Friday, 10 May 2013

Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein

I wish I could begin to understand the hysterical cries from people who, though not having seen a staging of an opera or indeed of anything else, consider it so offensive that they demand - in this case, successfully - that it be withdrawn. Like them, I am in no position to offer any sort of criticism of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein's production of Tannhäuser; I have not seen it and now it looks as though I never shall. What little information has come my way from reports is insufficent to enable any of us meaningfully to engage with the staging, though what I have heard concerning the director's Konzept strikes me as far from intrinsically absurd. I spend a silly amount of my time and energy fighting lazy, ignorant connections being posted between Wagner and National Socialism, but to inform a staging of one of his dramas with themes drawn from later - for that matter, contemporary or earlier - German history - does not seem to me questionable or even controversial.

Of course the Third Reich and the Holocaust are, rightly, sensitive topics. Yet, bizarrely, there often seems to be far greater controversy when they are interrogated than when - sickly, to my mind - they are treated as material for mere 'entertainment'. There was often particularly shrill criticism of a fascinating staging I saw at the Edinburgh Festival from the Cologne Opera of Strauss's Capriccio; I found it especially thought-provoking, but doubtless it enraged those only wished to see 'pretty' frocks, rather than to ask about the compromises Strauss and German culture engaged with, let alone to interrograte themselves. Again, I do not know into which category - interrogative, entertainment, or perhaps some other - Burkhard C Korminski's production fell, thoigh so far as I can discern from reports, there appears at least to be an element of the former. It may well have turned out to be needlessly 'controversial', unmusical, or all manner of other bad things; only those who have seen and thought about it are in any position to know, and they of course may have their minds clouded too. Nevertheless much of the public laps up with quasi-pornographic relish endless documentaries, films, popular histories about the Third Reich and Hitler in particular as if there were no tomorrow. Moreover, arrogantly uninformed productions - 'I could have approached The Damnation of Faust by reading a great deal about Berlioz but I avoided that' -such as Terry Gilliam's Damnation of Faust treat the Third Reich as little more than fodder for theatrical spectacle and are lauded for it. I thought Gilliam's production truly dreadful, indeed offensive, but it never occurred to me to agitate for the English National Opera to shut it down; nor, so far as I am aware, did it occur to anyone else to do so. Likewise, the exit of Elisabeth into a gas chamber in Sebastian Baumgartner's Bayreuth Tannhäuser struck me and many others as offensive, largely on account of its gratuity; it seemed quite unmotivated in what was in any case a highly arbitrary, indeed quite incoherent, production. People have every justification, every right, to discuss any staging, though it helps of course if one has actually seen it, but to seek to silence those with opposing standpoints?

So what was different on this occasion? That genuinely puzzles me. Part of the answer may lie, not in the circumstances of this production, but in an increasingly noisy, though, it would seem, for the most part numerically insignificant, faction amongst opera audiences and, still more, amongst people who - yes, I have to plead guilty here! - spend too much time talking about opera and music on the Internet. Their enemy is something they call either Regietheater or, still worse, 'Eurotrash'. (The latter seems to be originally an American term, though it is no longer confined to the other side of the Atlantic, and exhibits a curious, some might say imperialist. claim to 'ownership', or at least to 'protection', of an artistic phenomenon from another culture.) Lazy phrases such as 'the composer's intentions' - some peddlers seem even to be unaware that Wagner was highly unusual in writing his own poems, and that the librettist might actually deserve some consideration - or Werktreue are angrily chanted with all the self-reinforcing fervour of a self-selecting single-issue lobby, or even a quasi-religious sect. Drama goes for little, or nothing, in this world; instead, its heralds not only desire but demand a series of set and costume designs that monumentalise the worst taste of the 1950s. There were wonderful productions during the 1950s, so far as we can tell, just as there have been terrible productions, 'traditional' and 'radical', during the early twenty-first century. Yet the success of a production goes far beyond its designs; one can tell very little from a photograph or two, which is all most protestors have had to go on, and indeed one may be entirely misled by a decontextualised image.

