Art v. Director — Euro v. USA

Photo by Richard Cawood — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

“In Europe our tradition of exploring ideas and issues in a very contemporary way is much more advanced than in America.”

Wow. Where’s Tony Kushner when you really need him?

Nikolaus Bachler, leader of the Bavarian State Opera, did not stop there in talking about the difference between the Euro and American approach to his high art: “Theater is for the present. Maybe it’s true that any really good European production would hold up in the United States 20 years later.”

However, he is not waiting twenty years. This season, Bachler’s Müncher Opernfestspiele initiates a co-production of Luc Bondy’s Tosca with New York’s Metropolitan Opera and its leader, Peter Gelb. Still, these two opera powerhouses have not had the easiest time finding a production to share, as reported by the New York Times (and posted in KadmusArts’ Culture News).

Gelb might appreciate those “formidable intellectuals” of Euro art, but believes that “[a] great opera production should work for any audience. I have to believe that.”

Two recent Met hits were rejected by Bachler because they were too much “conventional conventional.” In rejecting Mary Zimmerman’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Bachler declared: “The production tells us nothing about what the piece might mean to us now.” And she’s supposed to be one America’s leading intellectual directors!

Bachler is representing the Euro-favorite taste for deconstruction, radical re-imagining, and high concept approach to production where the director’s vision is the most enticing reason to see opera. For Gelb, though, audiences come if you give them what they want — a good night out: “People should enjoy opera. They shouldn’t need a guidebook. Verdi and Puccini wanted audiences to have a good time at the opera, not to torture them.” Opera as torture!

Gelb uses the history of generous state funding as the source of Euro arrogance in front of a classical work and today’s audiences. Anywhere you do not need to be concerned with box office revenues is a place where you do not need to be concerned with the pleasure of your audience. Isn’t a lecture the most fun for the lecturer?

Gelb, though, might have it backwards. Anywhere you have generous state subsidies is a place where you can keep the price of tickets low. Many of the European audiences have grown up seeing multiple productions of the opera cannon. If you’ve seen many different versions of an opera, you might be more open to new interpretations, especially those most relevant for our times. Surely there are very few people who have grown up being able to afford seeing multiple Met productions.

Fortunately, Gelb has been at the forefront of changing the Met’s audience. The Met had one of the most traditional audiences in the country. As all presenters know, the older an audience gets, the less they are attracted to adventure, and the more they expect the sets and costumes to reflect, if not amplify, the high cost of their tickets. Gelb’s initiatives include bringing the Met to new audiences — outside on the plaza, in Times Square, and in movie theatres across the country. (See “Radical Opera”)

Sure, there are too many Euro-type productions that are completely over the top — radical for the sake of radicalizing, impenetrable for the sake of being edgy, and ridiculous for the sake of being profound. However, as Gelb knows so well, there are also too many productions that never ask themselves: Why are we watching this today? What compels to confront this work, today?

There are two rules to follow in a director’s re-imagining a work from the canon:

1. What does the director reveal about the original?
2. What does the director reveal about our world today?

Opera has very little leeway in these experiments. Of all of the performance arts, most of the operatic experience can be replicated at home with a great sound system and a great recording.

Maybe Bachler and Gelb should move away from the focus on their current audiences. They need to get together to agree on a way to find new audiences. In the opera world that would be the most necessary and most radical manifesto.

- Bill Reichblum

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3 Responses to “Art v. Director — Euro v. USA”

  1. Helen Kamioner
    September 21st, 2009 13:49

    Dear Mr. Reichblum:

    Wonderful blog! Nice of you to comment on this article. I do feel however, that the best that Gelb and Bachler can do is what they’re doing now and that is bringing new and young innovative directors to their houses, and literally changing the look of opera so that their audiences are getting used to what used to be called “Eurotrash” and is no de rigeur. People talk and I think word of mouth is the best publicity. If you look at the Bavarian State Opera website you will see that they have a special section for opera education and are very strong in that area. The MET might follow their lead and bring in a younger, hipper way of introducting opera to children then what they did in the last century. I also like your idea of lowering prices of tickets, but keep in mind, while tickets throughout Germany are relatively reasonable you still have to shell out $5-6 hundred dollars to see on of the Salzburg extravaganzas, and there are those that do. Top price ticket for the Munich Festival is about 200 Euros and they’re always sold out. I think the US is catching on though to the reimagination of the art form because they have to. The same audiences who spend hundreds at the MET are hard core opera fans who are by now seasoned European opera-goers too.

  2. Bill
    September 22nd, 2009 14:56

    Thank you, Helen, for your thoughts.

    I think you are absolutely right that the best opera companies work hard to provide context to the works — the more one understands something, the more one can appreciate it.

    Opera should be the ultimate attraction for those of us who love performance as it combines all of the arts in one event.

    Live art should never be the same as a museum — unless nostalgia is the only reason to be there.

    No doubt, Gelb and Bachler, each in their own way, is very much on track.

    Let’s spread the word — and the music!

  3. KadmusArts Culture News » Blog Archive » Here We Go Again: Met Meets Tosca - “Boo!”
    September 23rd, 2009 00:06

    [...] Guardian Art v. Director. Euro v. USA [...]

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