave.  Electra, her rival for the love of Idamante, is the daughter of Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks at Troy, who was killed by his wife Clytemnestra, when he returned from the war.  Electra and her brother, Orestes, avenged his murder, by killing their mother, leading to her exile in Crete.

Idamante, who had been governing in the absence of his father, frees the Trojan slaves in the opening act, as a gesture of reconciliation, and a sign of love for Ilia. 

Yet, instead of peace prevailing, the Greeks' adherence to their tradition of subservience to the Gods intervenes, as Idomeneo had pledged to Neptune to sacrifice the first person he sees on land, if he is allowed to survive the shipwreck.  The sacrificial victim turns out to be his son, Idamante.  The rest of the opera revolves around the consequences of this pledge to Neptune, and the torment it causes him that he must kill his son, whom he had otherwise hoped to prepare to eventually replace him as a good king, and how this vow effects the relationships with his son, Ilia and Electra.

Thus, the story combines all the powerful themes of classical tragedy, and the emotional tensions they provoke.  Among these are the crises which emerge from having to chose between acting on a higher principle, as an act of conscience, rather than surrendering to fate, so as to act for the General Welfare, even if it means personal sacrifice; and overcoming hatred through love.

And throughout, is the idea of governing for the good of the people.  Even as Idomeneo attempts to ship his son off to Argos, to avoid killing him, he tells him, “If you wish to learn the art of ruling, begin now by giving help to the unfortunate, and becoming ever more worthy of your father and yourself.”

The Poison of “Regietheater”

In May 2010, Carl St. Clair, the music director of  the Komische Oper Berlin, abruptly resigned, as the company, known for its extreme Regietheater productions, was presenting a particularly disgraceful version of Beethoven's “Fidelio.”  St. Clair, who had been with the company for three years, and had been faithfully involved in previous Regietheater productions, had finally had enough.  He told a reporter for the “Orange County Register” that the production was an abuse of Beethoven, adding, “It just got to the point where I felt shameful – I felt that I didn't stand up in a way – or I felt powerless to stand up for Beethoven.”

St. Clair was reacting to the arbitrary and often nihilistic changes to opera which characterize Regietheater, in which it is the vision of the director which takes priority over that of the composer and librettist.  The alleged justification for this is that non-contemporary operas are out-of-touch with the post-modern Zeitgeist, and must therefore be made “more relevant,” so a modern audience can relate to what is occurring on stage.  Instead of being guided by the Classical operatic traditions which developed over several hundred years, and were the creative products of artists who took their inspiration from ideas which were essential to the advance of civilization, opera, especially in Germany, has become a staging ground for increasingly bizarre, infantile fantasies, of self-obsessed nihilists, whose fame depends on their ability to shock an audience.

One might ask that, if such “directors” are so creative, why not write their own operas?  Instead, they desecrate the classics, putting their own pornographic fantasies on the stage, while using Mozart's or Verdi's music, to attract an audience.  There have been reports in the European press that some of these directors do little or no study of the piece they are presenting, and rely on the musical directors and musicians to produce the music – while they concoct actions on stage which divert the audience away from the music, and the ideas, of the composers.

Regietheater in Practice

While it was the performing of Florestan's moving aria at the beginning of Act II of “Fidelio” in a dumpster which may have been too much for St. Clair, the degradation of Beethoven's only opera was tame, compared to some of the Regietheater performances by the Komische Oper.  In a 2011 revival of a 2006 production of Mozart's “Abduction from the Seraglio,” by supreme Spanish narcissist Calixto Bieito, the Pasha Selim's harem was moved from Turkey to a German brothel, and the Pasha was transformed from a dignified figure, whose surprising act of mercy at the end of the singspiel delighted the audiences of Mozart's time, to a sadistic super-pimp.  Bieito hired real-life prostitutes and strippers for the harem, and featured acts of rape, oral sex and sado-masochism in his production, which led to a short-lived revolt by performers in 2004.  However, the “show must go on,” and the 2011 revival went on without a hitch, performing, unfortunately, before full houses.