I may be entirely wrong about this, and hope that I am, but it seems that the present debacle has more to do with an opportunistic attempt to berate a German theatre - German opera houses tend, for various reasons, to be more open to experiment than their British, let alone American, counterparts -through exploitation of the very historical phenomena about which the protestors claim to protest. It may not have been consciously designed as such, for fanatical fervour tends not to operate in that way; 'the cause', however incoherent, becomes internalised. One of the functions, indeed imperatives, of great art is to try to liberate us from such a Nietzschean 'herd mentality'. Yet uninformed insistence that 'unwholesome', 'degenerate', art must be eradicated, in order to 'protect' that which is 'good' and 'true': have we not heard such claims somewhere before?

38 comments:

operaramblings said...

I agree with pretty much everything you have to say here. The irony of people "shocked" by Nazi imagery trying to regulate art and make it wholesome and pure is palpable. I do think too that the "shock" is entirely artificial and that some people take a perverse pleasure in loudly proclaiming their "disgust".

Anonymous said...

Or perhaps it's as simple as this:

Howls of indignation could be heard emanating from the champions of and cheerleaders for Eurotrash (i.e., Konzept) Regietheater at the decision by Deutsche Oper am Rhein to cancel its new Burkhard C. Kosminski Nazi-themed staging of Wagner's Tannhäuser because of angered objections by certain segments of the opera-going public. "Deutsche Oper Am Rhein capitulates to morons who never even saw the production," sputtered one prominent Eurotrash champion, a card-carrying member of the "progressive" crowd whose members champion The New in opera stagings of canonical operas provided, of course, that those new stagings bear no resemblance to or have any connection with anything the opera's creator could have had in mind


http://www.soundsandfury.com/soundsandfury/2013/05/of-rotten-eggs-and-eurotrash.html

Mark Berry said...

Operaramblings: Absolutely: the Mary Whitehouse phenomenon. If only it were simply amusing and not so sinister.

I promise that I did not write the 'Anonymous' comment myself, yet it and its source could hardly have made my point better, if I had.

operaramblings said...

Mark: Curious how someone who is sure of his own rightness doesn't have comments enabled on his blog. Perhaps not so curious. After all, if one is infallible, what value is there in debate?

Anonymous said...

Mark Berry tweets:

"Struggling to understand how people who have not seen a staging agitating to have it closed down is any different from Nazi cultural policy"

---------

This line of so-called "thought" has been rebuffed so many times over ad nauseum it is not worth responding to.

Also, to cover all of the bases -- YES, the earth is not flat; and NO, Adam & Eve did not ride on the backs of dinosaurs.

Another tempest in a teapot (pat. pend.) descending into asininity.

So now, according to Mr. Berry, you're a Nazi if you want to criticize an opera production without seeing it.

Theresa Muir said...

Mark, I'm just taking a moment from repeatedly smacking my head on a concrete block to thank you for this clear, reasoned thought, clearly expressed.

Mark Berry said...

Our 'anonymous' friend would seem desperately in need of a course in basic logic.

I had not previously come across the infallible Mr Douglas, who describes himself, apparently without irony, as an 'ancient, abrasive, reactionary middlebrow bourgeois.' His philistinism seems well encapsulated in the following gem: 'Lord preserve us all, and most especially Wagner's music-dramas, from the explications and attentions of academics!' Far worse, however, is the following piece of brazen racism: 'From, The Reliable Guide To Snap Judgments: If it's Arab and about the Mideast it's wrong.' There is alas, far more where that came from...

A.C. Douglas said...

"Operaramblings" appears to have some sort of cognitive deficit that prevents him understanding plain English. His comment here, which he also posted to Opera-L in response to my "Rotten Eggs And Eurotrash" entry on S&F (the content of which I also posted to Opera-L) imagines that my comments in that entry were somehow an attempt to "tr[y] to regulate art and make it wholesome and pure." In point of fact, my comments in that entry did not address the cancellation of the production per se at all, much less attempt to "regulate" anything. It addressed exclusively the matter of whether one could determine whether an opera staging qualified as Eurotrash or not without ever having actually seen the staging (in most cases, one can).