Typical of Regietheater, Bieito changed the ending, for no ostensible purpose, other than to impose his narcissistic intention above the noble and sublime ending of Mozart.  After the Pasha bestows mercy, by freeing Belmonte and Konstanze, Bieito's Konstanze shoots him, then turns the gun on herself, completely obliterating Mozart's intent, of demonstrating that a universal notion of love and respect for the dignity of man exists in common, in Christianity and Islam.

The absurdity of Regietheater was on display in a Bavarian State Opera production of Verdi's “Rigoletto”, set on the Planet of the Apes!  German soprano Diana Damrau described this as “superficial rubbish,” but felt she had no option, if she wanted to avoid the label of being “hard to work with” – so, as she lamented, “I fulfilled my contract.”  In preparing for the production, instead of researching the historical setting for the opera, as she would ordinarily do, she complained that “we had to watch `Star Wars' movies and different versions of `The Planet of the Apes.'”  She told a reviewer that the production was reduced to “just noise.”

For a final example of the deadly poison of Regietheater – and I apologize for numbing the readers' sensibilities with these reports – we turn again the The Komische Oper and a butchering of Mozart's “Magic Flute,” in 2006, by Hans Neuenfels.  In this production, Prince Tamino's magic flute is a giant penis, and Papageno's bells are silver testicles!  Neuenfels was in the news again, in 2006, for his controversial “Idomeneo” at the Deutsche Oper, in which he added an ending, featuring the severed heads of Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad and Neptune being carried across the stage, to express his personal dislike of religion. 

What should be clear from this brief review is that the search for ever greater shocks to be delivered to the audience by practitioners of Regietheater speaks volumes about not just the dangerous collapse of civilized standards of members of the general public -- some of whom do go to opera today precisely to be shocked -- but also about the immoral pessimism endemic in the arts today.  The outlook of a true creative artist, such as Mozart and Beethoven, is characterized by their love of mankind, their belief that their creative efforts will stimulate a creative response among theater and concert-goers, and that can lead to a better future for all.  Not only is there no such commitment from the Regietheater activists and their promoters: unlike the truly creative artist, they are, in fact, driven to ever-increasing bestial productions due to their hatred of those, such as Mozart, who are truly creative, and by their cynical pessimism about thier fellow humans.

Boysen's Regietheater in Innsbruck

Granted, the Regietheater inflicted by Peer Boysen on the good burghers of Innsbruck did not include naked female bodies being mutilated on stage, or scenes of gratuitous sex – though he did add one severed head, in an inexplicable distortion of the ending.  This milder, Regietheater-lite still was filled with his own directorial conceits, which were a constant distraction from the unfolding drama of Mozart's opera. 

Photo by Rupert Larl of Tiroler Landestheater
Left to right: Sophie Mitterhuber (Ilia), Irina Taboridze (Elettra), Trine Bastrup Möller (Idamante)

As is usual for Regietheater, it is clear from the beginning that the setting is not really Crete after the Trojan War, as there is a pair of mid-20th century suitcases placed arbitrarily in the center of the stage.  When Idamante first appears, he is wearing a red-and-white tie!  Thus, in scenery and costume, the setting is unclear, and must therefore be of little or no importance!

As the tension involving the rivalry for Idamante, between Electra and Ilia, is first introduced, Boysen opts for a very strange mime, with Electra and Idamante walking in circles, stopping abruptly, turning awkwardly, and glaring at each other, at odd angles, oblivious to everything else around them.  The turmoil coursing through Electra, which is developed brilliantly in her arias by Mozart, is not adequate for Boysen.  Throughout the opera, he has her constantly in agitated motion, at one point rubbing against a violinist, at another grabbing the back of the conductor -- as she is singing, and he is conducting!  One wonders if Altstaedt was comfortable with this, or if Christine Buffle, whose singing as Electra was wonderful, felt at all silly doing this routine!