I shall respond to Operaramblings's comment directly and more fully on Opera-L in response to his post there sometime later this evening.

--
ACD (A.C. Douglas)
http://www.soundsandfury.com/

Anonymous said...

As always a great comment. I tell my friends art must never offend--who was upset by all those pretty impressionist paintings? I was really shocked by the reaction to this production. Isn't the whole Nazi/Wagner or for that matter Nazi/Opera a cliche. It seems like no one was upset with Gilliam's Berlioz Faust other than that it was awful. As always with censors much of the outcry is from people who have never seen what it is that offends them so.

A.C. Douglas said...

Our 'anonymous' friend would seem desperately in need of a course in basic logic. I had not previously come across the infallible Mr Douglas....

I am NOT your "'anonymous' friend". I think far too much of myself to ever post anything anonymously.

--
ACD (A.C. Douglas)
http://www.soundsandfury.com/

A.C. Douglas said...

His [A.C. Douglas's] philistinism seems well encapsulated in the following gem: 'Lord preserve us all, and most especially Wagner's music-dramas, from the explications and attentions of academics!'

Let me guess: you're an academic.

Gee, what a surprise.

ACD

Wotans Other Eye said...

Mark, as always a thoughtful and detailed analysis. However, in this instance, as you yourself suggest, I think you are wrong.

I am afraid I grew somewhat "bored" of the entire affair (although I use this term advisably. There are many serious and sensitive issues involved in this) once the "mainstream media" became blindly involved (as I type one of the targeted and specialist news gathering sources I use is flashing every few minutes yet another headline about this production) and started reporting things they clearly did not understand . I did however follow the story and production closely at the beginning. I think a number of things contributed the entire affair reaching the “epic” proportions that it did and few, if any of them, are the ”protesters” against “Regietheater” (an insignificant although if I would suspect very large group) that you suggest.

I think the production did genuinely “shock, disgust and straight out annoyed some theatre goers who saw it. It may have been quite a visually attractive production but there were scenes that, if you were not expecting them and they were not the sort of thing that you would deliberately seeking out, you might find upsetting. Drawn out detailed executions, replicating real historical events, are not things that many theatre goers would expect to see in a production of Tannhäuser - of all of Wagner's works. In many ways perhaps, Kosminski, was too successful in “realistically” representing historical events.

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Aleksei said...

Mark,

It was my understanding that part of the decision-making was based on the fact that members of the audience were is physical distress--to the point of becoming violently ill-at the staging of the over-the-top and realistic scenes of violence. If this is true, then I think the management took appropriate steps to protect the well-being of the patrons.


This knee-jerk reaction from the claque that wants to see the most extreme and outrageous on opera stage, at the expense of the music, the libretto, and the dignity of the performers (and the audience) is to be expected. To
attempt to villify those who don't agree with such extemism with name calling and attempts at shaming is certainly contrary to good conversation or civilized debate.


Even more appropriate to ask: what sort of person would endorse a staging which caused such reactions? And if you can, than I would be extremely interested at what, if anything, would be a step too far for these people. I sometimes wonder if a (real) snuff opera would be defended as a valid
artistic statement.

Wotans Other Eye said...

Sorry Mark. It seems that Blogger has published by comments in the wrong order. And thus making them less comprehensible than normal. Not a difficult task it must be said. I will if I may, generate a quick blog and post them there so you can see if they make sense. But please respond here if you feel the inclination.

Mark Berry said...

A.C. Douglas: I neither suspected nor implied that you were the anonymous writer.

Mark Berry said...

Wotans Other Eye: No need to apologise at all. You make a number of interesting points. It is perfectly possible that this production was derivative, recycling old theatrical themes better presented elsewhere. The point, though, is that neither you nor I, nor most of those protesting, have the faintest idea.

Much of the furore about this, I suspect, is a matter of lazy media reporting. Stories are endlessly recycled, often by people who know nothing about Wagner, about opera, or about anything else very much. From the way reports were written, one might have been forgiven for thinking that no one had ever seen a Regietheatre production before.

Mark Berry said...

Aleksei: Context matters a great deal. What is 'gratuitous' in one setting may make a great deal of sense in another. Hence the absurdity of posting production pictures, devoid of content, and asking people to say whether they are 'beautiful' or 'a disgrace', which sadly seems to be the level of a great deal of discussion on such matters.

I certainly do not want to see anything on stage at the expense of the work, let alone of the music. The sheer unmusicality of a great deal of opera productions is a persistent bugbear of mine, but that has nothing much to do with 'traditional' or 'radical', or however one wishes to put it. For instance, Stefan Herheim is to mind one of the most musical opera directors working today.

Wotans Other Eye said...

Sorry, "concise" is not a word that sits easily in my vocabulary. And alas, "Blogger" will not allow comments this long. For sensible reasons one suspects.

Mark, as always a thoughtful and detailed analysis. However, in this instance, as you yourself suggest, I think you are wrong.

I am afraid I grew somewhat "bored" of the entire affair (although I use this term advisably. There are many serious and sensitive issues involved in this) once the "mainstream media" became blindly involved (as I type one of the targeted and specialist news gathering sources I use is flashing every few minutes yet another headline about this production) and started reporting things they clearly did not understand . I did however follow the story and production closely at the beginning. I think a number of things contributed the entire affair reaching the “epic” proportions that it did and few, if any of them, are the ”protesters” against “Regietheater” (an insignificant although if I would suspect very large group) that you suggest.

I think the production did genuinely “shock, disgust and straight out annoyed some theatre goers who saw it. It may have been quite a visually attractive production but there were scenes that, if you were not expecting them and they were not the sort of thing that you would deliberately seeking out, you might find upsetting. Drawn out detailed executions, replicating real historical events, are not things that many theatre goers would expect to see in a production of Tannhäuser - of all of Wagner's works. In many ways perhaps, Kosminski, was too successful in “realistically” representing historical events.

While perhaps not people like you or I, who are “seasoned”, it is possible to still be “shocked or indeed “disgusted” by opera productions if one is not a regular opera goer. Imagine if you will, a person who's idea of entertainment is listening to the Archers and watching repeats of the Vicar of Dibley and Downton Abbey, accidentally renting a copy of Dario Argento's classic giallo horror "Opera"

Continue Reading: http://wotansothereye.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/response-to-dr-mark-berry.html

Wotans Other Eye said...

Thank you Mark. And for your kind words. Agreed about the media jumping on it and knowing little about it. Although, did you know "Wagner was Hitlers favorite composer?" :)

However, in my opinion controversy "sells", especially "seats". And some houses certainly need the money and attention. No, there was something else here that lead to the cancellation. But I really do not believe it was anyone that is "anti Regietheater". Most of the journalists reporting this would not even know what "Regietheater was.

operaramblings said...

For the record, I have never posted anything to Opera-L, which I assume is a listserv, in my life. ACD does seem to be a rather confused person.

Barbara Eichner said...

Mark, thank you for these interesting thoughts. There was indeed a lot of lazy reporting, with Spiegel Online, Süddeutsche and Die Zeit all running the same news agency item, so apparently none of the bigger broadsheet had in advance considered covering the production.

You are quite right that there is an almost pornographic fascination with Nazi imagery in movies and documentaries, people swooning over blond dominatrices and muscular Übermenschen. However, there's another reason why I find the operatic obsession with the Nazis tired or even repellent: On German stages it often feels like producers enjoy wallowing in a voluptuousness of historical guilt. By all means let's have critical, politically engaged productions of Wagner, Strauss or any other opera composer, but self-flagellation can sometimes be as gratuitous, indulgent and grating as self-righteousness.