The setting of Mozart's spectacular quartet in Act III, “Andro ramingo, e solo,” which is the dramatic peak for the whole opera, also was staged in a manner which was totally distracting.  Instead of allowing the audience to be moved by the plight of the individuals, who were each lamenting in song the cruel destiny, which affected each of them differently -- and which seemed, at that time, inescapable -- the audience's attention is again diverted, as they scampered around the stage, disjointed, ruining the marvelous harmony in Mozart's music.  The characters are reduced to soap opera caricatures, and it is difficult to be moved by the life-and-death emotions which gripped them.

Photo by Rupert Larl of Tiroler Landestheater
Left to right: Leonardo Ferrando (Arbace), Martin Homrich (Idomeneo).

A similar problem led to a one-dimensional portrayal of Idomeneo.  Despite a rich voice, tenor Martin Homrich seemed to be primarily communicating anger, nearly shouting at times.  Perhaps this was to fulfill Boysen's distortion of the ending, in which there are two final scenes: in the first, Idomeneo cuts off the head of his son, Idamante, which is not in Mozart's opera!  Then, in a kind of “instant replay,” a version of the original ending is presented, in which Idamante is saved by the Gods, who are so moved by the love of Idamante and Ilia, and their willingness to sacrifice, for the good of the nation, that they release Idomeneo from his vow of sacrifice.  However, the reconciliation in Mozart's ending, in which the chorus sings joyfully that this decision by the Gods, to spare Idamante and place him on the throne with Ilia, means that “Neptune will be appeased, heaven contented, and innocence rewarded,” is replaced by a petulant reaction from Idomeneo, who storms off, angry at his banishment, and an ambiguous conclusion, with Idamante and Ilia seeming to run away together.

One additional contrivance imposed by Boysen was the omnipresence on stage, from the opening of the overture to the very end, of a blue man, with a white whig, wearing an outfit from Mozart's time.  At times he would push or pull the characters, as though he was moving them without their consent.  Whatever Boysen's intent, in inventing this character, it was another distraction, from the flow of the drama and the music, and served no purpose at all.

Let me note that the singing of Trine Bastrup Moeller as Idamante, Susanne Langbein as Ilia, and Christine Buffle as Electra, as well as that of Leonardo Ferrando as Arbace, was excellent, though not fully appreciated, as the silliness overall of the production diminished their fine efforts.

The Necessity for the Classics

Mozart was commissioned to compose this opera by Elector Karl Theodor of Bavaria.  He had promoted the sciences and the arts as Prince Elector of Palatine, and built up the preeminent orchestra of Europe in Mannheim, which had attracted Mozart's attention.  The commission was for a performance in Munich, where the Elector had moved, and his court was an eclectic mix of Italian singers and a troupe of French actors, the presence of which is reflected in the opera.  It was in Mannheim in 1782 – the year after Mozart's opera was first performed in Munich – where Friedrich Schiller's first play, “Die Rauber”, had its premiere, as part of the inauguration of a Nationaltheater, which Karl Theodore had initiated.

The idea of a Nationaltheater, of a German-language theater, was also an intention of Austrian Emperor Joseph II, who welcomed Mozart to Vienna with that in mind, soon after the premiere of Idomeneo in Munich.  (Mozart's “Abduction from the Seraglio” was, in fact, shortly afterwards commissioned by Joseph II as a German singspiel, for his court's Nationaltheater.) This idea of a Nationaltheater had been promoted by Gotthold Lessing, who, in the middle of the eighteenth century, in collaboration with his close friend Moses Mendelssohn, had taken up the challenge of presenting the classics, especially from the Greeks and Shakespeare, in German language, to develop the national culture.  This movement was crucial for the flowering of the arts, in the last decades of the century, which included the works of such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, as well as Schiller, Goethe and later, Heine.

To understand the importance of this development, I turn to the writings of the American economist and philosopher, Lyndon LaRouche, who has waged an unrelenting battle against the sorts of depravities associated with Regietheater , as inimical to the advance of human culture.