A.C. Douglas said...

For the record, I have never posted anything to Opera-L, which I assume is a listserv, in my life. ACD does seem to be a rather confused person.

http://tinyurl.com/dy52hpx

ACD

leonora said...

Have been reading the discussion on Twitter, AND read the article in THE GUARDIAN. But - I haven't seen the production!! And I am usually very reluctant to enter discussions about productions I haven't seen, there are too many people willing to do that _(sometime I'll tell you about the ghastly FB group AGAINST MODERN OPERA PRODUCTIONS). What I would like to say, however, is that it seems to have been rather ill-informed to attach Nazi imagery/references to the plot of Tannhauser, which is really about (a) art (b) the conflict between sacred and profane love.It has been ALLEGED that this production breaks off the action to show T. shooting a Jewish family - IS THIS TRUE? Since it's about, perhaps it would have worked if it had been set in Terezin/Theresienstadt, if the producer really wanted to reference the Third Reich - but is it really a political work anyway?

leonora said...

I'd like to add to what I previously said....I have in any case never seen a satisfactory production of Tannhauser - it's a very difficult work to produce succressfully. When I saw the rather minimalist production at Covent Garden a few years ago, I found myself thinking that producers could do worse than take a leaf out of Aubrey Beardsley's book....(I hope this link works)
http://www.leonora-opera.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/tannhauser-in-venusberg.html

Mark Berry said...

That's a very good point. I too have never seen a convincing production. It is perhaps Wagner's most problematic drama: for that reason it fascinates, but there is no escaping the difficulties it poses. I think it is highly political when considered in its Young German context - Heine, Börne, et al. - and of course Feuerbach's 'sensualism'. That could be played upon in so many ways, contemporary to Wagner and to us. Beardsley, you are right, is certainly rich in suggestion.

Anonymous said...

What is so special about Opera as an art-form that it feels it is entitled to take great liberties with the productions in order to provide a social commentary? Are there any other art-forms except for some legit theater and western Opera that indulge in this practice? For example, Opera’s first cousin, musical theater, seems to be pretty immune to this affliction: we are yet to see a “Sweeney Todd” set in Jonestown, or a “Mack and Mabel” about seroconversion.

Also, aren’t great playwrights who are still with us pretty averse to ‘avant-garde’ productions of their work? (I am thinking of Albee and his refusal to allow all-male productions of Virginia Woolf). Why, then, do some people feel that the long-dead composers would have been thrilled to see ‘updated’ versions of the operas? (this is in response to the argument that goes like this: Verdi was a shrewd businessman, he’d have loved an Aida set in Mars…). In other words, why regie ONLY in Opera and legit theater, and that too where the playwright/ composer is safely buried?

Anonymous said...

I wondered how this production was even allowed to proceed at all - from the drawing board stage onward. This is not about art and certainly not about Tannhauser. By the time the Twentieth Century reached it's halfway point, Germany had already drenched this world in blood twice. The Nazis were responsible for the banishment of music by Jewish composers (Mahler, for one), as well as for the deaths of multitudes of artists and musicians --- irrespective of their religious affiliations. This is a matter of "too little too late". Some stupid dumb f*ck of a general manager fell asleep at the switch.

Shame on them, and shame on the piece of garbage that designed this production. It's a third rate company anyway. I know of no world-class company that would even contemplate undertaking such a "production".

Mark Berry said...

I take it, then, that you have seen the production. Or have you seen a similar proportion of it as that of which you seem to have read here? As for a comment such as 'Germany had already drenched this world in blood twice,' I hope that was intended as a darkly satirical inversion of Nazi blood libels, but somehow I doubt it. The language you employ to describe people of whom you appear to have little knowledge is telling.

Anonymous said...

Mark,

"I take it, then, that you have seen the production".


If the director's ideas even remotely had anything to do with Tannhauser, that would be one thing. (But even then...) But it seems to me he could have imposed all of his disgusting imagery on ANY opera and it would have made just as much sense. Why he chose Tannhauser as his guinea pig I don't know. Maybe just because it was there?

I'd love to hear him try to B.S. his way through explaining what his imagery has to do with the opera in question. He's probably arrogant enough to think he can justify it.

A.C. Douglas said...

I wondered how this production was even allowed to proceed at all - from the drawing board stage onward. This is not about art and certainly not about Tannhäuser.
———————————————————————-

Oh, no cause for wonder at all — on all counts. It's virtually de rigueur in all Eurotrash (i.e., Konzept) Regietheater productions that the staging bear no resemblance to or have any real connection with anything the opera's creator could possibly have had in mind, and if that staging is a staging of any of Wagner's works, de rigueur as well that Nazis or Nazi references be somehow shoehorned into the goings on, never mind that both are entirely non sequitur vis-à-vis the work to hand.

And in the instant case, one needn't have actually seen the staging in question to know with absolute certainty that it qualifies eminently as a Eurotrash staging and therefore the sort of self-indulgent, self-serving crap above described and the sort of thing beloved of the "progressive" and "intellectual" crowd.

--
ACD
http://www.soundsandfury.com/

Martin Good said...

Mark, enough of this. You need (I need you to ... )to respond to Paul Mason's terrible BBC radio 4 series. The one in which he decides to become the final arbiter on the question of Wagner's antisemitism, and assumes that both Mime and Beckmesser are Jewish. And that the Ring is "failed art". And that Wagner's operas' power comes from the fact that they are about sex and power.

Barbara Eichner said...

I think there are different discussions going on are worth disentangling. First, whether modern productions should respect "composers' intentions". IMHO there's no reason why they should, even if the results might be underwhelming. Apart from "Regietheater" in opera, it is pretty much standard in spoken drama to alter even the text, and we all got used to seeing artworks in galleries rather than the spaces they were originally intended for.

The second question is whether Nazi imagery or plotlines can make a useful contribution to "Tannhäuser". I could think of several scenarios that would make a better point contemporary concerns, or even the dark side of the German psyche. (I will tell you if you ask me nicely.)

Wotans Other Eye said...

@Martin Good. I really shouldn't do this but... I really would not worry to much about anyone taking Mr Mason's Wagner "reconstruction" (or indeed his general condescension at people who attend Ring cycle performances) to seriously.

Might I quote from his first novel, "Rare Earth"?

"He began thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum but missing, his paunchy frame shuddering with the effort of remaining rigid and upside down. 'The cartel, sells, to the global market,' he panted. 'The price is inflated because production has been capped!' She began to pant in unison with him ... 'Cartel evades export controls. Market capitalisation of western miners stays low. Massive, one-way, bet'... He switched to some ancient steppe language as he ejaculated, blubbering and incoherent. Chun-li faked an orgasm, keeping her mind focused on an eighth-century lyric of sadness."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/mediamonkeyblog/2012/jan/23/newsnight-paul-mason

Doundou Tchil said...

There are those who go to the opera because they love the art and there are those who go because they get their kicks from being horrified. The latter get pleasure from hate. Artistic values don't come into the equation, which is why so many in that crowd hate academics and "interleckchuls". So why do folks like that turn up to sneer ? Going to the opera must be cheaper than a session with Miss Whhiplash.

Brunnhilde said...

I was one of the few British people who travelled to Dusseldorf to see Tannhauser,and was very disappointed to discover it was being pulled off.Having obtained a refund[only available to us foreigners!]I spoke to various people in the box office etc with my main question;had no-one seen the production and been concerned at the possible audience reaction? It seemed that no one had! One thought did strike me;if a world famous "name" opera singer had walked out,as Waltraud Meier reputedly did with Warner's Ring at the ROH,would second thoughts have been had?Apparently the word on the block was that Kosminski was after the directorship of the local theatre,and this scandal has ensured he won't get it!Valerie Whalley