LaRouche points out, in two articles he wrote in 2000, “Politics as Art,” and “A Surpirse in Dresden,” (Executive Intelligence Review magazine, November 17, 2000, and December 8, 2000 issues), that it was the work of Mendelssohn and Lessing, and Lessing's teacher Kaestner, in building on that of their “teachers”, Leibniz and Bach, which created the great potential for the republican ideals of the American Revolution, which had originated in Europe, to come back to Europe.  For those who were influenced by Lessing and Mendelssohn, including Mozart, there was no separation between politics and art.  According to LaRouche, they devoted their lives to advance principles of classical artistic composition, so as to capture the imagination of the minds of the audience, and lift them above a culture still dominated by a degenerate oligarchy.  Mozart's “Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni”, both of which courageously attacked oligarchical privilege, were a part of that battle.

Only in this way, LaRouche writes, is it acceptable that politics be incorporated in art, only the “politics of ideas...bearing upon the task of defining the nature of mankind.”  In this way, the crises dominating the figures on stage, their torment and agony (think of the characters from “Idomeneo”) can be brought to members in the audience.  The proof of a successful performance, he continues, is one in which the torment facing the characters has activated “the impassioned cognitive powers of imagination” of the audience.

This kind of performance fulfills the goal of theater as espoused by Schiller, that members of the audience may leave the theater as better human beings than when they entered.  Such cannot be said for an audience which has wallowed in the semi-pornographic filth produced by today's Regie-brats.

LaRouche goes further, taking up the complaint that, since life today is not beautiful, our art should faithfully represent that ugliness.  Classical beauty, he writes, in “Politics as Art,” is not located in an object, nor a succession of notes, which might be pleasing to the eye or ear.  He defines beauty as “a relationship between the cognitive processes of the artist, on the one side, and the cognitive processes of the audience, on the other....

“Such art never descends to the banality of mere entertainment.  It has a sacred spiritual quality, expressing a quality of the human cognitive processes, by means of which they celebrate and impose that law, that each man and woman is made in the image of the Creator of this universe.  Here lies the superior moral authority of great Classical artistic composition and its performance.”

A Final Word

That such a conception is “too old-fashioned”, or “too boring” to the egoists of Regietheater, and that modern performers and audiences tolerate their self-love, is a sign that our culture is indeed degenerating, perhaps beyond salvation.  Reducing the majesty of the struggle against tyranny by Florestan to a cry in the dark from a dumpster, or making a sex-and-snuff-fest out of Mozart's Abduction, can only bring pleasure to those who have lost a sense of higher purpose in life. 

Alas, due to this dominating trend in the arts in Europe, many young people growing up today may never know the great, sublime joy, of the total engagement of cognition, which is demanded by a Mozart opera, and will seek pleasure, instead, in the quick fix of drugs, the excitement of mass killing with video games, or the cheap thrill of topless bars and sex shows.

Classical tragedy is never about the failure of a potentially great individual, who is unable to overcome fate, or the odds against him.  Tragedy is that of a culture, in which the habits of a people – whether these be subservience to the Gods of Olympus, or to the modern Gods of the stock exchanges -- prevent them from acting to defeat oligarchical injustice.  Enslavement to the senses, to popular opinion, seeking a comfort zone from which to “safely” watch the degeneration of a culture, fear of speaking the truth, or of seeking it  – these are what ultimately cause civilizations to collapse

Harley Schlanger
Tiroler Landestheater

It is time for the performers to rise up against the turning of the great stages into cesspools, under the yoke of Regietheater.  There  should be a revolt against the childishness of the Regie-brats.  The rebellion of St. Clair in Berlin, mentioned above, could serve as a beginning.  Those who undergo the artistic training and development of individual character, must demand that they be given the opportunity to play the dignified and crucial role developed for them by artists in the past – to challenge the concentration span and cognitive powers of members of an audience, and lift them above that, rather than to stimulate their infantile and erotic fantasies.

As LaRouche's comments above make clear, the real revolutionaries are not those who defecate on the Classical tradition, but those who built it, and those who fight to continue it, against the clamor for “more excitement” and more “entertainment.”  The human race has advanced as a result of the battles waged against popular opinion, and it has fallen when what pleases the undeveloped aesthetic sense of the majority prevails. 

We are at a turning point for mankind today – it is time for a new, Classical revolution!

Why not begin that revolution at the Tiroler Landestheater?